Don’t be fooled, Kilimanjaro is not a walkover
Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro (19340ft) is popular for many reasons. One of the main ones is that Kilimanjaro is not an isolated attraction but is part of the wider Tanzanian Northern Circuit that includes such iconic names as Ngorongoro Crater and Serengeti National Park. However it is also popular because it is perceived to be easy, and while it might be easier than many other global giants, it is definitely not a walk in the park.
Despite this, climbing Kilimanjaro is less of a mountaineering experience than an extended trek. The greatest challenge comes on the last day prior top the summit, and the summit itself. An unrelenting uphill trudge is characterised by the usual symptoms of altitude…shortness of breath, headache, lethargy etc…which are rendered much more extreme by a dawn summit that usually follows a harrowing midnight climb. The last few thousand feet of loose skree covers the freezing and windswept east slope…
It is doable for most….but it ‘aint easy, and anyone who tells you otherwise has not done it or is lying…!
Kili is not a cheap mountain to climb
Some of the world’s premier wildlife parks and nature conservancies are found in Tanzania, and as a poor country Tanzania relies heavily on tourism dollars. In addition the use of local contractors, guides and porters is mandatory even if you don’t really need them. In this way the Tanzanian Government ensures the even spread of tourist dollars across the community spectrum. So as you peel off your dollars to make this climb remember that you are contributing directly to the protection of the local ecology and to the support of local communities…
This is not to say that there is no profiteering going on…indeed there is. Keep your wits about you, climb with an outfitter you can trust, and be prepared to question the super-cheap outfitters who will be cutting corners somewhere to get you to the summit at below cost. Usually this is achieved at the expense of the guides and porters, and ultimately at the expense of you, the consumer…!
Kilimanjaro guides are licensed and have received certain minimum standards of training. They are as a rule qualified up to first responder level, with added training offered by individual outfitters to a paramedic level, although this is rare. Average guides are qualified to dress wounds, administer CPR (in theory) and to dispense non-prescription painkillers in preparation for the arrival or paramedics.
Good Kilimanjaro guides, particularly the older ones, are adept at spotting symptoms of altitude sickness and can usually prescribe prevention methods or evacuation as required. Any pain medication beyond over-the-counter strength analgesics that you feel you might require, and any specific medications you need, are your own responsibility.
It is always advisable to carry a basic personal medical kit for your own day to day use. In attending to random aches and pains, blisters, stings bites and rashes it always makes sense to be self sufficient, no matter what might be offered by your operator.
Search and rescue
The Kilimanjaro search and rescue procedure is fairly standard and involves casualty evacuation either by helicopter (very rare) or by a primitive mono-wheeled gurney that ought by itself discourage anyone from breaking a leg. The responsibility for emergency rescue is the responsibility of individual operators in conjunction with the National Parks Authority. Trained personnel are posted at every camp higher than 3000m. Of course ‘trained’ can mean many things, and although by African standard Kilimanjaro first responders are extremely competent, they naturally do not conform to western standards.
Air search and rescue is dependent on the availability of private helicopters or fixed wing aircraft that on a volunteer basis will participate in any aerial support. Thanks to the fact that Kilimanjaro is situated it the East African tourist mecca these can usually be found, but thanks to the wide open terrain, simple geography and highly defined trail system, searches are very rare indeed.
With the gradual diminishing of the glaciers water at high altitude is become less available and certainly less palatable. Likewise with deforestation on the lower slopes the mountain streams of yore are also drying up. Avoid drinking directly from water sources. You climb outfitter will ensure that boiled water is available morning and evening for replenishing your bottles and camelpaks.
Avoid bottled water. With the best of intentions plastic bottles inevitable end up on the mountain…
Even if the bulk of your kit is being portaged on your behalf by your support crew, always carry a day pack, and always pack in your day pack survival kit that will sustain you in the event that you are separated or injured and/or are forced to spend one or more nights out alone. This should include your personal first aid kit, including an emergency blanket, a flashlight, a source of flame, a jacket and warm fleece, water and a small selection of high energy trail snacks.
Food is provided by your outfitter, and rarely should you be required to bring anything other than trail mixes and snacks for those periods between breakfast, lunch and dinner. Food, however, is where many of the cheaper outfitters cut corners, and although lavish promises will be made at the point of sale, bad or inadequate food is usually the curse of the budget traveller.
A good outfitter will provide a solid breakfast – usually hot, and usually with an egg and sausage content while sticks last – but always with plenty of toast, tea or coffee
Note: The ubiquitous trail coffee is Africafe brand. This is killer coffee, and if you partake in the evening you will be guaranteed to be awake all night. Treat the Africafe with caution
Lunch is usually a picnic lunch, and dinner an extravaganza of carbs and such delights as salads and fresh vegetables
Note: Often huge quantities of food are delivered. Don’t be shy about leaving much of this uneaten. The cooks and porters get the leftovers, and so as a rule they try to ensure as many leftovers as possible
The journey up Kilimanjaro is pleasantly gradual which helps a great deal in the process of altitude adjustment. Kilimanjaro rises to 19340ft. It is usually above 18000ft when the greatest risk of cerebral (brain swelling) or pulmonary (fluid build up in the lungs) edema is felt. However this can also occur at lower altitudes, often with the sufferer being the last to recognise it, so listen to your guide, and hope he or she is capable of recognising the symptoms and responding.
Symptoms of the former are a persistent dry cough and shortness of breath while symptoms of the latter are severe headache, loss of equilibrium and eventual loss of consciousness. These are dangerous symptoms and can cause death.
The solution is to at all times listen to the advice of your guide, to not fixate on summiting against the advice of your body and your support crew, and to spend as much time as is necessary adjusting to the altitude.
Technically Kilimanjaro is a relatively easy climb despite being one of the world’s major mountains. Alpine level kit is not required, and high altitude trekking gear should always be sufficient. A functional gore-tex system, an intermediate sleeping bag and a good sleeping mat will make all the difference.
Temperatures during the midnight summit push can plunge to dangerous levels. This, in combination with a ferocious wind, can compromise a climbers ability to summit. Make sure for this day at least that you have excellent cold weather gear.
This can be a very tricky part of your climb. Your support crew will doubtless have had plenty of experience in squeezing the maximum gratuity out of weary, and sometimes over-emotional climbers. Common tactics to stimulate your generosity include sad faces, desperate entreaties and even tears, and of course no amount offered will ever be enough.
10% is an oft quoted rule of thumb, but any more than US$100 divided amongst your individual crew might be excessive. Usually the whole group clubs together about US$100 each, or less, which makes for a reasonably tidy whip around. Make a point of never handing over the whole lot to your guide. It is very likely that he will keep the lions share himself.
Watch out also for predations on your kit. Pleas for surplus kit can strip you of all your valuables in the heady moments after your return. These are usually sold soon afterwards as part of a very lucrative side industry. This is not to say do not give, just remember that your gift is not always appreciated.
Tipping must naturally reflect your level of satisfaction, and if you are not satisfied, it is quite fair to make that point known by selective tipping.