Welcome to Climb Mount Kilimanjaro, the website dedicated to the Roof of Africa. For comprehensive information on climbing the mountain, from how to book and prepare for your Kilimanjaro trek to what to take on the mountain and descriptions of the best route up to the summit, you’ll find it all here.
Altitude Sickness - a review of the latest research
As everybody knows, altitude sickness, or AMS, is the main reason why people fail to get to the summit of Kilimanjaro. It is also the main reason why people die on the mountain slopes. So there was some good news last week when various media outlets were reporting another breakthrough in the fight against altitude sickness.
Researchers at The Roslin Institute at the University of Edinburgh have discovered that the symptoms commonly suffered by those at altitude are in fact the result of two completely separate syndromes which just so happen to strike above 2500m.
Both of these illnesses are triggered by falling oxygen levels prevalent above 2500m. Researchers used as their study 292 people at altitudes between 3650m and 5200m in Bolivia and on Mount Kilimanjaro. Using advanced software that grouped people according to their genetic make-up, they found that of all the symptoms of AMS (acute mountain sickness, aka altitude sickness), the only common one experienced by all parties was fatigue. Sleep disturbance (another very common symptom) was another common symptom, but this was not necessarily accompanied by a headache; conversely, 40% of those suffering headaches did not report any sleep disturbance.
The scientists conclusions were that the correlation between headaches and sleep disturbance are so poor as to indicate that the two are in fact manifestations of completely separate conditions and not all part of the same illness that, up to now, we have thought of as ‘altitude sickness’.
As Dr Ken Baillie, of the Roslin Institute, explained "For more than two decades we have thought of altitude sickness as a single disease. We have now shown that it is at least two separate syndromes that happen to occur in the same people at a similar time. Studying these syndromes in isolation will make it easier to understand the cause of each one, and to test new treatments."
This groundbreaking news follows another study that we first wrote about back in December, in which scientists claimed to have discovered the underlying cause of altitude sickness. In this study, researchers looked at how the heart reacts to the oxygen levels using ultrasound techniques. Using only 34 volunteers, who were measured at sea level and again at high altitude (in this 3842m at the top of the cable car running up the Aiguille de Midi), scientists discovered that those who developed at least moderate symptoms had poor function in their heart’s right ventricle and its ability to pump blood.
The scientist who led the study, Dr Rosa Maria Bruno, explained "If these results are confirmed by larger studies, it will be possible to identify vulnerable individuals and suggest particular behaviours and drugs.” Though as she also pointed out, the test can at the moment only be done on people who have spent at least 4 hours at high altitude; though in time it is hoped that it can be developed so it can be done much sooner.
Are Kilimanjaro’s glaciers here to stay after all?
Posted April 11 2014
Ever since I began writing about Kilimanjaro at the start of this millennium, I’ve been writing about the demise of the glaciers. Experts in such matters - in particular, Lonnie Thompson and his team from Ohio State University, Massachusetts - have largely been in agreement that the iconic ‘snows of Kilimanjaro’ were in fact melting faster than ever before; and the causes behind this disappearance were largely man-made. The topic then received worldwide publicity in Al Gore’s 2006 Oscar-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth.
Now, however, there appears to be a growing number of people who believe that, actually, the glaciers are here to stay. An article in a recent edition of Tanzania’s Daily News is typical. In it, various local ‘experts’ are asked for their opinions on whether the glaciers are diminishing and whether, as Prof Thompson once predicted, they really will disappear altogether by 2020. Most of those in the article who give their opinion tend to disagree with Prof Thompson’s predictions, and indeed think that the glaciers are indeed here to stay!
So who do we believe?
Well, looking again at the article (http://www.eturbonews.com/44420/mount-kilimanjaro-glaciers-nowhere-near-extinction) and all the evidence over the last twenty years or so from Professor Thompson, I have to say I still side with the latter. For one thing, of the experts quoted in the article, the one with the most authority is perhaps Imani Kikoti, the ecologist at Kilimanjaro National Park. He is quoted as saying that “Much as we agree that the snow has declined over centuries, but we are comfortable that its total melt will not happen in the near future.”
