Mt. Kilimanjaro – How dangerous is it, really?
OK, you’ve been warned…
“But when I say that our sport is a hazardous one, I do not mean that when we climb mountains there is a large chance that we shall be killed, but that we are surrounded by dangers which will kill us if we let them.” George Mallory
Mallory’s comments are in reference to the Himalayan “giants”, but the call for personal responsibility; making good decisions and managing your own situation can be taken to any adventure, including Mt. Kilimanjaro.
Recently, I’ve seen some questions on the BootsnAll, Kilimanjaro blog concerning the level of risk involved in climbing to the roof of Africa and how to handle the negativity from people (like parents) that have only heard about some of the tragedies on the mountain. This article is my attempt to put these issues into perspective and promote safe, successful adventures.
It is true that 8 or 9 trekkers per year die on the mountain from 30,000 attempts. A few of these make the headlines and unfortunately, that is what people remember. Heart attacks and Acute Mountain Sickness are the main reasons. But it is also true that if 60% (18,000) make it to the summit then a whopping 40% (12,000) trekkers, every year, have turned themselves around or been told to turn around and walk off the mountain with everything from knowing they did the very best they could, to crushing disappointment, or perhaps a steeled resolve to return and conquer. In addition, a small number of people have needed rescue.
In the following paragraphs, I will discuss all these different issues so that the first-timers can understand the choices and probabilities for success.
What can kill 8 to 9 people per year?
Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS)
High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE)
High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE)
My son and I were obliged to climb past a dead man on the Western Breach who had died from a heart attack and subsequent fall. It is my understanding that this man was very fit and had been at altitude before. I share this to make the point that some situations are difficult to predict and happen beyond anyone’s control, especially climbing to an altitude of 19,340 feet. The better outfitters require a medical release form signed by your own physician. I’m not a doctor so all I can tell you is I passed my own stress test and went to the mountain knowing that, at least at sea level, I was in good shape. Remember this only happens to maybe 1 or 2 people each year. It is your choice about how best to prepare.
AMS, HACE and HAPE
The website hotlink below was written by Dr. Jim Duff. It discusses AMS, HAPE & HACE in great detail. Any of you who are students of Himalayan climbing history will recognize Dr. Duff’s name from books that chronicle the successful ascent of the South West face of Mt. Everest in 1975. This website should be mandatory reading for anyone climbing to significant altitude. He can certainly explain each of these altitude driven infirmities much better than I can.
6 to 8 people die from AMS, HACE or HAPE every year. It is my opinion that two things happened in most of these cases; the individual did not recognize their own symptoms (common sense is the first thing to go with altitude sickness) and worse, the people charged with guiding them up the mountain and keeping them safe, did not identify the situation and take appropriate action. As you can read on the treksafe.com website, some symptoms are progressive, (e.g., not feeling hungry, then nauseous ness, then vomiting) and other symptoms can appear quite quickly. The better outfitters will monitor your health and take more days to ascend the mountain so they can anticipate trouble and maximize your chances for success. The good ones will also have evacuation protocol and safety equipment that can save your life in an emergency. Conversely, some of the bargain outfitters are not concerned with your health and have even abandoned clients on the trail. In other words, dying from AMS, HACE or HAPE has more to do with choices made prior to the climb concerning your research, selection of outfitter and numbers of days chosen to make your climb than simply being a victim. I agree with many opinions that most deaths are preventable.
All the routes up Mt. Kilimanjaro are non-technical (no mountaineering skills or special gear required) but just like your bathtub at home or your basement stairs; you can take a bad step. Ankle twists and banged knees are far more common that falling off the mountain. Most trails are well trodden, pedestrian and predictable with only a few areas where scrambling (using hands and feet) is necessary at places like the Barranco Wall. Even the, now closed, Western Breach with its famous scrambling sections, would have necessitated a concerted effort to “fall off”, at least that’s what this neophyte from Wisconsin thought.
The greatest danger for falls is probably around Barafu Camp in the middle of the night when you are out for a pee. If you haven’t taken a good look around in the daylight or using your headlamp (and even the light from a headlamp can be deceiving), there are some areas where trouble can be found if you are not careful. But again, knowing your surroundings is not an exclusive Kilimanjaro thing. It is simply common sense.
Getting used to your climbing boots, taking your time and using trekking poles, as this 53 year old did, goes a long way in adding to your confidence on the trail.
This is the very reason the Western Breach was closed in January 2006. When 3 Americans and 5 or 6 guide/porters were killed in a freak rockslide during a snowstorm. I say, “freak” because his particular situation was exasperated by high winds and low visibility so the victims couldn’t hear or see it coming. The Western Breach was probably the most susceptible route to avalanche on the mountain, but the fatalities in 2006 were the only rockslide accidents I ever came across during my research. The best way to minimize the danger is to climb avalanche prone areas when it is coldest, at night or the early morning and your guides should know that.
