Health and Safety on your climb of Mount Kilimanjaro

Most people who have done a bit of reading or research into high altitude climbing will have read about Mountain Sickness. For those who have not, or for those that want some more information, we have provided this section giving a good overview of mountain sickness and how to prevent it while climbing Mount Kilimanjaro

Mountain Sickness on Mount Kilimanjaro

Mountain sickness is the effects of lack of oxygen on the body. All your organs need oxygen to survive and when the body doesn’t get enough, problems arise. As you gain altitude, the air pressure drops and as it drops your body takes in less air and therefore less oxygen with each breath. To counteract this, your body begins to adapt. Your breathing and heart rate increases and your body makes more red blood cells to carry oxygen. While your breathing and heart rate can change very quickly, the crucial extra red blood cells take a few days to form. Climb too far too fast before this process gets properly under way and the result is AMS (Acute mountain Sickness).

Symptoms of Altitude Sickness

Mild symptons include:

  • Headaches*
  • Fatigue or weakness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Dizziness or light-headedness
  • Insomnia
  • Pins and needles
  • Shortness of breath upon exertion
  • Drowsiness
  • Persistent rapid pulse
  • Peripheral edema (swelling of hands, feet, and face)

*Although headaches are a primary symptom used to diagnose altitude sickness, it is also a symptom of dehydration which can easily occur whilst climbing.

Life-threatening symptoms include:

  • Pulmonary Edema - Fluid in the lungs, the symptoms of which are a persistent dry cough, fever and shortness of breath even whilst resting.
  • Cerebral Edema - Swelling of the brain, the symptoms of which are a headache that does not respond to pain killers, unsteady gait, increased vomiting and gradual loss of consciousness.

Because visitors ascend Kilimanjaro at a slow rate, and start walking from a low altitude, the serious problems associated with high altitude acclimatization are less frequently encountered. However, The incidence of appetite loss, headache, nausea and vomiting are higher, affecting to a greater or lesser extent, 80% or more of the visitors to the Kibo Hut / Barafu area (4 600m) and above. It should be noted that the majority have very mild symptoms, which can be treated on site.

Preventing AMS and enjoying your climb of Mount Kilimanjaro

It is important to note that almost all severe cases of altitude sickness on Mount Kilimanjaro are climbers on a shoestring budget who have cut days to save money (a false economy as the chances of reaching the summit fall dramatically if days are cut from the ascent). For information on Diamox see our inoculations and tablets page.

Pole Pole!

The unofficial motto of Mount Kilimanjaro is Pole Pole, meaning slowly slowly in Swahili. By taking your time and enjoying the climb each day, taking plenty of rest stops and photographs, and also drinking 3-4 litres of water a day you can minimize the effects of mountain sickness. By far the best way to aid acclimatization and to give you the best possible shot for the summit is to take a rest day. A rest day involves a short morning trek to a higher altitude for lunch before returning to camp, or else heading for one lesser-visited camps for some extra exploring and to spend the night before rejoining the main trail. There are some beautiful walks across the Shira Plateau and camps at the Western Breach and Mawenzi can be used for acclimatization, as well as providing spectacular views most climbers don’t get to see. Taking it slow, eating well, resting well and taking a drink every few minutes (the platypus-style water bags that go in your pack and allow you to drink hands-free are very useful for this) will go a long way to getting you up the mountain and making your time as enjoyable as possible.

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