But while I would love to be able to agree with Mr Kikoti, the fact is that the weight of evidence would suggest otherwise. Furthermore, as an employee of KINAPA it could be argued that he does have a vested interest in saying that the glaciers won’t melt; it reminds me a little of a former Minister for Tourism in Tanzania’s government a few years ago, who said exactly the same thing. Her argument seemed to come out of nowhere and contradicted all the scientific evidence that was been produced at the time - which could only lead one to conclude that she was merely saying this in order to ensure that tourists would still come to Tanzania to witness the African snows for themselves.
The other main expert the article cites is Victor Manyanga, a tour guide with
over a dozen years’ experience on Kilimanjaro, who says that (and apologies for the syntax - I’m just quoting verbatim from the article) “For naked eyes you cant tell if there’s any changes on the ice quantity from what we’ve seen ten years ago”.
In response, I am afraid that I just have to flatly disagree with this argument. Victor and I have been visiting and climbing Kilimanjaro for about the same length of time, and I have to say that recently the depletion of the glaciers has been markedly more evident than previously. The Furtwangler Glacier is little more than a small lump on the western side of the crater now, where before it was quite a formidable wall of ice, and everywhere you look on the summit the ice has clearly shrunk, retreated and melted considerably.
What boots are best for Kilimanjaro?
Posted 8 April 2014
When it comes to choosing suitable equipment for a trek on Africa’s highest mountain, the one question we get asked more than any other is ‘What boots should I wear’. And understandably so: bad footwear can seriously hamper your progress up the mountain, make your trek an incredibly uncomfortable experience, and can, in extreme cases, cause you to abandon your climb. While a good pair of boots can make you feel like you’re walking on air and ensure your feet stay warm, dry and blister-free - thereby allowing you to concentrate on all the other aches and pains the rest of your body is suffering. So it’s very important that you choose the right pair of boots, ones that are durable, waterproof and, more importantly, comfortable.
In the book, we write the following: “Mountaineering boots (ie ones with stiff soles that take a crampon) are unnecessary unless you’re taking an unusual route or trekking in the low season when crampons may be required. If you’re not, a decent pair of trekking boots will be fine. The important thing about boots is comfort, with enough toe room: remember that on the ascent up Kibo you might be wearing an extra pair or two of socks, and that on the descent your toes will be shoved into the front of the boots with every step. Remember these points when trying on trekking boots in the shop. Make sure they are also sturdy, waterproof, durable and high enough to provide support for your ankles. Finally, ensure you break them in before you go to Tanzania, so that if they do give you blisters, you can recover before you set foot on the mountain.”
So how much should you spend on a pair of boots? Well, I should start by saying that, as usual, I don’t accept any ‘bribes’ or ‘incentives’ to promote one brand over another, so the following is simply my unbiased opinion, based on my experience of climbing Kilimanjaro for the past 15 years or so - as well as walking and writing guidebooks to several of Britain’s national trails.
And in my opinion is this: how much you spend on a pair of boots should largely depend on how often you think you’re going to use them. Because I’ve found that the main advantage with a more expensive boot is that they tend to last longer - which is great for someone in my line of work. In other words, if you are planning on walking regularly before or after your Kilimanjaro climb, then a more expensive pair of boots is recommended because they do tend to last longer, and thus investing in a pair makes sound financial sense.
But, that said, if you are sure that you’re not going to be doing much trekking after you’ve finished with Kilimanjaro, then there is a case to be made for buying a cheap pair (by which I mean a pair that costs about £30-60 (US$50-90), as long as they are a) tough enough to survive a strenuous week’s walking on rugged terrain; b) waterproof; and c) comfortable. And you can, of course, influence the last two of these qualities, by using a special chemical spray or dubbin to improve the water-resistant capabilities of the boot; and by breaking the boots in properly.
This last action is, of course, vital, however much you’ve spent on your boots, and needs to be done well before you reach Kilimanjaro. So, long before you even arrive in Tanzania, wear the boots everywhere you go for both long and short walks just to make sure that, by the time you get to Africa, you aren’t going to succumb to blisters.
All of which, of course, is just basic common sense - but you’re going to ask me about brands next, aren’t you? So once again, I repeat the statement I made at the start: I do not get paid by anybody to mention their products, so this is very much a personal review of the boots that I have bought over the years (or at least the ones I can remember).
