There is that special feeling of anticipation and excitement when getting your gear ready for an expedition that never gets old. January 2019 was the 18th time I set out to guide and summit Mt Kilimanjaro 5895m amsl, but this time I felt like Christopher Columbus about to board the Santa Maria for the first time.
Ten mountain bike crazy friends joined Onbike with the mission to summit Kilimanjaro, ride their bikes on the roof of Africa and celebrate a 50th birthday. With epic legends David and Peter in the team, multiple epic finishers Stew and Stu and Jan, Chris, Phil, Mark, Mike and Jenks who have all sworn allegiance to the bike for life, I knew we were in with a solid chance and a great trip.
We know this mountain, its conditions and terrain like the back of our hands. We understand altitude , acclimatisation and the intricacies of breathing at high altitude. Adventure travel and logistics is our game, but we knew that riding 11 bikes to the top and down from Kilimanjaro, would be a complex challenge with many moving parts. We knew it won’t be easy to pull off the standards we are known for and we knew that getting the team up and back down safely was our highest priority.
As a team we were to follow in the tracks of big name riders like Hans Rey, Danny MacAskill and South Africa’s Martin Dreyer, some of the very few who have made it to the top with their bikes. After months of preparation and working through the guidelines set out in the Onbike ride guide, I was doing the final expedition brief just outside the Tanzanian town of Moshi in the Machame region at the foot of Kilimanjaro. Not to ten individuals, but to a team of riders, eager to tackle the challenge and willing to do what it takes to get to the summit.
You do not have to be a racing snake, or a multiple Epic finisher to ride your bike up Kili, but it does require a solid mindset, the ability to adapt and the ability to ride the mountain in your head just as hard as with your legs.
Our expedition plan was set in motion. Over the next eight days we focused on good nutrition, constant hydration, strict hygiene, good sleep and very careful monitoring of our vitals and blood saturation. We followed a motto of taking it day by day; keep doing the small things right, don’t sweat the small stuff and get comfortable being a little uncomfortable all while keeping the fun factor in the red.
After collecting our permits we met the rest of our Tanzania support crew at Marangu gate. This is the official entrance to the Tanzania Kilimanjaro National park. Let me tell you, the local guides and porters are the true unsung heroes of Kilimanjaro. Their huge hearts, support and friendly nature is humbling and without their service and assistance it would be impossible for many to attempt this mountain.
We continued through Kilema village, past banana plantations to the start of our journey at Kilema gate 1900m. Day one would see us climb a 1000 meters over the course of 12 kilometres via jeep track that runs through beautiful tropical rainforest.
Everybody was rearing to go as we started our ascent from the foot of the largest mountain in Africa. It was imperative to take it easy, keep our heart rates low and treat the elusive phantom called altitude with the respect it deserves. So, needless to say, we cranked out the granny gear early on as as we began to understand the patience and tactics it was going to take riding up this beast. Kilimanjaro is sometimes seen as an easy mountain when in reality the average success rate on most routes is less than 60 percent. Some climbing programs require a relative fast ascending rate. Because of this it can be very difficult to bounce back from acclimatisation issues in the allocated time.
The first night we camped on the edge of the forest and moorland at an altitude of 2900m. Following a different route than the trekkers on Kili, it felt like we were the only people out there. The camaraderie grew and one liners were flying left right and centre as we shared stories which often ended in exhausting laughter at the higher altitude.
The next part of the route is what you would call deceptive on paper. We had a mere 8km to go, ascending from 2900m to 3720m and as the joke went around – its all ridable! Judging the terrain, sure it is all ridable, but it is that little variable of taking on a climb at 3400m above sea level that stirred things up a bit.
Its at this point I believe we made one of the most important calls of the trip. The team stuck to the plan. Ride slow and steady and just chip away at it. Forget your usual numbers, stop looking at your speed and ride with your heart, and I mean literally with your heart. When the incline got too steep and the intensity was getting too high, we’d back off a bit. Take short 1 – 2 min rest every 10 -20 min. Push the bike a couple of meters, then hop back on and chip away at it again. Reaching Horombo camp 3720m we drew quite a crowd, being an unusual site arriving with mountain bikes from the other side of camp. The team was in good spirits as we sat down to a wholesome meal of soup, freshly made chicken, chips and coleslaw.
Day three was an acclimatisation day. It is common practice to ascend further, tax your body at a higher elevation, then descend again to sleep at a lower altitude all while maintaining very good hydration levels. This process boosts the acclimatisation process of producing more red blood cells, the oxygen carriers in our cardiovascular system.
We had a 1,2km hike a bike section that is unridable leaving camp and leading us toward the saddle. This was the perfect opportunity for the team to test the bike carry system we designed. Onbike put together a minimalist carry system for each rider. This consisted of a series of straps and buckles to be tied to strategic places on each bike. It had to be light, complement each riders day pack, be compatible with any bike and be easy to assemble and dissemble yet effective and balanced.
