Text: Cédric Tassan
Photos: Gaetan Riou – Variable Visual
Mostly overlooked by the trekkers, who prefer climbing Kilimanjaro, Mount Kenya is nonetheless the second highest peak in Africa. One of the last places where you can find a glacier in Africa. It exacted a powerful pull on MET ambassador and adventurer, Cedric Tassan.
The challenge of this trip was not only in the organization, but also to be able to ride at such high altitude. The summit stands at 5,199m and you can only reach it if you are an alpinist. If you are trekking, you can still climb to 4,985m, an altitude where the body suffers in paroxysms, and may cease to function altogether. Can Cedric and his friends make it to the top?
Mount Kenya is a natural park you can’t cross without an official guide. The first step was to find the right person for this adventure. After looking in different forums, I was lucky enough to find Michaël’s phone number. We get along well straight away. Michaël knows this mountain perfectly; he went there more than 450 times. However, he never went with bikes. Next, I contacted my friend Hans Rey who went there many times. He’s even the first to have reached the summit with an MTB, back in 2004. I’m starting to plan a route, and choose to cross the mountain from north to south. This is the longest, most gradual route – reducing the impact of the altitude gained over the days.
As Mount Kenya is an old volcano, it’s impossible to acclimate ourselves to the lack of oxygen: straight from the first night, the camp is at 3,350m high. The body can react really badly to this brutal climb in altitude. We call that ‘mountain sickness’ and it can be as bad as a cerebral edema. The person needs to be evacuated really quickly, as it can be deadly. Danny McAskill experienced the danger of this phenomena firsthand in 2016 when he was evacuated by helicopter at 4,200m. Serious stuff.
Along for the adventure are three of my friends: JP, Arnaud and Gilou. We have done trips together for years, but never at this kind of altitude.
We land in Nairobi. It took a really long time to exit the airport and when we got to the van we had to play Tetris to fit everything in. It’s a whole expedition in itself. We will spend six days in the mountains, totally self-reliant. We need to carry all the gear and food needed. In addition to our guide Michaël, we have eight sherpas and one cook from the Kikuyu tribe. We start the day at 2pm, 18km and 1200m of gravel and asphalted roads ahead. This night, at the bivouac, I’m checking the oxygen saturation levels of the whole team. For now, all good, we can keep going.
The next day, after a good breakfast we start climbing. I managed to ride a big part before the climb became too steep and my respiration too hard. I decided to push the bike. We finally arrive at a high point, where we can see the beautiful Tiki North valley where we will spend the night. After a technical downhill we arrive at the tents. We took time to take pictures and videos and our sherpas went ahead of us. We’ve asked Michaël to have dinner all together. We love spending time with our Kenyan friends. We eat local specialties and we end up all around the fire trying to learn some bits of Swahili. We know well that without this crew, this adventure would be just impossible.
As we are still sleeping, we hear some movement and terrible noise close to the camp. During breakfast, Michaël explains to us it was some hyenas. I will discover some 20 metres further away, more footprints: a leopard went drinking in the river last night. What a neighborhood!
We start a new day in Africa and after less than 20m on the bike, I had to carry it on my shoulders. We are climbing in a typical landscape, with giant senecio plants dotted around us.
We reach a col where we discover the famous Mackinder valley and the Sirimon trail. The downhill is impossible and really tricky. It soon starts to rain. We finally reach our camp for the day, Shipton hut, at 4,250m. We are right in front of the north face of Mount Kenya. It’s freezing and we can only occasionally glimpse the impressive summit among the clouds. During dinner, we check our oxygen saturation. It’s getting serious for JP, with a saturation around 70%. Danger will be high this evening, and despite taking aspirin, the headache is not leaving him alone. I’m sharing the tent with him and I’m checking him many times during the night.
Night was calm, but at 4am when I took JP’s oxygen saturation and it’s at 64%. That’s getting worse and he’s taking the decision to go back in the valley after breakfast. In three hours, he will be lower down and safe.
On our side we will ride around Mount Kenya. The landscape is gorgeous, up there at 4,560m. The north face is impressive. On the other side, we need to go downhill through a face full of rock. Amazing portion of trail surfing. We will go along two magnificent lakes to start climbing again. When we get close to Teleki Valley, the clouds disappear and we see another impressive face of the mountain. A small portion of glacier is there, trying to resist the onslaught of global warming. We will go down and climb again to our highest camp at 4,780m. I’m exhausted. Austria Hut is the highest camp on Mount Kenya, we are close to the Peak Lenana, our goal. The two main summits, Batian and Lenion, seem utterly inaccessible, protected by shields made of rock.
When we start the next morning, the ridge becomes steep and full of snow and ice. Some cables are placed alongside to help, but with the bike on the back it’s not an easy task. In one of the critical points, Arnaud almost falls down while slipping behind. I grab the bike in time and he can finally find a better stance. We finish the climbing by a wooden ladder. It’s symbolically the highest Via Ferrata of the world. We reach Lenana Peak, at 4985m. Happy but also thinking of JP, who would have loved being there too. Our Kenyan friends are there and we are taking pictures and congratulating each other.
Time to go back down. The first 100m can’t be ridden as it’s way too steep. The snow doesn’t help either. At the bottom of the face, we can finally ride our bikes. The downhill is really technical and we have to play to find some grip. At this altitude, this requires a lot of energy. Finally, we reach Mintos Hut after a last climb. It’s our last bivouac of the trip, at 4,200m. It’s the most beautiful of the lot, as Mintos is composed of small lakes made from rain water. We are on the left side of Gorges Valley. Below runs a river that becomes cascades, to finally reach an immense lake. Virtually inaccessible, this valley feels as though it could be the place from which everything else on earth first sprang.
We continue our descent the next morning. We need to concentrate as the terrain is really rough. We have to step off the bike quite often. Finally, the trail becomes better but you can’t let your guard down. The Vulcan rocks are all obstacles waiting for your front wheel. Trajectories are multiple, better look far away to find the right one. After a last crest, we play with the bush to finally reach a river. We will continue by a 4x4 trail to exit the National Park. All the paperwork was done in advance by our guide, and we pass the guards without issues. We will arrive to Chogoria village after 25 km.
To end this sporting and personal adventure, Michaël organized a giant barbecue with all the crew. JP is here too, fully recovered after having lost 2,000m altitude. It’s the perfect way to end this first trip in Kenya. More so than the performance or the personal, it’s finally the discovery of another culture, the encounter and the exchange with the locals that defines a fulfilling travel experience. MET HelmetsBluegrassVTOPOSunnDT SwissJulboHutchinsonAuthentic Bicycle ShopSidiRoyal Velo FranceAlturaMulebarPowertecCamelbakTwonav