And you thought *climbing* it was hard
Red Bull athlete Rebecca Rusch (AKA the "Queen of Pain") is one of the cycling world's premier adventurists, as well as a multiple mountain bike World Champion. But her latest adventure was less about her competition with other cyclists and more about survival: She partnered up with pro-adventurer and athlete Patrick Sweeny to raise funds for World Bicycle Relief—an Africa-based philanthropy that donates bikes to rural communities—to mountain bike 19,341-foot-tall Mount Kilimanjaro. And just in case climbing Africa's highest peak wasn't difficult enough, they did it while riding or carrying their bikes.
Sounds like the crazy, badass stuff that fitness dreams are made of, right? Watch the video above for all the inspiration you need to tackle a high peak (or just to go extra hard in spin class), and read below to get the full details about what it took to conquer Mt. Kilimanjaro on two feet and two wheels.
Shape: How did you end up on this expedition?
Rebecca Rusch: My friend, Patrick, already had this idea for the trip and didn't have a partner. He asked me a little late in the game, maybe five weeks out, which is not very long to plan an expedition trip to Africa. But for me, the question was more, "Why not?" I've done a lot of mountaineering, climbing, and adventure riding, and this really seemed to fit with 1) the evolution of my bike racing (which, right now, is wanting to do more adventures on my bike, longer rides, and traveling) and 2) I'd never been to Africa, and 3) a charity I work with, World Bicycle Relief, is in Africa, and I've been tryingto get over there to see their facilities. It was a huge challenge—I didn't know the trail, I didn't really know what the riding would be like, I didn't know how I'd perform at altitude—but some of the best adventures, I find, are the ones that have quite a lot of unknowns and aren't super predictable.
Shape: How did you prepare and train for the ride?
RR: With an expedition of this magnitude, there are tons of logistics. I had to customize my bike especially for this adventure because I had to carry it for part of the climb. Riding down was really technical, so equipment choice was really important. And since I was carrying most of my own gear, packing was huge—how to pack as light as possible but still have everything I need. So the logistical planning does consume a lot of energy. People are like "Are you excited to go to Africa?" and I'm like, "Not yet, because I'm not ready! I don't have my gear! I'm not packed!"
I did some really cool altitude preparation with my coach beforehand. I went to Colorado Springs to the Olympic Training Center because they have an altitude chamber there, a gigantic room where you can program the altitude. So I tried to simulate the three highest summit days. I would walk on a treadmill with a 40-pound backpack on—because we estimated that with my bike and my gear, my pack would be about 40 pounds—and I would go from 9,000 feet elevation to 13,500 feet elevation, from 12,500 feet up to 14,000 feet. We simulated to see how my body would adapt to the climb and how I would do, which was a really good learning experience—it's like trying to breathe through a straw at that kind of altitude. But it was good for me to experience the physical sensation of what it feels like to walk four hours with a bunch of weight on my back at 16,000 feet. With these things, there are so many uncontrollables, that I try to control the controllables like my gear and altitude preparation. I even slept in an altitude chamber at home, which my husband was not very happy about.
Shape: Wait, you slept in what?
RR: It's basically this little plastic bubble that you zip over your bed, and you can set it at whichever altitude you want to sleep at. And so I did a progression with that, starting at a lower altitude and increasing. The first couple of nights in the altitude tent I wasn't sleeping well. I was waking up a lot, with a really dry mouth. But towards the end, at home in the chamber, I was sleeping really well at 15,000 feet, and my body was getting more used to it. Then on the mountain I slept great. It's so important to be able to get rest when you're doing something that strenuous. For a lot of people, their reaction to altitude is that they can't sleep. And if you can't sleep on a multi-day expedition, you wake up each day more tired and more tired, and it's a cumulative effect. So I do think, whether it was placebo effect or a physiological adaptation or a little bit of both, that the altitude chamber works. If nothing else, it's peace of mind that, yeah, I can sleep at 15,000 feet, no problem.
Shape: What was the hardest part, physically, of the expedition?
RR: For sure, it was dealing with the elevation. The first camp that you sleep at is 12,500 feet and that's just the first day, which is pretty extreme for most people. That first day, the first day of riding, we went from about 6,000 feet to 12,500 feet. I was really worried after that day because it was much, much harder than I expected, just to be able to turn the pedals over at that altitude. We were going so slowly, just because you can't breathe and there's no power in your legs, and I'm thinking, "This is the lowest elevation we're going to be in, and I'm already struggling." I could barely move my bike—it was almost like we were just balancing and barely moving forward, just keeping the bike upright without tipping over. I kept thinking, ok, if we need to go 10 miles today and we're going one mile an hour... are you kidding me? Day one was really, really hard.
