What are the dangers you might face on Mount Kilimanjaro?
Dangers on Kilimanjaro

All outdoor activities inherently entail some level of risk, and hiking is no exception as in one way or the other, some mistakes and dangers are lurking on the mountain. While hiking offers an enjoyable and rewarding way to explore the world, it can also lead individuals to high elevations that their bodies may not be accustomed to. Take, for example, the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, which stands at a staggering 19,340 feet above sea level, placing it in the category of extremely high altitude. To better understand altitude, it can be divided into three categories: high altitude (8,000 to 12,000 feet above sea level), very high altitude (12,000 to 18,000 feet), and extremely high altitude (18,000 feet and above). Exposure to these altitudes places significant stress on the human body due to the diminishing supply of oxygen as one ascends the mountain. The air we breathe is comprised primarily of two gases: nitrogen (79%) and oxygen (21%). Irrespective of altitude, the composition of air remains consistent. This means that the air at sea level is identical to that at high altitudes. However, what changes with increasing altitude is the atmospheric or barometric pressure. As we climb higher, the air pressure in the atmosphere decreases. Consequently, there are fewer molecules of nitrogen and oxygen present at higher altitudes, as there is less pressure to compress them. Consequently, each breath we take at higher altitudes contains less oxygen than at lower elevations. Insufficient oxygen levels in the body can lead to a condition known as hypoxia, where tissues experience a shortage of oxygen. Hypoxia can give rise to various altitude-related illnesses. In this article, we walk you through about some of the dangers you might face on the mountain, while climbing.

Has Mount Kilimanjaro Killed Anyone?

Every year, there are occurrences of fatalities on Mount Kilimanjaro. However, due to the lack of disclosure of statistics by the authorities of Kilimanjaro National Park, it remains unknown how many deaths exactly take place, and whether the mountain is becoming more or less perilous over time. Presumably, the reason behind this lack of transparency is the country’s intention to avoid discouraging tourists from climbing Kilimanjaro. