Altitude: What To Expect (& What You Can Do)
Of all the seven summits, Kilimanjaro is the most achievable for a non-climber. Summiting doesn’t require any technical mountaineering skill, and the majority of the trek is no more demanding than a rigorous hike.
But perhaps because of this, trekkers often underestimate the real challenges they’ll face on the mountain, the most serious (and most likely) of which is altitude.
What Happens at Altitude
At 19,341 feet, Kilimanjaro is well into the “extreme altitude” range, which means trekkers should expect to feel at least minor symptoms of altitude sickness:
- Low appetite, nausea, and headaches are all common effects of altitude on the body. Most of the time these symptoms are nothing to worry about, but trekkers should always report them to the head guide, who will know best how to address them, and whether they’re indicators of something more serious.
- Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) is a risk climbers should be aware of. Without proper acclimatization time, trekkers can develop High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE), a buildup of fluid in the lungs, or High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE), swelling of the brain. While HAPE and HACE aren’t common, they can be dangerous, even deadly, so it is imperative to trek with guides trained in high-altitude medicine and mountainside evacuation.
What Thomson Does to Keep You Safe:
Safety is our number one concern on every single trek, and your team goes the extra mile to keep you safer on the mountain:
- Your guides are trained as Wilderness First Responders (not just in the use of first aid). They know how to recognize the signs of AMS, differentiate between regular symptoms of altitude vs. potentially serious problems, and deliver the proper care to ensure climber safety.
- Every day your guide will do a full medical check to ascertain whether you’re acclimatizing properly, staying hydrated, and that any symptoms you’re experiencing are normal, and will advise you on any necessary treatments.
- Thomson has more medical equipment than any other organization in Tanzania, including Gamov bags (for emergency oxygenation), portable defibrillators (AEDs), a litter (to stabilize the neck and spine if necessary), and pulse oximeters (which help measure oxygen saturation, a sign of how your body is dealing with altitude). If and when this equipment is needed, your guides are trained to use it quickly and effectively.
- Thomson has 98% summit success on Kilimanjaro, but there are times when descent is the best and safest option. Guides are trained to recognize the rare cases when this is necessary, and will accompany any trekker who needs to descend down the mountain, where staff will be waiting to administer further treatment as needed.
What You Can Do:
It’s important to remember that while you can (and should) train for your trek, there’s no way to “train” for altitude. There are, however, a few things you can do while on the mountain to give yourself the best shot at summit success:
- The single most important factor for success at altitude is acclimatization time. A longer trek gives your body the time it needs to adapt to conditions on the mountain. For the best chances of summiting, choose the longest route that works for you.
- Stay hydrated. While it may sound basic, drinking ample fluids on the mountain (more than you’d imagine you’ll need) can help fight mild altitude symptoms. (Don’t worry: you’ll have access to unlimited PUR water on the mountain).
- Talk to your doctor about medications that may help, like acetazolamide (Diamox) or even Ibuprofen, which has been shown to lessen the symptoms of altitude.
- Don’t give up: a bad day is normal, and it doesn’t mean you won’t summit. Many trekkers experience symptoms of altitude that lessen, or even disappear, further up the mountain.
- Learn more about altitude and its effects on our blog.