Kilimanjaro 2023 - An adventure by bike.
I craned my neck to look high above my position, and headlamps in the distance cast tiny bubbles of light across the mountain. I looked down to my double insulated boots, half buried in the sandy rocky loose luna-like surface. Overwhelmed at what was still ahead of me, I caught my breath. At five thousand metres, high on the face of Kilimanjaro, I once again questioned why I put myself through this torture. While most of my British Cycling team mates would be laying on sunny beaches in Europe, enjoying an end of season relaxing holiday, I found myself deep in yet another epic, drained of energy, trying to feed my addiction for an adventurous lifestyle. Gideal, my guide, a local Maasai man, short and heavy set, urges me to keep moving. “Come’n Steve, keep going, you are very strong today” - his headlamp blinds me as he stares into my face, trying to gauge how I am feeling. I grasp the handlebars of my hired bike, its cold alloy brake levers cutting through my thick winter gloves and into the bones of my fingers. I take another step forward, dragging my two-wheeled burden up through the sugary surface.
Slowly night turned to day, red and orange highlights lit up the black horizon, in a breathtaking display of nature. Clouds far below our position created a fluffy white carpet that would disappear sooner than wished, a magical cloud inversion glowing light orange to pure white with the dawn’s rays. I paused my slow movements to enjoy this special moment. Then I continued, one heavy slow step, followed by another.
Wind attempted to slice into my blue down jacket and soft shell pants, but they were up to the task of protecting me. Wrapped in layers of merino wool and high tech nylon fabrics, I sat feeling the cold rough volcanic rocks through my rump. My head was a haze, like some form of out of body experience. My daypack, lighter than most, sat heavy next to my boots in the dust and footprints beneath their soles. Behind me, above my head, read a wooden sign, wearing cracks and splinters like battle scars. Bright yellow lettering carved into the timber read, MOUNT KILIMANJARO. CONGRATULATIONS YOU ARE NOW AT UHURU PEAK, TANZANIA 5895 ALTITUDE.
I didn’t feel special, or particularly happy, thankful or anything for that matter. In fact I felt terrible. The altitude was taking its toll on my sleep-deprived calorie-deficient body. I didn’t feel I was struggling for oxygen, as each breath passed through my body with ease, yet I felt empty, swimming in a daze of hypoxic soup. The few foreign summiteers around me spoke to camera phones, recording messages for friends and loved ones, while I sat trying to process my situation, but it was no use, my brain wasn’t able to operate in this wild remote place. Gideal took my phone and snapped some pictures of me at the summit, he urged me to smile, which seemed to take all my energy. I tried my best, and raised two fingers in a peace sign. We sat together, shook hands, hugged, and I thanked him for this opportunity. I knew without him I wouldn’t be sat here, on the tallest free-standing mountain in the world. Indeed, the roof of Africa.
We’d made it, despite the challenges of this trip before I even set foot on the mountain. The airline losing my bike, the delayed start hoping it would arrive, finding a hire bike last minute that would be ‘Kili’ worthy in Tanzania, gaining altitude too fast to join the team, altitude sickness. One set back followed by another, and now, it’s all over. A long-awaited dream, crammed into just five short days.
Now, sat in my modern kitchen, with its clean counter tops, a tap with fresh clean drinking water, no dust, rocks or mud in sight, and WiFi connecting me to the outside world, I wonder why? Why put myself through it, time and time again. To struggle, to explore, to suffer, to dig deep? After every trip I feel the same. Something inside me has to go through these journeys, feel these emotions, struggle through hardship, and stress my body to its absolute limits. Yet after this trip, like the rest, reflection still poses the same question, why?
Maybe I’ll discover the answer on the next one.
In late August Steve joined a team of 8 including friend and paralysed adventure seeker Karen Darke, with the aim of trying to ride bikes up Kilimanjaro. The adventure was a massive undertaking for the diverse team which included, a mother and daughter from Thailand, a project manager from Scotland, a Danish women on her first big adventure, and the filming duo from Spiralout Pictures. Their film is out in January 2024, followed by a UK wide lecture tour named Wild Tracks.
Words by Steve Bate.
Images by Mike Webster and Sherrill Mason