7. Altitude Sickness – be as prepared as you can be

This is the tough one. For many would-be conquerors of Mount Kilimanjaro, the thing that gets to them is not the technical challenge of the climb, nor the absolute physical effort required, but the effects of altitude.

Basically, our bodies are used to working at home. In the UK, home for almost all of us is at altitudes no more than 1,000 metres above sea level. The top of Ben Nevis, our tallest mountain, is only 1,344m above sea level. The effects of altitude generally start to be felt above 1,500m. Above this height, air pressure becomes lower, which means that for every breath you take there is less oxygen. And oxygen, it turns out, is somewhat important in keeping one alive.

The body starts to behave differently as it tries to make up for the change in oxygen levels. Breathing becomes faster and deeper. Often there is a feeling of being ‘out of breath’, accompanied by headaches, sleeping badly and not feeling hungry. These are symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS).

There are a number of ways of preventing or at least reducing the effects of AMS. The best way is to forget about going anywhere near mountains and just having a relaxing beach holiday. The second best way is to gradually acclimatise the body to higher attitudes. In effect the longer you are at high altitude, the more the body adjusts to the oxygen levels, and so the nasty effects are reduced. Also, a good trick is to climb higher during the day and then come down the mountain a little for sleeping.

Our planned route to the top of Kilimanjaro will probably be a game of two halves (or possibly three!). We are following what is known as the Shira route, which approaches the mountain from the West. From the town of Arusha we are driven to a drop-off point just inside the National Park at an altitude of 2,800m and we reach our first campsite after 4 – 5 hours of walking and having gained another 750m of altitude. So, by the end of Day One we are at 3,550m. And if you recall, the effects of altitude can be felt anywhere over 1,500m. Gulp!

However, from there we take a much more leisurely walk across the southern flank of the mountain. Over the next three days we gain only another 1,000m in terms of the altitude of our evening campsites. The following day our campsite is lower, and then only slightly higher on the final night before we strike out for the summit. So, if we cope with the shock of the altitude on the first day, we will probably not find the rest of the week too bad. Plenty of time to think about the other hardships of the journey rather than AMS!

And then the final ascent. This is the toughest one. We set off at about midnight and climb for 5 or 6 hours to reach the ridge of the Crater Rim by just before dawn (I did tell you that Kilimanjaro was a dormant volcano didn’t I?). The gain in height is over 1,000m at this time. But that is not the end point (at least not for all). Those who are still able can walk for a further hour or so to the highest point on the mountain – Uhuru Peak – at an oxygen-sapped 5,896m. This is the highest point in Africa, and higher than any point in Europe, in Australasia, in South East Asia and in Antarctica. This is the point for which we are aiming. If we do achieve this, it then just a matter of a further walk of some 6 or more hours. But at least this is all downhill!

As I write this, I honestly don’t know if Jonathan and I will reach the top of the mountain. Altitude sickness can affect anyone, and fitness is no guarantee of success. And if the symptoms are ignored, much more dangerous medical conditions can come into play, which for some, alas, have proven to be fatal.

What I do know is that we will do all we can to reach the top. We have given ourselves the best chance we can by:

  • Choosing a tour company with an excellent track record of getting people safely to the top
  • Getting as fit as we can, as this will help
  • Going to Africa a few days before the Kilimanjaro climb and trekking up a smaller mountain (but one that is still over twice the height of Ben Nevis)
  • Going on one of the slower routes across the mountain, to give us the maximum acclimatisation time before we make the final ascent

So, we are prepared.

And how does this relate to ‘the day job’? Well, I often come across people who are looking for a career that takes them higher and higher in the organisation or in their industry. This means promotion or moves to other employers. And sometimes things go well, and sometimes things don’t go so well. Without getting too much into detail, I would recommend that people think of their career in terms of climbing a mountain. Think about what you can do to prepare for the next increase in altitude. Look for opportunities of working at a higher level, but with the chance to return back to your ‘home level’ after a period of exposure at the higher level. And think about your physical fitness, which can also play an important part in your rise to the top.

In summary, be like us. Lesson No. Seven – Be as prepared as you can be for Altitude Sickness – but don’t let it stop you from striking out for the peaks!


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