After a quick demo and getting everyone set up we were off, the mist and light rain started rolling in. I’ll be honest at one point I asked myself: “What are we doing here? This is crazy, carrying bikes up Kilimanjaro, the highest freestanding mountain in the world!” Let’s face it, we ride bikes because we love to ride them, not carry them. As we slowly carried our bikes up the mountain, passing through this unridable section, studying the lines of our soon to follow descend, I realised that there is something significant, making it worthwhile to carry your bike a short distance. We do it to go and ride it at that little more special, little more remote, little less ridden trail than usual. Because when you get back on again, the stoke is all the more sweet!
At a place called Last Water, we were back on the bikes, over a little punchy climb and onto the hard pack of the saddle. We broke through the 4000m elevation mark in silence. Less talking as deep breathing started taking priority over chatter and chirps. We dropped down a little downhill and 11 riders rolled onto the saddle for the fist time. The saddle marks the start of the mountain dessert area and is situated between Mawenzi and Kibo Peak. It stretches across a vast area where pockets of hot and cold air condensates and shapes mystical landscapes. It felt like we were riding on Mars with the clouds way in the distance below us. The going got tougher, but the important team dynamic of a team coming together was present and motivating. We were starting to ride as one and the guys were looking out for each other. We followed the gradual drag up to an altitude of 4600m where we reached our goal and the highest point on our acclimation day. We parked off in the middle of nowhere and enjoyed a packed lunch before we head back down to camp for the first of our unbelievable exhilarating downhill runs, but more about that later.
Back at Horombo camp having peaked our head over the ridge, the excitement to get up there and go even higher was brewing. We enjoyed a hearty meal together and monitored our oxygen saturation with a pulse oximeter to complete the rest of the Lake Louise scorecard. This is something we did diligently twice a day in the AM and PM to monitor and evaluate every team members acclimatisation progress and health. The team was doing great, our proven game plan was kicking in as everyone stuck to doing the small things right.
At breakfast I shared what is coming our way over the next 48 hours. The move to basecamp and the summit push. I sensed a bit of seriousness setting in, but this was soon interrupted with chirp, jokes and the great spirit of this group of legends, now fully invested and ready for the challenge ahead.
We left Horombo one last time and made our way back up to the saddle to follow the long 8km drag to Kibo Hut 4750m. This was basecamp and the last camp before our summit attempt.
At this altitude small mundane tasks like putting on your boots, looking for something in you duffle bag or getting up too fast becomes challenging and can leave you out of breath. A slight loss of appetite and light sleep apnea is also quite normal. The team was strong and they have prepared well. Our acclimatisation program was working well and few of these symptoms were experienced. We did one more final check to ensure everyone is ready for summit night, had dinner at 17:00 and laid down for a rest at 18:00.
Summit night started with a wakeup call at 23:00, leaving just enough time to get dressed in all our layers for the expected minus 10 to minus 15 degrees celsius and grab a cup of hot tea before we started our summit bid.
It was 00:00 and the team was ready. Two local guides, Bariki and Espresso, and I together with a few summit assistants helped the team line up. We were ready to go with bikes strapped to our backs as most team members opted to carry their own bikes, only accepting assistance from the summit assistants when they absolutely need it. Onbike always ensures a high client to guide ratio for optimal risk management and to offer clients the very best chance to succeed.
The loose steep volcanic scree from Kibo Hut to Gilmans point is unridable, but if you want to ride your bike on the true roof of Africa along the crater rim from Uhuru Peak 5895 to Stella Point 5685m, then your only option is to take it there, so that’s what we did.
After all the training and preparation this was it. We all took five deep breaths, calmed the nerves and set off with that first step. The night was dark, but the stars were bright. There was no light pollution and looking at the stars from 4750m made them feel so much closer than usual. It was quiet and all you could hear was the crushing gravel beneath our feet. I recognised the rhythm of the Kili shuffle, we were
walking as one as the guys shared a word and shout of encouragement with each other. The train was moving up slow and steadily, we climbed on.
We cracked 5000m as it got colder and we started experiencing thermocline winds at Hans Meyer’s cave around 5200m. The team was doing good as we maintained the 50 minute walk with 2 -3 minute rest periods during which we drank something, ate something and made the necessary adjustments when needed. We could not rest any longer as it got too cold, making it difficult to get going again.
Over years of guiding I have learned that summit night is often a bitter sweat experience to many. At around 03:00 in the morning we hit the graveyard hours. Its the coldest part of the night at the steepest part of the climb. It’s not uncommon to get visits from the infamous sleep monsters as you fight to stay awake and alert for those last two hours until day break. This is the time to hold on and dig deep.
The team started breaking up slightly as bigger gaps started opening between team members. Everyone got stuck in their own pain cave and pushed on. We encouraged one another to hang in there and soon we saw day break and experienced new energy. Everyone got more guts as the view of a lifetime became visible and the day started warming up a bit.
