Chasing the sunrise, MacAskill ascends the last stretch of the climb to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. Martin Bissig Photo.
Digging their feet into freshly fallen snow, mountain bikers Danny MacAskill, Hans Rey, and Gerhard Czerner trudged upwards on the trail before them. As they tirelessly moved, the sun began to rise, illuminating the caldera of Mount Kilimanjaro as they climbed.
When they finally neared the 19,341-foot summit they were still carrying mountain bikes on their shoulders. Ten days prior, those same bikes had taken them to the 17,057-foot summit of Mount Kenya.
That was their warm up.
Now, as they finished that last leg of their journey, they had their sights set on “Africa’s Roof”—a Mount Everest of sorts of mountain biking. While there are higher mountains to be traversed by bike, Kilimanjaro stands in a class of its own: unlike the others, it’s rideable nearly from top to bottom.
This is a notion that has long enticed mountain biking pioneer and explorer Hans Rey. Unable to even attempt Kilimanjaro via bike due to strict permit regulations, Rey instead directed his attention to Mount Kenya—Africa’s second tallest mountain. In 2004, he completed the first mountain bike ascent and descent of the peak, yet the desire to ride Kilimanjaro never escaped him.
“I had circumnavigated the mountain, but had never been able to climb it. I’ve always thought it would be a unique experience,” Rey said.
Rey and Czerner carry their bikes as they finish the last leg of Mount Kenya. Kenya proved to be a formidable challenge with the combination of technical riding and high altitude. Martin Bissig Photo.
When the mountain finally opened its trails to bikers in 2016, Rey was contacted by fellow mountain biker and guide Gerhard Czerner to do an expedition. “Kilimanjaro was a dream to cycle,” said Czerner who has ridden mountains like Djebel Toubkal in Morocco and Mount Olympus in Greece.
Meanwhile, as the trip was coming to fruition, Rey was already collaborating with Derek Westerlund, the founder and executive producer of Freeride Entertainment. Intent on producing content together, the expedition provided a unique opportunity for footage. To entice Westerlund even more, Rey suggested bringing mountain biking phenom Danny MacAskill along for the adventure.
“Danny and I have known each other for a long time.There are many parallels with our careers in mountain biking.” Rey explained to us. “What I did in the world of VHS, Danny did through Youtube—so I’ve been wanting to do something with him for a long time.”
MacAskill takes in the view of Kilimanjaro’s crater rim. Before summiting that day, the entire team unexpectedly woke to a fresh layer of snow. Martin Bissig Photo.
So, Westerlund gathered a small but seasoned crew: Director Aaron Whitley, Director of Photography Alex “Axl” Fostvedt, photographer Martin Bissig, and soundman Greg Picard to document the expedition as seen in Freeride’s short film, Kilimanjaro: Mountain of Greatness. Producing the film was a gargantuan adventure. By the end of the expedition, the entire team had covered 40,000 feet of elevation and nearly 100 miles. Through this effort, they ultimately achieved the first back-to-back ascent of Africa’s two tallest summits by mountain bike.
Preparing for Kilimanjaro
Long before Kilimanjaro, Whitley, Fostvedt, and Picard were well-acquainted through a variety of projects with Freeride Entertainment. The Seattle-based production company has been a force within the action sports industry for the past 20 years.
Their previous camaraderie prepared them well for a project of this magnitude.
“We were each other's support and we leaned on each other a lot,” said Whitley. This teamwork was pivotal, considering that the production crew would be challenged both physically and mentally by riding alongside the athletes.
“In many respects, those guys were more tenacious than we are, you know? They’re doing what we’re doing but with all their camera equipment,” Rey explained looking back at the work ethic of the production team. “When we got to rest, those guys had to keep working—they were tougher than nails.” That tenacity was pivotal. Summiting one of the world’s tallest mountains is one thing, but when you add mountain biking to the equation—that quadruples the effort needed.
Using any opportunity they could to collect footage, the crew grabs interview with MacAskill before starting the second leg of the expedition. Martin Bissig Photo.
Prep meant riding their bikes, a lot.
Picard knew he’d be going well ahead of the others, so he biked nonstop. Whereas Whitley and Fostvedt had a smaller window to prepare. “I was in Utah filming Red Bull Rampage, and then we left for Africa about a week after,” said Whitley. “It wasn’t a lot of time to get prepared. I knew I was on this trip, but I didn’t become the director until a couple weeks before.”
Likewise, Fostvedt knew about two or three weeks ahead of the fly out date that he was going. Used to the spontaneity of the action sports industry, Fostvedt wasn’t concerned—especially having previously filmed at altitude in the Himalayas. "Axl is a cockroach, you could never kill him," Whitley laughed regarding the cameraman’s tenacity. The running joke is that Fostvedt set his beer down, got off the couch, and went to Africa.
Their ability to draw from their previous film experiences was perhaps their greatest aid. Whitley, for example, had already bike toured Mont Blanc and the rafted the Tatshenshini River for Freeride. Instances like these taught him how to think on his feet and adapt.
MacAskill displays to the crowd his world renowned trials skills. Rey explained to us that this style of riding is also useful for climbing mountains like Kilimanjaro. Martin Bissig Photo.
But more than just the physical skill it demands, a film expedition’s success hinges on the little details. In these situations, you’re constantly needing to problem solve. Even before the trip started, Whitley recognized a huge dilemma: battery power.
