Cycling alone is hard. Cycling in the cold is hard. Cycling at altitude is hard. All three together test the limits of your body and mind. This trifecta dances the line of adventure and obliteration. To endure these conditions takes relentless mental discipline, physical stamina and knowing when to push yourself…and when to let go.
I’m not an avid cyclist. It’s always been a part of my life, but not the main attraction of my hobbies. I’m not exactly sure where the idea to ride my bike on a road over 16,500 feet high formed. All I know is, I’ve always wanted to see Everest but hiking or mountaineering never appealed to me. I stumbled across this bike route, called the Friendship Highway, or the road to Everest. The more I read, the more I knew this would be my next adventure.
I believe there are 3 type of travelers, those that travel on the beaten path, those off the beaten path, and then people like me, that say, “There’s a path?” I love traveling, and when I do it’s to get away from western amenities and learn about other cultures, other lifestyles, hoping to understand or simply to appreciate their way of life. Visiting Everest in the summer was logical, but summer months catered to tourists and I wanted Everest in its purist form. I eventually learned that Everest’s views are best during the winter months; even more of a reason to take on this cool, or cold, adventure! Who doesn’t like clear blue skies when they’re riding alone for miles and miles…in subzero temperatures?
I reached out to several travel agencies and quickly learned that no one had ever attempted this ride during winter months due to such harsh conditions. I also learned, as a solo female, I was attempting to do something no other female had ever done alone. Needless to say, most potential travel agencies were skeptical, but I was determined. I finally found a one, Tibet Vista, willing to help make the arrangements. Bottom line, it was either using a travel agency or sneak into a region of the world I’ve never visited, let alone at a time when U.S.-China tensions were high. Tibet Vista helped make this trip a reality. Wary of my potential, they still planned my trip thoroughly.
On top of the planning, achieving this feat takes considerable physical preparation, but I’ve come to realize there’s little we can do to mentally prepare for the unknown that lays ahead. I had four months to train and be in optimal condition before my trip, so I began riding my bike everywhere. Unfortunately, Charlotte, North Carolina, my home, lacks the mountainous roads I needed. I found suitable training grounds in West Virginia, which is colder than North Carolina, a factor that helped prepare me for the temperatures I’d face. The thing is, I was in graduate school, working full-time, and preparing for a national skydiving competition. I had very little time to train, but I made do with what I had and made my bike my primary source of transportation. Whenever I could ride, I did.
Everest was cold. I’d arrived at Rongbuk Monastery with a bus tour that would descent the next day. Just a few short miles of Base Camp, I immediately felt the chill of minus 18 degrees Fahrenheit. It was like jumping into an ice bath. The chill shocked my body. I was used to frigid temperatures growing up in New England, but this was cold unlike anything I had ever felt. The only warmth we had were electric heating blankets and wool wraps made from yak hair that helped trap our body heat. It was barely enough. Even the monks who call Rongbuk their home abandon it during winter months because it’s unbearable. This was also the coldest winter Tibet had seen in 10 years. It hadn’t been more than a few hours since I got off the bus at Rongbuk and already I was doubting my ability and my courage to keep going. I hadn’t even started.
I intermittently slept throughout the night, often waking to others sucking on their oxygen containers, gasping for breath. The morning slowly crept up on us, the darkness of the sky with stars still gleaming disorienting our minds as our clocks displayed 7:30am. The group was heading out at 8. As they shuffled around in the dark, packing belongings, I headed to the bus carrying my bitter cold bike off and into the now empty room.
Twelve exited the bus the night prior as I stood hugging and watching eleven get back on. Trepidation filled me as wishes of luck were given. I stood in the dusk of the morning watching my safety and comfort slowly pull away and descent down the road. I stood in the bitter cold 16,500 feet up, all alone. A few tears trickled down my face as my grandiose idea just became reality. I contemplated my choice, my ability and my mental capability.
The cold was something I’d have to live with for four more days and 250 miles. I didn’t realize until my first night, that no place was heated in rural Tibet. Each night temperatures dropped significantly into the negatives, and each day I was lucky if they broke to single digits. One village I stopped at overnight, I met an old lady and the only English word she spoke was, “cold.” My body was fighting day in and day out. There was no reprieve. The mental strain, not only of the ride each day, but never being able to escape the cold was getting the best of me. I broke down several times. I cried. I often thought about giving up.
