Home > News

Why Lachlan Morton’s Everesting world record might not be legitimate

An in-depth exploration on how Strava's elevation data can be flawed

Photo by: EF Education First

UPDATE, June 18: Hells 500 has confirmed that Lachlan Morton’s Everesting attempt was not valid and Keegan Swenson has been reinstated as the world record holder.

Everesting, a hugely difficult task, has exploded in popularity. These past few months some of the world’s best riders have pushed themselves to their limits, breaking ‘world record’ times as they climb 8,848m in one ride. Cyclists are using the efforts to challenge themselves, but they have also been used to raise money for numerous charities—especially important given the 2020 we’ve had. As the event becomes more mainstream, and the world record time continues to shrink, attempts have become more serious and, naturally, so have the rules.

On June 14, 13 days after an 11 hour record breaking run of the 150-mile Kokopelli Trail, Lachlan Morton broke the Everesting world record. The laid-back Australian EF Education First cyclist has filled up his unexpected off-season with a number of impressive rides and cool adventures. He finished his Everest with a time of seven hours, 32 minutes and 54 seconds, beating previous record holder U.S. national mountain bike champion Keegan Swenson’s time by just over seven minutes.
Although Morton’s Strava data said his elevation for the Everesting attempt was only 8,509m, the record was still approved.

RELATED: Why everyone is ‘Everesting’ during the lockdown

Hells 500 and Everesting data

The ‘official Everesting record board’ is overseen by a group called Hells 500, the creators of the challenge. Riders who wish to have their name on the board must submit Strava files to the group after an attempt. To make an official everesting attempt riders pick a hill, and find the segment on Strava. If the segment says the climb gains 88m, then the rider has to do roughly 100.5 laps to reach 8,848m.

In the case of Morton’s data, Strava says the segment has an elevation of 213 m, with an 11 per cent average grade. Generally, Hells 500 goes by the data on the Strava segment, as there can be discrepancies between how devices read gradient.

RELATED: How gradient and categories are measured and what they can (and can’t) tell you about climbs

The team also goes deeper into a segment’s data to further verify the legitimacy of the Everesting effort. “When we check a reported segment gain in Strava,” says Andy van Bergen of Hells 500, “We’ll look for ‘saw-toothing’ in the profile which is a giveaway of a poorly formed segment, and would give an artificially inflated figure.”

The team then uses additional software to approve the Strava segment data. Finally, they do a sense check against the Strava contour line, to confirm that the elevation gain lines up. “We apply the same formula for all of our entries in the hall of fame,” says van Bergen, “including both regular riders and records, and have a number of people check off on the important ones like this. At an estimate, we would see under or over reporting of data from devices in probably 10 per cent of entries, and this is why we will use a verified Strava segment over what the head unit will show.”

The issue with segments

Lachlan Morton is a super positive figure in the cycling community, and this is not a criticism of his incredible Everesting feat, but there is a problem with the way Everesting attempts are measured—and Morton’s ride is unfortunately a perfect example of this flaw.

Strava segment data is often incorrect. It uses data pulled from the head unit of the person who creates the segment. Segments that have been around for a while (i.e. famous local climbs) were often created by old devices with faulty GPS and barometric altimeter, or no barometric altimeter at all. Check out your local ‘categorized climbs’ Strava, and you’ll likely see a segment that is inaccurately marked as a ‘categorized climb’.

RELATED: How community support, McDonald’s salt packages and the motivation of a good cause helped Jeremy Rae break the Canadian Everesting record

When a segment created using faulty barometric altimeter data is used for an Everesting attempt, Hells 500 will normally be able to flag the issue using their thorough system. But, if a segment is created using no barometric altimeter data at all, Strava cross-references the GPS data to its elevation basemap in order to find the elevation. The segment is then smoothed and cleaned, meaning it would likely pass all the internal testing Hells 500 puts it through.

“We do some smoothing to the data,” says Strava, “which includes discarding outliers to reduce noise. The amount of smoothing is more on activities without barometric data than it is for activities with barometric data. While we attempt to match the path of your activity with the actual trails and roads in the area, elevation calculation is still somewhat dependent on your GPS data and accuracy of the database for that region.”

Morton’s Everest

Morton picked a segment called “​Back Side of Rist​” which Strava says is 1.93 km long and gains 213 m. According to the Everesting rules, he should have to do the climb 42 times to Everest, which is exactly what he did.

