Mauna Kea - World Everesting Project Climb #5

The toughest climb on the planet. Mauna Kea has been called that, and I am yet to see evidence to the contrary. It is truly murderous.

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After a wonderful 24 hours in California, I had made it to Hawaii from Switzerland. I was greeted with the less-than-awesome news that a tropical storm was on it's way, with a hurricane right behind it. The storm was due in the afternoon, the second day after I landed. So that put paid to any plan of starting in the evening on that day, and allowing time to recover from jet lag... I had no choice but to start the morning after I arrived, caffeine and cement would be my only defence against drowsiness.

I will readily admit, I was pretty damn nervous this time. Concerns about the difficulty of the climb and of my residual fatigue were compounded by the impending storms. There were so many factors in play, it was really starting to overwhelm me. So I took a few minutes aside, calmed my breathing, and allowed my mind to relax. Meditation is really just giving yourself a few minutes to breathe, be still, and allow your mind to be comfortable with where your emotions are at. I've been doing it a lot of late, especially on this trip, and it has allowed me to stay calm and controlled in situations where anxiety was getting the better of me. So I slowly packed my bike and got my things ready. Not to procrastinate, but to be methodical and controlled. It made me feel better about the task at hand.

One of the big challenges of this last ride was the solo nature. Yes the others had been solo also, but still, I only needed a bottle or two, some snacks and maybe a jacket. For this ride I'd need everything for a 12 hour round trip. Temps were in the mid 30's at the bottom, and forecast for 3-4 degrees at the top, so I'd need warm gear for the descent. I'd need food enough for the whole lap. I needed enough water to make it to the visitor centre, 2850m up the mountain. I just needed a lot of stuff, so I had 3 bottles and some bike-packing bags to get me through. My rig was definitely heavy compared to a normal climbing bike, but I was ready to roll.

Out on the road, and I was climbing right away. The road snakes up through the outer suburbs of Hilo to begin with, rising at a mostly gentle gradient through thick vegetation and housing. It was hot and bloody humid too, and I was leaking sweat. I was a bit worried about running out of water later, but there wasn't a lot of choice, so I just rode.

Eventually I popped out onto Saddle Road, the main highway that connects the 2 sides of the island. There was a nice, wide shoulder to ride on, and I was able to put out a comfortable effort and spin away. The scenery had changed to open scrubland along here too. It was pretty hostile looking, with big boulders of volcanic rock interspersed amongst the short trees. Man it was hot out there. It would either be gently raining or blazing sun. When it was blazing sun, the road would then start steaming, I could see it thick on the road. I felt like I was in a sauna, it was suffocating.

For 40 kilometres, that was what it was like, just me and an open highway, battling along through rugged, open terrain. The road stretched on for ages, yet I couldn't see the mountain. It was still wrapped in cloud. I could see it's twin, Mauna Loa to the left, but I had to wait for Mauna Kea to appear from behind her shroud. Finally the turn off for the summit appeared. Funnily enough, at 1950 metres, that was the tallest single climb I had ever ridden, and I had only just followed the main highway to get there. Pretty soon the road changed from a gentle gradient to a viscous monster. I was immediately into my bottom gear just to keep pushing. I had gone from manageable to pushing hard very quickly. It was sustained at this difficult gradient also, long stretches, no switchbacks, just bends that roll into more hurt.

This process continued for a while, without a great deal of relief, until finally I made the Mauna Keavisitor centre. At 2880 metres elevation, this was the highest my feet had stood on this earth. They had water there also, which was great, as I had run dry about 45 minutes beforehand. I was having a really tough day out, but I was still ready for more. I sat inside the centre, ate, uploaded a video, and put on some warm clothes. After all of that heat, it was a little cool up this high. Interesting point was that the star gazing tours suggest the visitor centre is better than the summit, as your vision blurs with altitude at the summit, so the view isn't as good! That was somewhat ominous...

Back out on the road, and I watched the last of the trees go. Even then they were really only tiny little shrubs, but now they were gone. It was just volcanic rocks as far as you could see. Right here the tarmac gives way to gravel also. Gravel is a bit of a misnomer really, because of the traffic and lack of rain, the road is crushed down into a thick and soft sand. Stay away from the edges... Tyres disappear in there. The best I could do was follow the slightly more compacted tyre ruts toward the centre of the road, and hope cars would go around me. Then it got steep. Really steep. I had hoped my 32c tyres would get me through, but they were hopelessly inadequate. All I could do was sit in my lowest gear, stare at the road ahead, and push forward whilst trying to both maintain traction and stay upright. The level of concentration required to do that was intense, as every so often my front or rear wheel would roll on a rock under the sand, and I would instantly be shunted sideways. Then I would need to recover, and bring my course back to straight uphill without spinning out, and having to put a foot down. Eventually I would lose balance so much that I had to put a foot down, and this is when it went from shit to fucked. I couldn't re-start. My tyres would spin out every time I tried to get going, and the gradient was too steep for a push start. Effectively I was bogged. What I eventually worked out was that I could stand to one side of the road, take off sideways, and hope that I could clip in, balance, and turn so that I was facing uphill whilst still pedalling. Even that took a half dozen tries before I could get started again. This road was awful. Deeply demoralising, extremely difficult and really quite ugly. The only part that was nice to look at was the view out over the clouds, but having to concentrate so hard on the task at hand, I couldn't even pause to enjoy that. The intense discomfort of this climb was all-encompassing.

