An Altitude Reality Check On Kilimanjaro: The Mountain Of Greatness

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Kilimanjaro (19,341 feet/5,895 meters) may be considered a high-altitude “starter mountain” for climbers, but summiting the “Mountain of Greatness” is no easy task.

It doesn’t require technical climbing skills, ropes, ice axes, harnesses, or other specialized equipment. Depending on the season and the weather, micro-spikes may be needed by individuals reaching the upper slopes if they are snow-covered.

The greatest challenge for most climbers to reach the top of Africa’s highest peak is the altitude.
“While it’s true that Kilimanjaro is accessible to a wide range of people, adequate physical preparation is essential, especially for those without a background in hiking,” said Alex Altezza, CEO of Altezza Travel.

“On Kilimanjaro, climbers typically walk six to eight miles daily, and on the summit night, this can extend to 10 to 15 miles, with much of it uphill. Achieving this feat requires at least an average fitness level,” he said.

Rescue operations on Kilimanjaro by Global Rescue’s expert medical rescue personnel have been taking place for years, and many of the rescue operations are triggered by respiratory problems brought on by the altitude.

In 2011, Global Rescue executed a field rescue for a physician experiencing severe shortness of breath, chest pains and other signs of life-threatening illness as she was climbing the mountain.
About two-thirds of the way to the summit, Michele Donsky complained of tightness in her chest and extreme difficulty breathing. The 55-year-old marathon runner could only speak one or two words at a time before she began wheezing. Her climbing guide, Eddie Frank, owner of Tusker Trail, contacted Global Rescue and an airborne medical evacuation was initiated.

Donsky was transported to a nearby hospital whereupon her condition improved quickly at the lower altitude. She was evaluated by local doctors and maintained regular communication with Global Rescue medical operations staff.

“It was very reassuring to be able to hear the Global Rescue doctor’s voice on the satellite phone and to know that he was making sound decisions for me,” Donsky said. “I had the utmost trust and confidence in him and his team. I would never want to be without this kind of help in this situation, and it would not have been possible had I not signed up with Global Rescue.”
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In 2024, A U.S. member needed field rescue after experiencing shortness of breath and vomiting blood while in Karanga Camp, Tanzania, for a Kilimanjaro summit attempt. Global Rescue medical operations spoke with him and the expedition guide and confirmed the member’s cough produced blood-tinged phlegm, and that his breathing difficulty had started earlier in the day.

Due to the severity of his condition, Global Rescue medical operations personnel initiated a helicopter field rescue. The member was successfully evacuated and evaluated at a local hospital in Arusha where he was diagnosed with pneumonia and prescribed antibiotics. He was scheduled to return home to the U.S. to continue his recovery.

Even legendary high-altitude mountaineer, Ed Viesturs, and his Kilimanjaro expedition team opted for Diamox – a common prescription medicine that prevents symptoms of altitude sickness — during his inaugural Kilimanjaro summit in the early spring of 2024.

Viesturs’ team climbed during the rainy off-season and made a rapid, four-day ascent. “Diamox was used prophylactically by the team to help prevent any altitude-related issues. This is not a recommended way to shorten an ascent of a high peak, but we understood the risks. In the end, all went well, and we had no issues,” he said.

Underestimating the altitude impact and the physical challenges of Mount Kilimanjaro is one of the biggest mistakes new climbers make, according to Altezza.

“Many companies market Kilimanjaro as an easy climb, attracting individuals not adequately prepared for the mountain’s demands. This often leads to individuals making impulsive decisions to sign up, without properly preparing themselves physically for the trek.”

Altezza, who has been leading Kilimanjaro expeditions since 2014, said summitting the mountain is a feat that “requires at least an average level of fitness.”

Despite the challenges, participation in mountaineering, trekking, and other high-altitude activities has seen rapid increases in recent years in the Rockies, the Himalayas, the Andes, and Kilimanjaro.

Altezza’s business records reflect the same escalation in the number of climbers on Kilimanjaro. His data also shows a steady uptick in women climbing.

“Among the 2,997 climbers we examined in 2023, 40% (1,204) were women. This distribution indicates that while men continue to represent the majority of climbers, the proportion of female climbers is on a steady rise compared to previous years,” Altezza said.

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Whether you’re climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, heli-skiing in the Andes, or trekking the Camino de Santiago, you’ll have access to 24/7/365 medical advisory services, field rescue from the point of injury, and medical evacuation to the nearest hospital or home hospital of choice.

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First time I climbed Kili was 1996 at 27 years old. I have climbed it many times since. The last time I was 51 years old and felt better than I did at 27. Of course I live at 7400 feet ASL. that might help
 
I've summited Kili' twice. First at age 35, and again at age 54.
Both times taking the Marangu Route on a short timeline. . . five days on the mountain, three and a half days up, and a day and a half down. Both times I was living full time at ~8,000 feet in Addis Ababa and physically active. Acclimatized to 8,000 feet, Diamox may have been unnecessary, but I can't confirm that as I took it both times.
Strangely enough it was easier the second time.
I am not an expert, but after seeing and talking with a number of other climbers that both reached, and failed to reach the summit, it seems to me that it is your mind that gets you up the mountain . . . more so than your legs. Determination is more important that fitness. I suppose that is the case with meeting any challenge . . . . determination, fortitude, discipline (or lack thereof) outweighs other advantages or disadvantages.
 
We are not on a mountaineering forum, so I don't want to say too much about the topic, but above all fitness is the priority. Determination is certainly also more important for high altitude mountaineering, but If you don't have an above-average fitness, you don't need to think about high altitude mountaineering. The problems that comes are inevitable. Climbing at the top of the Kilimanjaro is not real high altitude mountaineering. If you need technical means to reach a high summit, things look completely different. As soon as you reach a certain high level, you can forget about help from elsewhere and are on your own. Nevertheless, you should take out a good insurance before, no matter how good your fitness or your determination.
 
The extreme altitude climbs I’ve done. Above 20,000 feet to 27,000 feet I’ve learned that no one can predict who will handle the acclimation better than the next guy. There are so many variables. Being fit definitely helps. But isn’t a guarantee.

Judgement is as or more important than desire or determination. Similar to what makes a safe pilot.

You can acclimate well on 30 climbs then on the 31st suffer from HAPE or HACE

I have suffered headaches at 10,000 feet and another time ran trails for extended periods above 15,000 without issue. Every time can be different.
 
Despite being far more fit than the other climbers, I was simply not able to go above 16,000 feet. A lady that had probably never exercised in her life, helped me climb down. Very embarrassing. Just as @Altitude sickness states........you can't easily predict how you'll do on a climb......FWB
 
My daughter and her boyfriend climbed Kili in February of 2023, up the Rongai Route. They are in their 30’s and both are Ultra Marathon runners, so in superb shape.

They took 6 days to summit, with the last climb being a very fast ascent to be the first at the summit that morning and they wanted to see the sun come up. My daughter had altitude sickness the last thousand feet or so, with nausea and a pounding headache.

At the summit her boyfriend proposed to her, in Swahili. She couldn’t understand him so he produced the ring, they took some photos of their engagement and the sunrise, then she literally ran down the mountain, puking twice on her way back to 16,500 elevation.

I had gotten them a Global Rescue policy, fortunately they did not need it.
 
That mountain is considered technically very easy. But at 19,000 feet the altitude can still kill you if your body doesn’t acclimate well.
 

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