Moshi Monster: Cory Wallace on his Kilimanjaro FKT

WORDS BY
Pete Harrington
PHOTOS BY
Cory Wallace

Cory Wallace’s head would be an interesting, boundary-expanding place to visit. Where others see impossible challenges, this chipper endurance mountain bike legend sees the opportunity for adventure. Just take a look at his oxygen-sapping palmarès: Himalaya Annapurna circuit record holder, three-time World Solo 24hr MTB champion, two-time Canadian Marathon champion, and two-time BC Bike Race champion. And now, with his recent ascent of Tanzania’s 5,895m Kilimanjaro mountain, he can add the FKT (fastest known time) of the world’s highest single free-standing mountain to his cabinet of medallions.

To find out more about his sprint to the summit, we recently caught up with Cory on the phone from his training base in Africa, where he was taking advantage of the climate, altitude and good company to prepare for an all-out assault on his North American race calendar later this year.

Hey Cory, congrats on the record.

Ah, thanks. It was nice to put a line in the snow, so to speak.

How did the ride come about?

Well, first off, I wasn’t meant to be here. I was racing in South Africa for Cape Epic and a few other events, and then I was supposed to come home to Canada in early December, but that’s when Omicron hit, and all the flights shut down. So I did a couple of races to fill in the time, like Namibia’s Desert Dash, and after that, I was going to go home. But Canada wouldn’t accept the PCR test from South Africa or Namibia.

Not great.

Totally. So my options were to fly to Ethiopia, which is in civil war, get a PCR test, go back to the airport, fly home, and then do the hotel quarantine in Vancouver and whatever else for two weeks. Or I could get a flight to Tanzania – considered a green country by Canada – stay for two weeks, which would count as quarantine, then go home. So faced with the option of riding rather than being stuck in a room, I went with Tanzania!

Good choice.

Yea, it worked out well. In fact, it got to late December, and I decided to stay longer and use it as a training base for a bit, and that’s when a friend first mentioned Kilimanjaro to me.

The mountain everyone hikes up?

Usually yes, but a quick search told me that people have cycled up there before, just not with a record in mind. But I didn’t think I’d be able to ride it anyway, given I didn’t have any real hardcore deep cold apparel with me. After racing in South Africa, all I had were my 7mesh Farside baggies and Foundation undershorts, a Compound long sleeve, my always-on MK3 bibs, Skyline jersey, what’s now the Skypilot Gore-Tex jacket, and the Outflow puffy. Not necessarily everything you’d need to ascend to almost 6000 metres in complete confidence!

Some hurdles to overcome there.

I don’t mind a hurdle or two! So first, I got on the phone to Apidura, my bikepacking bag sponsor, and they were good enough to ship me a suite of bags that would give me enough stow space for all the things I’d need to haul to make an attempt. After that, I figured I could at least ride to Moshi, which is basically Kilimanjaro, and buy some extra clothes at the second-hand market.

From where you were, how many miles was it to Moshi?

It was just over 300, which would usually have taken me three days, but I did it in three weeks.

A problem with your brakes?

Haha, no. I knew that I needed to acclimatise to high altitude, plus it was pushing 40c degrees (104 Fahrenheit) at sea level, so I decided to ascend and descend every mountain I came across along the way to get my legs in.

That might be the most Cory Wallace thing I’ve ever heard.

Well, I had no ticket, and no timeline, so I could afford to meander a bit.

What did you eat en route?

Oh man, Tanzania is fantastic for ride-by snacks. There are people everywhere, and it’s a warm climate, so there are always fruit stands and coconuts. But for dried food, I was relying on caramel candies. You could buy them for 2 cents each, and every store had them. So I would load my bag up with these candies and eat them on the go. And that was it; it was too hot to eat actual food.

What was the weather like when you got to Moshi, and what elevation were you at?

Moshi’s at 800 metres, so it was still pretty warm.

And from there, how far can you ride up Kilimanjaro before it becomes hike-a-bike terrain?

You can ride up to 4,700m until you hit the rim of the volcano, then it gets really steep. So you hike with the bike to 5,600 metres, then get back on the bike to ascend around the rim to 5,895 metres and the summit.

Did you have a plan of attack for the FKT attempt once you arrived at Moshi?

Given the distances and because I wasn’t properly acclimatised, I planned to do it in a day. So I was like, let’s go up and down one day and see how that goes.

Because can you circumvent acclimatisation by doing it quickly?

That’s the idea. Because you get up and down before you get sick. If not, I’d need three weeks to acclimatise properly.

How was the weather window looking?

I’d been watching the weather the whole month of January. And that was part of the reason I stayed in the mountains so long. I saw the conditions were not so good in Kilimanjaro, so I kept waiting until the window looked like it was going to open up. And then, as soon as it looked decent, I pressed on to Moshi and organised this trip as quickly as possible. Because yeah, I didn’t have my proper high mountain winter gear.

Did you scout the ascent before the FKT?

I planned to scout it out to get a feel and prepare my effort, then descend before going for the FKT the day after. It didn’t end up going quite as smoothly as that, but I managed to assess the whole route.

After that, you probably had a feel for how long the attempt might take?

I had heard that a pro roadie had done the whole thing in 12 or 13 hours, and the local guides had said 20 hours. But I knew I could probably do it faster. Although, in fairness to the roadie, I believe he had some bad weather, which would have made a big difference.

Talk us through the start of the ride once you depart Moshi.

You start on a paved road, then dirt. Once you hit 1900 meters, you get to a gate, after which you’re on the mountain proper. Once through that, you’re in the jungle. It’s a lovely place. Naturally, as you get farther up, things get thinned out, and before too long, you’re looking up towards the steep, shale-covered sides of the volcano rim that rise sharply above you.

How did the first stretch go?

I made good progress and got to my mountain hut checkpoint at 4700 metres in just over three and a half hours. My guide was waiting there, so I took off my bike shoes, put on my running shoes, layered on my Outflow jacket and started the hike-a-bike up to the rim. That part took three hours. It got pretty tough towards the end, as I had to throw my bike over and around some pretty big rocks. Anyway, I got through that and hit the rim, took off to the summit and arrived about 2 pm, some seven hours after I departed.

I imagine you felt pretty good at that point.

Oh man, it was amazing. Six degrees, dead calm and sunny. Massive glaciers around me glistening in the sun. Honestly, I didn’t want to leave that spot.

After that, all I had to do was descend. The weather held out, so it was a pretty sweet ride down. Of course, 15km of downhill fire road is a great way to end any ride! Once I got on the highway towards Moshi, I looked back and saw the top of Kilimanjaro, itself a rare occurrence. But that night was picture perfect. It felt pretty surreal thinking that just a few hours before, I’d been standing at the summit!

Congrats Cory! Amazing effort.

Thanks, Pete – pleased to have my 7mesh with me!