It is almost impossible to ascertain with any degree of accuracy the number of people who die on Kilimanjaro each year. The one organisation that knows the exact body count, KINAPA, the park authorities, doesn’t want to release this figure, for fear that it would impact negatively on the number of people who climb the mountain each year, resulting in a loss of revenue. Similarly, the companies are understandably reluctant to advertise when a client dies on one of their climbs.
Luckily, a few years ago a study by Markus Hauser addressed precisely this topic. In the paper, Deaths due to High Altitude Illness among Tourists Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, Hauser studied autopsies from 1996 to 2003 and found that over those eight years only 25 people died. Ranging in age from 29 to 74, with 17 male and 8 female, the reports tell us that 14 of the deceased were victims of High Altitude Illness (HAI), of which five had HAPO, one HACO, while eight had symptoms of both. Causes of death amongst the other 11 victims include two who died of pneumonia, three to trauma (ie a fall) and one from appendicitis.
Extrapolating from these figures, given that there are over twice as many people who climb the mountain each year now, so we estimate the number of people who die on Kili each year to be about six or seven.
It should be noted that the study does not include the death of porters, for whom a post-mortem is not compulsory and thus the number of fatalities they suffer is more difficult to quantify with any degree of accuracy. Remember that more porters climb Kili than tourists, at a ratio of about three to one on every trek – so you would think perhaps there would be three times as many deaths amongst them. They also put their bodies under extra stress because of the heavy loads they are carrying, and the fact that the food they eat and the conditions in which they sleep are far inferior. Many of them also still turn up on Kili with insufficiently warm clothing. But of course they seldom climb up Kibo to the summit unless the trek includes a night at Crater Camp, so the highest altitude they reach is usually about 4600m. So given all these factors, the best educated guess we have is that about the name number of porters and other mountain crew die on the mountain each year too.
The conclusion that one can draw from all these statistics is that climbing Kilimanjaro, as with any ascent of a seriously big mountain, is inherently a risky undertaking; one that is made all the more dangerous by the rapidity with which one is expected to reach the summit (as we mention elsewhere in the book, if the standard guidelines for ascending a mountain were followed on Kilimanjaro, people would take twelve days to reach the summit from 12,000ft, (3658m) not the usual 24 hours that is taken on Kili!). Problems are exacerbated by the fact that it is possibly the easiest mountain of such a size to scale, with no actual climbing involved – which attracts more people of all levels of fitness, whether they are of a suitable physicality to climb such a large mountain or not.
And yes, for sure, measures such as making sure your trek is equipped with supplementary oxygen, carrying Diamox (acetazolamide), drinking plenty, going slowly, taking as many days as you can afford on the mountain….all of these can help to mitigate your chances of something serious or fatal happening to you on Kili. But they can’t modify the biggest risk factor of them all: the fact you chose to put yourself on the mountain in the first place.
A senior member of staff at KCMC had a rather neat analogy for it, comparing it to someone standing on a motorway reciting poetry. That person can put on a hi-vis jacket, can position himself between the lanes rather than in the middle of one, and maybe choose to stand on the motorway at a time when it’s not so busy. All of which can help to reduce his or her chances of being killed; but the bottom line is that by standing on the motorway in the first place, that person has put himself or herself in danger. And so it is when you decide to climb Africa’s highest mountain. Because it is estimated that about 50% of people will get mountain sickness of some sort or another on Kili; and of those, about one in fifty will go on to develop something serious.
Further investigation suggests that KCMC, the hospital at the foot of Kilimanjaro, sees a trekker every two to three weeks – and more in the rainy season when hypothermia, an injury from slipping or altitude sickness are all, according to the statistics, more likely.
Perhaps even more disconcerting than the deaths, however, are the cases of those who survived their climb but were never quite the same again: of the ship’s captain who climbed Kilimanjaro, got into trouble, came down unconscious and, though he pulled through, was not able to continue working due to the permanent effect climbing the mountain had had on his cognitive powers. Or the people who end up blind in one or even both eyes following a Kili climb (it is estimated that 1-2% of people who climb Kili will get some sort of bleeding at the back of the eye). As we’ve already written, deaths on Kilimanjaro are seldom publicised; but those who suffer some sort of permanent injury or disability following their climb never receive any attention, and it is concerning to think how many of them there may be…
We never want to put anyone off climbing Kilimanjaro. We have seen how happy people are after a successful climb, and we’ve received many letters and emails from people over the years saying how it has completely changed their life, giving them a confidence and self-assurance that was previously lacking. Getting to the top of Africa’s highest mountain is a wonderful experience. But in order to climb safely, you need to be fully aware of the risks – and do everything you can to make sure you minimise them as much as possible.
Because the last thing we want is for you to end up as just another statistic.