Climbing my Mountain: Joe Sarling cycles the height of Everest for SSF

"Let me embrace thee, sour adversity, for wise men say it is the wisest course"
 Henry VI, Act 3, Scene 1

Sunlight on the Chaîne des Aravis

The day had finally arrived. Five months of dedicated winter training and I was at the start of a very long day. The bags were packed, the food parcels were loaded and my bike was pining for the road.

Would my body hold up? Would my mind keep strong?

Five months previously, I announced I would undertake one of the toughest challenges in cycling. The challenge has a purity owing to its simplicity; climbing the height of Everest on a single ascent, on a single day, by bike. This meant climbing and descending nearly 9,000m on a single stretch of road.

The challenge had to be ambitious for me. Already a cyclist, I knew the challenge needed to inspire friends and family to dig deep in to their pockets and donate.

But more than that, I needed to feel the struggle.

Climbing the Col des Aravis at sunrise

I was raising money to support the tireless work that Shakespeare Schools Foundation (SSF) does. SSF’s core project is the Shakespeare Schools Festival; a nationwide annual Festival, where over 1,000 schools perform an abridged Shakespeare play in their local professional theatre.

Every year SSF works with 30,000 young people across 1,000 schools in over 130 theatres. Alongside the Festival, SSF runs a year-round programme of tailored activities in special schools and Pupil Referral Units. Their work is completely inclusive bringing together young people of all ages, from all backgrounds - particularly encouraging and supporting those living in areas of disadvantage and with greatest needs.

Not every young person learns in the same way. Not every young person has the same opportunities. Not every young person is inspired in the same way. I believe that cultural and artistic activities can provide an environment where young people can grow and develop as well as share new experiences together. The impact on young people of the programme SSF provides is profound.


Hairpins in the morning

On a challenge like this, you need your body to hold up, your mind to keep strong, and a healthy sprinkling of luck. The day before, we visited the Alpine climb I had trained for and it was closed for roadworks. We visited my back-up climb and this was closed due to snow. So, I picked a climb I’d only done once before simply because it was open. ‘Open’ is the right word for it.

Straddling my bike at 0530 at the foot of the Col des Aravis, I mentally visualised the day ahead. I needed to haul my body up this seven kilometre climb around 20 times in order to reach the summit of Everest. Full of nerves, adrenaline and calories, I set off on the first ascent.

The highs of the day were very high. Cresting the mountain at sunrise was magical; the tranquillity of solitude you experience by cycling in the mountains early in the morning was powerful; and ticking off the ascents knowing you’re getting closer keeps you strong.

But the contrasting lows I experienced were exhausting. The all-day headwind on the last and hardest four kilometres of the climb; the variable weather which plummeted my body temperature as I descended; the sheer struggle of keeping enough food and drink down.

Taking its toll

But SSF were there all the way. Alongside messages and phone calls from friends and family, SSF kept track of my progress on Twitter. Supportive photos were sent in, a whole-office video with words of encouragement was shared, and many offers to supply food and drink if it could be transported from London in time!

It was during these lows, during the struggle, that I learned the biggest lesson about fundraising. Thanks to my wife, Melanie, who was in the support car carrying endless bottles of drink and many boxes of food. She was live-tweeting the day, and with constant updates on my progress, sharing photos from the ongoing challenge, and describing the turmoil I was going through, people could be there alongside me on my journey.

I learned that people enjoy seeing someone challenge themselves, and they want to be there with you. They want to feel like they are helping, like they are there easing the struggle for you. And so, following my progress on Twitter, people dug even deeper into their pockets.


Support from the support car

I was beaten that day. I couldn’t reach the summit. After 13 ascents, 185km of distance, and over 5,500m of height gained, with the heaviest of hearts I had to climb off my bike. I’d climbed to the height of Everest Base Camp but I could not carry on. That moment was unbearable - I felt so hollow, so broken, so emotional.

Time has a magical power to soothe. I came into this challenge with two goals. The first was to ‘reach’ the summit of Everest by bike. The second was to raise money and awareness for SSF. Thanks to the unbelievable generosity of friends, family, colleagues and strangers, we raised more than I could have ever imagined! The £3,000 (with Gift Aid) will make a huge difference to the charity and the young people they work with and I cannot thank people enough for their kindness and goodwill.

Keeping warm for the descent

I couldn’t reach the summit on that day but I did climb the mountain time after time, lap after lap, so that SSF can help young people climb their own mountain.

Find a mountain of your own and help SSF.

Photos: Melanie Sarling.

SSF is a cultural education charity that exists to instil curiosity and empathy, aspiration and self-esteem, literacy and teamwork - giving young people the confidence to see that all the world is their stage.

Learn more about us