Adding a 45-pound generator with fuel to their already 50-pound camera packs seemed less than ideal. Without a generator, ample batteries and solar chargers became the alternative, But the solution wasn’t fool proof. Cloudy days rendered the chargers useless, and when Whitley used them, he had to keep checking them amidst filming. Regardless, they were trailblazing. Very few film crews had filmed from the top of Kilimanjaro, let alone ridden sections of the mountain on mountain bikes.
Despite the strenuous effort it required, riding alongside the athletes was the only way to efficiently cover enough ground to get the shot. Their process consisted of leapfrogging the trail.Whitley would often stage a shot and send Fostvedt ahead to prepare. Trying to capture as much as they could, they believed in capitalizing any opportunity. This usually meant sacrificing rest for the sake of the story.
“It was tough. You finally make it to camp and instead of kicking back, you have to keep documenting everything.” Whitley explained.
Mitigating the Unexpected
While much of this trip was meticulously planned and prepared for, it was impossible to avoid the unexpected, as is the case with any grand expedition.
The original plan was to acclimatize close to Kilimanjaro at Mount Meru, which is at 14967 ft. That is, it was the goal until a week before the trip when the team discovered bikes weren’t allowed on the summit.
A bit problematic for a short film focused on mountain biking.
Rey and Czerner celebrate upon reaching the top of Mount Kenya. Martin Bissig Photo.
Last minute, Rey decided that instead Mount Kenya would be their warm up. The team would have to summit the 17,057-foot peak and then shortly after attempt Kilimanjaro.
Mount Kenya tested their limits. The trail was extremely rocky and nearly unrideable, which meant the crew had to carry their 30-pound bikes on top of a 50-pound camera bag while acclimating. Then as they pushed towards the summit, MacAskill became ill. Sick from the altitude, they simply couldn’t turn around to bring him down the mountain. With Mount Kenya’s terrain, a descent actually involves several small ascents before reaching the base. And when trying to mitigate altitude sickness, that variance becomes especially deadly.
Luckily there was a helicopter nearby, but using it for a rescue was contingent on the weather. As his health grew worse, their best option was a gamble with the weather. After waiting through the night, they woke to clear skies, so Macaskill was safely flown to care. Meanwhile, Rey, Czerner, and Fostvedt continued to the summit.They bagged the peak and returned back to base. Biking back, Picard noticed some unique scat along the trail. Turns out it was from a jaguar. Once they all reconvened in the bus, they finally spotted the big cat, who quietly disappeared back into the overgrowth of the jungle.
Good news awaited them as they reached the bottom: MacAskill was out of the hospital and wanted to ride. Having been cleared to continue, he was determined to not let this be an obstacle.If an issue were to arise on Kilimanjaro, there was no back up helicopter rescue. But, unlike Mount Kenya, they could descend straight back down if anything went wrong.
They expected Kilimanjaro to be their next big struggle.That was until they tried crossing border.
Since they changed their itinerary last minute, the Tanzanian border officials were not updated of their plans. When they arrived at the border on Friday after 5 P.M., the main customs crew was already gone for the weekend. The weekend skeleton crew proved less amicable and refused to allow the entry of their gear. That meant all of their equipment was confiscated, along with all the footage from Mount Kenya. They were told that if they paid a $6,000 deposit they could have it returned. To make matters worse, the banks were already closed by this point.
“None of our batteries were charged, we had just come straight from Kenya to Tanzania, and our media wasn’t dumped. We begged them to at least let us charge our equipment, but they said no,” said Whitley. This was their only day in Tanzania to recharge before sending them up early with porters to the first base camp.
Dismayed, Whitley returned the following day with the cash and attempted to haggle out of the situation. After three hours of going back and forth, the border patrol decided that Whitley and his crew would need to a pay a $2000 deposit and a $4,000 non-refundable fee. Instead of using the 24 hours to recuperate and prepare their gear, they had to weasel their way out of extortion. Now, only after they paid the fee, spent hours dumping their footage, and squeezed in a very short night of sleep—they were back on their bikes and en route to the first basecamp.
Thankfully, Kilimanjaro was a much smoother ride.
After quite the adventure, the entire crew celebrates upon reaching the top of Kilimanjaro. Martin Bissig Photo.
“It was really well-planned and we had a massive support crew. Each of us had a personal guide who helped with equipment,” said Whitley. “Kenya almost killed us, but it made Kili actually almost enjoyable, still crushing but an experience of a lifetime”
The Greatest Takeaway
Rey and Czerner helped deliver bicycles to families near Nairobi before starting their trip. So far Rey’s non-profit Wheels4Life has funded over 11,000 bikes in 30 different countries. Martin Bissig Photo.
Amidst summiting twice over a 10-day period, the team still made time to donate 230 bicycles through Rey’s nonprofit, Wheels4Life. They wanted this trip to be more than just about the expedition. It was also about supporting the local communities near the mountains where the crew explored.
“Whenever I go to a place like this I try to combine it with some work [with the non profit]—especially in Kenya, Uganda, or Tanzania. Here [in Kenya], our charity has already donated thousands of bikes,” said Rey, who started the nonprofit with his wife. “The thought was to follow up on some previous projects as well as be there in person to give away more bikes.”
It may be only $150 per bike, but the access they provide drastically change people’s lives. We often forget how impactful bikes can be. But ultimately, it’s a powerful source of independence in that it provides transportation.
And with this mobility, many doors can open: employment, education, and freedom.
“It was amazing to see how appreciative they all were—really special,” explained Whitley “It made [the trip] into something more than just conquering the mountains.” Ultimately, the trip was a great reminder of what a powerful and versatile tool the bike can be. Whether it be used for pedaling up the side of Kilimanjaro or to a classroom, it all comes back to the places you can go on two wheels.