Karen Darke successfully reaches the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro on her ICE Full Fat Handcycle
Congratulations to Karen Darke who is a British paralympic cyclist, para-triathlete, adventurer and author. She successfully hand-cycled to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania on her ICE Full Fat Trike that has been specially modified to be a handcycle. It’s not the usual cycling adventure request we get involved with, but it sounded amazing and a little crazy and if anyone can do it Karen can. It sounded an impossible challenge so of course we said yes!
After shipping the trike backwards and forwards across the UK, ICE made some special adjustments to her trike to give her the very best possible chance of success, by giving the trike more powerful upgraded brakes and super low gearing so she could cycle using her arms up incredibly steep mountain terrain.
In August Karen and her team of local expert guides and other cycle companions, successfully cycled to the summit of the African volcano which is around 5,895m above sea level over six days.
Karen says, "I want to message and say thanks. The ICE trike was incredible. Really. Like an elephant. Just tackling stuff and staying robust. Not one issue, nor a puncture. It was carried on a few heads at times, but I was amazed at its capabilities".
Karen explains how the challenge went in her own words.
At four in the morning it was a late start for climbing, but a deliberate decision. It would pay us more daylight to navigate boulders and scree on the bikes and give better vision for my team-mate Steve whose is almost blind in the dark.
How such a diverse team came to be together climbing Africa’s highest mountain is somewhat of a mystery, but I always enjoy the magic of varied teams. Our group on Kilimanjaro brought this to a new extreme though: from 12 years old to 55, vision and mobility challenges, fitness ranging from hyper-trained Paralympian to dog-walker. Our back stories were so richly varied it was hard to imagine how we had landed there together, along with the fat ICE trike: a machine significant enough in size and personality to count as another team member.
Climbing Kilimanjaro had never seriously been on my radar. After all, how would I? Climbing mountains was something I did before becoming paralysed from the chest down, and only a rock-climb of the overhanging wall of El Capitan had created seeds of possibility about reaching mountain summits again. That said, Kilimanjaro has somehow circled around me for decades. The volcanic slopes of the world’s largest free-standing mountain inevitably caught my eye when I had once-before visited Tanzania, and soon after that I had a ride on a handbike with giant fat-wheels of an American paraplegic who had made an attempt up Kilimanjaro. He had reached Gilman’s Point, the first of three official summit. Following that I heard of the first paraplegic to summit Mt Kilimanjaro unassisted, also on a handbike, and more recently I became the last minute stand-in for Martin Hibbert, whose British team were training on Scotland’s West Highland Way. In 2022 Martin, paralysed in the Manchester arena bombing, summitted Kilimanjaro in a special wheelchair.
With this handful of information along with the knowledge that the Crane brothers cycled up Kilimanjaro in 1985 and that others have since, I could be forgiven for anticipating that there is a relatively rideable route up the mountain. If I had delved deeper in my research and read a Cycling UK forum comment before attempting to hand-cycle up Kilimanjaro, I may have focused on the word ‘carry’ and reconsidered: “Saracen sponsored Nick (yes him off the telly) and Dick Crane to ride (more like carry) some Saracen MTBs up Kilimanjaro in the ‘80’s...”
So what shifted my mind and made hand-cycling up Kili a ‘thing’?
Africa has always intimated me. Maybe it’s the wild, human-eating animals, the chances of malaria or other rare virus, as it is surely not about African people whose wide smiles and spirit for life tend to imbue me with a good feeling. But after being a stand-in for the Martin’s Mountain team, the interest of a few Scottish friends who independently expressed their desire to climb Kili, and the invite to Kenya for a charity cycle safari organised by a friend, there were enough collective reasons to spark the idea.
Despite flights being booked into Nairobi and logistics organised for Kili, I found myself still using non-positive language, which isn’t typically my way. When people asked me what we were doing, I said “attempting to climb Kilimanjaro on a handbike” and noticed the waiver behind my words. Was it lack of belief that we could? Or a measured respect for a mountain that is high enough to induce cerebral and pulmonary oedema, something I long ago experienced in the Andes. I became unconscious and had to be flown out in a missionary plane into the jungle? Perhaps an acknowledgement that it would not be easy and certainly no outcome was guaranteed? Any mountain brings uncertainty, and in this case I would be very dependent on my equipment, an ICE trike with a handbike adaptation that would need to be reliable for me to stand a chance of reaching the summit.
