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32,000 Feet In a Day

Spencer Paxson makes the most of the longest day of the year

There are people who conquer massive physical feats for no other reason than to add a notch to their belts. Their primary focus is to get to the top the fastest, jump the biggest jump, or run the fastest mile. Record books exist for preservation of the truly unfathomable, but without deeper intention, those records are just that: words and numbers on a page.

Then, there are people who find a deeper meaning in achieving their goals. Their fire is stoked by a personal goal with roots far deeper than simple records. Fueled by dreams and ambition in a way that’s hard for the rest of us to wrap our heads around, they achieve mesmerizing accomplishments, such as surfing a 70-foot wave or free soloing a massive wall.

For Spencer Paxson, pro cross-country racer, the idea to climb and descend his bike more than 10,000 meters in a single day—nearly the depth of the deepest part of the ocean, the Challenger Deep—was his version of doing something extraordinary. For him, with the impending arrival of his first child, it was a tangible way to channel his gratitude and love into something inspiring for everyone who's helped him along the way.

"It's kind of a woo woo thing," he said laughing. "The notion that gained momentum through the ride was that it was a physical manifestation of my feelings on becoming a father and gratitude for people who had been a part of getting to this point. It was a culmination of my appreciation for family and friends and my mountain bike tribe–all who had contributed their talents and experiences to my little piece of it, and the thought of directing that towards this new little person.”

At 4:24 a.m. on Wednesday, June 21, Paxson hopped out of his truck to emerge from the trenches. Set against an evergreen background sits a heinous climb just east of Bellingham, Washington. From a distance, it looks as if someone's taken a razor and shaved a giant crooked pathway for a sun-beaten gravel fire road with grades that consistently make you want to lose your lunch. Shade is an afterthought, and there is no rest for the weary. In just a few short miles the rural doubletrack ascends a back-breaking 2,200 feet. Locals groan at its very mention, but make no mistake, the descent is worth every bit of the pain.

"My original goal was to climb the equivalent of the depth of Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench. That's where the name 'Challenger High' came from, since I was climbing out. And, since this ride involved such a rad trail, keeping the notion of descending something worked better than just climbing. People typically think of climbing to the highest point of something, but I liked the idea of climbing out, I wanted to go deeper,” he said laughing. In his attempt to accomplish his goal he pedaled approximately 15 laps of the trail over the course of 18 hours. To put that in perspective, Paxson rode 104 miles, climbed the equivalent of 26.5 Empire State Buildings and pedaled what would be six round trips from the Whistler Valley to the Peak chair.

The night before the ride, Paxson, his wife Sarah, and photographer Paris Gore were up late preparing. "This all came about so last minute," Paxson said. "I don't think I even got more than three hours of sleep that night. I needed to throw on a different gear ratio (he ran a 32 front chainring and 11/42 rear cog), and just pack some minimal supplies."

Butt wait, there's more! Paxson didn't actually end up using this, and in spite of the huge day in the saddle, didn't really suffer any major chamois issues.
Paxson opted to do this ride on Solstice to maximize the amount of useable daylight. First light was at 4:24 am and he timed it perfectly. The first crank took place at exactly that time. In order to keep accordance with official solstice timing, Paxson wanted to be sure he was on his last ascent by 9:59 p.m., which was when last light was scheduled. He began his final lap at 9:42 p.m.

 

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With Paris Gore's truck lighting the way, Paxson takes off for his first lap. The climb immediately pitches to an incredibly steep degree with virtually zero flatter zones for the rest. Paxson was ticking off the climbs in an absurdly fast 40 minutes.

 

Gore found it almost frustrating to try to shoot Paxson while climbing. Aboard an e-bike to make the climb easier with his camera gear, he struggled to gain any time on Paxson's pace. "I was full sprint to get ahead of Spencer to get my telephoto out because he was going up the hill so fast. I didn't have time to take the camera out, shoot, repack and chase," he said. "So, I ended up taking the camera out and had it around my neck. I didn't have to dismount. I just shot while I was riding. I knew I couldn't ask him to slow down or stop and I didn't want to impede his focus."

 

After four laps, Paxson was still full of energy and feeling good. "I was still so stoked," he said laughing. "I was popping a little wheelie for Paris on the pedal back to the car after that lap." The bottom of the trail meets a 2-mile flat traverse back to the parking lot, the food and the next lap.

 

Around 4 p.m. Paxson was still all smiles. Sarah arrived with a block of cheese just before he took off for his 12th and favorite lap of the day. "I felt like I was the trail," he said emphatically. "I knew every little move. Everything was working. It was unreal."

 

While the trail is known as a local favorite, it's not super popular due to the arduous climb. But, those who do make the trek are handsomely rewarded with some of the most incredibly fun riding the area has to offer. While the top part is fast and moves easily under tire, the final third is packed with steep, loose corners that challenge grip strength and cornering ability of even seasoned riders.

Paxson was joined by friends throughout the day to help keep his spirits up. Nate Hoch managed to squeeze out four laps, with Stephen Ettinger and Mark Allison (pictured here) each completing three.

 

Done and dusted. No blood, no tears, but lots of sweat and a hard-earned cold snack.

 

The precise depth of Challenger Deep isn't actually known but it's estimated to be around 36,900 feet. Ultimately, in spite of a monstrous effort, Paxson fell short of the numerical goal. "As unreasonable as this ride may sound, it seemed reasonable to give it some additional parameters. Since it was the Solstice, it seemed appropriate that I do whatever I could do between first and last light. So, in that time, I got to where I did. The wild thing is that I could have kept going," he reflected.

Final tally: after 32,848 feet, and just over an incredible height of 10,000 meters, Paxson finally met the darkness. What's most impressive is that had there been more daylight he would have kept going. "I wasn't wrecked," he said. "Sure, I was tired, but I felt so energized by the concept and how it played out in such a literal sense. There's something really special about honoring the relationships you have in such a deep, committed way."

It's not crazy. It's calculation, preparation, and something much greater than anything we can hold or touch. Driven by a desire to share his gratitude, Paxson is assuring his child of one thing: He will love them as much as the Mariana Trench is deep.