Interview with Ivan Braun, founder of Kilimanjaro Search and Rescue (KSAR) on staying safe while climbing Kili: “The worst thing you can do, is being dishonest when asked: “How are you?””
Alexandra Pastollnigg, Fair Voyage founder, interviewed Ivan Braun, the Founder of Kilimanjaro Search & Rescue (KSAR), in November 2019. KSAR is the leading helicopter evacuation service and high-altitude clinic for Mount Kilimanjaro. As such, Ivan Braun knows more about evacuations, altitude sickness and safety on Mount Kilimanjaro than anyone else.
When thinking about the tallest mountain of the African continent, one of the first questions that often comes up is about safety. If you are planning to climb Kilimanjaro, follow Ivan Brauns’ important and possibly life-saving guidelines to have a safe and delightful experience.
- Share any potential symptoms of altitude sickness openly with your guide, at all times.
- Reflect honestly on your health and your level of fitness. Prepare yourself physically for the climb.
- When should you return if you experience symptoms of altitude sickness?
- Increase the length of your route to a minimum of 8 days for safe altitude acclimatization.
- Drink plenty of water, ideally 3 to 5 litres a day, to stay hydrated. Also, remind yourself to eat. You will lose appetite at a high altitude, but your body needs fuel.
- Walk slowly, so your body has time to adjust and you have time to enjoy the views.
- Relax, not every symptom is the beginning of altitude sickness. Your body needs to get used to less oxygen in the air which you might feel in the beginning.
- If you experienced altitude sickness, don’t fly within 24 hours of descending the mountain.
- Go for a short check-up to the altitude clinic, to make sure you are “fit to fly”.
- Don’t fall into the trap of summit blindness.
- Be mindful of loose rocks when it’s raining or snowing, walk slowly to prevent risks of falling.
- Wear proper sunglasses to protect your eyes from snow blindness.
- Obtain travel insurance that covers medical evacuation up to 6,000 metres.
- Read about the evacuation procedure KSAR handles.
“Hiking on Mount Kilimanjaro is like driving a car”
Altitude sickness is the greatest challenge when climbing Kilimanjaro, and this should not be taken lightly. It’s however also not a case of mere bad luck, as your preparation and behaviour take up a large portion in your chances of developing altitude sickness symptoms, to the extent that they could even become life-threatening.
“Hiking on Mount Kilimanjaro is like driving a car. The client self is the one actually starting by setting the safety around himself. Like when you’re driving a car, do you put on your seatbelt?”, Braun tells. “If you as a client are aware of some of the symptoms, and as soon as you feel these symptoms, say a headache, nausea, loss of appetite, I didn’t sleep last night, my urine is very dark and so on, if you keep that for yourself, then you’re putting yourself at risk. It’s like driving a car without a seatbelt. If you put on the seatbelt, if you’re sharing your symptoms, it’s less risky.”
“If you as a client are aware of some of the symptoms, and as soon as you feel these symptoms, say a headache, nausea, loss of appetite, I didn’t sleep last night, my urine is very dark and so on, if you keep that for yourself, then you’re putting yourself at risk.”
It all comes down to honestly sharing symptoms and what you’re experiencing in your own body. Some climbers keep this to themselves, Braun states, and, “that is what makes it potentially dangerous.”
Altitude symptoms can occur with any climber. However, it’s essential to reflect on your level of fitness and health when you are considering climbing Kilimanjaro. “Who am I, and what condition am I in? Have I as a client trained, have I prepared myself, have I prepared my body for this long hike?”, Braun reads.
The crucial point of return: the patient assessment form
Mountain sickness doesn’t happen in an instant but slowly builds up over time. That’s why it’s crucial to honestly share any kind of symptom, even when it’s only very light, with your lead guide. At KSAR, they developed a patient assessment form to keep track of every climber’s health. It’s a questionnaire based on scores, where the guides simply check out symptoms, and if the value is above nine, it’s recommended that they reach out to KSAR.
“The time when you should turn around is when you realize that your life is more important than what you have invested into this climb”, Braun reflects on the assessment form. “The mountain is there next year if you want to come back and redo an attempt.”
“The worst thing you can do as a future climber of Mount Kilimanjaro is to be dishonest when you’re asked: How are you doing?“, Braun emphasizes.
The guides trained by KSAR will at all times keep track of your condition as they are trained to read all symptoms, even when you are not sharing everything. However, “The worst thing you can do as a future climber of Mount Kilimanjaro is to be dishonest when you’re asked: How are you doing?”, Braun emphasizes.
In total, 5,000 licenced guides are working on Kilimanjaro, and KSAR only has trained about 20 % of them. To make sure that you are going to climb with trained guides, KSAR recommends future climbers to ask their tour operators for the patient assessment form. “The book is hands-on evidence that this guide has been trained and knows exactly how to take care of future clients”, Braun emphasizes.
Precautions to avoid altitude sickness
Besides making sure you’re healthy and have a good level of fitness, there are a few other things you can do to drastically reduce your chances of developing mountain sickness symptoms.
