Is it safe to climb Kilimanjaro?
Being serious about climbing Kilimanjaro means you have to be serious about Kilimanjaro safety. In this article we are going to cover the best practice mount Kilimanjaro safety measures together with high altitude sickness and the symptoms. It is a hard climb and should not be underestimated. Every year, around 1,000 people are evacuated from the mountain. Approximately 10 deaths are reported. Without doing the necessary research and choosing a qualified tour operator, therefore, you are putting yourself in serious danger.
The top 5 things to consider about Kilimanjaro safety are:
- Altitude Sickness (AMS)
- Safe acclimatisation procedures
- Experienced guides
- Safety equipment
- Qualified tour operator
We cover each of these in depth below. Please remember that the purpose of this article is not to scare you, but to keep you well informed. At Follow Alice our priority is your safety. We want you to know how to climb Kilimanjaro and how to do it in the safest way possible. It is safe to climb Kilimanjaro, but only when you are educated on the risks. Its a challenge, but thats what its all about right!?
Remember: Kilimanjaro safety is key.
Put simply, safety on Kilimanjaro is so important because it’s a hard climb. Standing at 5,895 meters (19,341 feet), Kilimanjaro is classified as an extreme altitude mountain trek. Learn about what it is like to climb Kilimanjaro. You definitely don’t need to be an athlete to climb Kilimanjaro. Yet doing the necessary mental and physical training is essential to a safe and successful summit. Learn more about what you need to prepare to climb Kilimanjaro.
Anyone with the right amount of determination can climb Kilimanjaro. The oldest person to summit was 88 years old and the youngest was 7 years old. Kyle Maynard, who has no arms and legs due to a condition called congenital amputation, crawled unassisted to the top of Kilimanjaro in 2012. Watch this inspiring documentary about Kyle and his amazing Kilimanjaro achievement.
Nonetheless, it is still a hard climb. It’s fair to say that climbing Kilimanjaro is not akin to climbing Everest or K2. However it is still to be approached with upmost care. The consequence of climbing too high, or too quickly, is altitude sickness.
What is altitude sickness?
Altitude sickness, or Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), is a negative health effect of high altitude. The percentage of oxygen in the atmosphere at sea level is about 21%. As you climb higher up the mountain the percentage remains the same but the number of oxygen molecules per breath is reduced. At 12,000 feet (3,600 m) there are roughly 40% fewer oxygen molecules per breath. The body therefore finds it hard to adapt and function as normal with less oxygen.
Altitude sickness is caused by a failure of the body to adapt quickly enough to these lower levels of oxygen. Often climbers make the mistake of going too high (altitude) too quickly (rate of ascent).
But don’t worry, it is perfectly normal to get altitude sickness. In fact, at over 3,000 metres more than 75% of climbers will experience at least some form of mild AMS. It is therefore more than likely that you will experience some form of altitude sickness when climbing Kilimanjaro. Age, sex or physical fitness have no effect on your likelihood of getting altitude sickness. Just because you haven’t had it before doesn’t mean you won’t develop it on another trip. It is essential you are clued up.
What are the symptoms of high altitude sickness?
Most high altitude sickness symptoms are very normal when climbing Kilimanjaro. They are generally mild and appear a few hours after moving to higher altitudes. Symptoms have been likened to experiencing a bad hangover and are generally worse at night when respiratory drive is decreased. Mild forms of altitude sickness may include experiencing:
- sleep disturbance
- shortness of breath with physical exertion
- loss of appetite
- nausea and vomiting
- muscle aches
- swelling of the hands, feet, and face
- a rapid heartbeat
The occurrence of altitude sickness is dependent upon the elevation, the rate of ascent, and individual susceptibility. Everyone acclimatises at different rates. The symptoms usually start 12 to 24 hours after arrival at altitude. They generally begin to decrease in severity around the third day.
How are the mild symptoms of high altitude sickness treated?
