Everesting Etna

Everesting – a test of cycling endurance that challenges riders to complete a climb multiple times until they reach the same vertical elevation as the world’s highest peak, 8,848 metres.

I’m currently out in Sicily on a work sabbatical. I travelled here by bike, train and ferry with my wife and when we arrived in Sicily I cycled the final leg home via Mount Etna. During the ride the idea of Everesting popped into my head. I’ve read about a few riders doing it in the UK on Box Hill and Swain’s Lane, but I’ve always thought it would be cool to do it on an Hors Catégorie climb like Mount Etna. This was back in July and after a couple of months of planning I finally took on the challenge.

In the two months prior I told various friends about the challenge and was lucky to get some invaluable support. My friends at Etna Finder offered to support with a 4WD, plus a photographer to document the experience. I’ve been riding Cinelli bikes for many years and my good friend Marcello at 110+RPM in Catania offered me one a top end Strato Faster and kit for the ride, I was chuffed but it also added an element of pressure as there could be no quitting on the day!

After a bit of research looking at the elevation of various climbs up Etna I settled on Salto del Cane (the dog’s leap) on the South peak. It’s the same climb that the Giro d’Italia used, which I first rode up with my club mates from Kingston Wheelers when we went to watch the stage this May. It’s a 17.9km climb with 1,300 metres of climbing, which includes 100 metres of climbing during the descent, average gradient 6.5%. I would have to do it seven times to Everest or eight times to surpass 10,000 metres. With both options giving a few 100 metres buffer for each distance.

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It was an early start, getting up at 3am for breakfast then arriving at the start of the climb in Nicolosi with Maria for 4.30am. Here we met the rest of the crew including the photographer Danilo and driver Marco, plus a few other local cyclists who had come along to support and ride a few reps. We set off at together at 5am in the dark with the support car lighting the way behind, it was an incredible experience climbing the volcano under the stars. As we reached the summit the sun was breaking through and the whole sky was lit up all shades of pink. Mitico!

The descent down was the first real test of the Strato Faster, it rides like a beauty, so comfortable yet aggressive and responsive at the same time. I was winging it through the bends until I nearly skidded out on volcanic sand (sabbia) that had built up after some rainfall the previous week. From my experience of sweeping the Surrey lanes before road races in the UK, I’d asked the crew to bring a brush and Maria was on hand to jump out and sweep the corners.

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At the start of the second ascent my friend Salvo shouted a warning about dogs as he descended from his first ascent. Up the road where he’d been I could see a pack of wild dogs, not good news! I signalled the car to come close to me and Marco pulled up alongside my right side, shielding me as we passed a pack of 6 or 7 dogs lusting for my blood, with the neighbourhood dogs to my left going crazy behind their fences. Safely through I sent the car back to help Salvo safely through. After that the pack seemed to have wandered off for other breakfast opportunities.

The second ascent felt good, and I was back down ahead of schedule at 8.45am for breakfast – coffee and cornetto at the bar at the base. I’d allowed two hours for each summit and descent. After breakfast I was joined by another two cyclists, Riccardo and Giovanni, who helped passed the time on rep 3.

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Rep 4 was solo and I was starting to feel the burn in the legs and it was hotting up, 30 degrees at the base in Nicolosi, but I ploughed on knowing that lunch would be coming soon. I got down the mountain ahead of time for lunch at 12.45pm so there was a bit of a wait for the food to arrive. In true Sicilian style, Ai Pini served up two big trays of tavola calda (arancini, cipolline, cartocciate and pizzette) and everyone sat down for a break. My anticipated 10 minute break had turned into 30 minutes, but I didn’t want to rush everyone as they were giving up their Saturday for me.

We set off at 1.15pm for rep 5 and started feeling pretty bad and my feet had swollen in my shoes causing pretty bad pain on every pedal. I started the climb too hard trying to make up for lost time and the arancino wasn’t settling well in my stomach and I started to feel a bit sick. At this point Marcello arrived on his scooter to join me on the climb, so I was trying to look good for the photos whilst dying a slow death. The descent came as a welcome relief and after a water refill I was straight into rep 6 and I felt a lot better having digested my food and back to bars and gels.