I can think of five boot manufacturers that I have been impressed with over the past couple of decades: Salomon; Asolo, Merrell, Meindl and Brasher. The first thing you will note is that these are all at the medium to expensive end of the market. But then, what do you expect: I make my living by walking, I also spend much of my leisure time walking (I do, after all, own a dog) and so you would probably expect me to spend much of the laughably meagre pittance that I earn as an author on a decent pair of footwear.
So what impressed me about the footwear of each of these five manufacturers? Well, for one thing, they all felt right from the moment I put them on. There was little in the way of ‘breaking in’ to be done as they were pretty much comfortable from Day One. They were all reliably durable too, even though I am ashamed to admit that am largely neglectful when it comes to looking after my boots and am a virtual stranger to polish. So the fact that these boots all hung around long enough to imprint themselves on my memory is testament to their toughness.
As to the choice between the five brands, Merrell, Asolo and Salomon are fairly similar in terms of quality and durability, and your choice between these will depend largely on the style and whether any of them are on sale. As for Meindl, these are pretty much top of the range, and the price reflects this. I’ve had about four pairs now, and have yet to be let down by any of them; though at around £150-200 for a pair, I’d be very disappointed if I was.
Regarding Brasher, well these are my current pair and I have to say I’m very impressed: very comfortable from the off, wonderfully waterproof, fairly attractive (or, rather, as it’s trekking boots we’re talking about here, at least not hideously unattractive!) And whilst I have had them only about three months now (having picked them up for £115 in the January sales - I think the RRP was about £150) they feel well-made and durable and I think they’ll be accompanying me on several trips up Kilimanjaro, as well as my trek along Offa’s Dyke in May this year).
Having said all this, the above is only my thoughts and opinions based on my experience. And like I say, as long as you obey the advice we give in the book and which is reprinted above, you should be fine. And don’t worry too much if you think your boots aren’t up to it. I have, after all, led one Indian hiker up the mountain (take a bow Mr Rao) who wore a pair of patent leather slip-on loafers - and yes, he did make it to the summit!
Diamox is brilliant - but how does it work?
Posted 2 April 2014
Most of you who have climbed Kilimanjaro, or are shortly to do so, will be familiar with the 'wonder drug', Diamox. Originally invented as a treatment for the eye condition, galucoma, it was soon realised that the drug was also very beneficial in combatting the symptoms and underlying causes of altitude sickness.
I myself have seen the incredible results that Diamox can have on some people (and it's worth noting here that it doesn't work for everyone) who are suffering the effects of being at altitude. From being poor, aching, nauseous wretches one minute, often the sufferer will be leaping around 30 minutes later with all symptoms of altitude sickness - the headaches, nausea and, in some cases, ataxia - having been alleviated thanks to the consumption of one, small tablet of Diamox.
But how does the pill actually work? Well this is where Mr (or possibly Dr) Cliff Wener, comes in. Cliff contacted me this week regarding our write-up of Diamox on the website and in the book. In particular, he took issue with my phrase "Diamox works by acidifying the blood, which stimulates breathing, allowing a greater amount of oxygen to enter into the bloodstream."
According to Cliff, Diamox actually works like this (and I am goingto quote him verbatim now, as a) I think he explains it very well; and b) if I interfered with his explanation, I might well introduce other errors into his work):
"As you ascend to higher altitudes, pressure decreases. The composition of air (21% Oxygen) remains constant but the number of O2 molecules inspired in each breath becomes less and less. The body reacts by increasing our breathing rate (ie hyperventilation) to try and get more O2. So far... easy to understand.
As we breathe faster, we exhale more and more CO2. the corresponding level of bicarbonate (used as a buffer by the body for CO2) remains constant. This causes our blood to become quite alkalinic - and bingo - onset of symptoms of Altitude Sickness.
Solution is get rid of that bicarbonate.
Diamox acts by instructing the kidneys to rapidly excrete that bicarbonate hence turning the blood acidic and compensates for the respiratory alkalosis. The rapid excretion of the bicarbonate is accomplished through more frequent urination and alleviation of symptoms.
Despite multiple mentions of the Internet that use of Diamox results in an increase in blood oxygenation, this is not true. Only way to do that is with an oxygen mask or Gamov bag."
I am, of course, very grateful to Cliff Wener for this explanation, and for making us all feel slightly cleverer than we were before we'd read this - cheers Cliff!