Kilimanjaro altitude Information


During a Kilimanjaro trek it is likely that all climbers will experience at least some form of mild altitude sickness. It is caused by the failure of the body to adapt quickly enough to the reduced level of oxygen in the air at an increased altitude. There are many different symptoms but the most common are headaches, light-headedness, nausea, loss of appetite, tingling in the extremities (toes, fingers) and a mild swell of ankles and fingers. These mild forms are not serious and will normally disappear within 48 hours.

Different people under similar conditions will respond quite differently to altitude. There are no specific factors such as age, sex, or physical condition that correlate with susceptibility to altitude sickness. Your response to altitude will depend on your rate of ascent, the magnitude of the ascent, and your individual susceptibility (genetics). The effects can be mild or severe, and are caused by a lack of oxygen to the muscles and brain. As altitude increases the concentration of oxygen stays the same, but the number of oxygen molecules per breath is reduced as the barometric pressure drops. At 5,500 m (18,000 ft), there is half as much oxygen available as at sea level. Kilimanjaro is 19,340 feet. In some cases altitude sickness can turn extremely severe, even fatal. For reasons not entirely understood high altitude and lower air pressures can cause fluid to leak from the capillaries and build-up in the brain and lungs. Continuing an ascent without proper acclimation can lead to a life threatening illness.

Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS)

Mild symptoms of acute mountain sickness will occur in 75% of people who travel over 10,000 feet, and can affect some people at lower altitudes.

These symptoms include:

Disturbed sleep
Loss of Appetite

These symptoms typically begin immediately after arrival and tend to worsen at night. Mild AMS does not interfere with normal activity and symptoms generally subside within 2-4 days as the body acclimatizes. As long as symptoms are mild and only a nuisance, ascent can continue at a moderate rate.

Prevention of AMS

Altitude sickness is preventable! Pay close attention to your body and the health of individuals in your group. Immediately communicate any symptoms of illness to others on your trip, since oxygen deprivation of the brain may cause individuals to deny or not recognize their own symptoms.

STAY HYDRATED – urine output should be copious and clear. Try to drink at least 4-6 litres per day.

AVOID tobacco, alcohol, and other depressant drugs including barbiturates, tranquilizers, and sleeping pills. They further decrease the respiratory drive during sleep resulting in a worsening of symptoms. In addition, avoid diuretics such as coffee and tea.

DONT GO UP UNTIL SYMPTOMS GO DOWN – people acclimatize at different rates, so make sure that your entire party is properly acclimatized before going higher. Rest at the same altitude is efficient for mild symptoms, but if they do not go away within a day or two it is essential that you descend immediately.

EAT high-carbohydrate foods while avoiding fatty foods.

BEFORE your trip, maintain a good work/rest cycle, avoid excessive work hours, and last minute packing.

LISTEN to your body. Do not over-do things the first day or two. Avoid heavy exercise.

DIAMOX (acetazolamide) is a drug shown to be effective in minimizing the symptoms caused by poor oxygenation by helping you breathe deeper and faster. This drug is not used in treatment, it should be used as a preventative measure only. The recommended dose is 125 mg twice a day, and it is advisable to start taking it 24 hours before you go to altitude and continue for at least five days at higher altitude. Side effects include tingling of the lips and finger tips, blurring of vision, and alteration of taste. If you are allergic to sulfa drugs you should not take Diamox. Use of this drug is controversial, so it is advisable to research its effects prior to seeking a prescription. Here are a couple of sites for your convenience:

High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE)

HAPE results from fluid build up in the lungs, which prevents effective oxygen exchange from the lungs to the bloodstream. This is a very serious condition that can lead to death if not treated immediately.

Symptoms of HAPE include:
Irritating cough (can produce frothy, often blood-tinged sputum)
Mental confusion, staggering drunken walk
Quick shallow breathing, difficulty breathing
Chest pain
Gurgling noise in chest
Debilitating headache and severe fatigue
Disruption of vision, bladder, and bowel functions
Loss of coordination of trunk muscles (test by walking straight line)

Although rare, HAPE frequently strikes young fit climbers and trekkers. If you notice any of these signs in yourself or others in your group you must descend immediately, even at night. HAPE can be fatal within a few hours if left untreated. However, if diagnosed early, recovery is rapid with a descent of only 500-1,000 meters. Besides descent, treatment also includes rest, administration of oxygen, and portable hyperbaric chambers.

High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE)

HACE occurs when fluid leakage in the brain causes swelling which affects the central nervous system. This is considered the most serious altitude related illness. If left untreated it will lead to coma and death. HACE is thought to occur in 1% of persons above 4,000 m and 3% of those with AMS, and usually occurs after a week or two at high altitudes.

Symptoms of HACE can be similar to AMS and HACE and include:

Changes in Behavior
Staggered gait (unable to walk heel-to-toe in a straight line)
Severe weakness/fatigue
Impaired mental processing, confusion
Difficulty Speaking
Paralysis of a Limb
Decreasing levels of consciousness (loss of memory, hallucinations, psychotic behaviour, and coma)

Immediate descent is the best treatment for HACE. This is of the utmost urgency, and cannot wait until morning. The moment HACE is recognized is the moment to start organizing an effort to get this person down the mountain, usually to the point where they last slept with no symptoms. It is important to recognize that persons with this illness are often confused, and may not recognize that they are ill.

Kilimanjaro Glaciers and Glaciology

Glacial recession is clearly visible on the two pictures of the southern icefields that were taken from near the Barranco Hut, the first in 1984, the second in 1998. The most evident changes have occurred on the Heim Glacier. In 1984 this is seen to have a “dog leg” in it; it reached down lower than any of the other glaciers in this, the central part of main southern icefields. In 1998 it is seen its upper reaches to have a much bigger gap separating it from its neighbouring glacier to the right. The bottom section, below the original dogleg, is totally missing and represents a loss of ice extending about 300m vertically. More recent photographs show a further reduction in the glaciated area.

At one stage most of the summit of Kilimanjaro was covered by an ice cap, probably more than 100 metres deep. Glaciers extended well down the mountain forming moraine ridges, clearly visible now on the southern flanks down to about 4000m. At present only a small fraction of the glacial cover remains.

The remnants of the ice cap can be seen as the spectacular ice cliffs of the Northern and Eastern Ice fields, and the longest glaciers are found on the precipitous southern and south-western flanks. If the present rate of glacial recession continues the majority of the glaciers on Kilimanjaro could vanish altogether in the next 50 years.  A recent study carried out on the snows of Xixibangma and Kilimanjaro has reinforced observations. It is now estimated that Kilimanjaro has lost 85% of its ice cover (by mass) since 1912.