As a guide your body gets used to the “drill” of summit night which allows you to better observe and be aware of each team members mental and physical state. Make no mistake, every single summit remains a real challenge no matter how many times you do it, but you become better at knowing what to expect and how to manage it.
By now the team split up a little bit with the front group about 5 minutes ahead of the rest. There it was, the sun rising from what looked like the end of the earth. Myself and Peter took a moment to take it in and I saw Chris looking strangely at his water bottle that was frozen into thick slush. Peter asked me if I thought he was going to make it even though he knew he would. I confirmed that he was looking strong and should just keep on doing what he is doing. I watched Jan and Chris carrying their bikes and again I thought how crazy this is, but at the same time I could not ignore the massive unique riding opportunity and experience these guys were opening up for themselves.
We reached Gilmans Point 5681m on the crater rim in six and a half hours. I noticed a bit of weather coming our way as the wind started picking up. I shared with the team that we had just over an hour to go to the summit. The team reached the next milestone Stella Point 5685m and I could sense the excitement from the guys, knowing they were going to make it. From this point you could see the glaciers on Kilimanjaro. They are receding and melting and it felt like a true privilege to see them. The team stopped here and there, taking pictures to capture the special moment as we continued our victory trek to the summit.
Clearing the last little uphill with Mt Meru far in the distance and the clouds 3000m below us, we saw the well known Mt Kilimanajaro summit board in the near distance. The entire team of 10 made it to Uhuru Peak, the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro and the highest point of Africa at 5895m with their bikes.
Everybody congratulated each other, soaked up the moment and took in the views. Weather was building and as they say, the summit is only half way. After a few summit pictures, we assembled the bikes and it was time to go down in the best way possible.
With frost covered wheels and frozen hydraulic brakes the guys set of for a ride of a lifetime along the crater rim. I caught up with the guys back at Stella point where we regrouped. Their eyes were watery and faces were beaming. They said it was the cold air from the ride, but I am sure it was muddled with some tears of joy, accomplishment and satisfaction.
It took a further 3 hours to descend back down to Kibo. Depending on your choice of bike and your skill level, only the last 3rd of the nights climb is ridable into Kibo Hut camp. We dropped all the warm summit layers and got back into our riding kit. We enjoyed an early lunch at 11:00, almost 12 hours since we left camp for the summit. The cold fruit juice and warm potato stew was the perfect combination to fuel us for the ride to come.
It was time for the ultimate ride. Ahead of us waited a 3945m drop in elevation over just 40km arguably the biggest down ride on the continent. The summit was in the bag and everyone was in good spirits, ready for the descend. This downhill was one of the major highlights everyone was waiting for. We snapped our last group picture and literally jumped on our bikes to send it and I mean send it.
The lack of air resistance at 4750m in combination with the smooth mountain dessert hard pack surface had us up to blistering speeds in no time. Flats felt like downhills and only a few strokes of the peddles sent us flying. Its was difficult to keep a cool head, ride within our limits and remember how remote we were. A major crash in this part of the world could have catastrophic consequences. We stopped and regrouped at designated stops. Descending too fast for too long can result in a pressure headache and we wanted to avoid that. After an all night summit, the reflexes was getting a bit on the slow side and it was an added bonus to cool the steaming breaks.
The ride down took us two hours and forty minutes including two scheduled fifteen minute rest stops. Hiking this distance normally takes 2 days to complete. And that right there must be the ultimate benefit!
Rolling out of the forest and through the village we were greeted by the cheers of children and locals. One had the sense that they knew what we have just been through. Their warm enthusiastic cheers and song welcoming us back into civilisation. The air felt warm and thick, the environment felt safe and comfortable again. Looking back at Kili behind us, it felt strange but yet so rewarding to think that we all were up their with our bikes just a couple of hours ago.
Our transfer waited for us at the bottom of the banana plantation. The guys enjoyed a well deserved Kilimanjaro lager at a local street cafe before our transfer to a wildlife ranch situated just west of Kilimanjaro. It was a great day, it was a massive day! We had dinner and hit the sack.
The next morning we woke up to the sound of the bush. We shared war stories and the team came to realisation of what they have achieved. The slow morning didn’t last too long as we saddled up for a guided game ride on the bikes. Riding in the bush we saw zebra, wildebeest, giraffe and various antelope. It was interesting to read the wind and follow the trackers advice to try and get as close as possible to the animals.
We had one more night to spend at the ranch and soak it all in and the guys were planning to make the most of it. We packed some beers and a couple of G&T’s and jumped in an open top Land Rover for a sunset game drive. Again we were lucky enough to spot loads of wildlife. We parked on top of a small “koppie”. We were alone out there and we could see Mt Meru on the one side and Mt Kilimanjaro in the clouds on the other.
With the perfect setting for a sundowner and a breathtaking African sunset these mountain bike friends from all over the world sealed the deal with a cheers on Kilimanjaro success and in true mountain bike travel spirit, started talking about the next one!
More information on future trips can be found at www.onbike.co.za