Mild symptoms of altitude sickness are common and easily treated. The best and most efficient treatment is to descend if need be. You need to rest and maintain fluid intake. Painkillers such as paracetamol also help. At Follow Alice we believe it is better to listen to your body. We recommend giving your body a chance to acclimatise naturally before resorting to the use of medicine. However, the NHS recommend considering travelling with these medicines for altitude sickness:
- acetazolamide to prevent and treat high altitude sickness
- ibuprofen and paracetamol for headaches
- anti-sickness medication, like promethazine, for nausea
There are also natural remedies you can try for treating mild symptoms of altitude sickness. These include ginger, lavender oil, garlic and cloves.
Please remember that mild altitude symptoms are to be expected. They do not interfere with normal activity and symptoms generally subside as the body acclimatises. As soon as you acclimatise, you will feel better with no lasting side effects. This means you can carry on with your climb.
What are severe symptoms of altitude sickness?
It is very rare that a climber will experience anything more than the common mild altitude sickness symptoms listed above. However, it is important for your safety that you are aware of all possibilities. If left untreated, severe symptoms of altitude sickness can be fatal. This is why it is so important to communicate your symptoms if you are feeling unwell. If you experience a severe case of altitude sickness you may experience symptoms such as:
- wet coughing
- chest congestion
- extreme fatigue
- fast, shallow breathing
- gurgling breaths
- blue or gray lips or fingernails
- pale complexion and skin discoloration
- inability to walk or lack of balance (ataxia)
- social withdrawal
If these symptoms of altitude sickness are ignored, they can lead to life-threatening conditions affecting the brain or lungs. This is considered severe altitude sickness. There are two serious conditions associated with severe altitude sickness – HAPE and HACE.
What are HAPE and HACE?
These conditions are very rare. But, when they do occur, it is usually people going too high too fast or going very high and staying there. In both cases, the lack of oxygen results in leakage of fluid through the capillary walls into either the lungs or the brain. These conditions are called High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) – a build-up of fluid in the lungs, and High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) – the swelling of the brain caused by a lack of oxygen.
HAPE symptoms can include: blue tinge to the skin (cyanosis), breathing difficulties (even when resting), tightness in the chest, a persistent cough, bringing up pink or white frothy liquid (sputum), tiredness and weakness.
HAPE treatment includes: moving down to a lower altitude immediately, taking nifedipine (helps to reduce chest tightness and ease breathing), bottled oxygen
HACE symptoms can include: headache, weakness, nausea and vomiting, loss of co-ordination, feeling confused, hallucinations.
HACE treatment includes: move down to a lower altitude immediately, take dexamethasone (a steroid medication that reduces swelling of the brain), bottled oxygen.
Severe cases of altitude sickness can only be treated by immediate descent of around 2,000 feet (600 m) to a lower altitude. They should also be followed up by a visit to the doctor for any necessary treatment. As mentioned, it is very rare that climbers experience these more serious side effects. Your guide will ensure you are acclimatising well. This is achieved by enforcing multiple acclimatisation procedures.
What are the best acclimatisation procedures?
Given enough time, your body will adapt to the decrease in oxygen at a specific altitude. This process is known as acclimatisation. It generally takes one to three days at any given altitude. This is why having the right itinerary for the right route is so essential. Most routes up Kilimanjaro offer a good acclimatisation profile (Machame or Lemosho route are popular choices, read more here). However, don’t underestimate the effects of the high altitude. At Follow Alice we have the following acclimatisation procedures in place to make sure you reach the summit safely:
One of the important points to note about climbing Kilimanjaro is that it is not a race. On the climb you will hear your guides use the phrase “pole, pole”. This means “slowly, slowly”. On your way to the top, expect to hike about 4-7h per day and around 10-14h on summit day. On summit day, the oxygen levels are low. Expect to be taking one step at a time – quite literally! After years of climbing, David Hillebrandt finally realised that climbing slowly was essential to his safety. Read David’s story here.