In our naivety, altitude and mountain sickness seemed the biggest obstacles to a successful climb, so we planned a longer ascent. We would take the Rongai route, the only route on the northern side of the mountain with the added appeal of being rarely visited by hikers. We would descend in just a day via the Marangu or ‘Coca Cola’ route, named for its popularity. I liked the idea of avoiding too many people. Part of the appeal of mountains is that connection to nature and peace, to rising up above the hustle and bustle of life, finding perspective and space. That said, with our team of 8 requiring 36 porters by the National Park rules, I would discover that our climb was all about people and connections, and less about the typical appeals of wild places.
Rongai ‘gate’, our starting point, is in the middle of rainforest. Lush trees, waterfalls and streams eased us upwards towards harsher environments, and I was generally surprised at the rideability of the trail and the capabilities of the trike. Other than a narrow flight of steps calling for a piggyback, it was a relatively easy ride and hike in. Camp 1 at Simba took us into moorland vegetation, the next of five biodiversity zones we would encounter. Our rather large African team greeted us with the ‘Jambo’ song, a kind of Kilimanjaro tradition. As the week progressed and I received Swahili lessons, I came to understand it as a Kili-focused positive version of Ilkley Moor-Ba-Tat. All was well, other than our missing team-mate Steve whose fatbike was still in an airport terminal in Manchester. With tunnel vision and a passion for riding, my Paralympic ex-team mate was alone at the mountain base trying to figure out if and when his bike might arrive and what to do if not.
The journey to Camp 2 at Kikilewa was a tougher matter. Within minutes of leaving the camp, the trail disintegrated. The size of the boulders and the crevices and crannies to negotiate through required my new friends to be strong both in mind and body. Musa, Amadeu, Lucas and Joel, two at the front and two at the back, were a steadfast team who helped me though, and whilst I consistently pedalled, I would not have negotiated the terrain alone. I was astounded though at what my trike could do. With spectacularly big clearance compared to other handbikes, and three Schwalbe Jumbo Jim fat tyres, it felt as graceful and great as the elephants we had observed the previous week. We arrived at camp early, abiding to the mountain motto of “pole, pole”. It means “slowly, slowly”, an antidote to altitude gain.
An afternoon of resting and adaptation to the thinner air after gaining 5000ft in two days, we were happy to be joined by Steve. He had sourced a local mountain bike and combined two days into one to catch us up.
The summit bid...
Aggressive scree leads from the pre-summit camp at Kibo, 4720m, to the crater rim. Despite the focus of the summit and the focus within the team around me, I called a pause to take in the sunrise. Mawenzi peak to the east is jagged and dramatic, a ridge on steroids, a black shadow against a pink and orange dawn. I breathed in the sight, the height, the beauty of the inversion, clouds far below coating the East African plains, and I imagined the power of the elephants and the ferocity of the lions far below, powering us onwards and up.
Closer to the top, the scree steepened, the slope finally too vertical to hold the rocks and volcanic rubble. As I looked up, I waivered in my strength of mind. “How?” It seemed impossible to navigate unassisted. Broken chunks and slabs of rock demanded clinging and clambering, way beyond the capability of wheels. I watched Steve pass me, his bike in carry mode, and wondered whether it was time to call my own attempt off. But the incredible team of guides and porters with me were determined. When my belief waivered their focus strengthened. We rotated piggy-backs, from tall Masai Lucas to shorter Chaga-tribe Joel. As I gripped tight I felt their bones, their strength and was assured by their sure-footedness. The team suggested a stint trying out a fabric stretcher to move me gradually through the ‘impossible’ section, but it was so steep that I kept sliding out so we resorted back to piggy-back for the section to Gillman’s Point and partway along the ridge towards the second official summit at Stella. From there, I was reunited with the comfort of the ICE trike. It felt luxurious compared to backs and the rideability of the ridge to the main summit at 3895 m (19,340 feet) was a pleasant surprise.
My friend Kevin caught up just before the crater rim and slowed to ‘hike’ the summit ridge with me. We found Steve at the summit cairn, nauseous and trying not to churn. I had always envisaged our team of eight together. It felt disappointing to be there without a full team. We had news via radio at various points that three had individually turned back due to the effects of altitude. There were hugs and a few tears, but the depth of emotion about being on the ‘Roof of Africa’ didn’t strike me until later.
Amazing achievement Karen and good luck with whatever mission possible you have planned next, from all of us here at ICE Trikes.
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