Because Kilimanjaro is a non-technical climb there is a common misconception amongst those who haven't visited the mountain that it is actually a very easy trek to the top. In fact, I've actually spoken with some people who have been downright dismissive of a Kili climb, saying that it offers little in the way of a challenge, and isn't particularly difficult. This shortsightedness can lead to a few surprises however, catching some climbers off guard. While it is true that Kilimanjaro doesn't require any special mountaineering skills to summit, it still presents some serious challenges due to its altitude. At 5895 meters (19,341 ft) in height Kilimanjaro is not to be taken lightly, something that my entire climbing team was reminded of in dramatic fashion on our recent visit to the mountain.
The Climb for Valor team that went to Kilimanjaro last month with Tusker Trail was made up of a group of individuals who were about as healthy and physically fit as any group that you would find on the mountain. In fact, there were two Green Berets that were part of the team, as well as several widows of fallen U.S. special forces soldiers. The remainder of the team were also incredibly fit, and about as well prepared for a trek at high altitude as any group of travelers that I have ever been around. That high level of physical fitness would serve each of well in the days we would spend on the mountain, and would ultimately lead to a high level of success come Summit Day as well.
But sadly not everyone on the team was able to join us at the summit. In fact, a few days into our adventure we all faced a sobering reality that was an indicator of just how serious a Kilimanjaro climb can truly be. On our second night spent above 3962 meters (13,000 ft) two members of the team became quite ill, and ultimately had to be evacuated by helicopter from the mountain. While we all knew that altitude sickness was a serious concern, none of us expected to face it in such a dramatic fashion.
That evening, one of the members of the team – an incredibly fit Green Beret no less – became ill and started to have a difficult time breathing. A quick check of his oxygen levels revealed that he was at just 60% saturation, and his lungs were beginning to fill up with fluids. Fortunately the Tusker guides are well trained to handle situations like this one and they were quickly able to diagnose the problem, and oversee the patient's medical care on the mountain. It didn't hurt that Tusker is one of the few guide service on Kilimanjaro that carries both bottled oxygen and a portable altitude chamber (PAC), with the Tusker team well versed in how to handle both the oxygen and the PAC. The ailing climber was quickly placed inside the PAC to help alleviate his symptoms, but because he had developed High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE), the only way for his condition to improve compleltey was to get down off the mountain. Something that wouldn't be easy in his weakened state.
As part of the Climb for Valor package every Tusker climber was issued adventure travel insurance coverage from a company called Ripcord Travel Protection. Ripcord provides all of the standard coverages you would expect, including trip cancellation and interruption, as well as lost baggage coverage, and so on. But unlike most other travel insurance policies, it also covers emergency evacuations for medical and security purposes as well. It was fortunate that we all had this protection from Ripcord, as it allowed us to call in a helicopter to evacuate our strike companion from the mountain, allowing him to get the medical attention he needed in a much more expedited fashion.
The climber who was stricken with HAPE was placed inside the portable altitude chamber to help make him feel more comfortable until morning. By daybreak he was starting to feel a bit better, but it was still vitally important that he get off the mountain. By mid-morning a helicopter was sent to pick him up, and within a matter of minutes he was on his way to a local hospital where he was treated for his symptoms, and released that same day. Dropping in altitude had allowed him to recover quickly, but it was certainly a humbling reminder of just how serious climbing at altitude can be.
The helicopter also evacuated a second member of the team who had suffered a severe allergic reaction over night as well. She woke up that morning with severe swelling in her lips and face, and while it was unclear what caused the reaction, we knew it was best that she be evacuated as well. In an environment like Kilimanjaro even a seemingly small threat to your health can turn into a major issue, and we couldn't afford to wait to see what exactly the problem was.
With our two companions gone from the group, the dynamic changed significantly. Not only did we miss those two personalities, we were all reminded about then serious nature of the climb. It was not a foregone conclusion that we would all reach the top, and altitude sickness is can be a real problem, even on a non-technical mountain like Kili. The rest of the team was eventually able to a make it to the top without any more serious threats to our health, but I think we were all a bit more cautious following the evacuation, as we all knew that it could have been anyone of us on that helicopter.
Thankfully, the two people evacuated were back to full health in a just a day or two, and both welcomed the rest of the team after we descended from the mountain. With the whole team reunited once again, we celebrated a successful climb with dinner and cold beers back in Moshi, as we all began to reflect on what the experience had meant to each of us.
On a personal note, I can't tell you how impressed I was with how the Tusker staff handled the evacuation process. The guides are well trained to handle emergency situations, and they saw to the health of our companions while making the necessary arrangements to get them safely off the mountain.
Similarly, the folks who represented Ripcord – two of whom were on the climb with us – were extremely professional and on top of the situation as well. They facilitated the evacuation as efficiently as possible, and made alternate arrangements when the first airlift fell through. If you are a climber or adventure traveler who frequently finds yourself in remote places, they are certainly the insurance policy that you want covering your expeditions. Their policies go above an beyond what is typical for the industry, and it clear that they take their clients' health and security very seriously.
As for anyone who intends to climb Kilimanjaro in the near future, hopefully this story will serve as a reminder. Don't take the mountain lightly. Sure, it is a high altitude trek without many technical challenges, but the altitude alone is enough to cause concerns, and it is a mountain that can take you by surprise if you go unprepared.