Even before my son and I left Wisconsin for Africa, I knew the outfitter I’d chosen had the appropriate safety equipment e.g., a cell phone, oxygen, Gamow Bag (artificial pressure chamber), stretcher, an english speaking guide for each of us (this guaranteed we each had an interpreter if one of us had to go down) and most importantly, a evacuation plan. There are guide companies that have none of this and those in between. I knew that going to altitude after 50 years of age was adding additional risk, I was taking my son and neither of us had ever been to significant altitude, so my choice of outfitter was relatively easy. If you are younger and have prior altitude experience you can certainly be more strategic i.e. economical, in your choices. The fact remains that if AMS, HAPE, HACE, heart trouble, a bad appendix or injury strike you, getting down the mountain as quickly as possible is of paramount importance. In our case we had a stretcher available and a plan we never had to use. On our way down we saw the “community” single wheeled contraption used for rescue but someone has to bring it up or go down to retrieve it in an emergency. It doesn’t cost anything to ask some questions while choosing whom you will trust to take you to the roof of Africa and how much risk you are willing take. The decision is yours.
In summation, with all due respect to the families who have suffered a loss, I wish to reiterate that heart attacks, falls and avalanches are very rare indeed. But, Kilimanjaro is 19,340 feet high and any trip to those altitudes comes with some risk. AMS, HAPE & HACE symptoms can be minimized with personal awareness & preparedness, choosing a quality outfitter and picking a climb with enough days to enable good acclimatization. All of these choices can be made even before you leave your home.
Why do 12,000 trekkers fail to reach the summit every year?
The different symptoms from AMS, disillusionment and cold are the main reasons most of the 12,000 trekkers per year turn around and walk off. Individuals with HACE or HAPE cases are, hopefully, carried off the mountain.
To me, this is a much more important issue because it affects 40% of the attempts made on Kilimanjaro. Nobody interviews these 12,000 folks that don’t reach the summit but all of them have spent money to get to Africa and climb the mountain. I’ll wager the majority has come on a “budget”, picked an “affordable” outfitter and chosen the 5 or 6 day climbs clinging to the notion that Kilimanjaro is a non-technical walk-up (which it is) but it’s the altitude and the potential malaise associated with it, which brings people to their knees. I saw people suffering in the high camps myself. You haven’t saved any money if you have to come back for a second attempt, or the cash you think you’ve saved leaves you with lousy memories. It is cliché, but true, you get what you pay for.
The “rule of thumb” for chances of success based on climbing days is as follows; 5-days 50%, 6-days 60%, 7-days 70%, 8-days 80% and 9-day 90% success rate. That is to say, the faster you climb the greater susceptibility you have in getting AMS. No matter how many climbing days you have chosen, you can increase your chances for success by drinking copious amounts of water.
Everyone has different levels of discomfort that they are willing to endure.
AMS symptoms are headache, tiredness/weakness, dizziness, loss of appetite/nausea or vomiting and insomnia/disturbed sleep/frequent waking.
Some hardy trekkers can climb through the headaches, nausea and fatigue but it is no easy task and most of us have never experienced anything like it. Go to the mountain expecting to endure some sort of distress.
If you get wet and cold it can zap all the energy from your body. I’ve heard stories from my own guides about finding somebody else’s clients without rain gear in tennis shoes, freezing their asses off. This only underlines the importance of having the correct gear and decent guides.
If your guide doesn’t speak English (or your language) you have no way of knowing what to expect or the ability to learn things like the correct breathing technique or rest stepping and, more importantly, no encouraging words. Yes, you can buy a trip like that! Do your research!
If your outfitter has cut corners and your diet is mostly starch (which can happen) you are not using the best fuel you could and it will slow you down. Ask questions when talking to possible guide companies about their menu. Look for the vegetables and fruit.
It must also be said that mountaineering is 50% mental. How each person prepares, and their expectations, are the foundation for what they are willing to live through and cope with. Ask the outfitter if you can speak to past clients (I found this very valuable because one of the successful gentlemen was as old and as dumpy as I was…a huge confidence builder).
I’m not lobbying for using only the most expensive outfitters. My mission is to draw awareness to most of the potential obstacles in the way of success. There are many, many choices, but asking good questions and adding an extra day once you’ve popped for the ticket to Africa, bought or rented the gear and hired a guide, will only cost $150 to $300, hardly a high price to pay for a better chance for success.
Lastly, Mt. Kilimanjaro attracts many first-timers because it is non-technical, incredibly beautiful and exotic. But, although it sounds easy, its 19,340-foot height challenges every trekker. Sooner or later, during an ascent of Kilimanjaro, you will find the opportunity to be in a position to have to take a step, which you will consider impossible to take. This is the step that creates the statistics, summit or not. The place most of the 12,000 people per year turn around in disappointment. How you prepare yourself to handle that moment is up to you.
The 18,000 trekkers that take that impossible step and beyond to the summit find an experience best described by the mythical mountaineering icon that I used to begin this missive, George Mallory.
“It is impossible to make any who have not experienced it realize what that thrill means. It proceeds partly from a legitimate joy and pride in life.
(The author climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro in 2004 using the Lemosho/Western Breach route. His first “step” came on the forth day of the climb just above 13,000 feet. AMS symptoms and Lariam (Malaria preventive) side effects combined to convince him he could not continue…his guide talked him though it…thankfully. His second “step” came the morning of the Breach climb knowing they would pass a dead climber on the trail.)
A complete account of the author’s father/son adventure can be found at the following URL;