"Was it possible to ride a gravel bike to the 5000m summit of Africa’s second highest mountain, Mt Kenya?"
I had already been in Kenya for some time. I’d had one week of gravel riding with some European road professionals in the Masai Mara national park and then taken on a bike packing trip up to Iten, the home of many of the best runners in the world and the base for some of the Team Amani riders
"I still had a week left and was looking for one last adventure before heading home"
I still had a week left and was looking for one last adventure before heading home. There was the option to check out the beach. I heard it is beautiful but riding at 35 degrees and in high humidity did not sound that appealing. The adventure must be still elsewhere. Then the mighty Mount Kenya caught my eye on the map. With its 5200m of altitude, it is the second highest mountain in Africa behind Kilimanjaro and considered by most as the more beautiful one of the two.
I started to google whether it is possible to do it by bike. I found some articles about guys going up there on enduro mountain bikes. A Swiss guy is even offering MTB tours a few times a year and also the MTB icon Danny MacAskill tried it a few years ago, but had to return to the bottom because of altitude sickness. The conclusion was it must be possible, at least up to 5000m. The highest of the three summits of Mount Kenya is actually at 5200m, but is only do-able with proper rock climbing gear. Still up in the air, was whether a summit attempt made sense on a gravel bike and if it was possible to ride up to the summit and down in just one day, but the idea “give it a go” continued to grow in my mind.
"Of course, there is a limit to what a gravel bike can do"
I am definitely someone who enjoys exploring the limits of a gravel bike. If someone tells me it is just for mountain biking, I like to prove them wrong, but of course there is a limit to what a gravel bike can do as well when it comes to my technical skills. I would have considered doing it on an MTB, though as I had travelled to Kenya with just my gravel bike, it was simply my only option.
There was still the question of which route to the summit made most sense and which is roughly do-able on a bike or more specifically on a gravel bike. I found out that the Sirimon route is definitely possible to ride at least the first third of the climb and with some hike & bike one can get to the last hut at 4300m (Shipton’s Camp). I discovered it is absolutely impossible to ride any bike from Shipton’s camp up to the summit and to descend from there back to the hut is only doable in parts for very experienced mountain bikers.
I told my friend Jordan Schleck about my idea. He is one of the upcoming gravel stars of Team Amani. We had met for the first time two months earlier at the first Gravel Elite World Championships in Veneto and we clicked immediately. I knew he was the best dude I could find to do this adventure together. Strong, tough as a nut, technically skilled rider, easy to have a crack with and most importantly someone I could rely on. I was delighted to see he was up for the challenge.
"Hanifa definitely had the adventure mindset needed for this trip."
He then told me about a female rider he was coaching, who already tried to get up Mount Kenya on an MTB some time ago. Hanifa was a talented MTB rider who had finished second at the first Kenyan MTB championship and just a few weeks ago cycled with a strong headwind and a completely broken bottom bracket, non-stop on her own for more than 200km from Nairobi to the base of Mount Kenya. She definitely had the adventure mindset needed for this trip.
The three of us met up in Nairobi. We loaded the bikes and headed to the Sirimon gate. The next morning at 6am we were ready to tackle Mount Kenya. Some Zebras greeted us at the gate. It was 5 degrees and you already could feel the altitude as the base of the climb was at 2500m. The women at the counter were still sleeping. We had to wake them up to get access to the park. The ride started with a steep tarmac climb, which took us up to around 3200m.
"Suddenly, the terrain got unrideable and an hour of hike & bike awaited us"
Getting to Old Moses hut, I thought to myself whoa this is way easier than I thought and saw ourselves back before sunset. But then suddenly, the terrain got unrideable and an hour of hike & bike awaited us. Then some short ridable stretches, before it meant hiking again for most parts with the bikes heavily laying on our shoulders. No matter your level of fitness or skill, it was simply impossible to ride up and down these partly swampy moorlands. Shrubs and big rocks made it impossible for you to find any line.
"We advanced slowly and barely climbed more than 150 altitude meters per hour. "
At least the views got very impressive and reminded us why we started the ride in the first place. The clouds were hanging very low and we knew more ridable parts were coming later as the other two already climbed Mount Kenya some years ago by foot. We advanced slowly and barely climbed more than 150 altitude meters per hour. We knew we had just this day to make it happen. Most hikers or bikers do it in 4 days with acclimatisation. We had one day. Hanifa would have probably easily done it in 1.5 days, but as we just had 1 day, she realised it was too much to aim for the top for her today and she convinced us to continue on alone.
At 1:30pm the two of us finally reached the last hut at 4300m. I felt the altitude. A strong headache was causing me problems and simply put, I felt pretty empty. Some years ago, I cycled up Mauna Kea in Hawaii from 0 to 4200m non-stop. I thought I knew what it means to ride in altitude with limited acclimatisation, but this strong headache was something new for me. We rested for twenty minutes at the hut and decided it was too much to carry our bikes to the top and probably pointless to do so as the descent was not made for our bikes either. We left the bikes at the hut and continued on foot.
"I was feeling weak and probably would have scratched if I had been alone here."
I was feeling weak and probably would have scratched if I had been alone here. Jordan kept motivating me, he was still fully committed to make it to the top. At 4600m I had a moment of doubt that we wouldn’t make it. I felt dizzy and every step was extremely exhausting. Where did our strength suddenly go? We walked up in snow and at some parts we had to use our hands to make it up. Most times we walked slowly for less than 1 minute and then stopped for 2 minute to catch our breath. Towards the summit I started to feel surprisingly better and it was then Jordan who struggled more and more. I got worried for my friend, but he kept convincing me that he will make it to the top. The last 400m of climbing were probably the longest of our lives. It got to my head that the best runners can do 400m in 43 seconds. It took us 15 minutes and felt like an entire day.
The feeling to be finally on top was priceless. It was already 3pm and we knew we had a very long way to make it back to the place where we started. We had to hurry up. After 30 minutes of descending my knees began to get extremely painful. It was a huge relief to be back at the bike.
"It got dark, it was very cold, my knees were screaming with every step and we still had a long way to go"
We directly started the ride back into the valley. In the same second it heavily started to rain and my headache returned stronger than ever before. The first part of the descent was fun (even despite the strong headache). Small singletracks, water crossings, small drops, which were just doable on a gravel bike, but a hiking section was fast approaching. It got dark, it was very cold, my knees were screaming with every step and we still had a long way to go. It was sometimes tough to find the way in the dark and it definitely felt good to have someone by my side. A crash, a twisted ankle or running out of battery lights or of your navigation device could have been very costly here alone. It took us another 3-4 hours to make it back to the bottom. Hanifa was waiting outside the house for us. She got worried as it had been dark for some hours now. It was an immense relief to be back at our cottage. To be back around the warmth of a fire. To have some proper food. 14 hours after we started this trip.
The sore muscles from all the hiking, the pain in my knees and the scratches of all the bushes reminded me of the effort for another few days. I calculated we probably cycled for around 4 hours, hiked with the bike for around 6 hours, hiked without a bike for 3 hours and had in total a maximum of 30 minutes rest. Our muscles were still sore when we lined up at the Kenyan MTB champs a few days later, but it was a great feeling to have accomplished this challenge.
"It was a great feeling to have accomplished this challenge."
The question was if it was worth the effort? Yes, but probably just because of all the fun we had before and after the ascent.
Was the gravel bike the right bike for it? Probably not, but it also added something to the adventure.
Would I do it again? 100%, at least I would as long as I was with the same company.