Double Trouble – Mount Kenya & Mount Kilimanjaro
Mount Kenya & Mount Kilimanjaro Back to Back on Bikes With Hans Rey, Danny MacAskill and Gerhard Czerner
Story by Hans Rey Photos by Martin Bissig
As I was putting one foot in front of the other, I kept telling myself that I have been lugging bikes up and down hills and mountains for over 30 years, and if it ever mattered, it would be right now. I was a few hundred meters below Gilman’s Point, the crater rim of Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa. From there it would be another hour and 30 minutes to get to the true summit, the Uhuru Peak (19,400 feet/5,895 meters). At this point I had to dig deep. With fresh snow on the ground and a bike and a big heavy backpack on my shoulders, the high altitude and oxygen-deprived air made things tougher than expected. My partners on this trip, Danny MacAskill and Gerhard Czerner, were struggling as well.
NOTHING FOR FREE
I had heard of so many hikers who had walked up Africa’s highest mountain, I figured it couldn’t be that hard. I didn’t take into consideration that most of the hikers don’t carry much. Hauling our own bikes and day packs, alpine-style, made a huge (50-pound) difference and made this trip super hard, not to mention that only days before some of us had already successfully ridden Mount Kenya, Africa’s second-highest mountain.
When we first arrived in Nairobi 10 days prior, we met up with our crew and team. Besides us riders, we were joined by photographers Martin Bissig, and Aeron, Axel and Greg from Freeride Entertainment Productions who were filming for a TV documentary and an upcoming (2018) film about the history of freeride called Nothin’ for Free. They planned to film my inter- views on top of the mountains. For parts of the trip we were also joined by a friend of Gerhard’s, who is an experienced mountaineer connected to the touring company we had hired for Kilimanjaro to help us with logistics and porters. They had urged us to do an acclimation trip prior to Kili on nearby Mount Meru to get accustomed to the thin air.
Only days before the trip we found out that Mount Meru wouldn’t allow bikes within its national park boundaries. Not in the mood for a four-day hiking trip, we changed our itinerary and decided to climb Mount Kenya first, where bikes are allowed. As a matter of fact, in 2004, Richie Schley and I were the first people to ride bikes from Point Lenana Summit at Mount Kenya. It was a hard trip that took seven days and tested our limits. In the 12 years since, I had forgotten the pain and hardship. As a matter of fact, because we were pressed for time and since we couldn’t change the start date of our Kilimanjaro climb, we decided to try to summit and descend Mount Kenya in only four days. Anybody who knows anything about high altitudes understands that we’d be pushing our luck and would be jeopardizing the entire expedition.
But first, to kick off our trip, we had scheduled a philanthropic visit to one of the communities that my charity, Wheels 4 Life, has supported with bicycles in the past. We had arranged for 50 additional bicycles to be distributed during our visit with Bishop Kamau and to also meet some of the folks who had received bikes from our non-profit in the past to see firsthand how those bikes have changed the lives of many.
Our usual bike recipients are poor people in need of transportation, like children who walk up to 10 kilometers to school each day, healthcare workers or farmers who use the bikes to bring goods to the market. Having mobility in the form of a bicycle makes all the difference for people who don’t have or can’t afford alternative/public transportation. One man, Simon, was given a bike by us three years ago when he lived in a simple mud hut. Because of the bike, he was able to find work in a town 15 kilometers away. He has earned enough money that he now lives in a tin-roofed house with furniture and owns his own cow and two goats. His children are also able to go to school now.
Another lady who had gotten one of our bikes told us that she has had health problems, and because of the bike she could get regular medical attention. There were a lot of happy faces. It was a formal affair for everybody as they dressed in their church clothes. The highlight for the kids and folks who didn’t get a bike was a little impromptu trick show from Danny MacAskill. Danny is probably the most famous mountain biker in the world. His famous YouTube videos have been seen by millions and millions. If people didn’t know about him already, which was likely in this village one hour west of Nairobi, they will certainly not forget him soon after watching him do some amazing tricks.
CALM BEFORE THE CLIMB
The next morning we had a long vehicle transfer to the town of Timau at the north- ern base of Mount Kenya where we met our contacts from Rift Valley Adventures and the Mount Kenya Trust, who both offered us their help and support. Mount Kenya has several peaks. Point Lenana (16,700 feet/4,985 meters) is the third tallest and known as the trekkers’ summit, since one can reach it without ropes and rock-climbing skills. These African mountains are amazing. At first they rise very gradually, but eventually the terrain gets steep and rocky. The beautiful thing about traversing Mount Kenya (we climbed the Sirimon route and rode down the Chogoria route) is all the different climate zones and diverse ecosystems one crosses. They say every day is summer and winter on Mount Kenya. The mornings are often sunny and warmer, but clouds usually move in around midday, bringing rain and snow. The vegetation on each side of the mountain varies a lot, since the climate on the northern side, where we started, is much drier than on the lush southern slopes we rode down.
Danny was the youngest and least experienced altitude rider on our team; however, he was also the strongest and best bike handler. He had never been higher than 3000 meters, which is only half the height of Kilimanjaro. He decided, just like Gerhard and some others on our team, not to take any Diamox, which helps the body adjust to high altitude and lowers the risk of getting sick. Little did he understand that once a person gets altitude sickness, it can be very bad, even life-threatening.
Thomas, Gerhard’s friend who joined us on that part of the trip, gave us some valuable advice for dealing with thin air: go very slowly and carry as little weight as possible. This was easier said than done, however, since we all had to ride and carry our own bikes and daypacks, while porters carried our food supplies, extra gear and camera equipment. We also learned some interesting breathing techniques that helped us get more oxygen into our bodies. At high altitude, it’s easy to feel out of breath from the smallest effort, but what most people don’t know (and what often leads to acute mountain sickness) is that when you go too hard or too high, you usually don’t pay the price immediately. Twenty-four hours later, however, it will hit you like a right hook from Mike Tyson, at which point the only solution is to backtrack down to a lower elevation to avoid getting even sicker.
NO TRIP GOES EXACTLY TO PLAN
As soon as we arrived at the Sirimon park gate to sign in with the park authorities, it promptly started pouring. After waiting around for an hour for better weather, we finally dressed up in our rain gear and started up the dirt road towards Old Moses Camp. It wasn’t the way we pictured the start of our 12-day trip, but we knew bad weather was a possibility since it was the beginning of the rainy season. Only a few kilometers after our start we crossed the equator, slowly moving uphill while keeping our eyes open for wildlife. After four hours in the rain, we arrived at the camp where primitive huts and very simple bunk beds awaited us. Dozens of hikers had already set up for the night.
By now the rain had stopped, and we knew this was the last chance for an open fire where we could dry our clothes and shoes. Farther up the mountain fires weren’t allowed. After we settled in camp, we did a short hike farther up the mountain for better acclimation while our guides and porters from Rift Valley Adventures prepared the food. Day two was a long stage. We had to climb from 3300 meters to Shipton Camp at 4200 meters. It doesn’t sound like much on paper, but it worried our guides.
We started at first light around 6 a.m. in order to minimize the chances of getting wet in the predicted afternoon rain. Halfway through the day we started feeling the effects of the altitude, despite doing our breathing techniques (exhaling like a loco- motive, freeing our lungs of CO2 to make room for more oxygen). Danny started to lose the color in his face and faded quickly, still hours from the camp with the rain clouds moving in. We reduced our pace even more, walking slowly and sometimes riding our bikes up the Mackinder Valley towards camp. The vegetation was beautiful, with giant lobelia plants that only grow at three or four places in the world at high elevation in the Afro-alpine zone. After a nearly 10-hour day on the trails, we arrived at the camp. We planned to stay there two nights to acclimate better before our summit push and descent, which were planned for day four. We all felt the hardship of this strenuous day and could feel it in every limb of our bodies. It was harder than some of us expected, and this was only day two of 10 or 11 days. Shortly after dinner, everybody went to bed. Danny had a night from hell, and his condition got worse. Our guides started to become seriously concerned; they discussed changing the route, and some even suggested that we not go for the summit and save ourselves for Kili.
We knew we wouldn’t be the first bikers to summit Kilimanjaro; a few parties had already done it before us. The first descent with bikes was 25 years ago. It’s hard to know how much they were able to ride on the way down on those old-school bikes, but they did bring their bikes all the way to the top. Therefore, we set our goal even higher to be the first to summit both of Africa’s highest points, back to back, with bikes. Maybe we were too ambitious. I wanted to summit Mount Kenya again, and I wanted to descend down the backside on the Chogoria route, which winds over 30 kilometers through the most diverse landscape on the planet. I had climbed up it on my previous trip.
