Climbing Kilimanjaro is the adventure of a lifetime. This iconic mountain has captured the imagination of adventurers for decades.
It’s easy to see why it is so popular. Mount Kilimanjaro is the tallest mountain in Africa and at 5,895 meters, its height has earned its place on the seven summits – which are comprised of the highest mountains on each of the 7 continents.
It is also the tallest mountain worldwide that doesn’t require any technical skills to climb, which makes it accessible to anyone in reasonably good health. Technically speaking, Mount Kilimanjaro is also relatively safe compared to other mountains of similar altitude and the risks are low compared to other mountains.
However, this is not to say that it is easy to reach the summit or that there are no risks involved. Mount Kilimanjaro has a summit success rate of only 60% and it is generally reported that ca. 10 climbers die on Kilimanjaro every year, though we believe the actual number to be a multiple thereof.
The main reason why climbers do not reach the summit is altitude sickness, also known as acute mountain sickness (AMS), caused by the high elevation. Altitude sickness is also the main risk that makes Mount Kilimanjaro a potentially dangerous mountain to climb, especially when compared to other popular touristic mountain destinations.
At 5,895 meters Kilimanjaro is in the extreme altitude zone and almost everyone who climbs it will be affected by altitude sickness, in some way. For most climbers, the symptoms of altitude sickness will remain limited to shortness of breath, dizziness, nausea or headaches; neither of which is dangerous.
When you climb Kilimanjaro, you may feel these altitude effects from as low as 1,500 meters (4,921 feet) above sea level. While such mild symptoms of altitude sickness are not comfortable, you generally do not need to worry much about your health and safety when you experience them.
However, when climbers acclimatize poorly, altitude sickness may become more severe and, in extreme cases, lethal. Beware that altitude sickness can strike suddenly and unexpectedly. Young, fit and healthy climbers are as much at risk of altitude sickness as anyone else. When attempting to climb Kilimanjaro, you are always taking a risk.
With the right advance preparation and planning, however, it is possible to minimize the risks and largely mitigate the effects of altitude sickness, so that you can prevent it from becoming more severe and get adequate treatment when you need it.
This includes choosing the right hiking route, climbing with a responsible Kilimanjaro operator who employs experienced and well-trained guides, and following the golden rules of altitude acclimatization.
Another condition with symptoms similar to altitude sickness and equally dangerous, though much less frequent in Kilimanjaro climbers, is hyponatremia. You can learn more on this directly from a personal trainer and marathon runner who shares her experience with severe hyponatremia whilst climbing Kilimanjaro here.
In this blog, we will discuss the risks and symptoms of altitude sickness in detail, as well as how you can prepare for your Kilimanjaro climb to minimize the dangers of altitude sickness.
What is altitude sickness?
If any severe symptoms arise, immediate descent assisted by your guide is imperative to avoid more serious and lasting consequences.
How dangerous is altitude sickness on Kilimanjaro?
There is currently no public information about the number of people who suffer from severe altitude sickness when climbing Kilimanjaro. We expect that it may be significantly higher than common estimates.
So this leads us on to another question: why do incidents not get reported?
While the risk of altitude sickness cannot be entirely eliminated when climbing Kilimanjaro, there are ways that you can minimize the risks and largely mitigate the impact. We discuss these in more detail below.
How to prevent altitude sickness
Almost everyone who climbs Kilimanjaro will be affected by the high altitude to some extent. However, you can take steps to prevent altitude sickness from becoming more severe. One of the ways you can do this is by following the 3 golden rules of acclimatization.
This means that the best way to prevent severe altitude sickness in advance is by choosing a longer route with a good altitude profile.
Importance of choosing the right route
Shorter routes that last just 5-6 days are only suitable for experienced climbers who are accustomed to high-altitude climbs.
Importance of choosing the right operator
Choosing a good route goes a long way to reduce your risks of developing severe altitude sickness, but the risk always remains. While climbing, it’s easy to forget about walking slowly and staying hydrated. And even if you follow all the rules diligently, you may develop severe altitude sickness.
