Mount Kilimanjaro is the tallest mountain in Africa, earning it a place on the famed “Seven Summits” list. In actual fact, it’s comprised of three volcanoes, two of which are extinct and one that is dormant. Despite these impressive details, however, Mount Kilimanjaro is relatively risk-free compared with other mountains of the same height.
Since you don’t need any technical mountaineering skills to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, thousands of hikers flock here every year to try their hand.
Kilimanjaro’s location on the equator means that the weather on the lower slopes doesn’t get quite as cold as other mountains of the same height, and there is no need for crampons or serious climbing gear.
However, there are still a few risks to be aware of if you’re planning to scale Mount Kilimanjaro, and underestimating these risks can be dangerous.
The main risks are altitude sickness, accidents, inclement weather, and rockfall. Let’s take a look at each of these factors.
For every three people who set out to conquer Kilimanjaro, approximately two make it to the summit. The number one reason for climbers having to turn back is altitude sickness.
Altitude sickness is a product of the thinner air, which delivers less oxygen with every breath. It can hit anyone at any time, no matter how young, fit, or healthy you are.
The summit of Mount Kilimanjaro stands at 19,341ft, which is considered extreme high altitude. There’s no way to guarantee that your body will adjust well to the altitude, but you can help prepare for your trip by working on your cardiovascular fitness and doing altitude training, including an acclimatization trek in the region if possible.
Even if you think you’re perfectly healthy, you should visit your doctor and get medical clearance before booking your Kilimanjaro trip.
This is doubly important if you suffer from a pre-existing heart or respiratory condition, or if you’re over the age of 50. It might seem self-evident, but you should avoid smoking, alcohol, and drugs (including sleeping pills) while trekking up Kilimanjaro.
Unlike a mountain like Everest, it’s not necessary to use bottled oxygen to reach the top of Kilimanjaro. We actually recommend against this, as it can mask symptoms of serious altitude sickness.
By contrast, you can ask your doctor about using acetazolamide (Diamox), which physically helps the body acclimatize more quickly. This medicine is quite effective but in some people it can have some unsettling side effects such as tingling fingers and toes.
When ascending a very high mountain, it’s crucial to take your time and let your body acclimatize before attempting to go further, taking rest days where appropriate.
Your body can usually adapt somewhat to the altitude, but not if you ascend too fast, get dehydrated or overexert yourself. That’s where it’s especially important to have a guide who can monitor you closely.
The safest routes on Kilimanjaro are the ones that are at least eight days long, with favorable height profiles that ascend gradually and follow the cardinal mountaineering rule of hiking high and sleeping low. While it’s tempting to sleep at the high-altitude Crater Camp, it’s also very risky, so it’s quite rarely done.
Altitude sickness is heavily dependent on prevention, which is why we put a focus on equipping our guides with the skills and equipment to ensure your safety.
Our mountain guides are certified Wilderness First Responders who are well-versed in first aid and CPR. We perform daily health checks, listening to your lungs, checking your pulse and oxygen saturation levels with a pulse oximeter, and also ask you a series of questions from the Lake Louise Scoring System for Altitude Symptoms to find out how you’re feeling.
Our guides will also pester you constantly to drink water, and remind you to go slowly – “pole pole,” (slowly-slowly) as we say in Tanzania. Communication is key, so don’t hesitate to let your guide know if you or someone else in the group isn’t feeling well.
The good thing about early stage altitude sickness is that it usually gives you warning signs before it gets serious.
Initial symptoms of acute mountain sickness (AMS) may be mild, such as a headache, dizziness, and shortness of breath. If these symptoms get worse, with vomiting and trouble with coordination, you should turn around.
In line with Kilimanjaro National Park regulations, we provide at least one guide per two climbers. This means that if you’re unable to continue for any reason, you can safely be led back down the mountain by a medically-qualified guide while the rest of the group continues the hike.
Some people may not heed all these warning signs, eventually getting to the point where they show severe symptoms.
People with severe altitude sickness are usually confused, disoriented, and unable to walk, with a cough and trouble breathing even at a standstill.