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At 5pm I was due to have some pasta, but figured that it would be too heavy, so I told the crew to put it on hold and decided I would keep going until I had Everested. I was back on schedule and keen to record a good time. On the start of rep 7 the dogs had returned and I was feeling pretty cagey as the crew guided me through keeping the car between me and the dogs. Up the road I started feeling dizzy and a bit emotional… first signs of a bonk. I stopped for a quick toilet stop by the side of the road and necked a gel, immediately feeling better.

The rest of the climb was a real slog, it was tough going into the wind and my shoes were agony for parts of the climb. I was getting increasingly pissed off with my Garmin under reading the elevation. By the top of rep 7, I had hit 8,200 metres. Nearly 1,000 short of what I expected it to be by this point. By the time I got back down around 7.15pm the sun had set and even though I as pretty sure I had everested, I was pretty paranoid about coming up short on the required elevation.

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Everyone suggested I just do half a climb more to hit the distance on the Garmin then call it a day – I knew in my heart that I would never just do a half climb! We started the ascent at 7.30pm in the dark and it was pretty creepy climbing out of town with dogs jumping at the chain link fences in the dark. I felt a bit like a new recruit leading a patrol into the jungle in Vietnam… or maybe I was hallucinating a bit by this point. Maria had grabbed me a coke and pizzette at the last summit of Sapienza, which tasted amazing after all the gels and bars I’d been consuming throughout the day.

All the pain had left my legs and I felt incredible, I had discovered a place beyond pain and I said to myself “I’m going to smash through this last climb”. The road looked surreal with the car behind lighting the road, bats flying around overhead and the distant lights of the summit of Rifugio Sapienza. I hit the Everesting distance on my Garmin halfway and then told the crew I’m going to the top for the last time. They told me Antonio Colombo (Cinelli owner and legend) had been following my progress all day and had been in touch with Marcello. Amazing news! I pushed on to the summit, out of the saddle for most of it, feeling as fresh as rep 1.

hazventuras-everesting-etna-18At the top I had hit 9,400 metres. I was happy to have done 8 ascents, but wasn’t sure if I’d made 10,000 metres. I took the ascent down easy in the dark, with Marco, our epic driver and Etna guide, lighting the way close behind with the Land Cruiser.

When we reached Ai Pini back in Nicolosi it was 9.30pm. I wondered about doing 500 metres more, but after more than 16 hours on the bike I’d had enough. I changed out of my salty lycra in the toilets and enjoyed a beer and plate of pasta with Maria and Marco – the rest of the crew had gone home! Not quite the after-party I envisaged, but I was so knackered that I wouldn’t have handled much more than one beer anyway.

At home I uploaded the ride to Strava and waited with baited breath for the correct elevation – 10,537 metres. Boom! It was an incredible experience doing it as a team, I wouldn’t have been able to do it solo, or maybe I could, but much slower and probably with several dog bites. I love climbing but it wouldn’t be my usual choice to do the same climb over and over, however on the day no two ascents were the same and I turned it into a personal time trial trying to keep every climb consistent. My total moving time was 15 hours 6 minutes for the 8 ascents, plus around 1.5 hours for stops.

hazventuras-everesting-etna-05Many thanks to; Etna Finder for supporting with the Land Cruiser and Danilo their talented photographer, bravi ragazzi. 110+RPM and Cinelli for supplying the Strato Faster and kit, the bike was incredible for every second in the saddle. Ai Pini for keeping us fed and watered throughout the day, the pasta all norma was troppo buona!

My friend Adam reminded me of the Leith Hill Octopus, the climb in Surrey taken on all eight ways. It’s on the list to do in November when I’m back in London!

Buona pedalata a tutti x

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3 thoughts on “Everesting Etna

  1. Pingback: Mille Sicilia

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