Supporting A Summit Attempt – Everesting With Alex Staniforth
At the beginning of 2013, while reading through a long list of new tweets one morning, I noticed a few retweets about a young guy hoping to summit Everest just a year later, at only 18 years of age. I followed, got chatting and have been friends ever since.
Alex Staniforth is the craziest, most driven, hard working and definitely the most selfless individual I know. At the time of us first speaking, he was only 17, yet his achievements far eclipsed his years. I’ve since supported his ever-growing list of challenges from the warmth and comfort of my home, joined him on various training days out in the Lakes and in Wales, met Bear Grylls together and shared his heartbreak when two subsequent years of Everest attempts were cut short by freak avalanches.
It’s all pretty good fun when you’re good friends with someone who thrives on adventure, adrenaline and accomplishments. For the moment, Everest was on the back burner, following a second year of tragic disappointment on her slopes. This gave Alex his first real down-time, without an obvious target or goal, for quite a while; but of course, that didn’t last long.
I was quickly roped into his latest quest – a target that involved ‘Everesting’ on a bike. It was a concept I’d heard of before, and one I knew not many had completed. Climbing 29,035ft on a bike, in one go (Alex wanted to do it in under 24 hours to make it even more challenging) seemed like quite the task in my eyes.
My immediate response was that I would be more than happy to support it but that I wouldn’t be taking part in it myself, at least not the entire thing. I love cycling, but almost 30,000ft of ascent was far and above my hill rep sessions in ‘hilly’ Rutland where I’d be overjoyed to hit a tenth of that. I simply didn’t have the miles in my legs, nor the endurance to climb a five mile road along the highest pass in the UK, with long sections of 20% gradients, all day long. I also knew my shiny new, bog standard groupset and 34t/25t combination wouldn’t allow me as many reps compared to the 32t rear cassette any sensible person would be running up in the Lake District.
The date was postponed a number of times, trying to fit around Alex’s ridiculously busy schedule, my availability and the weather. Finally, the date was set for the 6th August.
Alex had prepared with lots of 100+ mile rides, hill reps on some of the other scarily steep Lake District passes, 9000ft elevation gain in some cases and a training-specific diet. I got ready with a few hill rep sessions with 2400ft climbing and my normal 80 or so miles a week. It’s good to be prepared…
I had watched YouTube videos of the climb and convinced myself that I’d manage two repetitions, which would be 5000ft of climbing – quite a bit more than my previous highest. Alex told me I’d be fine and so did my cousin, who I train with. I’m sure I felt more apprehensive about the challenge the Alex did; and I was only there to support!
The plan originally was for me to be based at the bottom of the hill and really, that was about as far as the plan went. Alex had detailed itineraries, what food he would require at specific times and precise kit lists, instructions and more. Still though, I was to be situated at the bottom, with all the gear and a few dry bags.
What we would come to realise both during and after the event was how ridiculous that plan would have been. Both myself, Alex and the challenge were saved by Mick, a 63-year old vegan cyclist, speaker and biology teacher. Mick had enquired about joining the challenge and attempting the feat alongside Alex. If successful, they would tick off the record for both oldest and youngest cycling Everesters.
The night before setting out for Appleby, I assembled all of my kit and immediately realised that getting all of it into my 60 lire rucksack would be a task in itself. I’d tried to prepare for every eventuality – I had 4.5 litres of water bottles, a stove and gas, dry bags, cycling bottles, two jerseys, two sets of bib shorts, cycling jacket, waterproof coat, down jacket, hat, gloves, leg and arm warmers, shoe covers, spare shoes, glasses, lights, chargers, cable ties, a puncture repair kit, spare inner tubes, both wet and dry chain lube, tools, drugs, first air kit, gels; the list was enormous.
To say I struggled to pack is an understatement, and as someone who is meticulously detailed and actually quite fond of a well packed case, I found no enjoyment that evening whatsoever. Donning the rucksack and trying to ride my bike was another matter altogether – fully loaded, and strapped to my back was entirely uncomfortable and moving my head was impossible if I was to keep my helmet on. Loosening load straps or adjusting it to a normally back breaking position meant it flailed around side to side; I couldn’t win. No helmet it was.
