Climbing Kilimanjaro is probably one of the most dangerous things you will ever do. Every year, approximately 1,000 people are evacuated from the mountain, and approximately 10 deaths are reported. The main cause of death is altitude sickness. Everyone climbing Mount Kilimanjaro should be familiar with the symptoms of altitude sickness.
The percentage of oxygen in the atmosphere at sea level is about 21%. As altitude increases, the percentage remains the same but the number of oxygen molecules per breath is reduced. At 12,000 feet (3,600 m) there are roughly 40% fewer oxygen molecules per breath so the body must adjust to having less oxygen. AMS is caused by the failure of the body to adapt quickly enough to the reduced oxygen at increased altitudes. Altitude sickness can occur in some people as low as 8,000 feet, but serious symptoms do not usually occur until over 12,000 feet. It is not the height that is most troublesome, but the rate of ascension. It is difficult to determine who may be affected by altitude sickness since there are no specific factors such as age, sex, or physical condition that correlate with susceptibility.
At over 10,000 feet (3,000 m), more than 75% of climbers will experience at least some form of mild AMS.
There are four factors related to AMS:
The main cause of altitude sickness is going too high (altitude) too quickly (rate of ascent). Given enough time, your body will adapt to the decrease in oxygen at a specific altitude. This process is known as acclimatization and generally takes one to three days at any given altitude. Several changes take place in the body which enable it to cope with decreased oxygen:
AMS is very common at high altitude. Many people will experience mild AMS
during the acclimatization process. The symptoms usually start 12 to 24
hours after arrival at altitude and will normally disappear within 48 hours.
The symptoms of Mild AMS include:
Symptoms tend to be worse at night and when respiratory drive is decreased. Mild AMS does not interfere with normal activity and symptoms generally subside as the body acclimatizes. As long as symptoms are mild, and only a nuisance, ascent can continue at a moderate rate.
While hiking, it is essential that you communicate any symptoms of illness immediately to others on your trip.
signs and symptoms of Moderate AMS include:
Normal activity is difficult, although the person may still be able to walk on their own. At this stage, only advanced medications or descent can reverse the problem. It is important to get the person to descend before the ataxia reaches the point where they cannot walk on their own (which would necessitate a stretcher evacuation). Descending only 1,000 feet (300 m) will result in some improvement, and 24 hours at the lower altitude will result in a significant improvement. The person should remain at lower altitude until all the symptoms have subsided. At this point, the person has become acclimatized to that altitude and can begin ascending again.
on to higher altitude while experiencing moderate AMS can lead to death.
AMS results in an increase in the severity of the aforementioned symptoms
AMS requires immediate descent of around 2,000 feet (600 m) to a lower altitude.
There are two serious conditions associated with severe altitude sickness;
High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) and High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE).
Both of these happen less frequently, especially to those who are properly
acclimatized. But, when they do occur, it is usually in people going too
high too fast or going very high and staying there. In both cases the lack
of oxygen results in leakage of fluid through the capillary walls into either
the lungs or the brain.
HAPE results from fluid build up in the lungs. This fluid prevents effective oxygen exchange. As the condition becomes more severe, the level of oxygen in the bloodstream decreases, which leads to cyanosis, impaired cerebral function, and death. Symptoms of HAPE include:
Confusion, and irrational behavior are signs that insufficient oxygen is reaching the brain. In cases of HAPE, immediate descent of around 2,000 feet (600 m) is a necessary life-saving measure. Anyone suffering from HAPE must be evacuated to a medical facility for proper follow-up treatment.
is the result of the swelling of brain tissue from fluid leakage. Symptoms
of HACE include:
This condition is rapidly fatal unless the afflicted person experiences immediate descent. Anyone suffering from HACE must be evacuated to a medical facility for follow-up treatment.
The following are recommended to achieving acclimatization:
Our guides are all experienced in identifying altitude sickness and dealing with the problems it causes with climbers. He will constantly monitor your well-being on the climb by watching you and speaking with you. It is important that you be open, active and honest with your guide. If you do not feel well, do not try to pretend you are fine and mask your symptoms and say you feel OK. Only with accurate information can your guide best treat you.
some cases, you may be asked to descend to a lower altitude temporarily
to see if the altitude sickness subsides, and if it does, you may continue
your climb. Of course, there is always the chance that you will have to
abandon your climb. In these situations, the guide will tell you to descend.
It is not a request, but an order. Do not try to convince him with words,
threats or money to continue your climb. The guide wants you to succeed
on your climb, but will not jeopardize your health. Respect the decision
of the guide.
Diamox (generic name acetazolamide) is an F.D.A. approved drug for the prevention and treatment of AMS. The medication acidifies the blood, which causes an increase in respiration, thus accelerating acclimatization. Diamox does not disguise symptoms of altitude sickness, it prevents it. Studies have shown that Diamox at a dose of 250 mg every eight to twelve hours before and during rapid ascent to altitude results in fewer and/or less severe symptoms of acute mountain sickness (AMS). The medicine should be continued until you are below the altitude where symptoms became bothersome. Side effects of acetazolamide include tingling or numbness in the fingers, toes and face, taste alterations, excessive urination; and rarely, blurring of vision. These go away when the medicine is stopped. It is a personal choice of the climber whether or not to take Diamox as a preventative measure against AMS.
Kilimanjaro neither advocates nor discourages the use of Diamox (see Diamox: Does it Mask AMS?).
can be used to relieve altitude induced headaches.
Bottled oxygen may be requested to be carried by our staff for an additional fee. Each oxygen cannister weighs 10 kgs when full, and can provide a continuous flow of oxygen for a maximum of four hours. It is for use only in emergency situations. It is NOT used to assist clients who have not adequately acclimatized on their own to climb higher. The most immediate treatment for moderate and serious altitude sickness is descent. With Kilimanjaro's routes, it is always possible to descend, and descend quickly. Therefore, oxygen is used strictly to treat a stricken climber, when necessary, in conjunction with descent, to treat those with moderate and severe altitude sickness.
We are aware that some operators market the use of supplementary personal oxygen systems as a means to eliminate the symptoms of AMS. To administer oxygen in this manner and for this purpose is dangerous because it is a temporary treatment of altitude sickness. Upon the cessation of the use of oxygen, the client will be at an even higher altitude without proper acclimatization. 99.99% of the companies on Kilimanjaro do NOT offer supplementary oxygen - because it is potentially dangerous, wholly unnecessary and against the spirit of climbing Kilimanjaro. The challenge of the mountain lies within the fact that the summit is at a high elevation, where climbers must adapt to lower oxygen levels at altitude. Using supplementary oxygen is akin to putting the mountain at sea level, where nearly everyone can summit (see Should I use Supplemental Oxygen on Kilimanjaro?).
The Gamow Bag is portable hyperbaric chamber used to treat AMS. The inflatable bag simulates descent to lower altitude. The patient is placed inside the bag and it is inflated with air to increase the concentration of oxygen.
At 9,800 feet (3,000 m), the Gamow Bag can simulate a descent of 4,800 feet (1,500 m). After two hours in the bag, the person's body chemistry will have "reset" to the lower altitude. This acclimatization lasts for up to 12 hours outside of the bag which should be enough time to get them down to a lower altitude and allow for further acclimatization.
A Gamow bag weighs about 12 lbs. Inflated, the bag is about 7 feet long and 2 feet in diameter.
Our staff does not regularly carry Gamow bags on its climbs because descent is the most immediate, accessible treatment. However, Gamow bags can be rented and carried by our staff upon request for an additional fee.