Climb high sleep low
This basically means climbing to a higher altitude during the day and sleeping at a lower altitude at night. This acclimatisation procedure is achieved through well-planned itineraries. These include afternoon acclimatisation hikes to a higher level (climbing high) before descending to camp (sleeping low). Follow Alice itineraries are designed around this key acclimatisation procedure. We have chosen the Lemosho route because it , along with the Machame route, provides the best climb high, sleep low opportunity.
Drink lots of water
You dehydrate faster when your breathing becomes heavy and quick. We therefore recommend a daily fluid intake of 4-5 litres. Fluid intake improves circulation and most other bodily functions. Our menu on the mountain accordingly contains lots of soup, hot drinks and fresh fruit. Check your urine to make sure you are drinking enough. Avoid consuming alcohol on your climb.
Our guides have the experience and knowledge to keep you safe
You can now see that it is absolutely crucial you climb with an experienced guide. Those you climb with are your support network on the mountain. If they do not know how to act in an emergency then you are putting your own life at risk. At Follow Alice we ensure your guides have the experience and knowledge to keep you safe.
Meet our lead guide Chris
Our lead guide Chris has been working on the mountain for over 16 years. He has made it to the summit over 200 times and even climbed Kilimanjaro on New Years Eve. He is ranked #6 out of 261 guides on Kilimanjaro by clients. Chris is an incredibly knowledgeable and experienced leader who always puts safety first. Learn more about Chris in this interview.
All of our guides are highly experienced in preventing, detecting, and treating altitude sickness. Follow Alice Kilimanjaro guides are certified Wilderness First Responders (WFR). They have the tools to make critical medical and evacuation decisions on location. Follow Alice guides administer the Lake Louise Scoring System (LLSS). LLSS was designed to evaluate adults for symptoms of acute mountain sickness. The system uses an assessment questionnaire and a scorecard to determine whether an individual has no AMS, mild AMS, or severe AMS.
What equipment do I need to stay safe on Kilimanjaro?
Once you embark on your climb, the only resources available to you are the ones that you and your team carry up with you. Your guide is equipped with essential equipment to monitor you throughout the climb. They will check you multiple times a day to ensure you are acclimatising well. They are equipped and have access to:
in order to monitor your oxygen saturation and pulse rate we conduct daily health checks using a pulse oximeter. Oxygen saturation is a measurement of how much oxygen your blood is carrying as a percentage of the maximum it could carry. Normal blood oxygen levels at sea level are 95-100%.
The oximeter is placed on a climber’s fingertip. The oximeter uses two beams of light that shine into small blood vessels and capillaries in your finger. The sensor reflects the amount of oxygen in the blood. This simple piece of equipment gathers the required information within seconds of being applied to your finger.
As altitude increases, the oxygen saturation of your blood decreases. On Kilimanjaro, the oxygen saturation percentage is typically around 80%. We monitor climbers closely if their oxygen saturation drops below 80%
bottled oxygen is only for emergency situations. It is not used to assist those who have not adequately acclimatised on their own to climb higher. The most immediate treatment for moderate and serious altitude sickness is descent. With Kilimanjaro’s routes it is always possible to descend, and descend quickly. Oxygen is only used when absolutely necessary.
Your guides also have the following equipment for treatment and emergencies:
this is carried at all times to evacuate climbers who may need to descend but are unable to walk on their own.
first aid medical kit
this is essential to treat minor scrapes, cuts and blisters.
What personal equipment is important on Kilimanjaro?
The right personal equipment and gear is essential for Kilimanjaro safety. Please refer to our Kilimanjaro packing list guide for a full break down of what you should bring for your climb. In terms of equipment important for Kilimanjaro safety, here are the essentials:
the footwear you take to climb Kilimanjaro is very important. Your hiking boots should be warm, water resistant and of proven quality for the climb. You also need to make sure that you wear them in. This will put you in best position for a comfortable and safe climb. The best way to break boots in are to wear them as often as possible before your hiking date. Your boots are well worn in when the inner soles of the boot start to contour the bottom of your foot.
