If a company advertises a near 100% success rate for getting people to the summit of Kilimanjaro, should you believe it?

This week I was contacted by a reader who had just got back home after an unsuccessful attempt to climb Kilimanjaro.

The person had climbed with one of the top operators on the mountain, one that we praise highly in our Kilimanjaro guide. They are also pretty much the most expensive operator on Kilimanjaro too.

The reason he got in touch was that he had not managed to get to the summit of Africa’s highest mountain. Nothing exceptional about that, of course – lots and lots of people fail to reach Kili’s highest point, Uhuru Peak – because, as anybody’ who’ attempted it will tell you, it’s really hard.

Usually these ‘failures’ are due to altitude sickness (also known as AMS or mountain sickness), though fatigue, injury, illness and other factors can also prevent people from reaching their goal.

What was puzzling this climber, however, was that the company was advertising success rates for getting people to the summit on the route that he took of almost 100%.

In other words, pretty much everybody who took this route got to the summit.

Which led him to question whether these ‘success rates’ that many companies promote on their website can actually be trusted, particularly as he knew of other climbers who had taken this route who had also failed to reach the top?

The short answer to this is: no. There is nothing to stop a company simply lying, and claiming to have a very high success rate for getting people to the top of Kilimanjaro in order to attract more custom. 

The companies are not obliged to produce these figures or even calculate them, and there is no way for anybody to check them either.

Thats not to say that all companies that advertise their success rates are lying, of course. But the temptation to publish false figures, or to massage them, is huge.

They could for example, also include in their ‘success rate’ those people who got to Stella/Gilman’s Point, even though those points are not the summit. Or they could discount those who start the trek but descend before actually attempting to reach the summit.

Or, of course, they could simply make all their figures up and invent a success rate of nearly 100% – after all, what’s to stop them?

And that’s the problem: when you have statistics that can’t be checked, the temptation for companies to massage those figures for commercial gain is just too great.

Not just unverifiable – but possibly dangerous too

The fact that these figures could be false is not the main reason why I dislike them, however. It’s because I think they could be dangerous too.

Imagine, if you will, a company that prides itself on having a high success rate for getting people to the top. An honest, decent company that doesn’t want to advertise success rates that simply aren’t true. Imagine, next, that you’re a guide working for that company – a loyal, professional guide that wants to do the best he can for his company. If you know that the company is proud of its almost 100% success rate for getting people to the summit, you will do your utmost to make sure everybody in your group gets to the top.

As a result, of course, you could be pushing some of the climbers beyond their natural limit, and endanger them as a result – all for the sake of maintaining the company’s record on Kili.

And yes, of course you’d like to think that any guide would be sensible enough to recognise when they are pushing their climbers too hard. But you must also remember that it’s quite a cut-throat world out there if you’re a guide. There are more licensed guides than their are treks running at any one time, and as a result competition for work is fierce.

So if you manage to get a job leading a trek, you’ll want to do your best. Now that should mean you want to help your clients perform the best they can and get as high as they can on Kilimanjaro – but without endangering them by taking them beyond their natural limits.

But that goal, of course, can be easily skewed if you have a company that advertises a near 100% success rate for Kilimanjaro. Because as a guide working for that company, you would feel pressure to make sure everyone in your group got to the top too – regardless of whether it’s in their interest to do so.

Remember: your choice of trekking company will have only a marginal impact on whether you get to the top or not

Before I go, I think it’s worth reiterating something that we mention in our Kilimanjaro guide book and which sums up what we’ve been writing here: that you shouldn’t choose a company based on its advertised success rate.

Because the truth is, companies can have only a small impact on whether you get to the summit or not. There are other factors that are more important when it comes to determining whether you’ll get to the top or not. These include:

  • The number of days you spend on the mountain
  • The route you take up Kilimanjaro
  • Whether you drink enough water and eat enough food
  • Whether you have the right physical fitness and are not sick when you begin your climb
  • Whether you get enough sleep on the mountain
  • Whether you take Diamox or not
  • pure luck

I believe that all the above factors have more of a bearing on whether you get to the summit than which agency you choose to climb with.

That’s not to say, of course, that you should just sign up with any old agency. Otherwise we wouldn’t have spent so long reviewing the main operators on Kilimanjaro in the guide book.

Because a decent trek operator will try to ensure that the above list is all ticked.

For example, they’ll try to persuade you to take a longer trek on a route that has proven to be good for acclimatisation. (At Kilimanjaro Experts, for example, it’s no coincidence that many of our climbs are on the Alternative Lemosho Route, which offers climbers, in our experience, the best chance of acclimatising successfully. We also do not run treks of just five days, even though the park allows it on certain routes, but insist on a minimum of six days for each trek.

Indeed, if I’m being honest maybe this is one reason why we have such high success rates ourselves – not because of anything we particularly do on the mountain, more that we don’t run treks of such a short duration that are inevitably more dangerous and have lower success rates for getting people to the summit.)

Decent companies will use good camping equipment to make sure you’re warm enough on Kili and get a good sleep. They’ll also make sure hygiene standards are maintained on the trek, to minimise your chances of falling sick while on the slopes. And they’ll also employ only good, experienced guides who know how far to push you and when it’s safe to allow you to continue – and when you need to descend.

(A good company that charges a little more will also, of course, be more likely to treat their staff well – though porter welfare is a separate issue and one we’ve dealt with elsewhere on this website and in the book.)

But, as we point out in the book, when you sign up with a more expensive agency, it’s really for their experience, know-how and procedures when things go wrong.

Because, truth be told, there aren’t too many differences between a good agency and a bad one when everything is going well on the mountain.

It’s when people need to be evacuated because of illness or (rarely) injury that you really see the difference, and when a good company stands out.

So if you’ve already signed up with one of the more expensive agencies that have a good reputation on Kili, and are regretting it because of what you’ve just read, well, don’t.

Because not only will you have a better experience on the mountain, and you can rest assured that your company be treating and paying its staff better – but they could also save your life.