Ten Things You Need To Know About Climbing Kilimanjaro
Kili is a big mountain
It soars at its highest point to 19340ft. It is among the seven continental giants, and sits high on the global mountaineering must do list for anyone claiming the status of a mountain enthusiast. It is, however, one of the easiest of the Big Seven. That is not to say it is a walkover, far from it, but it is less a mountaineering experience that an extended trek, and as a consequence it is one of the few big mountains of the world that almost anyone of moderate fitness has a fighting chance of summiting.
Kili is not a cheap mountain to climb
Tanzania is home to some of the world’s premier wildlife parks and nature conservancies, and as a poor country it relies more on tourism dollars than government grants to sustain this heritage. Added to this the use of local guides and porters is mandatory. This is part of a general effort by the Tanzanian authorities to insure that local people are not insulated from the benefits accrued by tourism. So as you part with your dollars to make this climb, take comfort from the knowledge that your are contributing directly to the maintenance of the local ecology, and the support of local communities.
Guides are as a rule trained up to first aid level. This allows them to dress wounds, administer CPR and to dispense non-prescription painkillers while they await the arrival or paramedics. 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 advisable to carry a small 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
Emergency rescue procedures on the mountain are the shared responsibility of the Tanzanian National Parks Authority and the individual operators conducting any particular trip. Each climber pays a US$20 rescue levy that covers the eventuality of evacuation. Trained rescue personnel are posted at all the camps above 3000m. Rescue is usually a bumpy ride down on a single wheeled gurney. This is an incentive to avoid injury.
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 along the Serengeti/Ngorongoro axis, many private aircraft are stationed in the area at any given time for tourist use, allowing for almost guaranteed availability in the instance of a serious situation.
Certain operators make use of Global Rescue services which is an international rescue facility offering medical evacuation and emergency response to members under more or less any circumstances, with the potential for hot extraction from the mountainside, usually in combination with a local aircraft supplier.
The water in the steams and rivers along the way is clean and usually palatable, but as a precaution a portable water filter is an excellent item of personal baggage, along with water purification tablets. If you do drink the water directly from the streams, try and make a point of selecting small, peripheral watercourses that feed into the main rivers, the smaller the better. This is not only the best tasting water, but is likely to be the most recently filtered through the soil, and the cleanest. Make sure that the water provided for drinking by your support crew has been boiled.
Even if the bulk of your kit is 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.
Usually your operator is responsible for all food on the trail, and it will often be stated that you need bring no supplements. However almost always this does not include snacks, chocolate bars, trail mixes etc that you might require en-route, and certainly not electrolytes, dietary supplement or vitamins. It also rarely includes alcohol. Vegetarianism is an understood concept in rural Africa, and so a specific vegetarian menu preference is easy to accommodate. Veganism, on the other hand, is less well understood, and might require careful monitoring. Food on the whole is basic.
The ascent up Kilimanjaro is gradual, which helps considerably in becoming accustomed to increases in altitude. Kilimanjaro rises above the 18000ft level which exposes climbers to the risk of cerebral (brain swelling) or pulmonary (fluid build up in the lungs) edema. 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.
Despite being one of the world’s major mountains, Kilimanjaro is a relatively easy climb, and for the most part a benign environment. You do not require alpine level kit, high altitude trekking gear will be sufficient. A good gore-tex system, an intermediate sleeping bag and a good sleeping mat will make all the difference.
This can be a very difficult part of your climb. The guides and porters you have with you will by the time they conduct your trip have had plenty of experience in squeezing the maximum gratuity out of weary, and sometimes over-emotional climbers. Tactics from long faces to tears will be employed to stimulate your generosity, and 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. Never hand over the whole lot to your guide to dole out to the porters. The odds are very high that they will get pennies, if anything, and he will keep the lot.
Added to this your crew will often try and secure bits of your kit as an added bonus. This is your call, but bear in mind it is a lucrative side business and is not always related to desperate need.
Tipping must reflect the degree to which you are satisfied, and if you are not satisfied, it is perfectly fair to make that point by being selective about who you tip.
There tend to be few unsatisfied customers at the end of a Kili climb though.