You will also need several pairs of thick and warm walking and climbing socks (at least 2-3). Gaiters can be helpful in wet conditions and to stop scree getting inside your boots. This is especially important in the rainforest terrain.
sunglasses/suncream/hat – it is essential you protect yourself against the sun on Kilimanjaro. You are trekking to high altitude where the sun intensity is high. UV intensity at just under 6,000m is very high. Visible light can also reflect and intensified by snow. Sunglasses with good UV protection are therefore a must. This can be very damaging to your eyes if you don’t have adequate sunglasses. You will need sweat resistant and high SPF and sunscreen (greater than 30). A good hat is important to protect your face from sun burn and keep your head cool.
temperatures will be fluctuating throughout your entire Kilimanjaro climb. You will be trekking through four climatic zones. Weather can range from warm and tropical at the base of the mountain to freezing on the summit. It is therefore very important you have the right clothing to be able to layer up and layer down. This includes the right base layers, insulation layers and waterproof layers. Read more about what exactly to pack in our Kilimanjaro packing list.
water on Kilimanjaro is collected from mountain streams by porters during your trek. It is therefore very important for your health and safety that you carry a form of water treatment. Treating your water with iodine purification tablets can taste a bit strange. Furthermore, just drinking water can result in a rapid fall in plasma sodium concentration. This accentuates dehydration. We recommend adding a sports drink or a few spoons of Isostar powder (or similar, which aids water absorption into the blood and body cells), improves flavour and provides an energy boost.
What if I feel sick on Kilimanjaro? – Don’t feel embarrassed: tell your guide
This is important. Take note of our advice and keep it in mind when climbing Kilimanjaro. If you experience any symptoms or altitude sickness, tell your guide. Do not feel silly or embarrassed. Some people are afraid to say they are feeling unwell because they do not want to hold up the rest of the group.
Firstly, every member of your group will experience some form of altitude sickness at some point in the climb.
Secondly, you are a team, and are there to support each other.
Thirdly, groups can be split to accommodate for differing abilities. This is one of the reasons why we have large mountain crews. Read more about your mountain crew here. Safety on Kilimanjaro should not be understated. You must tell your guide if you are feeling unwell.
Before climbing Kilimanjaro it is important to be equipped with the necessary knowledge.
How to choose the right Kilimanjaro tour operator?
All the points that we have covered in this article are extremely important for Kilimanjaro safety. Above all, you need to be sure to choose the right tour operator. This decision can be the make or break of having a safe and enjoyable climb. At Follow Alice we therefore prioritise your Kilimanjaro safety above everything else. We aim to treat the initial causes of any sickness rather than waiting for the symptoms to appear. Prevention is key. Having the right knowledge gives you the tools to keep yourself as safe as possible. We like to think of ourselves as value for money operators. At Follow Alice we focus on keeping costs to a minimum without compromising on safety, quality equipment and nutrition. Learn more about why prices differ so much between Kilimanjaro operators here.
By choosing to climb Kilimanjaro with Follow Alice you are:
- with an operator that understands Kilimanjaro
- equipped to deal with altitude sickness
- in extremely safe hands
- safe with experienced guides
- safe with the right equipment
- climbing with friends
Ready to book your Kilimanjaro trip?
We offer a free consultation call with one of our Kilimanjaro experts. Get comfortable and ask any questions you may still have. Here is a brief overview of our adventure trips.
FOLLOW ALICE CLIMB MOUNT KILIMANJARO TOUR AT A GLANCE
Trip Mix: 10% History & Culture | 80% Activity & Sport | 10% Wildlife & Nature
Focus Themes: Hiking, climbing
Physical Rating: High
Accommodation: Upper scale lodge before/after climb, tents on the mountain
Still concerned about Kilimanjaro safety?
Any questions left? Don’t hesitate to leave us a comment below.
If you are still concerned about your safety or your ability to climb Kilimanjaro, please do get in touch.