The main precaution you can take is increasing the length of your climb to eight days or more. That will allow you to ascend gradually and it leaves enough time for proper acclimatization at each new altitude level. “Everything shorter than eight days has a high risk of anyone ending up in a situation where they need us”, Braun acknowledges. “So the best recommendation I’m giving to everyone coming in the future to climb Kilimanjaro is to set aside the proper time for climbing Kilimanjaro. It’s involved with some costs, but it’s all in the sake of safety.”
“Everything shorter than eight days has a high risk of anyone ending up in a situation where they need us“, Braun acknowledges.
Besides the length of your climb, it’s essential to make sure you stay hydrated and maintain proper food intake. “Between 3 litres and 5 litres a day of any liquid on the mountain, that’s really helpful”, Braun explains. “And, above 4,000 meters, you are likely to lose appetite, so eat, because you have to. Your body needs energy.”
Fortunately, it’s not only about strict rules and recommendations. Walking slowly, enjoying the magnificent views and being relaxed in your body is equally important to make your climb a success.
Commonly, your body might develop some light symptoms since it needs to adjust to the high altitude after all. Some people, for example, experience sleep apnea during their first nights where they wake up suddenly as their body sends a panic signal: wake up. “The body is trying to adjust to the reduction of the oxygen”, Braun explains. “What you have to do is simply tell yourself: I’m on Mount Kilimanjaro, everything is fine, I can go back to sleep.”
However, it’s at all times essential to communicate everything that feels abnormal. “Share it with your guides, the chief guide”, Braun emphasizes. “At the end of the day, he’s the one who is responsible for your safety. His job is not to take you to the summit. Your job is to reach the summit. His job is to make sure it’s safe all the way up and all the way down.”
“Fit to fly” after altitude sickness?
Symptoms of altitude sickness can stay in your body for 12 to 24 hours. So even though you might start to feel better after you start descending, it’s still recommended you go to the clinic for a check-up. “The best part of mountain sickness is that in most cases when you start descending you feel better”, Braun explains. “It’s also the worst part of it because an hour down the mountain you feel strong enough and you start to doubt the decision you made to turn around because all of a sudden your body feels stronger. Don’t do that. There was a reason why you turned around, and that’s the right reason.”
Have the safety check, just to make sure that your symptoms are really out and not just hidden. It’s not just a precaution to have your check-up and have a “fit to fly” form signed. It might be life-saving if you plan to fly right after your climb. Overall it’s recommended to avoid flying within 24 hours after descending with altitude symptoms. Especially domestic flights, for example to Zanzibar or for a fly-in safari to Serengeti, are very risky.
“The best part of mountain sickness is that in most cases when you start descending you feel better“, Braun explains. “It’s also the worst part of it because an hour down the mountain you feel strong enough and you start to doubt the decision you made to turn around because all of a sudden your body feels stronger. Don’t do that.”
“The domestic flights down here, they reach up to ten-eleven thousand feet in unpressurized cabins, and then all of a sudden your body remembers: now I’m back in altitude. And then, for instance, if you’re flying from Moshi or Arusha to Zanzibar in the small caravans, you are likely to suffer mountain sickness when you’re arriving in Zanzibar. The clinic in Zanzibar is not experienced yet in dealing with mountain sickness.” As a result, they might not be able to provide proper treatment.
The clinic and call centre are open 24/7. KSAR picks up patients at the gate and drops them off afterwards at their hotel, depending on the situation of the patient. The only thing they can’t do is to fly out at night. “We have a fairly good ratio of patients picked up from the gate, going to the clinic for a short consultation, and then there’s a follow-up check-up the next day at the hotel or the lodge just to make sure that everything is fine”, Braun explains the procedure.
Summit blindness – the most significant danger when climbing Kilimanjaro
“If you have trained for this, you are actually in good shape, you have proper gear, you made some efforts into planning and reading up and talking with people about this, and you are clinically safe, you don’t have any heart disease or something like that, I would say it’s without any doubt safe to climb Kilimanjaro”, Braun states.
“What makes it less safe”, he continues, “is when people are not honest with themselves. They didn’t do the proper preparations, they didn’t properly train, they didn’t share symptoms on the mountain, they kept on pushing themselves because they got this summit blindness – “I want to reach the summit, regardless of the cost” – that is actually what is the most dangerous thing on Mount Kilimanjaro and any mountain.”
“What makes it less safe“, he continues, “is when people are not honest with themselves. They didn’t do the proper preparations, they didn’t properly train, they didn’t share symptoms on the mountain, they kept on pushing themselves because they got this summit blindness.”
In the event of critical evacuations where climbers are in a serious condition, KSAR always conducts a debriefing, in communication with the guide. These reviews helped KSAR uncover a recurring and worrisome trend. “The client didn’t share any symptoms”, Braun says. “The client started to act very rude and say “I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m paying you to reach the summit, there’s nothing wrong, there’s nothing wrong.” I’m not saying that the guide isn’t playing a role in this, but I’m saying that the clients are playing the biggest role. So if you want to climb Kilimanjaro safely, be honest to yourself and honest to your chief guide.”