Finally, we made a decision. Instead of taking a rest day, we would summit today and come back to the same camp. We decided to save Danny for Kilimanjaro. He didn’t have the strength to join us, and it didn’t look like he would be any better the following day. We left him and part of the camera team behind at the camp. Gerhard, our local guides and I started the 3.5-hour steep grind towards the top with our bikes, while Axel and Martin joined on foot to capture our attempt. The ground was rocky and loose and completely unrideable on the way up. Clouds kept moving in and out, but fortunately, we didn’t get rained or snowed on. On Wednesday the 26th of October at around 2 p.m. we reached the summit. It was a wonderful feeling; it felt incredible to be up there again. The Lewis Glacier, which is located between the peaks of Mount Kenya, had shrunk in size over 40 percent since I last saw it in 2004. After a short moment on the summit, taking in the panoramic views and taking a bunch of selfies with the summit sign in the background, we turned our bikes around to start what we had really come here for—the descent.
The first section near the top was rather steep, rocky and exposed. To be safe, we had to walk a few short sections, but the majority of the trail was rideable and super fun. At first we had to put our trials skills to the test. Luckily, Gerhard has a trials-riding background and loves riding technical terrain. Soon, however, the terrain mellowed, and we could surf down the steep gravel slopes, somewhat like a free skier, except we were surrounded by dust instead of powder. As we bombed down the mountain, our breathing felt a little better with every meter. Danny watched us come down the last hillside that is visible from the camp; his condition hadn’t improved. Unfortunately, in order to get to the Chogoria route the following day, we first had to climb up again. At this point we had already arranged for the porters to carry the bikes of the film crew to a certain point on the Chogoria route where we thought they could ride down. Since we had moved the bikes of the crew to a point partly down the Chogoria trail, we were committed to this route. Unfortunately, Danny’s condition rapidly got worse. His heart rate went through the roof just walking 50 feet uphill from camp, and his blood oxygen levels were very low. His cough sounded like he had fluid built up in his lungs. These were the first signs of pulmonary edema.
Normally, going 500 meters lower improves the condition right away. Staying at altitude or going even higher, which we planned on doing the next day, could be very dangerous if not deadly. The problem was, it wasn’t possible to just go down. We had to go up and down several valleys to get lower, and at night, in the rain, it would be very risky. It would have been a six-hour hike in the dark with several steep uphill sections. Several porters volunteered to walk down with him, against the advice of the rangers stationed at the hut, but eventually, we decided to spend the night at the hut and arrange for a rescue helicopter at first light in the morning.
KILIMANJARO E.R.— HELI-VAC FOR DANNY
With a heavy heart, I watched the helicopter land in the morning. Only moments later, Danny was gone. I didn’t expect to see him again on this trip. I was sure that he wouldn’t recover in time to attempt Kili only three days later. It wasn’t the same to start our last day and big descent on Mount Kenya without him. We broke camp and started our climb to the other side of the ridge. It was a lot longer and harder than we were told. In freezing temperatures, we climbed for two hours to Simba Col. There was no way that Danny could have handled that climb in his condition. The downhill started very steep and technical, plus we had to traverse a long valley before we eventually reached the bikes of the crew at Minto’s Hut. We were still hours and hours from the Bandas at the base near the end of the Chogoria route.
The trail was very technical. The crew, with their heavy backpacks, was not happy. The downhill riding seemed just as strenuous as the uphill riding. It was hard, but it was also beautiful. The landscape changed constantly every few kilometers. This is why Mount Kenya is one of my favorite rides ever. With the challenging terrain, adventure and culture, this is as rad as it gets. The downhill wasn’t easy by any means. There were loose rocks for miles, blocked and rutted trails, and plenty of opportunities to hook your pedals. The key was to keep momentum to save energy. Further down, the bushes got dense and the ruts, which often were the only possible line, were head high. Starting in the barren alpine, we descended to the Afro-alpine, which had more vegetation. As we rode lower, we crossed the heathland, chaparral and moorlands, eventually riding through these beautiful rosewood forests that reminded me of a fairytale setting. Now we were on the lookout for wildlife again. Sure enough, we got to see a small herd of water buffalo and antelopes. It was an amazing display of constantly changing landscapes.
