It was late May and I finished watching a video on the first person ever to climb the elevation up to the outer stratosphere. Ben Hildred. The first human to ever achieve this stupendously demanding physical challenge. 55,000 vertical meters in 30 days, more than 6 ascents and descents of Mount Everest. I watched as his silhouetted figure cruised effortlessly through the famous Queenstown Bike park flowing perfectly and smoothly down the world-renowned trails that he is fortunate enough to call his home. As the screen turned black at the end I found myself indulged in the thought. I was going to try this. I had seen it now and that can’t be undone. Now the thought had crossed my mind I would be letting myself down if I didn’t do it. I had to try.
There were however a few challenges on top of the 55,000 meters elevation. The first was the fact that I’m 16 years old. Another challenge in my way was the fact that the country was in national lockdown due to COVID-19. I also was riding a second-hand bike which was completely thrashed when I bought it, and it was about to get one very serious thrashing. Alongside this, I live in Scotland. A place with very unpredictable weather and in the area I lived there is not a bike park in sight. There was only one alternative, behind my house was 25 miles worth of desolate Scottish hillsides. They contained no hard-pack trails of any sort, only walkers paths which were incredibly unforgiving and will happily destroy both bike and rider. Finally, I was still at school and had online lessons from 9 until half 3. It would be easy to use the above as very good excuses but I wouldn’t dream of it. I’d be failing myself for not trying.
I knew before starting that there would be problems: Mechanicals, Bad weather, sleep deprivation, cramps, crashes, dehydration and worst of all; complete mental isolation from everyone and everything. Two days later I had planned everything. Timings, routes, gear, what I would eat, and how I could record and tally my efforts. I announced the idea to my family and a few friends. This was it, no going back.
May the 30th was the first day. It was a spring morning and I remember setting off with confidence and energy as I cruised down the street and headed off into the woods. I had to cycle a few kilometres through the wood before heading into the hills. The climb I would be using was a very steep old 4x4 track that consisted of loose rocks (especially in the dry weather). I had never cleaned the whole climb before, it was very steep. This morning however I somehow made it up without spinning out on the loose rocky surface. This was a very strong start. Several very unforgiving kilometres later I made it to the end of the track. It was singletrack from here all the way home. The climb continued on an even steeper grassy path that wound its way up the baron hillside. Finally, I reached the top of this hill (Ben Buck). From here to the top was relatively flat and the sun was now out, it beat down on me relentlessly. My jersey, which was already drenched in sweat, was now firmly stuck to my back. Sweat ran in streams from the inside of my helmet and into my eyes. I didn’t care, this was glorious weather. And little did I know, some of the best I would get. I reached the top and was welcomed by panoramic views for as far as the eye could reach. The descent. I loved. A long winding grassy path that rolled its way down the hills and out of sight, it would allow you to just flow effortlessly from turn to turn, mellow enough that you didn’t need to brake, but steep enough that you didn’t need to pedal. Perfect. The descent finished with a notoriously steep and technical section down a rock-filled gully. A narrow plume of dust blown into the air behind my rear tyre as I carved my way down, picking my lines carefully. Five minutes later I was home. I had fifteen minutes to be sat at my desk ready for lessons. No time to kill.
In the evening I would do the same route again however instead of heading back down I would traverse the hills and ride down into the neighbouring town, incorporating a few off-piste secrets at the end. This would give me enough elevation each day to complete the challenge in the one month. I thought about that for a second as my panting, sweat sodden body rolled down the dark street, now lit only by street lamps and into the town below. I wasn’t even home yet and it was half-past eight. I still had to ride through the dark along an old railway track to get home. I considered the state I was currently in. Shattered. I had to now continue doing this twice a day, every single day for a month. The reality was I was now committed, and there’s no turning back once that happens.
Back home by 9. After washing the bike, getting a shower and eating, I was in bed at 11. At 5:30 the next morning it was game time again. And that is where I first felt the pain of the challenge. I had never felt like I needed to sleep before. But trying to perform in a sport and then do well in lessons and then perform again all whilst being deprived of sleep is tough going. I continued to try to maintain the level of schoolwork I had but it was hard. My body just needed rest and food. Not more work and more work is all I gave it.
It was the middle of June and a proper summers day. After completing the mornings' ride I had a relaxing day and headed out in the evening for the final ride of the day. Despite being late in the afternoon it was still warm and the evening light was beautiful. By the time I turned off the track and began ascending Ben Buck the hills around me were glowing in soft golden light. It was magic. Perfectly still, not a breath of wind as the sun went down and I rolled up to the cairn at the summit of Ben Cleuch, the highest point. This descent was the most enjoyable of my life so far. I’ve never gone faster, railing corners and sprinting into blind hucks. By now I knew every line, rock, lump, corner and rut on the whole descent and I had reached a point of complete comfort on the trail. This is something very hard to find and only comes when you’ve ridden a trail so much you begin to almost work with it not against it. But once you find that point of perfection, it’s a beautiful feeling and you can start riding in a way you never imagined you could. I rallied into a sequence of deep bumps and launched perfectly off each one landing on the sweet spot of the next. I dropped into the steep gully and filled the air with dust once more as I drifted side to side down the narrow chute. Finally, I coasted out onto the road, smiling from ear to ear. What a ride. As I rolled down the street I saw a neighbour in their garden and went over to say hi. I stepped off the bike backwards and heard a sizzling noise. Then I felt it. My red hot disc brake had branded my calf. A perfect SRAM disc imprinted on my leg, every detail. But even that couldn’t dampen the descent of my life.
