How do you prepare for climbing Kilimanjaro? Bit of advice: don’t do what I did by roaming the streets of Tokyo convinced it was as good a preparation as any for our hiking expedition.
Honestly, I tried my best by running up escalators and ignoring lifts, becoming the guy everybody hates. Two steps at a time at least. Sometimes getting carried away with myself, as I hummed “Eye of the Tiger” and did the Rocky dance at the top.
But when I stood at the foot of the world’s highest free-standing mountain, I knew I was in for a hard time – Monte Serra, eat dust.
By the way, what do they mean by free-standing? A serious case of "little mountain syndrome"? Or are all other mountains supported by scaffolding or held together by string? I hope not...
Anyway, back to the job in hand.
I had been warned that being an elite cyclist didn’t necessarily mean that I would be better suited to reaching the summit compared to the guy next door. I found this a bit hard to accept, especially as my neighbour has difficulty getting out of his car before even contemplating the climb to his first floor apartment. Nonetheless, I made a serious effort of cancelling out any physical advantages I may have had. Whole grains had been replaced by saturated fats and water with, let’s be honest, alcoholic beverages. After all, the season had just ended, had it not?
Climbing Kilimanjaro was similar to this year’s Stelvio stage in the Giro. A huge slab of rock that I was unable to go around but instead had to attack. Therefore, I tackled both in exactly the same way: head on – refusing to acknowledge the existence of both mountains until the very last moment and, when finally confronted with their presence, trying to embrace them. If either of these mountains were a person, I would shake his hand with a brick to the face.
As I don’t come from a "let's go camping" kind of family, everything involved with camping is a foreign language to me. Pitching a tent meant something completely different in my vocabulary, and certainly not something I wanted to do in front of my team-mates on the side of a mountain.
Luckily I had my trusted Sherpa with me at all times. My Sherpa is neither on Facebook, nor familiar with Rouleur (sorry guys), so he’ll never read this. This guy fitted the perfect description of a domestique. Never have I seen such an incredible willingness to sacrifice oneself, nor the ability to carry enormous loads of baggage up a mountain, balanced on his head! I may carry a few bottles up through the peloton for my team-mates, but this guy was in a different league.
He made climbing Kilimanjaro look like a leisurely stroll in the park. My investment in hiking gear felt rather OTT compared to what this guy came equipped with. Whatever the weather conditions, my tent was set up in a matter of minutes. It felt similar to when we arrive at our hotel after a Giro stage. My bags had already been brought to the tent and dinner was being prepared. The only thing missing was the obligatory massage.
My Sherpa turned out to be an excellent cook. As I have mentioned in previous blogs, the quality of food throughout a season can vary drastically depending on where we are staying. The meals we were spoilt with twice a day exceeded anything I’ve tasted whilst racing in France. We were even treated to omelettes.
I can hardly get away with making an omelette in the comfort of my own home. Either the eggs break before I leave the supermarket, or my efforts closer resemble scrambled. This guy did much better. Even the eggs were carried on his head.
I am told the life of a hiker involves a certain amount of compromise, especially when it comes to personal hygiene. I slowly got used to my daily baby wipe shower and enjoyed not having to worry about dirty nails. I thought a Movember moustache had materialised, only to discover, on my return, that it was nothing but a strip of dirt. There’s always next year.
The higher we climbed, the more challenged I became. Waking up in the middle of the night with an urge to pee is always annoying. But when you’re cocooned in a cosy sleeping bag on the side of a mountain, the prospect of wetting yourself there and then becomes a tempting option.
Some of my team-mates took to the hike as if it was nothing but a walk to the shops. Peter Sagan, for instance, displayed his strength on numerous occasions. At one point I went to hand him his rucksack. It was heavy, real heavy, and Sagan carried his entire baggage load himself, unlike us mere mortals who relied on the Sherpas. He even carried a team-mate suffering from altitude sickness partially down the mountain over his shoulder. Pure class.
The final summit push remains a complete blur. Ascending from 4600m to 5900m was similar to when I zigzag my way home from a night involving one too many pints. The lack of oxygen has a peculiar effect on the body. Each step was a struggle. Any bike rider is familiar with the feeling that interval seconds are longer than normal seconds. Kilimanjaro seconds are longer than interval seconds.
Having said that, the feeling of success when standing on the top with my fellow team-mates, who had helped one another overcome numerous crises en route, more than made up for all the trouble getting there. Enjoying the sunrise at 5900m above sea level is an overwhelming experience, especially considering that the first three days were spent wandering around in thick fog. Conspiracy theories equivalent to those from the moon landing would have flourished on the internet if we’d returned with pictures based on the first few days. Thankfully, this is not the case.
Our summit attempt as a team and our will to succeed only proves the calibre of this team.
My everlasting experience has to be the sight of 30 bike riders in hiking boots on the summit barely able to stand – unlike Kilimanjaro, which remained free-standing all the way up and down.