I felt relieved when my Granddad offered me a lift to the train station, after I initially planned to cycle the eight extremely hilly miles with the behemoth rucksack in tow. In hindsight, I think I’d have struggled to get up some of the bigger hills with a bulky, immovable 15kg on my back. It would also help me stay fresh for the challenge.
After picking up bike reservation tickets, getting a couple of connections and managing to escape a young lad from ‘Sarf Landon’ who was off to meet a Welsh girl he’d met on holiday in Benidorm the week before, I met Alex in Crewe, ready for the final leg. The final four hour leg.
We discussed the itinerary, social media plans, hydration and food while watching our bikes swinging wildly around on the terrible Virgin Trains bike storage ‘solution’. A solution that requires standing the bike up, putting the rear wheel into a metal V and then putting a hook through the front wheel. The issue is that the hook lifts the bike off the ground completely, meaning there is nothing to stop it swinging side to side apart from a velcro strap which holds in just one direction. That’s the first and last time I shall use my helmet straps to prevent my bike smashing into the wall!
We arrived in Appleby in fairly dull but warm conditions and first on the itinerary (it wasn’t actually on the itinerary) was a trip to the Co-Op. I hadn’t been able to fit any food for the following day in my bag, so intended to buy food there and hold a carrier bag on my bike. No Malt-Loaf, bummer. A bag of pasta and some chargrilled chicken was all I ended up buying, after waiting for 10 minutes in the queue.
Back on the bike, laden with kit, we cycled the three or so miles to the hostel along glorious country roads. Alex had set off with the right idea, cruising along at barely any speed, while I powered up the first hill and had to wait, legs now burning. It was evident even at this stage that the area was hilly and that the route to Great Dun Fell might be hillier and more taxing than expected.
Great Dun Fell was the route of choice. We had carefully considered other roads, locations and possibilities but Great Dun Fell offered the best elevation per ascent than any other. It was a possibility to do a lesser climb more times, but counting down the reps from 150 seemed mentally much harder than ‘just’ 14 reps on Great Dun Fell. With one ascent, Alex could climb almost 2500ft in 4.5 miles – others would’ve dramatically increased the mileage too.
The other benefit of Great Dun Fell is that it’s closed to cars for the most part – two gates split the climb and most of the time they are closed. Instead of vehicles, we would worry about sheep, weather and cattle grids, amongst the 20% ramps we faced.
We were staying at YHA Dufton which was being manned by just two people who were doing everything from cooking to cleaning and checking people in. Elliott who was on the desk clearly thought Alex was mental once I’d spilled the beans about what we were doing. We asked for the bike-shed key to be left somewhere for us, since we would be setting out at 4am.
Both of us met Mick for the first time, when he arrived shortly after us. We had taken over the six bed dorm room at the point of his arrival, kit strewn everywhere. Knowing his profession, I felt a bit like a naughty school kid who had left scraps of wood, sawdust and all my tools out in woodwork class. I didn’t really know much about Mick, only that he was an older guy with a ‘big beard’ (Alex’s words, not mine) and some bloody good cycling legs.
Mad or not, Mick had been out the previous day on a 50 mile ride while myself and Alex hadn’t ridden in days, tapering down the training for optimum freshness. I have to admit to being a little hesitant at his optimism – he expressed, to my surprise, how he thought we’d do it much quicker than planned, so I did my best to cool that talk by mentioning a semi-pro cyclists account of his Great Dun Fell Everesting attempt.
It wasn’t long before we all understood the plan, and respected what was likely to happen. I could only admire Mick taking this challenge on, even if I did think he was underestimating it. I don’t think I’m alone in struggling to think of someone else, of his age, who would be out trying something as mad as this. Mick wasn’t out of surprises yet though.