BACK IN THE SADDLE
At this point, we were riding on an old 4×4 road that was actually quite fun and fast compared to the slow pace we had to maintain most of the day on the technical trail. Right as we entered the bamboo forest, we also reached our camp, the Bandas. It was a long and exhausting day. The first part of our mission was accomplished. After a beer and shower, I found a certain tree near the huts where one could catch—with some luck and the right cloud layer—a phone signal. In the dark, while it was raining, I had to climb up a sketchy wooden ladder and hold my phone high in the air. Eventually, I got a phone signal and could call Danny, who was on the other side of the mountain where we had started. The good news was that he started to feel better as soon the helicopter dropped him at a lower altitude. He spent most of the day at the hospital getting checked out. After thorough examinations, they put him on antibiotics and released him. To my surprise, he said, “I want to give Kilimanjaro a try.” We figured he could take it easy the first few days on Kilimanjaro, and if the fluid in his lungs disappeared, he should be good for a summit attempt. Kilimanjaro has one advantage, even though it is 1000 meters/3300 feet higher. When things go bad, it’s easy to turn around and ride to lower elevations for recovery.
I was so happy that Danny would join us again. We arranged to meet him the next day along the route on the way to Tanzania. The highlight of the long drive to the foothills of Kilimanjaro near Moshi was at the very beginning of the day, just as we left our camp near the base of Mount Kenya. A leopard happened to cross the dirt road in front of us. It stood there for 30 seconds and stared at us before it disappeared into the jungle. It was so cool, and I was kind of glad I wasn’t on my bike. It is very rare to see one of these majestic animals up close in the wild.
PREPARING FOR THE TOUGH TRAIL AHEAD
After one rest day near Kilimanjaro, we were back on our bikes to start our six-to- seven-day trek up the tallest mountain on the continent. Until recently, riding mountain bikes in the Mount Kilimanjaro National Park was not permitted. Only a few parties with special permissions had taken their bikes to the top before our attempt. I had not seen many pictures or footage of any of them actually riding down, especially the crater descent. Originally, I thought it wouldn’t be the end of the world if we didn’t make it all the way to the summit, but once I was on the mountain, it wasn’t an option not to make it all the way.
We were working with a different tour operator, guides and porters on this mountain than on Mount Kenya. It was first-class service, but the guides would have to follow us on foot, which was easy for them on the way up but more challenging on the way down. First, we had to officially sign in at the Marangu park gate before we got diverted to the unofficial rescue road.
Day one would be a long grind up a loose dirt road (20 kilometers and 1700 meters/5600 feet), which is not that much on a ride at a lower elevation, but we start- ed at an elevation of almost 2000 meters. Our camp was at 3700 meters, which was a huge gain in elevation. Normally, the hikers take two days to get to Horombo Camp, but along the rescue road there was no opportunity to set up camp, so we had to do a long day and were at risk of getting the high-altitude bug again. The first part of the day we were in the forest, and a lot of the sections were rideable, but soon the track got steeper and looser. We didn’t want to push ourselves too hard, so we pushed the bikes for hours.
Right before sunset, we reached the camp. Unlike in Kenya where we took advantage of the hut system, on Kilimanjaro we slept in tents. We had a fairly big group of porters and cooks to carry gear, tents, food and camera equipment. Even water had to be carried to certain camps. Personally, I prefer the tent culture. It is far more fun and a lot cleaner and more private. We spent day two at Horombo to acclimate. On rest day, we carried our bikes up to Zebra Rock for further acclimation, took some photos and filmed, and relaxed around the camp. Day three we climbed 1000 meters/3300 feet to Kibo Hut. (Kibo is the official name of the Kilimanjaro crater.)
After about 2.5 hours we reached the big saddle near Mawenzi Peak, which is Kili’s sister summit. From there the view of Kilimanjaro was a lot different from how it looks in pictures or from the valley far below. The last bit up the crater, which we would have to do on summit day, looked a lot bigger and steeper than expected. First, we had to traverse the saddle between Mawenzi and Kilimanjaro to reach our camp. Midday, it looked like the weather was turning on us. We had been pretty lucky weather-wise so far, except for the first day on Kenya. We started to hurry as much as we could. With filming, resting, regrouping and putting our rain gear on, thankfully we made it to the camp before the rain. Danny was coping well, as was the rest of the team.