As much as id like to tell you it was all sunshine and rainbows. It wasn’t. It was brutal in a way I’ve never experienced before. The hardest period was around day 15, I was halfway there and that was not a motivating thought. To think that I would have to simply repeat everything I’ve already done was anything but motivating. Especially considering my current condition. I had lost more than 2kg and despite it being my fault I was constantly dehydrated. The weather had now changed from the glorious sunrises and sunsets into a bitter almost painful cold with constant rain. I hadn’t been able to clean the whole climb in several days and it was infuriating every day when I tried, I would just spin out and fall off into a bog. The bike was suffering more than I was. The shock bushings had been replaced twice already and my chain would snap at least every other ride. I had seriously underestimated the amount of mechanicals I was being faced with.
One morning I was riding well and was descending Andrew Gannel Hill, one of the fastest descents out of all my routes. About three quarters the way down I felt a thud underneath me and thought nothing of it. A few seconds later it was followed by a deafening clatter. My heart skipped a beat. This was serious. I got off and saw half my derailleur had been sheared off completely. I had smashed it on a lump of grass further up and it had completely snapped. It hung uselessly on the cable swinging from side to side. I was in the middle of nowhere so pretty stuffed. Angrily I removed the derailleur and the chain and put them in my bum-bag, I tucked the gear cable into a cable tie on the chainstay and set off freewheeling down. I still had another ride to do that evening and if I missed that I would have to double up tomorrow, assuming this could even be fixed by tomorrow. Thankfully my brother dug out one of his old derailleurs that was bust and we used the cage from that mixed with my jockey wheels and cable etc. Luckily this worked.
Each day got harder and harder now, the end never felt in sight and day by day I would leave the warmth of my bed at 5 am and look up at the hills. For days and days, I didn’t see another soul, and for good reason. I felt more and more isolated every ride. I had no energy, I had had no rest or sleep, mechanicals were rife and the weather still proceeded to beat me to a pulp twice a day every single day. By this point, my mind was so lost that it just went into tunnel vision. No one liked this, but it worked. I just ignored everyone and everything. I was oblivious to anyone, even if they tried to help me. I focused on one thing and that was the task at hand. I hardly spoke to anyone, I would wake up and my mind was instantly on the ride. Complete it and then focus on the next one, again and again.
We had a day or two break in the bad weather and I headed out into the morning heat. I hadn’t finished my breakfast, I didn’t feel hungry. Not long into the ride I didn’t feel so great but cracked on anyway and tried to enjoy the sun. I reached the top of Ben Cleuch and started descending, the further down the descent I went the worse I felt, I rode slower and well within my limits and eased it down the final switchbacks of the path and home. By this point, I felt a little worse but it was ok for now. I put the bike away and went inside, online lessons began in half an hour and I couldn’t be late. I ran up the stairs and suddenly my throat went dry. I threw up a few times and then felt dizzy. I got in the shower and nearly fell asleep standing up. I was woken up straight away as I fell into the shower screen. There wasn’t time to mess about so after getting changed I sat down in front of the laptop for lessons. My throat suddenly went dry again and I threw up again. I had no idea what was going on or what this was. Dehydration maybe? I wasn’t sure. All I knew was that in a few hours I would be heading out for another ride. After some electrolytes I slowly hauled myself onto the saddle, trying not to vomit and set off, accompanied kindly by my dad who was there in case I fainted or something. I walked nearly the entire climb, pushing my bike beside me. It was scorching hot but I felt freezing. The plan was to do a slightly shorter route and I would climb further than usual tomorrow. We reached where we were going and very, very cautiously descended back home. I made it back with no problems, and went straight, to sleep.
It was the second last day and I had hoped the weather might cheer up a bit. How wrong I was. I woke up and it was raining but nothing worse than I’d had the last few days. Fine. I read the forecast over my toast and hot chocolate and found out pretty quickly it wasn’t looking great, heavy thunder and lightning expected at midday. I scoffed my breakfast down and headed out as fast as possible with the hope that if I was fast enough I could miss it. I was properly going for it, out the saddle sprinting up the track. Every few minutes I would glance at my watch as it neared midday. I had a very unrealistic 45 minutes to get the ride in and get home without being massacred at the top of a hill by some lightning. I kept glancing at the sky to see if it was getting darker, but no, nothing. I thought the forecast was probably wrong and besides, its only a thunderstorm if it did happen, who cares? Just crack on. I reached the top of the track and as usual wheeled off onto the singletrack climb up the back of Ben Buck. It’s a steep climb, the sort of climb where you’re constantly out the saddle and looking at your front wheel. About ten minutes in I looked up. I almost jumped when I saw the sky, nearly black, all above me. It had gone menacingly dark and there was not a single person was here. The wind picked up and the reeds rattled loudly. It was still nothing, crack on.