I took out the empty rucksack I had inside my larger rucksack and filled it with the kit I’d need for the challenge, leaving spare cycling kit and normal clothes behind. Straight away we valued having Mick’s car available as a base. The plan Alex and I had concocted to be stationed, for almost a day, on cold gravel, in all weathers, was now forgotten, in favour of a warm Espace.
With the three of us now in the kitchen, Mick tried to convert us to Vegan diets, Alex showed me the benefits of a boiling water tap and I cooked an entire bag of pasta ready to gorge on a few hours later. It was at this point, less than an hour after all being together for the first time, that I felt we were going to make a great team and get this thing done.
After finding signal by hanging out of a window, I sent a few messages to my other half and then set off for bed. We had already been fore-warmed about the presence of a rogue snorer in the room but that was an understatement. It wasn’t long before everyone was sleeping, while I was instead covering my ears in an attempt to block out the trio of ground-shaking snorers and get some rest myself.
4am unsurprisingly came very soon, though I’m not certain what woke me up. I didn’t set an alarm, knowing Alex would have. Mick was already up and gone and had turned Alex’s alarm clock off in the process. Through the darkness of the room, I could see Alex wasn’t there either. I panicked a little, believing I was late, and tried to get everything together as quickly as I could.
Apple & Blackberry porridge was delicious, though my early morning brain made a mistake in bypassing the filtering process with the coffee. I’ve never eaten so much ground coffee before…
Soon it was time to leave. The car was fully loaded with drinks, food, bags, a bike and lots more. Alex and I set out on our bikes, without lights to meet Mick at the bottom of the hill. We arrived and as I pulled up, I felt something strange and realised I had a puncture. Two miles in, challenge not even started and my tube was dead. Great.
I’ve had two puncture in the last two years, so it was shocking luck to have one at this stage. I remembered the GCN top-tips and got it sorted in a couple of minutes, before fumbling around trying to get the pump on. Mick’s pump is the same as my one at home – Beko brand, great pump, terrible valve. I’ve ripped two valves clean off inner tubes since having it, such is the force required to remove the valve. Mick managed to sort it then off we went.
Rep one started in the faintest of light – probably a good thing, given my apprehension, that we couldn’t see the top and what was to come. The summit was shrouded in thick fog which only acts as a dampener for both your mood and your clothes as you get higher up. Until the first gate, I felt really good and I remember saying to myself, “if it’s all like this, then we’re good.” There had been a couple of steep sections early on – certainly nothing easy, but it felt manageable.
I had to pull away from Mick and Alex not far into the climb, just as a consequence of my gearing. It was literally impossible to go at their speed without stopping. They had the luxury (and I will call it that!) of sitting down and spinning the legs for much longer with their 32t rear cassette, whereas I struggled with a measly 25 tooth. It wasn’t the right equipment, but that’s how it was.
In between the first gate, which was closed throughout the day, there’s the first cattle grid to negotiate before things start to properly heat up. From here, a steep climb is followed by a bit of flat, before ramping up on a number of occasions to 20%. One section in particular was steep for a very long time, fluctuating between 16 and 20%. I had flicked my Garmin tentatively onto the second info display and kept glancing to see how steep things truly got. In this same section, the surface was wet and there was a lot of run-off from the steep hills either side – something that’s not conducive to good traction.
That bit really is the kicker, but once it’s done, it’s fairly easy going. I say easy, it’s still steep but in relative terms, it’s much flatter. I reached the top to the drone of the radar station in thick fog and strong winds, unable to see more than 30 metres without difficulty. Alex and Mick rocked up ten minutes later, by which point I was starting to shiver and begging to get moving again. I felt at this point, that I wouldn’t do any more reps. Given the weather and the fact I was shivering, plus knowing how tough it had been to get through the steep sections, I just wanted to do the support thing.
