Everest is hot right now, but not because climbers are flocking to the world's tallest peak. Instead, cyclists are challenging themselves to climb 29,029 feet in a single ride. "Everesting" has become a popular close-to-home challenge for riders that are cooped up during the COVID-19 crisis without any competitive events on the calendar.
On May 15, Stan's NoTube pro mountain biker Keegan Swenson set a new Fastest Known Time (FKT) for this climbing feat. The Utahn took 29 trips up a section of the Pine Canyon climb, northwest of Heber City, Utah, climbing 29,029 feet in 7 hours, 40 minutes, equalling the elevation of the world-famous peak in Nepal. Swenson beat Phil Gaimon's record by 10 minutes, which was set only a few days prior.
We've all dreamt of improving our climbing, but this feat takes things to a new level. So, we called up Swenson to hear what it was like to set a new FKT and to learn a few of his secrets to success, in case you're brave enough to try Everesting on your home climb.
Keegan Swenson is one of America's top mountain bike pros. Photo: Monster Hydro
The Pro's Closet: The basics first: What is Everesting? How did you find out about it? Why did you decide to take on this challenge?
Keegan Swenson: I heard about it from [TrainerRoad's] Jonathan Lee a couple years ago. He had tried it, but they did multiple climbs to do it, which is a very long way to do it. Ever since then, I thought, ‘Man it would be kind of cool to do it some day and to do it fast.’ It just seemed too gnarly, just dumb — ‘Why would I do it?’ The last month or so, I was thinking, ‘I should do it because I didn’t have any racing or anything to focus on.’ I didn’t train specifically for it, but it was something to focus on for a week. In a way, it was like a race. It had been a while since I’d done anything that big, White Rim was the last one. I’ve been doing a lot of volume because the race schedule got shuffled, so I figured I might as well send it.
The road I did it on, Pine Canyon, was closed to cars until today, so there was a clock on it. It was now or never otherwise I’d have to do it with cars. That was the other incentive to do it now.
I decided I wanted to Everest as a personal challenge. I was thinking it would be cool to raise money for an awesome cause. My friend Ryan [Standish] does a Bike MS fundraiser here in Utah — his dad was diagnosed with MS a few years ago — it’s something he’s pretty passionate about. I called Ryan and asked what would it take for him to do it with me. Right away he was like ‘100 percent I’m doing it…’ didn’t even hesitate. That was that. We’ve raised over five grand now for MS, which is way more than he’s raised in the last few years. It’s fun to help out.
TPC: What went into planning the climb you used for this ride?
KS: I knew that was the climb I wanted to do because it was gated to cars. It was steep and it’s kind of an iconic climb in the area, just steep, badass, and cool. This was what I wanted to do it on. Originally, I planned to go pretty much to the top, to the “Y” where it splits to Park City. Sepp Kuss [a pro road rider] has the KOM on that. I was going to go to where it flattens, just the steep bit, about 30 minutes. It was going to be about 12 reps, that was the original plan, and then [retired pro road cyclist] Phil Gaimon went and ripped the record, blew it to pieces. I wanted to do it fast, but I wasn’t planning on just nuking it. I was thinking 8.5 hours or so — that was the target. After Phil did his record, I was like, ‘Well I have to reassess this whole plan and rethink it. I called Jonathan [Lee] and laid out five different options for that climb. We settled on the quickest option, 29 laps from the gate at the bottom to the first switchback. We figured that would be quickest because it was 1,020 feet, averaging close to 11 percent. I put a compact crank on my bike, and as long as I kept my cadence up, I wanted it to be steep as possible. I was flipping it at top of the first switchback, so I didn’t lose speed and didn’t have to touch my brakes hardly at all. It was pretty much brakeless all the way down. Even if you lose 30-40 seconds on a descent, over 30 reps, it adds up, so having a fast descent is key.
TPC: Walk me through the day you did the ride. What was it like?
KS: The day before, I rode out on my e-bike and put up some rock cairns to where I wanted to turn around. I was stressing about where it ended. I didn’t want to go too far or too short. After that, I started planning nutrition, which was the biggest part of the whole thing. I aimed for 90 grams of carbs an hour, and I weight about 140-142 pounds. I was trying to figure out the best way to consume those carbs because it’s quite a bit. I alternated between GU gels, Chomps, and real food like leftover pancakes, donuts, Fig Newtons … basic things to digest. I was rolling through every couple laps, eating different stuff. I had bottles with a lighter mix of the GU, water, and Monster Hydro. XC style, I ran small bottles, so I didn’t have to carry extra weight. My parents were there to help and support, so I’d just grab it, super easy. That’s a huge part if you want to Everest and be successful, having a support crew is huge. You waste so much time stopping to fill bottles. Even if you’re just doing it to finish the challenge, you don’t want to be out there any longer than you need to be.
I also wanted to start early but didn’t want to start so early that I’d need legwarmers and all this warm gear. I’d have to stop and ditch that and carry all the extra weight. So, 8 a.m. turned out to be 8:15 or 8:20 — we were going to be out there all day, no reason to stress. It was nice. I could ride in just a jersey and shorts.
