Preventing Altitude Sickness when Climbing Kilimanjaro
It is not the lack of fitness that prevents people from reaching the summit of Kilimanjaro, it’s altitude sickness!
If you reach the top of Kilimanjaro depends more than anything else on how you cope with the altitude.
And how you cope with the altitude is not a matter of random luck!
There are many things you can do to avoid the symptoms of acute mountain sickness when climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.
Does altitude sickness strike at random?
When you research altitude sickness you often read that it affects people randomly, regardless of age or fitness level.
You may also come across data giving percentage numbers for how many people develop dangerous altitude sickness symptoms at certain heights, and the numbers may look scary.
You have to understand how researchers get these numbers.
Scientific studies of altitude sickness are done by taking number of people from sea level to a certain altitude and then measuring how they react. Yes, they react randomly, and yes, if you take someone from sea level directly to 3500 metres then there is a good chance that they won’t feel too sprightly at the end of the day.
The difference during a Kilimanjaro climb is that hopefully you will NOT take yourself from sea level to 3500 metres that fast.
The key to preventing altitude sickness on Kilimanjaro is taking your time. Altitude sickness is not just a result of the absolute height you are at, it also depends how fast you got there!
Even though our susceptibility to extreme altitude varies and is impossible to predict, we do know that the body adjusts to it eventually. There are many things you can do before and during a Kilimanjaro climb that will lessen the risk of altitudesicknesssymptoms.
Choose the right route for your Kilimanjaro climb
Most people book their Kilimanjaro climb well ahead, and this is where you can make the first mistake.
There are several climb routes up Kilimanjaro, and there is a huge number of operators. A Kilimanjaro climb is expensive, so it’s tempting to look for the cheapest deal.
The cheapest Kilimanjaro climbs are also the shortest. Every day on the mountain will add a few hundred dollars to the price. It is possible to book a five day or even four day climb, and it would be a mistake to do so.
No responsible operator should be offering four day climbs to people who have no previous experience at high altitude trekking and are not acclimatised.
The (admittedly highly unreliable) statistics from the registration books at Mount Kilimanjaro National Park indicate that of all climbers on five day routes, only little over a quarter reach the summit!
All the five day routes offer an opportunity to add an extra day for acclimatization. Do spend the money on that extra day!
If you want to increase your chances of reaching the summit further, consider choosing one of the longer routes.
(Though this is only recommended for people who are used to camping out. If you aren’t and if you don’t like it or don’t sleep well in a tent, then a longer Kilimanjaro trek can have a negative effect.)
The right operator for a Kilimanjaro climb
When you compare prices for Kilimanjaro climbs you will find huge differences between operators. Again, there is the temptation to look for a cheap deal.
But on Kilimanjaro you will get what you pay for.
The quality of your guides, of your equipment, of your food, all that is reflected in the price and all that influences your chances of reaching the summit.
Operators who cut costs at every corner do not have your best interest in mind. They only want you to book with them, they do not care if you reach the top and they do not care if it will be an experience that you’ll want to remember!
And there is something else to keep in mind: the low budget “cowboy” operators not only have lower success rates, there is also a bigger risk that something goes seriously wrong. And on Kilimanjaro that can mean that someone dies.
Preparing for a Kilimanjaro climb
Most people prepare for Kilimanjaro with fitness training. While getting reasonably fit makes sense, the gym work outs or sprinting up flights of stair etc. will not prepare your body for the demands of a Kilimanjaro climb.
You do need to get your body used to walking for several hours in uneven country, for several days. But any fitness training beyond that will not increase your chances to reach the summit.
It’s the altitude that will get you, not your lack of fitness.
So, if you can, expose your body to some altitude before you tackle Kilimanjaro:
If you are living somewhere near mountains, climb them! If there is a chance to overnight at higher altitude, do it. (Note that for this to make a difference it needs to happen right before your Kili climb.)
Some people do acclimatization treks on Mt. Kenya or Mt. Meru before they climb Kilimanjaro. We did and can recommend it, but only for people with some previous trekking experience. Otherwise it may backfire. Read more about it here: Meru and Kilimanjaro.
There are other options: some operators offer cultural tours in the Kilimanjaro foothills, there are walking safaris in the crater highlands…
No matter where you will be staying, definitely fly in a couple of days early before your climb
Give your body time to adjust to the different climate, the food, to recover from the strains of a long-haul flight and to get over the jet lag if you came from a different time zone.
Arriving early can improve your chances of reaching the summit by five percent or more.