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The Ultimate Analysis of High Altitude Acclimatization on Mt. Kilimanjaro
Climbing Tips for Beginners
Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro is a lifetime challenge and an ultimate test of your stamina, determination and fortitude. You should be ready to walk unusually long distances through the pristine wildlife, spend nights under the blue sky in tents and virtually live in the wilderness. Our expert guides will lead your way through the wild trails of Kilimanjaro all the way to the top, taking care of all expedition arrangements.
Yet, there is something that is far more important - physiological adaptation of your body to the abnormal altitudes of Kilimanjaro. The most state-of-the-art equipment and the most accomplished guides will not be able to make your dream coming true if the onslaught of Acute Mountain Sickness happens.
Understanding the principles of high-altitude acclimatization is very important in mountain climbing especially for beginners. In this article, you will find information on why is it important for climbers to acclimatize.
Understanding high-altitude acclimatization
In short, to acclimatize to the altitudes of Kilimanjaro means to develop certain physiological adaptations of your body to survive in the decompressed environment with abnormally low levels of oxygen. Such adaptation is the most important issue in mountaineering, and it is directly impacted by your fitness, good equipment, adequate supplies and professional crew. Essentially, all these arrangements are made to simplify the process of adaptation to the abnormal altitudes. We will discuss it further in greater detail.
What is abnormal with high altitudes?
Before we start explaining how the process of altitude adaptation (acclimatization) works, you are probably interested in what is really abnormal at the slopes of Kilimanjaro, and what impacts do this abnormality exercise on the climbers.
As we know from elementary physics, the higher we go, the lower barometric pressure becomes. For example, at sea level it is approximately 760 mmHg, while at Uhuru Peak (5,895 m) a barometer will show something between 350-352 mmHg, meaning that the density of air shall be reduced twofold. As a result, there will be substantially less pressure that keeps the molecules of oxygen together. To put it simply, the distance between them increases, and therefore, a fewer number of oxygen molecules is inhaled with each breath, what leads to well-known discomfort symptoms.
Oxygen saturation level of a human
Assuming that the majority of the world population live at the altitudes less than 1000 m/3280 f above the sea level, the oxygen saturation of their bodies is 100%. On a biological level, our blood cells are supposed to contain a certain ‘normal’ amount of oxygen molecules to make sure that our brain and other organs are supplied with this vital “fuel” to support our cognitive abilities and overall existence.
The correlation between oxygen saturation level and different heights
As it has been illustrated above, the higher we ascend, the lower the number of oxygen molecules per breath become available. Thus, our bodily oxygen saturation decreases, resulting in the important physiological reactions.
The following table illustrates how average oxygen level of an ordinary human correlates with altitude increases.
OXYGEN MOLECULES PER BREATH
OXYGEN SATURATION OF A HUMAN BODY
1000 m/3281 f
MOSHI - START OF YOUR EXPEDITION
Your expedition will start from Moshi, which stays at 890 m above the sea level.
3000 m/9843 f
THE FIRST KILIMANJARO CAMPS
The process of Kilimanjaro acclimatization to high altitudes begins.
5000 m/16404 f
The highest known human settlement is located at 5100 m.
KILIMANJARO BARAFU SUMMIT CAMP
It is located at 4645 m above the sea level. You will start your final leg of the journey to Peak Uhuru from here.
6000 m/19685 f
KILIMANJARO PEAK (5, 895 m)
Though you are likely to experience some discomfort at this altitude, humans can live at this altitude. The record is 2 years of consecutive habitation.
8000 m/26247 f
THE DEATH ZONE
Human beings are physiologically not capable of acclimatizing above this level. Though short-term stay is possible (e.g. during the Everest and other eight-thousanders climbs), prolonged exposure will lead to the lethal outcomes.
As you may see, the higher a climber ascends, the lower the level of his blood oxygen saturation becomes. Low amount of oxygen in the blood is the cause different physiological distresses. For example, with less than 65% of blood oxygen saturation, a person is likely to demonstrate the symptoms of impaired thinking. Should it drop below 55%, a human may lose consciousness. Any further reduction may have a lethal impact.