The ride was long and arduous. Challenges came around every corner compounded by the uncertainty of what lay ahead and constant numbing of extremities from the harsh temps. There was one day, my second day on my bike, that truly characterized the ride. It was 10:30am by the time I got rolling. Waiting until it warmed to -5 degrees, I left the guesthouse behind, and started my ride. I climbed, and climbed, and climbed some more. The road winding back and forth, ascending up a mountain range, I just kept putting one pedal in front of the other. The road varied from slightly steep, to steep, to very steep. There were no plateaus. Just up. For seven hours. At this point I renamed granny gear as Himalaya gear. I decided it sounded more badass, “yea that hill was so tough, I needed to use Himalaya gear!” I zigged and I zagged across the road at times as I went up, giving my legs a break at every zag. I had no clue when it would end, or if I would have enough energy to keep going.
This was the longest climb of my life. After four hours uphill, I came across Tsing, my support guide, sitting on the roadside with another man eating and drinking warm coffee. He offered spicy noodles, but I opted for energy bars. The coffee warmed my insides. I wanted to stay warm and keep my energy level high, so I left Tsing and his friend, continuing on my way. I stopped briefly at every switchback to take in the scenery, smiling each time and thoroughly enjoying the clear sunny day and the glorious view of Everest. The higher I got, the more amazing views became. I felt great, enjoying the never-ending climb. My body felt warm. Everything was perfect.
I finally reached the top, a plateau of gusty wind chilling my body’s core, stinging the tiny parts of skin exposed on my face. Knowing I had just accomplished a feat I never fathomed doing made it all okay. I took photos and enjoyed my accomplishment, briefly, as I still had several miles ahead. I had ridden uphill for seven hours in freezing cold temperatures. I giggled as I sped down the other side of the mountain riding side by side with a motorcycle. 15 minutes to get back down. It was all worth it.
My last day began with me getting a late start due to unforeseen sickness. I spent the night vomiting in a garbage can in my heatless room. I started the day, tired, dehydrated and feeling worn out. I was told it would be only a 36k day, something I thought I could push through. After a few hours of riding I stopped, meeting my support car and grabbing some food. Afraid to eat anything substantial I just ate an apple and said I would keep going. I was nearing 50k at this time and stated that we shouldn’t have much more to go. Tsing responded that we were only about halfway there! My heart sank.
A little morning delay resulted in an afternoon of pondering pride versus perseverance. Dusk was slowly turning into dark, with dark came the cold. I kept vacillating between wanting to pedal hard to get warm and conserving the last of my energy. My support car now trailing behind me illuminating the road with its headlights. I had to stop. I pulled over. I ate some GU®, and drank some water.
I’ve often heard the saying, it’s 80 percent mental and 20 percent physical, but there comes a point in one’s journey when this saying loses meaning. In that moment, there is no longer a physical component, and 100 percent of your performance relies on your mental strength. To waver is not an option. To quit is not an option. To finish is the only way. I put my head down and kept it there. I pedaled. I felt the road’s every groove reverberate, from the tires to my spokes to the rims through my pedals, reaching my feet, my spine, my hands and my mind. I took it foot by foot, eyes locked on the road.
I had one more big hill, about 2 miles up, the other side was Shigaste, my finishing point. I thought my day of climbing felt long. This was the longest 2 miles I have ever felt in my life. I kept trying to shift gears, hoping I still hadn’t shifted to Himalaya Gear yet. I pushed each pedal with intentional effort, not wanting to look up to see how much farther I had. I relied on feeling. When I felt I could add a gear I did, when I felt I couldn’t, I didn’t. I focused on 10 feet ahead of me. I locked my eyes into the road, focused just on the 10 feet ahead. That was all. I pedaled. Finally, my shifting increased, more and more. I sped up, pedaling became easier as the cold air blew past my face. I was finally descending. I looked up. Off in the distance I could see city lights illuminating the sky. Shigaste. The final stretch! I cycled into town and followed the jeep to the hotel. I pulled in. My legs were Jello as I stumbled off my bike almost toppling it over. I did it. I did what no other has done. I pushed through riding 74 miles that last day, capping off my journey of 250 miles along the base of Mt. Everest.