However, his Garmin 1030 only credited him with 8,509m. Digging further into his Strava data, we find that he was actually gaining only around ​203m per climb (not 213m as listed on the Strava segment). If we multiply 203 x 42= 8526m, which is close to what his Garmin reported.

There are often discrepancies between devices, and maybe Morton’s Garmin 1030 is faulty, and underreports elevation. That being said, looking at some other ride files from this month of people who have gone up the same climb, it seems like his reading is not the outlier.

Name: Device Used Ride Date Lap Distance Lap Elevation Gain
Lachlan Morton Garmin 1030 June 13th, 2020 2.0km 203m
Gavin Mannion Garmin 1030 June 14th, 2020 2.0km 188m
Eric Morgan Garmin 500 June 15th, 2020 2.0km 190m
Kip Taylor Garmin 520 June 13th, 2020 2.0km 188m
Brian Spicer Garmin 520 June 13th, 2020 2.0km 191m
Cody Stephenson Garmin 830 June 7th, 2020 2.0km 190m
Adam Asnes Wahoo Bolt June 6th, 2020 2.0km 200m

Based on the above data, the contour lines on OpenTopography  and it seems that ‘​Back Side of Rist’ ​only actually gains 190m-200m [update June 18: LiDAR imaging on the Colorado GeoData Cache also confirms the above data]. This would leave Lachlan Morton well short of the Everest height. Even if his Garmin’s 203m gain/lap is accurate, he would have needed to do 43.5 laps (not 42).

What about Keegan Swenson’s Everest?

Keegan Swenson rode ‘Gate to First Switch‘  for his attempt, a 2.93km long segment with 312m elevation gain. 8,848m/312=
28.35 climbs needed. He completed 29 climbs.

Name: Device Used Ride Date Lap Distance Lap Elevation Gain
Keegan Swenson Wahoo Bolt May 15th, 2020 2.9km 312m
Kevin Vermaerke Wahoo Bolt June 9th, 2020 2.9km 314m
Nathan Spratt Garmin 510 June 15th, 2020 2.9km 297m
Ryan Standish Garmin 520 June 5th, 2020 2.9km 287m
Andrew C Wahoo Bolt June 14th, 2020 2.9km 312m

What’s notable here is that Wahoos read higher than Garmins on this climb. The segment was likely created using a Wahoo head unit (Swenson likely created it himself for his attempt). Regardless, judging by this data, Keegan Swenson looks to have been closer than Morton to actually achieving the 8,848m.

And Phil Gaimon’s data?

On his May 1 world record Everesting (beaten a few days later by Swenson), Gaimon used the segment “​Mountaingate Dr. to Turnaround​” which is listed at 1.28km with 144m gain.

Name: Device Used Ride Date Lap Distance Lap Elevation Gain
Phil Gaimon Wahoo Roam May 11th, 2020 1.2km 146m
Bergen West Wahoo Bolt June 3rd, 2020 1.2km 143m
Joe Emmerling Garmin 530 June 5th, 2020 1.2km 144m
Isabel King Garmin 530 June 5th, 2020 1.2km 140m
Dan Beam Wahoo Bolt June 9th, 2020 1.2km 144m

Gaimon’s data looks pretty accurate based on comparisons to that of other rider’s.

How can this flaw addressed

The solution to this glitch seems pretty simple. In order for an Everesting record to become official, the Strava segment data needs to be verified by a secondary device. The record holder would need to send the link to the Strava segment, and then one (or more) files that confirm the elevation gain. Ideally, there would be a fair system for judging new records, as relying on
head unit data alone or Strava data alone can be very faulty.

If you’re thinking that this all seems like a huge over-analysis, you’re probably right. Everesting is just a fun challenge that cyclists do to push themselves hard. That being said, the phenomenon is growing in popularity and cyclists have begun to take it quite seriously. The significance of breaking this world record is growing, and, as the world record times get closer together and some of the world’s fastest riders take on the challenge, small discrepancies become more important.

In 2016, running experienced a similar situation. The beer mile, an informal event that college teams would compete in at the of a season blew up in popularity. Lewis Kent broke the world record and went on Ellen. Corey Bellemore then broke Kent’s  record and signed a sponsorship deal with Adidas. The rules had to be amended because people were using ‘illegitimate’ beers, and leaving too much foam at the end. It got to the point were only records at sanctioned events like the World Beer Mile Classic were accepted as legitimate. As Everesting continues to grow, it seems to be headed in a similar direction. The rules will soon become more important than ever to give everyone a fair chance at climbing the mountain.