Oxygen molecules saturation level on Mount Kilimanjaro
Mount Kilimanjaro height is 5,895 m (19,340 f), and the research says that the average blood oxygen saturation level of a human being there is roughly 75-80%. That means that though this reduction in oxygen level is definitely not critical, yet it is sufficient to cause extremely unpleasant experiences if high-altitude acclimatization rules (discussed below) are ignored.
It is, however, quite obvious that the highest point of Kilimanjaro is substantially below the ‘death zone’ of 8000 m. With proper acclimatization techniques in mind, you may definitely stay here a considerably long time. For example, our paragliding expedition spent two nights in the crater while finding a proper starting spot, while BASE-jumping expedition spent three nights here waiting for the favorable weather conditions.
We have special crater camping tours, allowing the climbers to explore the beauty of Uhuru peak and the surroundings in full.
What impact does it have on the climbers?
In short, adaptation to abnormal living conditions causes some physiological distress in humans, which takes the forms of headache, nausea, loss of appetite and fatigue.
As long as the body is not accustomed to living in an environment with reduced oxygen level, our brains start sending signals that something is going wrong, and that we should do something in order to restore the normal conditions of our biological existence. From the medical point of view, these signals are known as the symptoms of altitude acclimatization. They should be taken very seriously, as it is them that inform you and your guide about your acclimatization progress.
Mild acclimatization symptoms (slight fatigue, nausea and light headache, which may be relieved with medication show that you have started to acclimatize. Although it may be irritating, it is normal and necessary. You will not necessarily have them, but if you do - worries out. Most likely, they will disappear on the next day.
Many people (actually, over 30%), especially those, who decide the long Kilimanjaro climbing programs (over 8 days in duration) do feel only minor symptoms, or no symptoms at all as their bodies get adapted to the altitude. The process is almost unnoticeable to them.
Acclimatization process of a human being
Once you enter the zone of abnormal altitude, your brain starts sending signals that something is wrong, and the resources of your body should be marshalled to ensure protection. At the same time, the neurological system of humans is very sophisticated - it fathoms that for some reason we should continue ascending, and instead of ‘ordering’ the body to descend, it commences to prepare it for surviving in the decompressed atmosphere.
Only when our brain senses that the resources of our body are not sufficient to ascend further - it signals that there is no other option, but to descend immediately (see ‘strong symptoms of AMS below).
The elements of adaptation to high altitude
A body of a human being has four main techniques for getting adapted to the shortage of oxygen molecules in the air. Thus, as you are ascending, the following changes take place in your body:
- You start to breathe more intensively, frequently and deeply;
- The blood structure slightly mutates - the number of the red blood cells grows, thus increasing their oxygen “carrying capacity”;
- A certain amount of oxygen is released from haemoglobin into the blood;
- There are some “reserve places” in the lungs of a human body, which are normally not used. Increased pressure in the pulmonary capillaries “push” the blood there, helping the body to get more oxygen.
It is however important remembering that these adaptations are not instantaneous. Thus, your body definitely can acclimatize to Kilimanjaro altitudes, yet it needs time to do so. The higher you climbing point is, the more time your body needs to acclimatize.
How long does altitude acclimatization take?
There is no universal formula that can be applied to calculate the time necessary for getting acclimatized to a certain altitude. The time to acclimatize to the heights of Mt Kilimanjaro is very individual. At the same time, however, the fusion of our practice and the statistics show that the climbing programs with 7 and more days on the Mount are marked with higher success rate than the 5 or 6-day ones.
In addition to that, acclimatization time is also different on different routes. Practically, the steeper the route is - the more time for acclimatization will be necessary. For example, success rate on Lemosho 6-day programs is much higher than on 6-day Umbwe route trekking adventures. Our universal advice is to take longer programs in order to make your acclimatization transition smoother and less noticeable.
Why taking a long Kilimanjaro climbing program is better
For all our climbers we do seriously recommend considering 7,8 and 9-day climbing programs because of the altitude adaptation zone concept.
