Setting the record straight on Mount Everest mountain biking
October 13, 2015
On Sept. 12, the Summit Daily printed an article about Patrick Sweeney, a local adventurer who rode his mountain bike to the south Mount Everest base camp shortly before Nepal was ravaged by a magnitude 7.8 earthquake in April.
His experience — covering 100 miles and 9,000 vertical feet in less than a week, meeting monks who had never before seen a bicycle — spurred him to launch a support campaign for the Nepali people, known as 1,000 Tents in 100 Days. He's sending all tents and proceeds directly to Tashi Lama, one of the monks he met on the ride.
Lama also runs a campaign for local sherpa families, the Little Sherpa Foundation, and he's personally distributing Sweeney's tents to nearby Himalayan villages that were devastated by the quake. Nearly nine months later, Lama says the situation on the ground is still dire. The country is plagued by corrupt officials and too few resources, and what little global support the Nepali received in the weeks after the quake has essentially vanished.
Sweeney's story is incredible and his nonprofit work is commendable, readers said in comments on the SDN website and Facebook page. But, the article by writer Leo Wolfson claimed Sweeney was the first person to reach Mount Everest base camp on a bicycle. Shortly after the article went to print, we received several messages from readers who claimed they have also biked to a Mount Everest base camp. In one message, longtime Summit resident Brian Brill said he was impressed by Sweeney's journey and respected his nonprofit work, but that his claim of "first ever" just wasn't true. That's because Brill had biked to the Tibetan base camp in 1998.
I called Brill to get his side of the story. He set his sights on Mount Everest as part of a three-month, 1,1000-kilometer bike tour through central Asia, which came with rides through dust storms and packs of wild dogs. The trip eventually took him to Kathmandu, but he opted to reach base camp from the Tibetan side and paid $2,500 for a visa.
Like Sweeney, Brill says mountain bikers in the Himalayas are few and far between. Tibetan monks he encountered had also never seen a bicycle, and many had been at the same monastery on the Mount Everest route for decades.
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"At the time, I'd been researching ways to get to the Everest base camp, and I was always told you couldn't go biking — it's impossible," Brill told me. "I just didn't come across any stories of anyone else."
Brill reached base camp on a K2 hardtail in a Keystone Resort jacket, then decided to see just how far he could go. He was stopped within a half-mile at the next military checkpoint, where the soldiers "weren't as much fun as everyone else."
'The goal was to see how high on Mount Everest I could go," Brill said. "There is a Chinese guard station up there and they make it a point that you shouldn't pass it."
What happens if he had? He would have been immediately sent to a Chinese-Tibetan prison. Instead, he stuck around the base camp area for five days, riding several nearby peaks and topping out at 19,500 vertical feet before he left.
"You have an incredible view of Everest, and then I went up a few subsidiary peaks on the fringes," Brill said. "As a Summit County person, I just wanted to see how high I could get."
A new MTB Mecca?
In Wolfson's article, Sweeney also talks about just how difficult it was to secure permits as a mountain biker. The Nepali government relies on climbing and trekking traffic, he said, and mountain bikes have been illegal for decades in Sagarmatha National Park, the southeastern gateway to Mount Everest.
"That (southern) route is so narrow that when you have yaks or horses or whatever, it's hard to get by on a bike," Sweeney told me later. "They don't want cyclists to get in the way of their bread and butter, the climbing community."
It took Sweeney a total of 14 months and roughly $1,200 to finally receive the go-ahead from Nepali officials. When he did, they also believed he was the first adventurer to officially make the journey, permits and all. A few small groups had tried it in the past, but they were quickly stopped — and, in at least one case, shot at — by the Nepali military at several checkpoints along the trail.
I sent an email to the Nepali consulate for further information on past bike trips and haven't received a reply. Sweeney maintains that he is the first modern mountain biker to reach base camp on the Nepali side, although he admits that plenty of individuals and tour groups have successfully reached the Tibetan base camp.
Sweeney claims that the northern route is considerably easier than the southern route, which was yet another reason he decided to deal with the headache of permits and corrupt officials. (It's also less popular as a climbing destination. The Tibetan side sees less than 10,000 trekkers per year, thanks in large part to extremely expensive visas, while the Nepali side sees upwards of 40,000 per year, according to a Fox News report after the April quake.) In terms of terrain and elevation, he wanted the ride to be as difficult as possible. It was part of the challenge.
"This was something I wanted to do no matter what," Sweeney said. "I would have done it as a personal goal, even if someone else had done it."
Still, it's odd to think that Mount Everest isn't more popular with singletrack junkies, particularly as mountain biking gets bigger and wilder and crazier every year. Very few people make the ride on either side of the peak, and there's hardly any concrete data on the number of adventurers who have successfully made the trip.
That could all change in the next few years. Along with the tent campaign in Nepal, Sweeney wants to launch a mountain bike festival in Kathmandu. He sees it as a potential tourism draw in spring, when climbing is usually too dangerous. Kathmandu is already the starting point for several base camp bike tours, including a combination bike and drive program through Bike Adventure Nepal, which claims to be "the first mountain bike company run by top professional Nepali mountain bikers."
Sweeney will start building interest in Himalayan biking this March, when he and Red Bull mountain biker Rebecca Rush attempt to set three MTB world records: Most nonstop ascent, most nonstop descent and fastest human time for the "Mail Run," the 200-mile trek from south Mount Everest base camp to the Kathmandu airport. They're all personal goal, he admits, but he also hopes it will show the Nepali government that mountain biking can be a tourism draw.
"In the off-season, the non-climbing season, biking can be a source of tourist revenue," he told me. "They're really hurting for that now, because people really are afraid to head out there."
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