We had scheduled another acclimation day at Kibo Camp on day four. We used that day to climb 500 meters/1640 feet up the mountain to leave our bikes there so we wouldn’t have to lug them on the first part of the summit day. We went to bed quite early at 8 p.m. The plan was to wake up at 1 a.m. and start our walk with flashlights to the cave where we left our bikes. When I opened my tent, I was surprised by a 2-inch carpet of snow that covered our campsite and the entire mountain. It was a surprise, and we didn’t know how much it had snowed on top. Our first reaction was to reconsider the departure time or even postpone by one day, but somebody quickly pointed out that the snow could be a blessing. Temperatures would be milder due to the cloud cover. As a matter of fact, I realized while on Mount Kenya that I had under- estimated the potential weather extremes on Kilimanjaro. My biking shoes might not have been warm enough to protect me from the cold winds and temperatures on Kibo.
Usually, when I go on these trips in developing countries, I give a majority of my super-functional gear to the porters afterwards, who often have very primitive equipment. This time, it was reversed. A few days earlier I asked our guide on Mount Kenya if I could buy his shoes—a very nice insulated pair of Adidas Terrex shoes. Not having to worry about freezing my toes, I was ready for summit day.
We started off at a very slow pace at 2 a.m. on November 3, 2016. We tramped a long, winding switchback line into the white snow. At about 4:30 a.m. as the morning sky started to get red in the east, we reached our bikes. Now, the hard part was about to start. The air was getting thin, and the strength in our bodies was nowhere near 100 percent. We were doing our breathing techniques religiously, trying to find a rhythm in our pace, keeping warm and finding the most comfortable spot on our shoulders to carry the bikes. Gerhard and Danny were using hiking poles. I man- aged to borrow a set from one of the cameramen but felt more comfortable using just one pole. It seemed to help, especially once I found a way to balance the bike on my backpack and shoulders without using my hands.
“Danny had a night from hell, and his condition got worse. Our guides started to become seriously concerned; they discussed changing the route, and some even suggested that we not go”
ON TOP OF THE WORLD
I don’t easily get emotional in life. It rarely happens on a trip like this or even when I used to win championships. But, all of a sudden, I became emotional, even tearing up a little. After planning this trip for over a year, and after a turbulent last week and a half, I could almost see myself making it to the top. Only at that moment did I realize what it meant to me to reach the summit, but I also knew that I still had the hardest part ahead of me. I was still about one hour’s walk below Gilman’s Point from where we would have to walk along the crater rim to Stella Point and onward slightly uphill to the highest point on the crater. By the time we got to Gilman’s Point, the sun started to warm up the air. It was a beautiful day. The crater was much bigger than I expected. It measures about 3 kilometers in diameter and is scattered with glaciers, which have been rapidly shrinking in size the past few decades. At this point, we saw more and more hikers who came to the crater from various routes. The last hour and a half along the crater seemed to go on forever. After seven hours we made it to Uhuru Peak at nearly 6000 meters/20,000 feet.
After a few moments on the summit, taking it all in and high-fiving each other, we turned around and started to reap our reward. Of course, we still had to do the filming, and going down in the rough terrain was still very exhausting. The technical sections along the crater rim and the first section below it were challenging. Crashing or getting hurt was not an option.
On a few sections we had to dismount our bikes, but we could ride the majority of it. By now the snow had melted, and the moisture in the ground improved traction and reduced dust. It was fun to let it rip for longer sections, but at the same time, we had to frequently stop to catch our breath. Danny was in his element. He loves to freeride and carve turns like a skier in the soft soil. By mid-afternoon, we got back to our camp. Danny said it was by far the hardest thing he had ever done. Gerhard was stoked and relieved that we all had made it. After all, this trip was his idea, and it had taken a lot of planning to pull this trip off.
We were still far from the bottom of the mountain, however, and the following night it snowed even more. The rainy season had arrived and the weather was less favorable. We were happy that we only had to ride down. The advantage with our bikes was that we could do it all in one day. Our guides had to leave camp early on foot and leapfrog ahead. As we got farther down the slopes, the faster and less technical the route became. And in the end, the “Kilimanjaro” beers we got in the first village at the base of the mountain tasted like victory.
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