Endurance mountain biker and adventure racer Rebecca Rusch of Ketchum has put her body through some exhausting, painful experiences before.
Still, she didn’t know quite what to expect as she prepared for yet another unique journey this month. Rusch and friend Patrick Sweeney are climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa with their mountain bikes, then riding down. The trip is a fund-raiser for World Bicycle Relief, which provides bicycles to people in Africa.
Rusch, 47, and Sweeney began their climb Sunday. I spoke to Rusch before she left. Below is the bulk of our Q&A.
The goal is to raise $19,341 — one dollar for every foot of elevation at Kilimanjaro’s summit. That’s enough for about 130 bikes.
Q: You’ve done a lot of extreme things. What’s the biggest challenge with this trip?
A: “It will definitely be the highest elevation I’ve ever been to, and carrying my bike up to 19,000 feet is something I’ve never done before. That’s a lot of different challenges. I need the lightest-weight bike I can put together but also the descent is going to be fairly technical. I need the best of both worlds — a bike that’s really legit, but light. I’ve been planning, tweaking the equipment. But that’s pretty exciting.”
Q: Have you been to Africa?
A: “I’ve been to Africa, but not that part. Never right in the middle, never to Kenya and Tanzania. It’s a new stamp in my passport.”
Q: What’s the route like?
A: “We start in Tanzania ... at about 6,000 feet. Six thousand to 19,000, it’s a huge jump in elevation. Even though Kilimanjaro, it’s not a technical mountain at all, a lot of people get sick. The success rate for summiting is only about 66 percent because the jump in elevation is so fast. People get in trouble with altitude sickness. That’s a big consideration — slowing ourselves down.”
Q: How long will the hike take?
A: “We’re planning four to five days. We can stay over if we need to wait at a hut an extra day. It’s one and a half or two days down.”
Q: Is it just the two of you?
A: “It’s the two of us doing the riding. The way that Kilimanjaro works, you’re required to have a guide and a porter. Those are part of the deal of getting a permit for that mountain. We’ll each have a porter. I’m under the mindset that I for sure want to carry my bike and my own personal gear myself if I can do it. The porters will be there supporting with food and things like that. A couple of film crew will be coming to document the trip.”
Q: Where do you camp?
A: “We’re going to try to take advantage of the hut system because that means we don’t have to take tents. Two huts, we have reserved spots. But like any expedition, we’re relying on the huts but if we don’t make it to a certain elevation, we’ll be sleeping out in a sleeping bag.”
Q: What will the weather be like?
A: “We’ll go through a bunch of ecosystems. We’ll start in the jungle, hot and lush and humid. We’ll end up in super-high alpine terrain. There could be snow up there and it could be quite cold. We’re going to go probably from about 80 to well below freezing. The packing is going to be a little challenging, too.”
Q: Will you be able to ride up the mountain at all?
A: “Bikes are generally not allowed up there. This is only the third time they’ve issued a bike permit. It’s a walking trail. From what I know, we’ll be able to ride a little bit on the way up. As we get toward the top and it gets steeper and rockier, that’s where we’re pushing and carrying. And then on the descent, obviously gravity is in your favor. I’m sure we’ll be on and off the bikes but we’re going to try to ride most of the way.”
Q: What is the distance of the trail?
A: “About 35 kilometers (21.7 miles). It’s not that far but you’re going up in elevation so quickly that the hardest part for the guides is to actually slow the athletes down.”
Q: You did some specialized training for this trip. What did you do?
A: “I was at the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs with my coach. They have a whole altitude chamber — a giant room with treadmills in there. You can essentially set it at any altitude you want. (My coach) and I simulated what I was going to be doing the last few days. He studied the elevation, the route profile, the percent grade, the humidity, and put the treadmill at 10 percent grade. I walked with a 40-pound weight vest. Over three days we went from 9,000 feet up to 17,500 feet in elevation to really see how my body responded, and for me to get the sensations for how slowly I need to go to stay within a zone that was sustainable. It was really fun, really nerdy science stuff.”
Q: How did it feel?
A: “It felt hard. I did OK, though. I bounced back, I rebounded, I didn’t get a headache. I was hydrating. Obviously we went 1,500 feet lower than we will be over there. Then you’re going to add in two days travel to get there, being in another country. I’m not overly confident that, ‘Yeah, I did OK on the treadmill.’ I know it’s harder in real life, but it was a really good practice run. Your brain and your body start to stop working, your reflexes are definitely diminished, your brain function is a little slower than it would be when you’ve got more oxygen. It definitely made me think about riding down. It’s going to be really challenging in the technical terrain to make the right decisions. Crashing and falling off your bike in that type of environment isn’t something that will bode well for the expedition. Mountaineers always say that you’ve got to get back down, too.”
Q: What’s the highest elevation you’ve been to?
A: “I’ve been around 18,000 feet, adventure racing in Nepal. In the race atmosphere, I didn’t do so well up at that elevation. We were running, going way too fast. This will be a much more leisurely pace, taking photos and really enjoying the experience.”
Q: Are you nervous? Excited?
A: “All of that. That’s a sign of a good adventure, when I’m kind of nervous, I’m thinking about my gear, I don’t really know what’s going to happen. That means I’ve chosen a cool thing to go do.”
For more on Rusch, you can read her autobiography: “Rusch to Glory.”