On a dry and clear day, I imagine the descent is glorious with its fast, flowing corners and long, steep sections. Instead, the wind blew you side to side (you wouldn’t want deep rims up there), the fog meant everything was damp and the saturated surface gave little confidence, especially when mixed with sheep shit and terrible visibility. On dry surfaces, my confidence descending is pretty high but as soon as its wet, I become nervous which can be a recipe for disaster. The problem is not knowing where the grip level is – what is too fast, where is the limit? I know not to brake around corners, I know not to touch white lines, I know to keep the bike up more but all the knowledge in the world isn’t helpful when you’re descending such quick roads and lacking in confidence.
I mumbled to myself most of the way down until the gate, at which point everything was dry and I was happy to attack as I normally would. I decided to sit out the second rep and recover some composure, warm up and update Alex’s social media.
Alex and Mick set off for a second rep and I donned a wintery wool hat, down jacket and still felt cold in the car. I imagined how it would have been without such a luxury – even with a tent as a base, this challenge would not have been possible – not for me and not for Alex. Mick had already, unknowingly, saved the day and Alex’s bacon – the first and only time Mick would’ve saved someones bacon in the last few years, what with his veganism and all.
Alex pressured me to head up for their third rep, my second, and I was pretty grateful to get back on the bike after sitting for an hour in damp clothes. I felt bad not far into the climb, when Mick mentioned my faster pace and how it felt harder with me climbing alongside them. It wasn’t that I wanted to go quicker – I wanted to stay alongside and chat, where possible – but as I mentioned before, it was impossible. I had so much more torque in my higher gear, which meant I would inevitably climb faster. I decided to bolt at some point in the climb – not only was my faster pace hurting them but trying to stick at their slower pace was hurting me. It was better for everyone that I went off ahead.
I got to the summit again and prepared for another bout of shivering. Alex pulled up a few minutes later alongside Mick and we went to descend once more.
Alex’s morale at this stage was high, his legs fine and his energy still bubbling. Mick, had now realised what a task this would be and had started to doubt whether he’d complete 14 reps or not but I was full of nothing but admiration even as he completed the third, fourth and fifth reps. At this point, I distinctly remember feeling more impressed at Mick’s effort than Alex’s, when I realised what bike he was riding.
Mick was pulling an old (like, old-old) steel road bike with only an upgraded groupset and shivering legs. I thought I was behind the times using an alloy road bike while craving and constantly window shopping for an expensive, lightweight carbon beauty. Mick was dragging around a steel bike which must have weighed an extra 1.5kg, even than mine. When you consider most well-priced carbon bikes are around 8kg, his 10.5kg seemed pretty substantial. Hats off…
Up and down they went, as I waited in the car feeling somewhat tired. I think I even fell asleep at one (or two) points, while trying to get warm – what a great job of support I was doing! Alex’s social media profiles were updated, Hayley texted and my cousin was informed of me deciding that two reps was enough. I think his message saying: “You said 5!! I have faith. Keep going both of you,” spurred me on somewhat. I had previously told him I thought I would do two but would like to do five. Another one it was then…
By the time the guys got down after five reps, I exited the car to be greeted by two drowned rats. It had started raining up high and combined with the wind, had led to some seriously cold bodies. Mick had started the challenge in shorts and a jacket, and continued without donning anything more substantial. Alex was, like me, fully covered up with a jacket, arm warmers, leg warmers, shoe covers and so on. I thought it was just my Uncle Mark who could brave wintery conditions in a t-shirt but it seems I was wrong.
Around this point, another of Alex’s many fans had turned up to join him. Kate had cycled from home to get there and her first couple of reps would be in pretty miserable conditions.
I decided to go up for a third, and what I considered would most definitely be my final go on the mountain. I did not look forward to the weather they had just faced but desperately wanted to go again. The summit was still shrouded in poor weather and it wasn’t long until the rain hit. Brr. It was utterly freezing. I sheltered behind the golf-ball radar station and waited for them to arrive. I had sensibly taken up my wool hat with me and put it on in an attempt not to freeze. Somehow I managed to get my helmet on over the top too – much better than my little skull cap, it has to be said. Alex wasn’t as far behind this time and Mick closely followed.
