A safe and successful ascent of Mount Kilimanjaro: don't die of acute mountain sickness

Don't die of altitude sickness: follow the golden rules

For an excellent and detailed article describing the climb on Kilimanjaro, click here

Acute mountain sickness (AMS) is a common illness that affects a significant proportion of people that ascend to high altitude. The symptoms are headache and fatigue, sleep disturbance, problems with the digestive system and dizziness.

For the majority of sufferers AMS remains no more than an inconvenience. However, for a significant minority AMS can develop into one of two potentially fatal conditions: High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) or High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE). These conditions both require immediate attention.

Sufferers of HAPE develop breathlessness at rest and may develop blue lips and a raised body temperature. HACE often presents initially with severe headache, vomiting and lethargy. These potentially fatal conditions can be prevented if a pragmatic golden rules approach is taken.

Mount Kilimanjaro is an extremely popular climb amongst inexperienced climbers. As a result of expensive park fees and the abundance of alternative tourist attractions nearby, the rushed round trip to the 5895m summit is often attempted in as little as 5 days. It is therefore perhaps not surprising that many of the climbers attempting the summit suffer altitude sickness.Only one formal investigation into the incidence of HACE has been performed on the mountain, in which 18% of climbers were found to be suffering from HACE. Although no studies into the incidence of HAPE have been performed on the mountain it would not be surprising if the incidence of HAPE mirrored the high incidence of AMS and HACE.

Acclimatisation treks are the only thing that has been proven to protect against AMS on Kilimanjaro. Climbers looking for the best chance of avoiding altitude sickness can acclimatise on the conveniently located Mount Meru (4566m). This approach also gives you the best chance of success on the summit attempt of Mount Kilimanjaro. Climbers are often reassured by locals that the slower ascent rates offered by several of the ascent routes provides protection from AMS development. However, there is no evidence that any of these routes are slow enough to confer protection. In addition, the ascent of Mount Kilimanjaro is so rapid that climbers should not assume that acetazolamide (Diamox) can protect them from developing Acute Mountain Sickness.

Last updated June 2010