Kilimanjaro by Handbike

We all have psychological barriers: things that seem daunting enough to feel impossible. Climbing Kilimanjaro by handbike should have been in that category…read on to find out why it wasn’t!

The intimidation of the unknown can be enough to stop us, as does our tendency to ‘ambiguity bias’: we tend to take decisions favouring known outcomes rather than taking chances on choices with unknown probabilities, or to favour a narrative of likely ‘failure’ and in doing so we almost inevitably generate that outcome. But this wasn’t the case for me with Kilimanjaro.

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. But a ‘four-minute-mile’ effect impacted my mental view of it. For years, runners had been striving against the clock, but the elusive four minutes had always beaten them. It was a seemingly unconquerable mountain, until Roger Bannister succeeded. Within months, many other runners broke the four minutes and it became common place. Wharton School professors analysed the lessons for business of the four-minute mile phenomenon, in a book entitled ‘The Power of Impossible Thinking’. It wasn’t human evolution, genetic engineering or physiology that made the difference, but the shift in the mental model. Others suddenly saw how they could do something they had previously thought impossible.

Kilimanjaro had circled around me for decades: the volcanic slopes of the world’s largest free-standing mountain inevitably caught my eye when I once visited Tanzania, and soon after that I met an American paraplegic guy who had made an attempt up Kilimanjaro. He had reached Gilman’s Point, the first point on the crater rim. Following that I heard of the first paraplegic to summit Mt Kilimanjaro unassisted, by handbike, and more recently Martin Hibbert, paralysed in the Manchester arena bombing, summitted Kilimanjaro in a special wheelchair. The logistics company I contacted even had a ‘recommended wheelchair route’ for the mountain and as a small team of us gathered with the summit in mind, I came to the assumption that climbing Killmanjaro by handbike would be no problem, “Hakuna matata!”

On summit day, our fifth day on the mountain, clinging to aggressive scree, I wondered what on earth I’d been thinking. Inching forward then sliding almost as far back again, I waivered in my belief. The scree steepened, the slope finally too vertical to hold the rocks and volcanic rubble. As I looked up, I felt the doubt creeping into my neurons. “How?” It was impossible to navigate assisted, never mind unassisted! The steep, broken slabs of rock were way beyond the capability of my handbike, and it was an amazing set of wheels, The clearance and gearing on the ICE trike and the terrain it can manage is astounding.

Positive mental models are wonderful. They stretch us, challenge us, enable seemingly impossible things to unfold. But sometimes our desired end state, a compelling goal, our natural cognitive mechanisms and the overall mood of a team can take us into an optimism bias. All of this is good, as long as it doesn’t blind us too much or get in the way of thorough preparation.

There is no smooth, wheelchair accessible trail up Kilimanjaro. It takes intent, desire, resilience, the right equipment, a positive energy and a good team. There is a compelling, beautiful mountain awaiting and clearly, the possibility exists to make it.

Thanks to the team of guides and porters, we did make it to the roof of Africa and to the summit of Kilimanjaro. It was harder than we anticipated, the effects of altitude tougher, the length and difficulty of the scree magnified beyond expectation. I needed help. Between pedalling I was pushed, pulled, shoved and carried. Lucas the Masai was targeted as the strong, tall, blood-drinking main man for piggy-backs!

If you fancy Kilimanjaro, whether you are walking or going with wheels, please go to this mountain with the mantra of ‘pole pole’ (slowly, slowly in Swahili). Nothing about a four-minute mile will help you get up, other than adopting a mental model of moving beyond what seems impossible. Be optimistic, but also be wise to the facts. It is not a walk in the park: you will likely laugh and cry on the journey, there will be headaches, the scree is long and steep, the crater rim is spectacular.

Once again though I am reminded of just what is possible when a good team, good technology and a bit of tenacity come together. Thank you all involved!
Special thanks to ICE trikes and to my team-mates Kevin Benstead, Steve Bate, Mike Webster, Sherrill Mason, Bow Monk, Amelia Monk, Jannie Johnson, to African Scenic Safaris, and to the charities who partnered with us: Voice of Specially Abled People and World Jenny’s Day