When questioned as to just why he wanted to climb Mt Everest The British mountaineer George Mallory famously responded – “Because it’s there”.
It’s such a brilliant and bald statement that encapsulates why we human beings daily strive to complete essentially pointless feats of endurance.
Maybe there’s a Darwinian element in either:
- a) proving our strength and prowess or
- b) removing ourselves from the gene pool after failed attempts at the above.
But, there’s no doubt that, as a species, we do like setting ourselves pointless, risky, demanding challenges for the sheer pleasure of pushing ourselves to the brink, mentally and physically.
I’m not judging, I’m empathising – in fact it was Mallory’s quote and the absurdity of that human need to conquer tall things which ran on a loop through my head as I recently wheezed and sweated and cursed my way up and down the Alps, loving every minute.
At the beginning of September a cycling friend and I squeezed 4 bikes, camping equipment and wine (why did I pack wine on a trip to France?) into a tiny, 1 litre engine hatchback and drove 750 miles across France to reach the Alps.
Camping in the tiny ski-resort town of La Grave, over-looked by the glacier-covered peak of La Meije, this became the base for all things mountain. With my friend disappearing to explore off road trails – on day one I set out on Albert the road bike to tackle those paved roads to glory, or at least the cols (road passes) over the local mountain peaks.
Fortuitously I’d been too busy for some months to change my compact front crankset for a larger one. Heading out of the campsite at 1500ft and climbing, I was for once, hugely glad of my lax approach to bike mechanics as I quickly slipped down through the gears as gradient and altitude soared.
At 2058 metres the Col De Lautaret boasted a large metal bike sculpture, decent coffee and some stunning mountain views. Being my first cycle on my first full day in the mountains my plan had been to reach the col and turn around. But, tantalisingly……there was another, higher peak looming.
Only 8km up the road (a very twisty, hair-pin bend of a single track tarmac) was the Col Du Galibier.
So my altitude affected, oxygen deprived brain says, “let’s just cycle a km or 2, just for fun, then turn around”…..Yeah right, who am I kidding.
One hour and 8 long uphill kilometres later, trying not to indulge my fear of heights around abundant, precipitous bends, I puffed and panted and grimaced my way to the Col, at 2642 metres my highest ever point reached by bicycle.
Shivering in the thin, cold air, an elderly French cyclist took my photograph (as proof!) and then casually handed me half of a newspaper he’d been carrying.
Now my grasp of the French language is about as tenuous as my common sense, but, sensing my bewilderment (or lack of language skills) it all became clear as he proceeded to stuff the newspaper down the front of his jersey!
Oui oui oui – wind protection. Having been wholly unprepared to complete such a climb I was dressed in nothing but a thin jersey and skirt, forgetting the frigid air at the peak would be nothing compared to the sustained cold blast back down the 1100 metre descent to the campsite.
I can’t tell you how grateful I was for that newspaper and also for the new brake pads I had thankfully installed before the trip. If the ascent was hard physical work, it was nothing compared to the sheer terror of the 500 metre unguarded vertical drops around every corner, battling cross winds, oblivious wandering bovines and French coach drivers hell bent on suicidal overtaking.
Reaching the Col was hard work, reaching the campsite was a miracle, hands frozen into claws on the brakes and face set into a rictus of terror.
After this experience on day one you’d be forgiven for thinking I’d conquered my mountain but, as it turned out there are many ways to achieve folly.
Before leaving La Grave I also ascended the Col du Lautaret from the opposite side, a 15 km ascent from Le Monetier-les-Bains. My proudest moment, overtaking 5 cyclists in a row. Deep inhalation of breath so a cheery “Bonjour” didn’t sound at all breathless then, skirt fluttering in the breeze, I kicked up through the gears to leave them standing.
Pointless and oh so satisfying.
Riding the wave of this warm smug feeling the proximity of the iconic climb at Alpe d’Huez, a finishing stage for the Tour de France, proved just too tempting to resist.
Starting from the cycle-centric-bubble of Bourg d’Oisans (where else on earth would you find not one, but 3 bike shops open at 7pm on a Sunday evening) this legendary cycling challenge covers:
21 hair pin bends,
13.2 km (8 miles)
1097 metres of climbing to an altitude of 1850 metres,
Average gradient 8.1%, steepest 11.5%.
Why? Because it’s there.
Even my die-hard mountain biking companion who had recently scoffed at my mountain obsession was seduced. Heading out on road bikes, him with an unfortunate 39 front crank, once again I was glad of my lovely compact crankset, as during the first straight leading to bend 21 (the bends count down) I shifted into ‘granny gear’ (34/28) for the majority of the climb.
Once again too, the thought runs through my head – “why the hell am I doing this??” as body and breathing go into overdrive. It’s because I love a challenge, albeit a pointless one. I love pushing myself mentally and physically to do something for no reason whatsoever other than I can and, as Mallory said, it’s there.
At this point it’s probably best not to dwell on the fact that Mr Mallory’s frozen remains, found on Mt Everest, are not the most positive testimony to absurd human endeavour, but the spirit of his words surely is!
Back to the mountain, in short, after much sweat, swearing and a few smiles I completed the climb in approximately 1 hour and 25 minutes, finally finding the absurdly small marker post at the top and after getting lost a good few times on route.
Not in a time to challenge to Tour de France chaps who average less than half that in a mind-blowing, leg-crunching 37/38 minutes. NB The fastest ever ascent to date was by Marco Pantani in 1997 coming in at 37:35.
Still, I’m pleased. Was it life changing? No. Was it fun?…hmm, in retrospect, possibly. It was a pure Mallory moment. I did it because it was there and because doing it gave me a sense of achievement, as well as a good buzz of endorphins. I did it because last year I couldn’t get on a bike (see previous post) and this year I can and that feels amazing.
Why do any of us climb mountains? Perhaps it’s just the absurdity of knowing we’re alive? But why not!
Onwards and upwards all.