A good mountain guide will set the right pace and remind you to drink water, continuously. When you fall sick nevertheless, you will rely 100% on your guide to take correct and immediate action to protect your safety.
Therefore, it is important to climb with a well-trained and experienced guide who can monitor your individual altitude acclimatization, watch out for symptoms of altitude sickness, and – if required – insist on and assist with your descent.
One way to increase your chances of finding a good guide is to book your climb with a KPAP Partner company. KPAP is an abbreviation for the Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project, an independent organization that monitors porter treatment practices locally.
Although KPAP does not measure safety criteria, we believe that companies who have demonstrated a commitment to treating their porters fairly are also more likely to be committed to your safety, compared to the industry average. Note many budget operators do not even employ duly licensed guides.
You should also choose a company that is very transparent about the safety standards and equipment included in your climb. If possible, spend a little more on a premium tour that includes a Wilderness First Responder certified guide and emergency oxygen; plus a hyperbaric chamber for overnight stays at Crater Camp is a must.
At Fair Voyage, we offer high safety standards for an affordable price and help you easily compare safety standards across climbing packages.
Symptoms of moderate altitude sickness
Symptoms of severe altitude sickness
What is the best action when experiencing symptoms of moderate altitude sickness?
What is the best action when experiencing symptoms of severe altitude sickness?
When adequately insured and in case of emergencies, local helicopter evacuation service is available thanks to Kilimanjaro Search & Rescue (KSAR). KSAR also operate a high-altitude medical clinic for Kilimanjaro climbers, open 24/7.
What else can you do for your own safety when experiencing symptoms of altitude sickness?
The key thing here is to remember that altitude sickness can be lethal. Therefore, it is important to be honest with your guide and never try to hide the fact that you are feeling ill.
Although some guides may try to persuade you to keep going even when you are feeling very unwell, you have the right and responsibility to stop when you no longer feel in the position to continue your ascend.
Always remember that summiting is optional, but coming down safely is mandatory. There is no shame in making the difficult decision to descend. Instead, your number one priority is your health and well-being, and you should be proud of how far you’ve come.
By taking the decision to climb Kilimanjaro, you have already achieved far more than most people. So by prioritizing your life and knowing when to call it a day, you will not only stay safe, you will also be setting a good example for other climbers.
What can you do for the safety of your group members?
How many guides will there be for my group when climbing Kilimanjaro?
How to find the best Kilimanjaro guide
Who certifies Kilimanjaro guides for Wilderness First Responder (WFR)?
What motivates guides?
The important thing to remember when climbing Kilimanjaro is that preparation is essential when it comes to mitigating the effects of altitude sickness.
Part of that preparation includes choosing a longer route that lasts at least 8 days, which allows you to acclimatize to the high altitude.
Book your trip with an ethical tour company. They pay your crew fairly which means that your guides rely less on tips and have what they need to help you navigate the mountain safely. The most responsible tour operators will have guides trained in Wilderness First Responder (WFR).
To prepare for possible cases of emergencies, make sure to take out adequate travel medical insurance. Amongst others, your insurance should cover helicopter evacuations and high altitude trekking up to 6,000 meters.
Once on the mountain, the key thing to remember is that if you do fall ill and you are experiencing moderate to severe altitude sickness, then immediate descent is mandatory. You must seek emergency treatment, even if you feel better upon descent.
Kilimanjaro Search & Rescue (KSAR) operate helicopter evacuation services and a high-altitude medical clinic for Kilimanjaro climbers, open 24/7. Watch our interview with KSAR Founder Ivan Braun if you’d like to learn directly from arguably the most knowledgeable expert on Kilimanjaro safety.
By following these basic steps, you can maximize the chances that your Kilimanjaro climb is a safe and enjoyable experience.
At Fair Voyage, we offer personal travel advice, craft unique climbing experiences to accommodate the needs of each person traveling with you, and exclusively operate all our climbs according to highest safety standards.