About 30 seconds later I heard the deepest rumble I’ve ever heard. Right above me. I was a sitting duck as well. I dropped the bike, looked at the sky, and waited for the lightning. I looked straight into the black sky waiting for the flash. Five seconds passed and nothing. I was out of here. I got straight back on and smashed through the gears. I stopped at the track as the bars were squint sideways from dropping the bike. I hit them straight and the heavens opened above me. Heavy hail erupted from nowhere. I jumped back on and sprinted down the hillside, behind me came another boom of thunder, even louder than the first. I was going stupidly fast, the hail kept hitting me in the eyes so I squinted so much they were nearly shut. I hucked to flat on the steepest section of the track, landing in a loose rock filled rut. I death gripped nearly the entire track, bombing through puddle after puddle. Finally, I could see the woods below and sprinted my way towards it, the thunder still booming in my ear behind. Once I reached the gate before the wood I stopped and took a breath. I was panting hard and was drenched through, still in my jersey as I hadn’t stopped to put my jacket on. I looked back at the hills. They flashed under the black sky and cracks of lightning echoed down the valley which I had just hammered down. I felt seriously relieved as I rolled up to my driveway and went inside.
The last day felt strange. It didn’t feel like the end. I had become so used to this that I subconsciously felt I’d be doing it forever. My brother Luke was going to ride with me for the last day and I was quite looking forward to some company out there. As we were about to leave my mate Louis rocked up too. He had kept it quiet but had apparently planned to ride the last day with me for a while. I appreciated this but at the same time felt slightly sorry for them, as I had a good idea of what they were about to endure. It was a wet morning and it rained pretty hard once more but it was insane how much riding with your mates completely changes your mood. It felt so strange riding the routes I had endured alone for so long with other people next to me. But I enjoyed it. And that’s one lesson I would definitely take away from the challenge and for anyone reading this article. That is to enjoy the social aspect of riding with your friends, it’s encouraging, motivating and way more fun and I would argue that’s what makes mountain biking what it is. Having fun with your mates. The morning ride went relatively smoothly and we bombed down the sodden path in a train, sliding everywhere as we tried to stick to our lines and soaking each other when it came to any puddle.
At the bottom of Andrew Gannel Hill, there’s an infamous bog and my brother and I were familiar with it as had ridden the hill several times however as we rolled around the side of it and skidded to a stop we watched Louis come over the brow of the hill. He was flying and he ploughed through the final rocks and came hammering towards this bog. He was going to try gap it. He pulled up last second and we thought he was going to make it. About halfway across his front wheel divebombed straight into the middle of the bog and he went clean over the bars into it. His wheels were fully submerged and you could just make out the top treads of his tyre as he waded to the other side. We were crying with laughter. He didn’t care as we were already drenched but it was hilarious to watch. We rode the rest of the hill down as best we could in these conditions and I got a flat just near the bottom. All in all, it was a great ride. Proper British mountain biking. We fixed up the flat, had lunch and headed out for the final ride of the Stratosphere challenge. After pedalling into some strong headwinds and hauling our bikes through ankle-deep water for a few kilometres we began descending to the neighbouring town.
We finally arrived at the top of the naturals and just a few laps away from the finish. I took it easy for obvious reasons. Until that last lap. I found myself, alone now staring down the break in the trees where the trail veered off out of sight. I reflected for a minute or two on how far I’d come and I felt I should probably feel emotional. For some reason I didn’t, the scale of all the pain and all the anger, the fear, the tiredness, the depression, the magical sunset descents and the views and scenes I had witnessed hadn’t hit me. I rolled into the trail that I now knew so well and smiled from ear to ear. I railed the first two corners perfectly, launched through the gaps and went as fast I possibly could to see this thing off. I knew the trail so well now that it was no longer frightening to push as hard as you could go. I found lines where I previously thought there was none and pieced together that perfect descent that we all look for. I skidded out onto the fireroad and that was it. Done. It felt so strange that it was all over. The next morning my body jolted awake at 5 am but this time, I just laughed and went back to sleep.
I cannot thank the people around me enough for what they did throughout the challenge. I am grateful to my Dad for getting up every morning at 5 to see me off and make sure I was ok, for running up the hills to meet me mid-ride and for enduring my grumpiness. I am thankful to my Mum for the post-ride hot chocolates and constant positive attitude. Big thanks to my brother for miraculously saving my bike every time I thought it was unfixable, insane mechanic. Thank you to Louis for the support on the last day and for bringing a very funny side to riding bikes. Thank you to Declan for the awesome photos, very talented and really appreciate your effort. Thank you to everyone.