WCU faculty member’s ‘Mt. Everest Challenge’ to benefit Biology Club

Darby Harris

Darby Harris

A faculty member from Western Carolina University’s Department of Biology will be looking to climb the equivalent of Mt. Everest on his bicycle this coming Saturday (Sept. 17) as he raises money for WCU’s student Biology Club.

Darby Harris, a three-time WCU alumnus and current lecturer in biology, will hop aboard his road bike at 7 a.m. at the university’s Health and Human Sciences Building and begin climbing Little Savannah Road as it ascends to Airport Road and then the Jackson County Airport. Then he’ll turn around and ride back down to the Health and Human Sciences Building. The round trip to the airport and back will be repeated for every $20 donated to benefit club members. Harris and the students are calling it the “Mt. Everest Challenge.”

Each round trip of 2.5 miles will include 560 feet of climbing, Harris said. “If the Biology Club can raise $1,040, then I will be climbing up to the airport 52 times for a total of 29,140 feet, which is just a little bit higher than Mt. Everest and a total distance of about 125 miles,” he said. That would equal 62 miles of uphill at a gradient of 8.8 percent.

“Whatever the final distance, I plan on riding it all at one time, on one day, so if I have to go the maximum distance, then it will definitely be the hardest day I’ve ever had on the bike,” he said.

That statement means something coming from Harris, who spent the years 2002 through 2007 as a “Category 1” road racer, the highest ability level for amateur road cyclists as defined by USA Cycling, and he often battled professional cyclists in races on the East Coast.

A native of Durham, Harris earned three degrees at WCU – a bachelor’s in biology, a bachelor’s in French and a master’s in biology. He went on to complete the University of Kentucky’s doctoral program in plant biology, and came back to WCU to teach in 2012.

The upcoming ride will be Harris’ second effort to benefit students in the Biology Club. Last September, he completed a 142-mile “Biking for Biology” project and raised $710 as he rode from WCU to Sylva and Balsam, and then north on the Blue Ridge Parkway, cycling one mile for every $5 donation.

Harris said he has been gaining back his cycling fitness over the summer after suffering an injury last spring. In May, he was riding in the Assault on Mt. Mitchell, a 102-mile journey by bike from Spartanburg, South Carolina, to the summit of Mt. Mitchell, the highest peak in the eastern U.S. About 28 miles into the event, a dog ran onto the highway and into the lead pack of riders, which caused several of them to go down, including Harris. The incident would have resulted in just “a bunch of road rash,” Harris said, but he was struck by several other riders, and the impact of one broke his ankle.

It was six weeks before Harris could get back on the road, and he says he spent most of July and August getting back into shape – “just in time for the fundraiser.”

Money raised during the Mt. Everest Challenge will be used to fund educational events through the school year. If the weather forecast is for all-day rain, the event will be postponed until Saturday, Sept. 24.

Donations are being accepted at the Department of Biology office in 132 Natural Sciences Building, and a GoFundMe site has been established at https://www.gofundme.com/biking4biology2016. Donations will be accepted through the end of the day Friday, Sept. 16.

Anyone who would like to watch the Mt. Everest Challenge is welcome to come by, Harris said. “I’m even encouraging other cyclists to come out and do a few laps with me. I have a feeling that I’m going to need the support as I approach the end,” he said.