TPC: What was the hardest part of your Everesting ride?
KS: The hardest part was probably keeping it chill the first few hours. I had my plan; I was going to ride between 270 and 280 watts up the climb. It ended up being just over 270 for the first few climbs, and I was like, ‘Man this is too easy. I feel like I could go a little harder.’ I was just trying to keep it chill and not go too deep. It slowly started to get harder by the end. I was pretty glad I kept it at that pace. In hindsight, I probably could have gone a bit harder, but I didn’t want to gamble on blowing up. Maybe if I rode another 10 watts, I would have blown up. There was one pitch at the top that peaked out at 20 percent that was the one place where I let myself go over 300 watts. Otherwise, I tried to keep a high cadence, keep it chill. And then remembering to eat and drink every lap was hard, trying to eat early too. I had a massive breakfast, but you have to stay on top of the calories early in the effort. Then it became a mental battle about six hours in. You only have seven more laps but that’s still a couple more hours it became hard mentally. For me a big strategy was not looking at the total ride time, just riding lap by lap, I had a lap screen set up.
Swenson would ordinarily be lining up for shorter, more intense mountain bike races this time of the year. Instead, he challenged himself with a ride that was harder and longer than usual. Photo: Monster Hydro
TPC: How did this ride compare to the races you’d ordinarily be doing right now?
KS: Very different than pretty much any race I’ve done. It’s closest to an Epic Rides [marathon XC race] because it was at altitude, more of an endurance event. At the same time, in an Epic Rides race, you start hard at threshold or more on the first climb, it becomes tempo, but you’re responding to people’s attacks. In this one, I had my pace and was going to ride that pace the entire time until I finished or blew up. It is a different strategy but a similar mindset: This is the goal; hit 15 minutes each lap.
TPC: Sounds like it was a way to feed your competitive urge.
KS: Yeah, if I’m going to do this, I’m going to do it once and do it right and get the record. If I’m going to put in that much physical effort, I’m going to put in the time to prepare. Phil set a fast time and it wasn’t going to be easy. It was going to be hard to do it every lap.
TPC: What did you learn from the ride?
KS: I guess the biggest thing is that I’m capable of going harder for a lot longer than I ever thought I could. I don’t think there’s going to be a workout that’s going to rival how hard mentally and physically that is. Mentally, there’s not going to be anything that hard ever. Then, long-endurance, if I can do 280 watts up that climb 29 times, it shouldn’t be a problem to do six-hour training rides at that pace. In a way, it changed my mentality about training. For hard Epic Rides, if I can do that power for eight hours, surely, I can do more for three. Mentally, it made me a lot tougher.
TPC: What advice do you have for the average person wanting to attempt Everesting?
KS: The biggest thing is to take a climb or a segment that you actually enjoy. Pine Canyon is one of my favorite climbs around on pavement. If you’re going to do it a lot of times, you should somewhat enjoy it. Try to find a climb that suits your ability level and your skillset. For me, I’m pretty good at sustained steady effort, so I kind of wanted to do a longer effort, 12-15 minutes is my sweet spot. If you’re better at five minutes, do that 70 times. Or, you could pick a longer hour climb, if you’re not going for a specific time, then find a climb that suits you the best, make sure it’s not too steep or too shallow so you can get up it at a decent cadence. You don’t want to be grinding 60 or 70 rpm.
Then there’s nutrition. I had so many options of snacks and you never know what you’re going to feel like eating after six, seven, eight, nine hours. I ended up bringing Ryan some French fries for his last laps because that’s what he wanted. You want to have options. Also, having people come out and join for just a few laps is huge. So many people came out for some laps with us. It breaks up the monotony of climb. Even if you’re too boxed to talk at the top, it’s nice having people around. My mom or dad would hop on the e-bike once in a while. They’d be riding next to me in jeans — it was cool. People who were waking up and down the road realized what we were doing and just started cheering us on. Any support is cool. You don’t realize how helpful it is until you're wrecked.
Swenson, looking very "wrecked" after his Everesting FKT. Photo: Keegan Swenson
TPC: What equipment advice would you offer?
KS: Doing it on a mountain bike would be a great idea if you need gears or upright position. Ride whatever bike will suit you best. You could change gearing on your road bike, or ride a mountain or gravel bike, whatever you’re most comfortable on for a long duration. Ryan threw his mountain bike in his car just in case. Bike options isn’t a bad idea. Riding a dirt road would be cool too. Dirt won’t be that much slower, and you might have more fun doing it and have fewer cars — maybe that’s a better option. Make sure you have a comfortable kit and maybe kit options, just in case. I brought different things in case a jersey really bugged me. Oh, and lots of chamois butter.
TPC: Would you ever do this again?
KS: Maybe. Immediately after I was like, ‘Hell no I’d never do that again. It’s the worst thing I’ve ever done!’ Now, a few days later, maybe. If anyone took my record, I learned a few things for if I did it again. I’m already thinking about the next challenge, something dumb to try. I have no clue what it’ll be. I just love those kinds of efforts. It’s so unique — it’s just you against yourself in a way with all those mental battles and hurdles along the way. I love the challenge of just seeing if I can do it.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.