The descent was more horrendous than ever. Mick wasn’t confident either, he had said as much. I was following Alex, as I entered a tightening right bend. I pulled the brakes, ready to release and flow nicely around the corner but I’d gone in too deep. Now began one of those slow-motion moments where everything flashes before your eyes. I had time to consider how I was about to crash, how Alex wouldn’t hear it, how the metal snow pole was looming closer and closer just ahead. I lost the rear slightly but was more concerned at the front washing away with too much front brake. I did the shit-your-pants routine and went rigid, praying to get it slowed down enough without crashing, as the white line and ditch got ever closer. Any minute now I expected to hit the deck but at the last minute, things gripped up and I shifted my bodyweight over enough to avoid a catastrophe by what must have been nothing more than a centimetre.
I was suitably bricking it until we got below the bad weather – I exclaimed to Alex at the first gate how I’d nearly thrown it down the road. I only heard part of his response but it started with a swear word.
Then things got grippy, the road was dry past the final gate and my confidence was back again. I wanted to hit 50mph at some point. This would have easily been possible higher up, in the dry. Down below, my gearing impaired me again and despite spinning my legs at a comical speed, only managed to get to 46mph before needing to brake for a corner.
We all got back to the car and were in many respects, on the verge of being hypothermic. I felt it only sensible to stay behind once more and take everyone’s saturated kit back to the hostel to dry and bring back spare clothing. Alex took my rain jacket, which proved to be of massive benefit over the Marmot number he thought was waterproof. Even Mick decided to change some of his kit!
As they set off again for yet another rep, I headed back to the hostel at warp speed to get things dry. It would take them 1hr15m or so to return so I had plenty of time to get back. Elliott was now relieved of his desk duty – probably by himself – and was now changing bed sheets. His first question was to ask how Alex was doing, and then to try and engage me in a conversation about cricket. I know nothing about cricket.
Everything was hung up in the drying room which would later smell pretty terrible thanks to Alex’s socks and a multitude of wet hiking boots. My cycling shoes were squelching so I left them, along with all my cycling kit. I put fresh shorts on and a fleece before heading back again in my trainers.
The boys returned from yet another rep, now on eight. Mick wanted to do one more, knowing for him that would be his limit. Alex still had five more to do. At this rate, we knew he wouldn’t be finished until an ungodly hour – but he still felt strong and I knew he wouldn’t stop.
I made hot chocolate on my Jetboil stove and forgot just how efficiently it boils water. Soon enough, it boiled over and hot chocolate spilled into the boot of Mick’s car. “FULKJSADKANC” I exclaimed, or something similar, surprised, and embarrassed. Mick said he didn’t care and that he was “the least car proud person there is.” I kept apologising as I tried to clean it up but he genuinely didn’t seem bothered, which was a relief!
Mick did his ninth rep and Kate had been up to do some filming while Alex carried on as strong as ever.
Soon, Alex would be on his own, facing an additional five reps. That’d be around another six hours of effort. I decided I would go along with him as support, for part of his tenth rep. I felt physically fine but I was dressed in chinos, a down jacket and trainers. I intended to just do the first section, before it got too difficult – trying to climb without cleats would be mad.
By this point, Alex was crawling – you could have walked up the hill just as quick. I managed to stay seated for the first section of the climb, believing that I might have trouble standing up on clipless pedals. At the first gate, I felt brilliant and didn’t want to leave Alex alone. I removed my down jacket and chinos, threw them over the gate and decided to carry on. This was the first time all day, at around 20:30, that I’d ridden without leg warmers and a jacket, so it was nippy to say the least. I told Alex I’d come back down before the super steep sections but that I’d carry on for just a little longer.
The steep sections came though and I still felt strong – this was the best I had felt during any of the four reps I’d done all day. My climbing style is to be stood up, intermixed with brief bits of sitting down and spinning. Of course, on these gradients, with a 25-t cassette, it was tough to stay sat, but I somehow managed to get up to 18% gradient, still in the saddle, at 40rpm, with burning quads, before being forced to stand and risk slipping off the pedals just to make it past the 20% section. I genuinely do not know how I got up that, but I did and it felt better than when I had all the right kit with me and was three reps fresher.
