Above The Clouds Of Africa
More than a decade after Qloom Ambassador, Gerhard Czerner pedalled around Africa’s tallest mountain, he still felt a nagging pang that his journey to Mt. Kilimanjaro, the world’s highest freestanding mountain, wasn’t complete. Back then, he looked up at the mountain from far below. Next time, he wanted it to be the other way around – looking down from the summit.
The desire never waned, and years later, fate intervened by putting a copy of Bicycles Up Kilimanjaro in front of Gerhard. The book, written by Nicholas and Richard Crane, recounts their own journey of the first bicycle ascent of Mt. Kilimanjaro in 1985. Gerhard’s motivation was instantly reignited, and he rallied his friends and fellow riders, Hans Rey and Danny MacAskill, to join him on an extraordinary expedition to Kilimanjaro National Park to summit the 5895m (19,341 ft.) peak.
An expedition of this magnitude requires substantially more planning than a weekend getaway. After receiving all necessary permits, the group decided to tackle the climb over the course of 5 days.
Over the course of a year, the crew prepared for the challenges of the high-altitude environment and accompanying hardships. Feeling fit and primed for adventure, the team made the surprisingly bold and cavalier decision to climb Mt. Kenya in addition to Kilimanjaro, just one week before departing for Africa. Mt. Kenya would serve as a warm-up for the main goal of the trip.
Hans and Gerhard successfully summited Mt. Kenya via Point Lenana - the so called Trekking Peak - at 4985 m (16,355 ft.). Unfortunately, Danny fell victim to altitude sickness and had to sit out of this bonus challenge.
From Kenya, the three intrepid travellers boarded a bus heading south to Tanzania to prepare for their main challenge. The crew chose to take the Manrangu Route for its rideability.
The first of five stages started at 1860m (6,102 ft.) and headed up a steep and partly unrideable emergency road. A two-night stay at the Horumbu Hut (3700m (12,139 ft.)) allowed the team to acclimate for an extra day while soaking in views and the excitement around camp. On the fourth day, the tired but eager crew ascended to Kibo Desert, a desert-like plateau, where the three highest points of Kilimanjaro emerge sharply into the sky.
Seeing the steep and rugged pitches for the first time quietly stirred some internal doubt in each adventurer, whether this whole trip was such a good idea, especially with bikes.
The endless marching on the desert’s soft soil finally delivered the exhausted trio to the Kibo Hut at 4700m (15,420 ft.) for a short rest before the final push to the summit in the wee hours of the morning.
Timing at this altitude is critical, and in order to have enough time to summit and descend back to Kibo Hut in the same day, Gerhard, Danny, and Hans left Kibo at 1am in frigid temperatures. By 4am, all three had to fight to pump air into their lungs. An overnight snow near the summit covered the mountain in a beautiful layer, but created an additional set of slippery challenges for the hardest section. For a split second, they considered postponing the final push, but they could taste the summit.
With the added weight of bikes on their backs, they had no relief and trudged slowly onward. Just as spirits were at their lowest and darkest, the sun rose and illuminated the mountain into something beyond comparison. That’s the battle cry they needed. Arriving at the crater rim, they saw the peak was within reach. They mustered the energy to mount their steeds and ride the final (relatively) gradual stretch. After 8 hours of gruelling climbing, they arrived at Africa’s highest point, breathless and elated. They fell into each others arms on the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro at 5895m (19341 ft.).
At this point, traditional mountaineers would begin their arduous descent through the harsh and inhospitable environment. However, for Gerhard and his friends, it was time to reap the rewards for lugging their bikes 4000m (13,123 ft.) up hill! During the trek up, no one entertained the idea of attempting to ride up the volcano, but these immensely skilled riders had no trouble descending through the steep gravel slopes. Like skiers, they gracefully carved down the face of the mountain, truly experiencing the definition of “Big Mountain Riding”. It was a dream come true!
After spending one more night at camp, the trio of riders prepared for their final descent back through Kibo Desert and into Horombu Hut. Breaths came easily again and the riders’ strength and renowned skill returned. As they rapidly lost altitude, the terrain and temperatures shifted to something more familiar, eventually giving way to Mt. Kilimanjaro’s lower jungle belt.
Seemingly out of thin air, a bar with a wooden terrace emerged from under some banana trees at the bottom of the mountain. It is here that the friends decided to celebrate this incomparable ride. The riders shared a toast with the local beer, aptly named Kilimanjaro. One of the crew, however, pointed out the beer’s motto didn’t quite fit for their particular expedition: “If you can’t climb it, drink it”. The three friends re-labeled it to “If you can bike it, drink it.”