The concept of acclimatization zone refers to a certain altitude span, where a climber does not feel the symptoms of altitude mountain sickness.
To illustrate, for many people the first acclimatization zone is 3000 m/9842 f - 3800/12467 r. It means that having reached the lower point, and spending some time there, a person will be comfortable staying within this range. In order to ascend higher, however, this person needs spending a night at 3700 m/12139 f in order to increase this span.
Broadening the one’s acclimatization zone involves some discomfort, which fades away over the time. For example, feeling small headache and nausea upon arrival to Mti Mkubwa Camp (3095 m/ 10155 f) is quite natural. Spending a night there will most likely reduce or neutralize them altogether, meaning that the body got accustomed to this zone.
The longer program your take - the more time your body has for broadening the borders of this zone, and the less discomfort you will experience in the course of acclimatization process. Making small altitude increases every day will be much less stressful for your body than if you make ‘elevation jumps’. As a result, you will feel much, much better, and your hiking experience will be a pleasant one. Thus, it is very recommended to make your altitude acclimatization time as long as possible.
The Rules of Good Acclimatization
In spite of the fact that your body has an in-built mechanism for adapting to high-altitudes, in order to make this process successful it is vital for you to follow these rules:
- If you have not been in any other high-altitude (above 5,000 m) expedition during the past three months, we strongly recommend you to choose 7/8/9-day climbing program;
- Choose one of the beginners-friendly climbing routes. Our top recommendation for that is Lemosho Route.
- Make sure that your climbing itinerary sticks to the “walk high - sleep low” idea, meaning that the camps are located slightly below your daily trekking adventures. If you are not travelling with Altezza - make sure that the itinerary given your tour operator follows this principle.
To illustrate the point - on the 3rd day of our 7-day Lemosho climbing adventure, the explorers of Kilimanjaro hike from Shira 1 Camp (3505 m/ 11499 f) to Shira 2 Camp (3900 m/12795 f). The increase in altitude is significant, and you body is not ready yet for the overnight acclimatization challenge at Shira 2.
In order to boost the altitude adaptation processes of your body and to ensure your comfortable overnight stay at Shira 2, after a lunch there you will make an acclimatization to a higher point on the way to Lava Tower, eventually reaching the 4110 m/13484 m point. Then, you will return to Shira 2 Camp for an overnight stay.
- Remember the importance of “Pole-Pole” (slowly-slowly) walking style. Even if you believe that you have unmatched fitness level - always avoid overexerting yourself. We have witnessed many people of ordinary fitness level reaching the summit successfully and without any distress, while professional athletes, who rushed forward to show how tough they were, have been ultimately evacuated by the emergency service. Kilimanjaro climbing is not a competition, and there is no place for ‘who will reach the first’ bets here.
- Drink much water. Dehydration at high altitudes is a big issue. Sometimes, you do not feel thirst, but increased water supplies is vital for your body there. A minimum of 3-4 litres per day is necessary for an adult.
- Eat well. Lack of appetite on the Mount is a common problem. However, the process of adaptation to the Kilimanjaro altitude challenge is very energy-consuming. Your body is burning thousands of calories per day to support intensified breathing activity, the extra development of red blood cells and other vital biological processes. Our diet plans are specifically designed to make sure that your energy supplies are replenished timely.
- Take in Diamox whenever offered by your guide. We do recommend taking it from the first day of your adventure two times per day. Make sure you take it in the morning and before lunch. Diamox is known to be diuretic, and taking the daily dose before 14:00 will spare you from midnight visits to the washroom. Important note:
Diamox should not be taken in by those who have diabet or are sulphur-allergic. At the same time, if you have one of these conditions, this is not a reason to abandon your dream adventure. Consider taking our 8/9-day programs to give your body more time for natural acclimatization, and make sure to inform our wildlife adventure experts, who will take care of the necessary arrangements
- Follow the instructions of your guides. Even if you are an experienced medical practitioner with many years of emergency situations under your belt - unless you specialize in high-altitude first aid, do trust your guide. Our climbing leaders are certified Wilderness First Responders or Wilderness First Aid professionals, and they have been well-drilled to react to the climbing emergencies in a most effective and safest way. Ultimately, it is the guide who bears responsibility for your safe return. While it may escape your attention, your guide is always watching you - he will choose the best walking style for you, he knows which medication to give in which case, and also it is he, who decides that you should go down.