And the higher that you go, when you get above 16,000 feet, 17,000 feet, your body is slowly deteriorating and it's not going to recover once you get above those elevations. So it's like a ticking time bomb, being able to manage it and feel well enough to get up and down the mountain. I hadn't been to that kind of elevation before, so I didn't know how I was going to react. Even though I did all this great preparation in these simulated environments, it's not the same. You have the wind in your face and you're trying to eat, you're trying to drink, you're trying to manage your gear, you're trying to ride your bike.
Shape: How long did the trip end up taking you?
RR: We did four days up, and two days down. That's kind of an average time, maybe a little fast. The thing with Kilimanjaro is that, technically, it's one of the easiest of the Seven Summits [the highest peaks of the seven continents], but it has a really low summit rate. It's because it's not as technical like Everest, so people move too quickly and they go up too fast and their body can't acclimatize. So our guide was really adamant about going slow. It was really important to me that this wasn't about breaking any sort of record; I just really wanted to get to the top with my bike and ride down.
And on the way down we could have gone down really quickly—it was super fun riding down. But we decided to camp for the night and stay over in one of the huts and take some pictures and chat with people. So we took our time coming down too. The hut system up there has this international flavor. There are people from all over the world who are sharing this community hut system, and some people are going up, some are coming down, and I really enjoyed talking to people about their experience. And of course we were the only ones with bikes, so we'd come into the camp, and people were just like "No, way! Did you take your bike? Wait, you rode it down?" So that was pretty cool. Even like the guides who worked there all their life had never seen that before. They couldn't believe it. Only three parties have done it before.
Shape: What was the hardest part mentally?
RR: I was pretty tentative and conservative until the last summit day when the sun came up and we were at about 18,000 feet. That was the first time in the whole journey that I knew we were going to make it. I didn't necessarily let my guard down, but I finally felt confident that we were going to make it to the top because we'd done all the hard stuff, we just had to take our time and get up there. I don't know if I'm a pessimist or a realist, but I definitely don't like to celebrate an achievement until I'm pretty sure it's going to happen. We didn't have a lot of spare parts for out bikes, lots of people were getting altitude sickness, and we saw a lot of people being escorted down by porters and guides. So there was this feeling of like, oh, gosh, there are people that aren't making it, and we need to be really careful.
Shape: What other scary issues did you have?
RR: One crew member got a cold, and he ended up giving it to me, which doesn't seem like a big deal but it could've been a dealbreaker for sure. It's hard enough to breathe anyway, and to breathe through a stuffy nose is even worse. So that was a little wrench that was thrown in our side. On an expedition like this, if you start to think you have a blister, you might think, oh, it's just a blister, it's not a big deal. But if you don't take care of that rub in your shoe, it could become a deep blister and then you can't walk anymore and something that was so small in the beginning can actually end your trip if you don't take care of it.
Dealing with altitude was definitely the major thing looming over my psyche the whole time. That changed when we got to the top because, physically, I knew we were just going to go lower and lower and feel better and better. But then I was tired, I had a heavy backpack on, and at that elevation, all your brain cells aren't functioning the same way, so your reaction time is slower. So even if there was a stretch I might normally fly down on my bicycle, when you take into account all those other factors in, I had to be careful. I had a couple of crashes. I thought I broke a couple of fingers, but I ended up just kind of jamming them; there was a little blood. But we made it down in one piece!
Shape: What kept you going, even through the toughest part?
RR: I'm a super goal-oriented person. It's why I like to race, why I like to sign up for an adventure like that, and a summit or a peak is the ultimate goal. You either get to the top or not. I was also wearing a GPS tracking device so I knew my friends at home and my mom was watching me climb. And we were fundraising for World Bicycle Relief and I knew they were watching. We were trying to raise a dollar for every foot that we climbed. So it became bigger than just me. Of course, I wanted to be at the top and I wanted to see the summit. I wanted to see what it would look like and what it would feel like to ride my bike down, but I also knew all these people were cheering for us and watching us and that pushed me forward too.
Shape: How did it feel to reach the summit?
RR: I actually got a little choked up when we saw the summit ridge. It was emotional! The coolest thing was that our guide and a couple of the supporters, they started singing African songs when we got to the top, and it was like a wonderful movie soundtrack. I couldn't help but just jump up and down and sing with them. It was just really celebratory and festive. And after that hard of a climb with your bike, especially that last part where you're carrying your bike on your back, to get to turn around and coast down... It was the best ride of my life. It was really, really special.