And that was how it continued. Riding through a sandy, steep hell, with less and less air to breathe, my every effort into staying upright, something I would often fail to accomplish. I spent so very long just trying to get started again every time. That is until you come to the big, final ramp. A long, sustained section, well over 17% gradient, and the softest part yet. On the tyres I had it was completely unrideable. So I walked. My everesting was done, it's clear in the rules that you cannot walk, but I had no choice, I walked anyway. It was probably a few hundred metres, but it felt like an age. In that soft gravelly sand I trudged forward, my everest done, but I still wanted to make the peak.

Then finally, sweet relief, there was a hard surface under me. I had made it back to tarmac. The ledger was square again, I could at least do something about this hill, rather than the shame of trudging along on foot, defeated. So I climbed aboard, and off I went. Except now I was over 3500 metres, there was no air to breathe, and it was pretty damn cold. But I pushed on anyway, figuring climbing would get me warm again. Except it didn't. Climbing so slowly, with such a reduced level of oxygen, I remained cold. Plus I couldn't ride straight anymore, my mind and my body were severely reduced in their capacities to function, and I was weaving uncontrollably all over the road. It was truly horrible. Every metre I set 2 new personal records - highest I'd ever been, and worst I'd ever felt.

With about a kilometre and a half to ride, I pulled into a small car park. I put on whatever clothing I had left, then sat and cried. I knew it was over, the 5th everesting would not be completed this day, but more than that, the climb had put me in deep misery. Everything was clawing at me, there was no respite, no relief, nothing positive to hold onto. I had only the depths of my suffering. I made a video, and tried to eat. That was a mistake, I had one mouthful and almost instantly threw up. I didn't have enough oxygen in my blood for my stomach to function.

I kept riding, the last push is as steep as it is intimidating. I was very close to passing out. There were a lot of cars coming down from the summit, and I figured someone would pick up the bloke and his bike lying strewn across the road... I can't tell you how long it took to climb that last kilometre and a half, but there would have been several tide changes during that section. Prison sentences were seen through in full before I made the top. It had gotten dark by now, and a light mist had rolled in. My hands were burning from the cold now, really quite painful. I checked my Garmin, and it was minus 2 degrees. I was beginning to freeze, and I was very afraid, but I kept going. I needed to summit this mountain. I pushed on, surely there wasn't far to go? There were no more cars coming down now, and I was scared. I needed to get a lift down, I was physically unable to descend anymore.

Then all of a sudden, there was the dome of a telescope. Then another, and another. I had made it, I was at the summit. I had climbed the toughest climb in the world. But that only counts if you come down alive, and that wasn't a guaranteed prospect at this point. I looked around, and couldn't find anyone else up there.

Fuck. Fuck. Fuck, fuckity, fuck, fuck.

I can't die here, this is not the place.

I already know that I am going to die by being mauled to death by a white tiger on cocaine whilst I am in a knife fight with an Argentinian guy in a bar in Tanzania. This clearly was not that moment, so I rode down. My hands were burning badly, it was an intense pain. My vision was blurred and I was seeing double. I couldn't breathe, and my whole body was shaking.

Maybe this was it?

How the fuck am I supposed to ride down through the sand?

I can't.

I can't.

I can't.

Fuck me, I might die.

I cried as I shivered. I thought about my family, my wife, my kids, my parents. My bullish nature, my deep-rooted stubbornness may finally have ended me. I was truly terrified in this moment, realising how badly I my body was failing, and facing my own mortality.

I love you my darling.

How I needed my wife now. Then I rode toward that same car park I had stopped at before, and there were cars there. I rode in, and all I could do was whisper "excuse me" to some people that I could sort-of see. That was it. I couldn't speak. I couldn't move. I fell off of my bike in a carpark, and wept. Some people helped me, grabbed my bike, and put me in their car. They gave me blankets, put the heater on, and put my bike in the back. I couldn't even lift my head, I was cold and exhausted.

I didn't choose to stop riding that day, I chose to remain alive. I am not certain that if I had've encountered no-one on the way down that I would still be around to write this. Those 2 wonderful people drove me all the way back to Hilo, a distance of 70 kilometres. I passed out on the way there, but woke up warm and alive. I cannot thank that couple enough, yet I was so depleted, I didn't even get their names. Thank you. Some of the kindness of strangers on this trip has been intense, but that's another story.

So the fifth everesting of the trip would go unfinished. I was a bit sad, always nice to complete what you set out to. But I was actually content. I had completed 4 everestings in a shorter space of time than anyone else in history, and had done it the very hard way. To finish, I had climbed the hardest climb in the world, and was still alive. In a way it was nice that the last one was too hard, it shows that the target was indeed worthy. Having gotten through the other 4 so well, I was concerned I hadn't made the challenge hard enough!

So that's it. I avoided two hurricanes, I missed the everesting, but I went as deep as I possibly could have to try to do so. I started the blog With All I Have, and I had indeed lived up to that name. Busy planning the next one now...