- Training for high altitude climbing is important. If you have some free time available, taking some workout classes and jogging will never do harm. Though the impact of physical training on the effectiveness of acclimatization transition are yet poorly explored, good fitness level will help you to cope with Kilimanjaro trekking challenges more easily.
Altezza Travel Acclimatization Standards
At Altezza, we have very strict policies and standards of Kilimanjaro guiding. Our philosophy is safe and comfortable Kilimanjaro climbs. Our wildlife experts are always on duty to tell you about the comfort features of climbing with us.
As far as our safety protocols are concerned, the most important ones are:
- Mandatory certification of our chief guides. All are Wilderness First Responders and Wilderness First Aid certificates holders. These are the most renowned expertise evaluation systems for outdoor guiding professionals.
- Regular proficiency workshops and qualification master-classes for our guides. Every 6 months all guides of Altezza attend special training sessions. Renowned starts of international mountaineering give lectures. Everyone has to pass a test upon completion.
- Selective hiring. All chief and assistant guides of Altezza have to undergo an intensive 2-year bootcamp before we give them a chance to lead our groups.
- Oxygen supplies for all groups. Some tour operators offer oxygen for extra fees. With Altezza, oxygen is included in all climbing packages. Oxygen supplies are unlimited - if the guide sees that our supplies are about to end - we will organize an extra delivery.
- Complete medical kits and diagnosing tools. Our guides have medication for all emergencies, from simple flue to HACE and HAPE. All clients are subject to two health check-ups per day. A special medical hard is kept for each climber to record the daily health status, medication taken and other measures. Your health is our most important concern.
- State-of-the-art climbing equipment and gear. From custom-designed Altezza Kilimanjaro tents to Zamberlan footwear - the most recent advancements in mountaineering are available for the Altezza climbers.
All these features are available not only to the Altezza climbers but also to the whole team (a last porter is a valuable member of our team), as well as all other people on Kilimanjaro, who may need our help.
The outcomes of insufficient acclimatization
Failure to acclimatize leads to the condition known as Acute Mountain Sickness or high-altitude sickness. The cardiovascular and respiratory systems are not ready for low oxygen saturation yet, and the symptoms of AMS emerge.
Apart from leading your way, the most important task of your guide is to determine whether the symptoms that you may experience are the signals of ongoing acclimatization transition, or the results of AMS. While mild fatigue and small headache may show that your body is actively working on the adaptation, very strong pain and vomiting may signal that you are much above your acclimatization zone, and, as a result, are already affected by AMS. By making some examinations and observations, the guide shall conclude whether you should finish your trek and go down.
Acute Mountain Sickness may take two forms:
High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE)
HAPE happens because of abnormal amounts of body fluids accumulated in the lungs that effectually hinders the process of CO2 exchange and distribution through the blood vessels. This condition is extremely dangerous, and evacuation is necessary in all HAPE cases.
The signals of this condition include difficulty in breathing in, physical exhaustion, coughing with white, foamy fluids and unreasonable behavior (sometimes).
The first reaction of the guides in case of HAPE is to attach an oxygen mask to administer relieving medication. Then, evacuation with use of special stretchers start. Upon descent, professional medical advice is necessary.
High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE)
HACE occurs when the brain tissue swells because of fluids accumulated there. All HACE cases require immediate evacuation.
The most common symptoms of HACE include excruciating headache, faintings, clouded consciousness, exhaustion and poor coordination. Years of Kilimanjaro climbing practice revealed that HACE often occurs at night. Our guides are trained to diagnose the earliest stages of HACE development, but you are strongly advised to report any suspicions you may have.
Professional medical assistance upon descent is necessary.
This article provides the main insights into Kilimanjaro acclimatization only. Contact our wildlife specialists at [email protected] for more high altitude trekking tips.