At this point you are in danger of a high-altitude cerebral edema (HACE) and high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE), which refer to the build up of fluid in the lungs and brain. These conditions can be fatal if you don’t descend immediately to a safe altitude and seek medical treatment.
In these cases, you’ll be glad your guides have oxygen tanks and masks (and know how to use them), plus a stretcher so they can get you safely down the hill. Luckily, most routes on Kilimanjaro provide easy access off the mountain.
For extreme emergencies, Kilimanjaro Search and Rescue can provide helicopter evacuations for people with appropriate travel insurance. Not all places on the mountain are accessible for the helicopter, though, and this should definitely be used as a last resort.
As with any hike in a remote location, a seemingly small accident such as a twisted ankle on Kilimanjaro can rapidly turn into a big problem just because it’s that much harder to get to hospital. This is even more serious in case of an actual emergency such as a heart attack.
Most travel insurance doesn’t automatically cover you at such high altitudes, so be sure to take out trekker’s travel insurance that is valid up to 6000m above sea level. It’s also important that your insurance covers you for helicopter rescue, in case you need to be airlifted to a hospital.
Kilimanjaro isn’t as high as Everest, but it’s still subject to very unpredictable weather, with microclimates that bring everything from strong winds to sudden temperature changes.
As always, layers are key, keeping in mind that temperatures can drop below freezing with very little warning. Depending on what time of year you go, you’ll likely find snow and glaciers at the summit.
Make sure you pack according to the list given to you by your tour operator, and don’t hesitate to ask questions in advance.
Don’t forget gloves, warm socks, and a face covering to protect against frostbite and hypothermia – but also make sure to lather up on sunscreen and wear sunglasses, since the sun shines bright up here, and can damage your eyes.
Check out our downloadable packing list for more information.
Kilimanjaro doesn’t really have the dangerous crevasses of other tall mountains, as it consists mostly of rock, and trails don’t cross glaciers or sections covered in ice, but it does have some places with unpredictable rockfall.
This is especially prevalent on the Western Breach and it has taken a few lives, so most tour operators avoid that route. If you did want to climb via the Western Breach, be sure to get in touch with us and discuss your options.
As always when trekking at altitude, there will be drop-offs on certain sections of the trail, although nothing that some basic common sense – and help from your guide – can’t protect you from. While most routes are fairly easy from a technical point of view – it’s a trekking summit – you may get the opportunity to do some rock scrambling, for example at the Barranco Wall.
It’s a shame to religiously follow altitude procedures and pour your heart into choosing the best route, only to fall ill with a stomach bug.
To keep your digestive system in tip-top shape, always make sure your hands are clean before eating, and try to avoid risky food sources such as street vendors, tap water, and fresh fruits and vegetables.
This goes for before your trip as well, unless you want the stomach bug catching up with you when you’re halfway up the mountain.
You can rest assured that the food we prepare for you on the mountain is of the highest quality, and prepared with strict hygiene standards. You can read more about the food and menus on Kili here.
Don’t forget to check the latest information to make sure you’re up-to-date on the required vaccinations.
Malaria is another risk in Tanzania, and although you can’t contract malaria on the mountain, you may need to bring malaria prophylaxis if you are traveling before and after your trek.
If you prepare properly, do your research, and listen to your guide, then climbing Kilimanjaro shouldn’t be too dangerous.
The death rate for tourists is very low, at an estimated 10 people a year, and most of these are due to avoidable altitude problems.
Of course, you never know what tricks Mother Nature might have up her sleeve, and there’s no getting around the fact that you are heading into a remote region with inherent risks. But by practising smart mountain principles, you can minimize the risks and enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
And perhaps most importantly, you need to make sure that you are climbing with a responsible, reputable tour operator who takes your health and safety on the mountain very seriously.
When you book a trek with us, you are guaranteed to have the best trained and qualified guides on the mountain to give you every opportunity to enjoy a safe summit – and more importantly – a safe return home.
Get in touch with our friendly team today who are happy to answer any of your questions and can help you plan your trip of a lifetime!
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