Do you need to use oxygen on Kilimanjaro?
The percentage of oxygen in the air is constant at 21% at all altitudes. But at sea level, the weight of the air above compresses the air below, making it denser. As one climbs Kilimanjaro, gaining elevation, the air becomes less compressed and is therefore thinner.
Symptoms of altitude sickness begin to arise at high altitude, starting at around 8,000 feet and continue to become more pronounced the higher you go. The cause of acute mountain sickness is not understood but is clearly related to hypoxia and some other factors such as effort and innate susceptibility.
Altitude sickness, or acute mountain sickness (AMS) is the main cause of fatalities while climbing Kilimanjaro. High altitude pulmonary oedema and high altitude cerebral oedema are two fatal forms of serious AMS that can strike on the mountain. Therefore, many Kilimanjaro operators bring oxygen as a precaution in order to treat climbers who have developed moderate or severe altitude sickness.
Ultimate Kilimanjaro® carries oxygen for emergency purposes on every climb. This oxygen is only used to treat a stricken climber in conjunction with immediate descent. In other words, it is administered only in a rescue scenario and as a part of evacuation off the mountain.
There are some operators who advertise the use of a “personal oxygen system” to assist climbers on Mount Kilimanjaro. This is not standard practice.
You do not need supplemental oxygen to climb Kilimanjaro.
Supplementary oxygen is normally only used at extreme altitudes above 23,000 feet. Heights greater than 26,000 feet are inhospitable for sustained human life. These elevations are sometimes referred to as the ‘Death Zone.’ The top of Kilimanjaro is 19,340 feet tall. Therefore, supplementary oxygen is very rarely used on the peak.
There are good reasons why using oxygen in this manner is NOT advised even if it is available (besides the fact that you would look more like a hospital patient than a mountain trekker).
When one develops symptoms of moderate or severe altitude sickness, it is not because the body is trying to make it unpleasant for the climber without merit. It is because the body recognizes that he or she is unable to function at the current altitude and does not want the person to climb any higher. The body is saying – DESCEND NOW. Not listening to the body is how most people get into trouble on the mountain.
By using supplemental oxygen, a climber has effectively stopped his or her body’s attempts at acclimatization by raising the oxygen content of the air being breathed. Using oxygen to climb ignores the body’s clear message to maintain or descend altitude. And while the body was unable to acclimatize to the current altitude, the oxygen user has made things even worse by climbing even higher. It is dangerous situation.
Lastly, what is point of climbing Kilimanjaro with supplemental oxygen? The difficulty of Kilimanjaro lies with its altitude. As a trek, it is not difficult by hiking standards if you remove the challenge of high altitude. While some people climb Kilimanjaro just to say they did it, regardless of the manner in which it was done, it is not much of an achievement if you put the mountain at sea level.
The bottom line is that supplemental oxygen is potentially dangerous when used to climb higher, is wholly unnecessary on Kilimanjaro, and is against the spirit and challenge of climbing Kilimanjaro. You do not need oxygen to summit Kilimanjaro and it should not be used.