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Summiting Mount Kilimanjaro on a Bike Is as Hard as It Looks

Photo: Respicius Baitwa

It had been five days since our wheels hit the dirt on Mount Kilimanjaro, and for five days I’d been dealing with stomach aches and deep lacerations on my right leg, thanks to the razor edged volcanic rocks that grated into my shins and knees with each spill. My partner, professional mountain biker Rebecca Rusch, and I had also been fighting altitude, gear malfunctions, weather, and emotional ups and downs since day one.

These challenges were worth it since we were doing it to raise money for World Bicycle Relief, which builds tough bikes for people who live in remote, rural areas throughout the continent. Our mission was to climb up and bomb down Africa’s tallest mountain, unsupported. As far as we could determine, Rusch and I would be the first people to do so since two British cousins, Nicholas and Richard Crane, earned the first ascent in 1985.

Photo: Patrick Sweeney

We started with a 6,000-foot climb up the lone trail for emergency vehicles. Though the grade was steep, we were able to pedal a surprising 70 percent of the time over six hours.

Rusch and I both had all the equipment we'd need to survive on our backs: sleeping bag, change of shoes, three liters of water, and other essentials. We’d eat with the crew at our two planned camps and refuel along the way. Our philosophy for the trip was no porters, no Diamox (for mountain sickness), no help. Like it or not, our 30-pound packs were going to be our constant companions all the way up.

Photo: Patrick Sweeney

The entrance gate was in the middle of a rainforest. Further up we’d experience two more microclimates—alpine desert and eventually arctic tundra, complete with glaciers. It was the equivalent of going from the equator to the Arctic Circle in one ride! Pedaling was tough but achievable, thanks to my 44-tooth granny cog, a giant of a gear on my rear wheel, which took most of the punishment on the way up.

Hours after crossing the gate into Kilimanjaro National Park to start this adventure, we got to Horombu hut (Camp 1) and spent the night at 12,500 feet.

Photo: Respicius Baitwa

We stayed around Horombu to film and do an acclimatization ride to Zebra Rocks, so named because mineral-rich rainwater flows from the rocks above and streaks the almost-black lava cliff white. It was just an hour and 1,200 feet up, but the trail was technical, so we had to focus on balance, trying not to use too much power, and adjusting to the effects of altitude. We reached the striped majesty feeling strong, filmed a few segments, and then headed back to Camp 1.

On the way back, I reflexively hopped the bike over a small waterbar built into the trail. As I landed, the sharp volcanic rocks took a bite out of my extra tough “Nobby Nick” tire’s sidewall. We’d traveled light for the short ride, meaning I hadn’t packed my other spare. I spent the 30-minute hike back to camp hoping it would be my only mechanical failure of the trip, but hope is never a sound strategy, as I’d find out.

Photo: Respicius Baitwa

At 8 a.m. we left for high camp at 15,500 feet. It was steep and mostly rideable singletrack. Pretty enchanting riding, in fact—like pedaling through the pages of a Dr. Seuss book full of crazy-looking trees and rocks.

Kilimanjaro is the fourth-biggest mountain in the world in terms of prominence, or the difference between starting elevation and summit. By the end of the day, one of our two cameramen, a sea-level fit elite rock climber, shuffled into camp, having suffered all day from altitude sickness. It was clear he wouldn’t make the summit.

Photo: Respicius Baitwa

The way to High Camp was ride-and-carry all the way up. When we were blessed with an especially long rideable section, we tore off with a vengeance—or with as much gusto as someone can muster in their 38-tooth cog at 14,000 feet. It was a blissful feeling that erased much of the monotonous suffering of the hike-a-bike. However, freedom was fleeting.

Pzzzt! I’d torn another sidewall in my "extra tough Nobby Nick” tires. I renamed them Thin Lizzies, and swore to never buy them again.

Without a third spare, we had to resort to Rusch's 29er tube and hope for the best in my 27.5+ setup. Ever so gingerly, I rode to 15,500 feet and the Kibo High Camp.

Photo: Respicius Baitwa

Summit day was the coldest morning yet—frost blanketed everything in sight. With our bikes attached to our backpacks, we started hiking up the toughest section. It was a fierce, nearly vertical vein of scree, rocks, and volcanic material leading from high camp to the crater's rim that is Kilimanjaro’s highest point.

The first two-and-a-half hours in the dark were tortuous. Around 17,500 feet was my worst point. I was struggling to take in air as we scrambled up near-vertical scree for hours. The sun rising over the distant Miwenze peak to the east was a welcome friend, outlining the wild ridges in bright pink and orange. When our suffering was at its worst, our guide, Respicius Baitwa, would break into song, bringing a smile to our faces and reminding us to enjoy the journey.

Finally we reached Gillman's point, on the east side of the crater’s edge. Next stop would be Stella Point, at 19,000 feet, and the final push to the summit.

Photo: Respicius Baitwa

At Stella we took the bikes off our packs to ride the edge of the crater up to the summit. We rode the last 50 feet to the top, touching the summit sign at exactly the same moment.

Rusch repacked her 29er and started hoofing it again, but I wanted to squeeze every tire rotation possible out of our mountain mistress. Back at the vein of scree leading up from high camp, I opted for a strategy of “slide and stride” down the steep face. I was taking giant steps, then sliding 2 to 3 feet on my heels, spewing dust like exhaust before launching the next step.

I felt surprisingly good at high camp—adrenaline-fueled elation no doubt. We all slept from about 7 p.m. that evening to breakfast the next morning.

Photo: Respicius Baitwa

It was clear when Rusch took a nasty spill, nearly dislocating her thumb, that the last descent was going to be the most treacherous. The trail to the bottom of the mountain was nothing but deep ruts carved by running water and aging Land Rovers. It was like we were biking down a bobsled track filled with ball bearings and razor blades.

Photo: Respicius Baitwa
The blast down to the bottom had more moments of blood and bruising, but nothing critical. Our summit mission accomplished, we set off for the next stage: traveling through Tanzania and Kenya to see the work done by World Bicycle Relief.