Did you know that upwards of 50 percent of people who try to climb Mount Kilimanjaro develop symptoms of altitude sickness or Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS)? While mild in many cases, unchecked AMS can develop into High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) or High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE), both of which can prove fatal if left untreated.
Fortunately, with the right precautions and a better understanding of AMS, you can take steps to avoid altitude sickness. Read on to learn more about AMS and how to avoid it while making the trek up Mount Kilimanjaro.
The height of Kilimanjaro measures about 5,895 meters (19,341 feet) above sea level. This makes it the highest mountain in Africa. A stratovolcano, Mount Kilimanjaro contains three separate volcanic cones:
While Shira and Mawenzi are extinct, Kibo remains dormant and capable of erupting again. Of the Seven Summits, Kilimanjaro ranks the fourth highest. It’s also the tallest freestanding mountain in the world.
Located in the Kilimanjaro National Park, Mount Kilimanjaro remains a major climbing destination. Between 35,000 to 50,000 people attempt to summit the mountain each year.
At about 5,895 meters (19,341 feet) above sea level, it’s little wonder that many hikers suffer from AMS while climbing. But what leads some people to experience these symptoms and not others? It has more to do with how you make the climb than factors such as gender, age, or fitness level.
In fact, young, fit men are among the most likely to develop AMS. Why? Because they push too hard and don’t give their bodies time to adjust to elevation changes.
That said, certain pre-existing conditions can make you more likely to develop AMS. You should consult with your healthcare provider for more details about these conditions before deciding to trek the mountain.
Some hikers mistakenly think they can push through the symptoms of AMS. But that’s the worst thing that you can try to do. Minimizing and/or avoiding AMS has nothing to do with endurance or toughness.
Don’t grin and bear the pain. Or, worse yet, try to push through your body’s limitations.
Some trekkers try to speed up their ascent to “outrun” AMS. But that’s the worst decision you’ll ever make. You can’t outrun it, and your attempt to do so will trigger the onset of symptoms.
Ascending Kilimanjaro represents a study in patience. To gain victory over the mountain, you must prepare beforehand and take your time climbing.
After all, with each rise in elevation, your body has less oxygen to draw upon. So, the air’s getting thinner yet you’re still exerting yourself. Your body can adjust, but it needs time to do so.
Anybody can experience acute AMS when they climb too rapidly and stay more than 12 hours above 2500 meters (8,200 feet). Your rise in altitude during any given 24 hour period represents the ultimate determining factor when it comes to developing AMS. Once you pass 3,000 meters (about 9800 feet), your chances of getting AMS increase each time you climb more than 300 meters (980 feet) between camps.
The symptoms of AMS include:
Many hikers will experience some of these symptoms during their time on the mountain. Take these symptoms seriously and give your body time to rest and recover.
At higher elevations, it’s hard for your body to get enough oxygen, hence the onset of AMS. Consider these symptoms a warning sign that you need to back off the pace a bit. If the symptoms don’t subside, seek a lower elevation.
Whatever you do, don’t try to continue your ascent! What’s more, if the symptoms evolve into any of the following, it’s time for an assisted descent:
If you ignore the symptoms of AMS, HAPE, or HACE, this decision could cost you your life. There are no “tough guys and gals” on Mountain Kilimanjaro when it comes to altitude sickness.
Among the most important things you can do prior to climbing Kilimanjaro is give your body plenty of time to acclimatize to higher elevations. If possible, spend time training at elevations of increasing height before you ever reach Tanzania. Experts also recommend climbing nearby Mount Meru first in order to prepare your body for the rigors of Kilimanjaro.
Factors like stress, fatigue, and illness can predispose you to AMS. So, make sure that you feel healthy, thoroughly rested, and calm before making the climb. The better your health, the more likely you’ll avoid AMS.
Of course, that doesn’t mean you should start pushing up the mountain at a frenetic pace. Remember what we said about young, fit men as most likely to suffer from AMS? They go too fast and ignore their body’s limits.
Kilimanjaro represents a challenging climb. You must respect the mountain and listen to your body. As they say on the mountain, “Pole, pole or poor poor!” Take it slow and give your body time to recover or risk feeling “poor.”
As you make the ascent, your body will burn through calories at an accelerated rate. Make sure that you eat well–and as much as possible–at every meal. That way, you’ll ensure your body has a steady supply of energy as well as enough extra fuel to keep you warm.
Along with eating enough, it’s essential that you stay well-hydrated. High altitude environments dehydrate the body and prevent you from acclimatizing. So, push plenty of fluids and avoid alcohol.
Just like acclimatizing your body to higher elevations, you need to prepare yourself physically and mentally for sleeping in a tent. Don’t let Kilimanjaro be the first time you test out your tent and sleeping bag. Weeks before your departure, use your tent and sleeping bag for a few nights outside to get used to a restful sleep no matter where you lay your head.
You should also look into hiring a porter to carry your backpack. Many guides and climbers swear by this simple choice to avoid AMS. Most climbing agencies will assume you want this arrangement anyway.
Finally, dress warmly and in layers. Every ounce of your body’s energy needs to go towards making the climb, not staying warm. With the right clothing, you conserve energy and make your ascent more successful.
So much of climbing remains mental. Don’t psyche yourself out and start assuming that every headache you get or cough you have indicates a life-threatening condition. Once you get on the mountain, listen to your body keep your thoughts positive and constructive.
Mild AMS doesn’t feel great. It’s akin to a hangover. So, listen to your body and take extra time to rest and recover.
The two simple acts of relaxing and thinking positively will up your odds of a successful climb. Focus on reaching the summit at a slow, steady pace. The tortoise wins this race, not the rabbit.
The best way to avoid altitude sickness on Mount Kilimanjaro is by ascending no more than 300 meters (980 feet) per day once you pass the 3000 meter (about 9800 feet) mark. But these guidelines for extreme mountain trekking often prove impossible to respect on the mountain.
Why? Because Kilimanjaro National Park charges by the day rather than by the climb.
As a result, tour guides feel compelled to move you through the trek at a faster pace than recommended. What’s more, spending the time required to honor these changes in elevation proves impractical for most travelers.
Some trekkers use Acetazolamide (Diamox) to avoid the symptoms of elevation sickness while making an ascent that exceeds the guidelines above. But you should still make your climb as gradual as possible. Acetazolamide is no wonder drug and shouldn’t be used to replace a slow climb.
How does it work? Acetazolamide stimulates respiration by acting on an acid-base balance. While taking it make sure you stay well-hydrated.
For adults, doses include 125 mg to 250 mg two times a day. You should begin taking this medicine 24 hours before your climb and stop two days into your trip during the period when acclimatization happens. Do NOT give this medication to children.
For mild cases of AMS, ibuprofen can be taken to relieve headaches. But avoid sleeping pills.
Those who develop HAPE or HACE require an immediate descent of 1,000 meters (about 3300 feet) and oxygen, if available. Depending on the severity of their condition, they may need an emergency evacuation.
Medicines administered to treat HACE include:
To treat HAPE, doctors may give Nifedipine (20 mg).
Avoiding altitude sickness requires patience, preparation, and knowledge. With a better understanding of what causes AMS and how to avoid it, you can take practical measures to ensure your ascent of Mount Kilimanjaro remains safe and successful.
Interested in more tips for climbing Kilimanjaro? Follow our travel tips blog to stay on top of the latest trends in African adventure travel.
At Awe Safari we specialize in unforgettable African journeys. From custom safaris to climbing expeditions, we’re here to ensure your next trip to Africa proves unique and exhilarating.