Climbing Kilimanjaro: By Bike
Adventurer Patrick Sweeney and pro mountain biker Rebecca Rusch climb Africa’s Mount Kilimanjaro through a self-supported mountain bike expedition that raises money for charity.
On their fourth day on the mountain, adventurer Patrick Sweeney and pro mountain bike rider Rebecca Rusch crested the summit of 19,341-foot Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak. But unlike most of the climbers who’d come before them, these two stood not on foot, but atop mountain bikes, which they’d ridden or hauled all the way to the peak’s pinnacle.
“Once we got to the top, we were oxygen starved and sleep deprived, so the sensation is almost like you’re dreaming,” says Sweeney, 48. “We were in a bit of a fog and the porters and guides started singing these Swahili songs. It was very surreal.”
Sweeney and Rusch were not the first to climb Kilimanjaro on mountain bikes—two British cousins, Dick and Nick Crane, attempted a similar mission in 1985—but Sweeney and Rusch rode 70 percent of the way uphill and completed their expedition entirely self-supported, carrying 40-to 50-pound backpacks full of camping gear, water, food, and other necessities.
Sweeney is on a mission to mountain bike as far as he can up the highest peaks on all seven continents. So far, he’s become the first person to ride his mountain bike to Everest base camp, a mission that took over a year just to get proper permits, and he tackled Kilimanjaro this past February.
“A friend gave me the idea of biking to Everest base camp and that was exciting, but then I thought, there are seven other summits in spectacular locations that could all be opened up and experienced by mountain bikes. Why not do all seven of them?” Sweeney says.
He spent six months getting permits from the Tanzanian authorities to allow him and Rusch—who he invited along for the expedition—to bike up Kilimanjaro. Doing it self-supported—without help from porters schlepping their gear—was hugely important to Sweeney.
“It goes back to my mountaineering roots. I get more personal satisfaction out of doing the work that original explorers and adventurers did,” he says. “It was a pure alpine experience back then and I wanted to honor that. There are easy ways to do things, but I take more satisfaction from doing it the right way.”
Sweeney hopes to raise money for charities on each of his seven summit attempts, and for Kilimanjaro, Rusch suggested the organization World Bicycle Relief, which aims to mobilize people around the world by donating bicycles.
“It made the trip up to the summit of Kilimanjaro even more special because it was about much more than just my own personal summit,” says Rusch. “It was about the power of bicycles and how the bicycle can change lives.” Sweeney and Rusch’s goal? Raise a dollar for every 19,341 feet that Kilimanjaro stands in the sky. So far, they’re at about $12,500 (you can donate here to help them reach their objective).
Raising money was just the first hurdle. The two also had to get their bikes up a mountain so steep in spots, it felt like they were moving backward. Plus, there was the lung-crushing altitude. “The altitude was the ever present challenge sitting on your shoulder,” says Rusch, 47. “I’d done some preparation ahead of time, but it’s still not like the real thing until you get there.”
Sweeney dealt with mechanical failures on the ascent, including ripped sidewalls on his tires. And once they finally reached the summit after four days of continuous climbing and slowly acclimatizing, they had to ride back down the mountain, an extremely dangerous task due to loose, rocky terrain and trails not built for biking. Sweeney has described it as “riding down a bobsled track filled with ball bearings and razor blades.” Both riders took multiple high-speed spills on the descent and Rush dislocated her thumb on one crash.
But Sweeney says it was all worth it for the chance to experience Kilimanjaro from the seat of his bicycle, something, he likes to point out, that fewer people have done than walk on the moon. They rode through trees out of a Dr. Seuss book, rugged tundra, wild rock formations, and chunks of icy glaciers along the crater ridge.
“We went through five different climatic zones—we started in a rainforest and finished in a high alpine environment,” he says. “We couldn’t carry that much gear with us, so what we brought had to be really flexible and responsive.”
Sweeney wore a pair of Salewa Alp Flow Mid GORE-TEX® SURROUND® Boots with GORE-TEX® SURROUND® product technology to keep his feet dry and blister-free. (With so much hiking through variable conditions, it didn’t make sense to wear bike shoes.) For outerwear, he donned an Arc’Teryx jacket and Patagonia pants, both with GORE-TEX® fabrics. “The jacket and pants did a nice job keeping me ventilated and also keeping the rain off,” he says.
This is hardly Sweeney’s first foray into skyscraping activities. He started rock climbing and mountaineering while in high school in New Hampshire, but rowing was his main sport. He became an alternate rower at the 1996 Olympic Games, and after the Olympics, he decided to go to business school.
He went on to launch three multi-million-dollar tech companies in California’s Bay Area, working 70 to 80 hour weeks for years on end. Then about 10 years ago, he was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia. His wife was pregnant with their second child at the time.
He beat the cancer against all odds and when he walked out of the hospital, he had an awakening. “That’s when I decided to change my life and get out of the race I was in to make more money and build bigger companies,” Sweeney says. “I wanted to spend more time with my family and I wanted to start doing adventures.”
Sweeney now works as an adventure TV personality and professional outdoorsman. He and his wife have three kids and they split his time between Chamonix, France, and Boston, Massachusetts. “Now, I live the most amazing life anyone can live,” he says.