At the final gate, I waited for Alex and carried his bike around the fence for him, believing that any extra energy he wasted was detrimental to his attempt. I gave him a push to get going again, before he returned to his previous pace. Another summit done – that was 10 for Alex, four for me.
The light was fading quickly now but I had one more descent and fortunately, the weather had been beautiful for their last few reps, following four hours of bad weather. The road was dry and the only hazard – besides the drops, one river, two gates and cattle grids and me not wearing a helmet (I’d given mine to Kate, at the first gate so that she could descend safely. She had forgotten to put hers on when starting the tenth rep) was the sheep. The sheep seemed to be out in force now and I descending screaming “BAAA” at the top of my voice, hoping for them to move. It worked. The descent must have been the quickest of the day, for both Alex and myself. We absolutely flew down, committed on every corner. It was a brilliant end to my final attempt.
For Alex though, he still had four to do. It was dark, lights were required, he was noticeably more tired and quietly, we were all worried about him. Once again, we thought about the time and how long this could go on for. Kate had to go home, which left Mick and I in the car. Both of us cold, both of us hoping Alex was ok up there – you couldn’t see more than 4 metres without a light.
This was how I imagine I would have felt if Alex’s two Everest attempts had gotten to the stage of him going for the summit. That concern of not knowing for hours if he was safe and where he would be. Mick wondered about telling him to call it a day and from a selfish perspective, while shivering in the car, I wouldn’t have been unhappy to hear those words. But I knew he wouldn’t quit and I didn’t want him to. He was too close now.
Two Everest attempts, two years of flat out work with sponsors, meetings, emails, training and working had gone pretty much down the drain. Alex’s story was better, more people knew him, he was on the TV more – but not for the reasons he wanted. Alex felt like he had failed, despite both instances being completely out of his control. If he had to stop his Everesting attempt now, he would have been destroyed. This one he had control of and the only things that could stop him was his legs or his mind – no avalanche was going to put a stop to this.
With one still to go, Alex returned as a spec of light in the distance, wobbling around and full of adrenaline. His morale was suddenly super high, he knew he could do it. One more push, another hour and he’d have done it. It was 1am when Alex went for the 14th rep as Mick and I drove my bike back to the hostel to save us having to ride back later. On our return, I fell asleep for a while. Mick was asleep too by this point and I found that the trio of snorers the night before must actually have been a quartet!
I woke up every now and then, checking the clock, checking my phone. Nothing. And then, at 01:54 on the 7th August, 21 hours after he had begun, I got a text that read:
Alex had done it!
He arrived back at the car, smacking his bars, head torch beam going mental as he could finally celebrate his achievement. I filmed his arrival back at ‘camp Espace’ and felt as happy as he did. I couldn’t see his face, it was too dark, but I could tell he was simply overjoyed.
I have never seen someone want to get back to a bed and go to sleep as much as Mick did right then. I’m sure he was in the car, engine running, as soon as it was over. I felt the same – I was knackered and couldn’t imagine how tired Alex was.
By the time I got into bed, Mick was already fast asleep but Alex didn’t follow for a while because he had gone to get something to eat – yes, really. Absolute mentalist.
Inevitably, there are people out there who have done this challenge more quickly, who have done a greater distance or climbed slightly higher but I doubt any of them had to dig as deep as Alex did to finish. The endurance, the stubbornness and the belief that he could finish when his legs were in pieces and his mind shattered, was beyond what most ‘normal’ people can achieve.
There was of course a reason and a drive, for all of this madness. Alex is raising money for the Himalayan Trust, in support of the sherpas and the families who lost people in the avalanches. He’s so far at over £8,000 and hoping to raise much more. If you’ve got a spare penny, or a hundred pounds, it all helps and you can donate by following this link to his donation page.