What else can happen on the mountain?
Besides being mindful of the risk of mountain sickness, there are a few other things you might want to watch out for. When there’s a lot of rain, rocks can get slippery, so it’s essential to be careful. After mountain sickness, fractures are the second most occurring reason for evacuations.
“What I’m seeing, the people, they are forcing obstacles, they are moving too fast, instead of paying attention to the fact that they are on an unknown territory, they might pass some rocks”, Braun argues. “Pay attention and do it slowly, follow the advice of the guide.”
“What I’m seeing, the people, they are forcing obstacles, they are moving too fast, instead of paying attention to the fact that they are on an unknown territory.”
Another force of nature to be aware of is the sun. “Sunlight reflected at almost 6,000 metres can cause snow blindness. And if you’re not wearing the proper eye protection, sunglasses, or even better, glacier glasses, then you’re putting yourself at risk in developing snow blindness”, Braun explains. “Snow blindness is in most cases a temporary condition, but it’s very painful.”
Of course, it’s also slippery at Mount Kilimanjaro when it snows. However, you usually don’t need crampons as it’s generally speaking not more slippery than at home.
When do you get help from KSAR?
Everyone on the mountain who needs medical evacuation can count on KSAR. It’s however crucial that you have travel insurance that covers medical evacuation up to 6,000 metres. If you don’t, it’s a complicated financial situation afterwards. The second best way to make sure you are safe if you don’t have valid travel insurance, Braun says, “is by bringing a credit card.”
“The only ones we are doing charity evacuation for are your guides, your porters, the cooks and the park rangers”, he continues. “Those who do not have the means to protect themselves.”
Besides having valid insurance, it’s also essential to check with your tour operator if he is working with KSAR.
Besides having valid insurance, it’s also essential to check with your tour operator if he is working with KSAR. Upon arrival in Tanzania, you as a climber must fill in a form known as the climbing manifest. “The climbing manifest is a list of those climbing the mountain with names, date of birth, nationality, insurance company and policy number”, Braun explains, “that data is given to us, so we have the information we need in case of an emergency.”
Update since March 2020: The KSAR helicopter has been temporarily out of service. There are currently no helicopters available for emergency evacuations on Mount Kilimanjaro.
When and how is the evacuation procedure started?
Your guide is trained to monitor your symptoms, and he will take notes daily. “He uses the patient assessment form, and when the score is high enough, he will tell the client: “You are no longer in a condition where you should continue”,” Braun explains.
In this event, but also when something acute happens, the guide contacts KSAR through the domestic toll-free number. Both guides and climbers can call us. KSAR also has radio access to the park rangers, so they can also call them. Sometimes a climber prefers to call the insurance company first. In this case, “the insurance company calls us and says: “Can you save our client?”,” Baun says. “So there is a very solid communication chain on Mount Kilimanjaro. “
“There is a very solid communication chain on Mount Kilimanjaro. “
“Now we have a situation where we need to rescue you”, he continues. “In most cases, we are talking with your insurance company on your behalf. We are relaying the symptoms we have been given, one hundred per cent accurate. And in some cases, we are advising or disadvising the insurance company that this evacuation is needed.”
“Most insurance companies prefer to talk directly with the clients, so they will call the guides, and then the guide will hand you the phone, and then you will talk with your insurance company. And what you should do is simply to repeat the symptoms you have been giving the guide, the guide gave us, explaining how you are feeling, what has happened. Because at that stage, we all want the same. We just have to understand. Then the insurance company comes back to us and says “please go get our client”, and we’re there.”
More info about KSAR
The Kilimanjaro Search and Rescue (KSAR) is the only civil helicopter operator specialized in high altitude complex helicopter rescue and evacuation service. In 92% of the cases of a call for an evacuation, they are able to rescue the patient in need successfully. The other 8% where a patient couldn’t be evacuated, it was due to the weather. The helicopter is only allowed to fly out during the daytime and when it’s not cloudy.
KSAR also operates a High Altitude Medicine Clinic, specialized in mountain medicine, for Mount Kilimanjaro. Here, patients with mountain sickness are treated. It’s the only high-altitude clinic on the African continent. The clinic is operated by Tanzanian doctors, that are being trained in mountain medicine. They are supported by volunteers from all over the world, such as physicians, doctors, and paramedics who have a background and experience in mountain medicine and wilderness medicine.
For any doubts or questions regarding the safety of a future climb of Mount Kilimanjaro or Mount Meru climb or for questions about your tour operator, you are welcome to email KSAR at firstname.lastname@example.org For any questions about your insurance company and your coverage, you are welcome to email KSAR at email@example.com.
Update since March 2020: The KSAR helicopter has been temporarily out of service. There are currently no helicopters available for emergency evacuations on Mount Kilimanjaro.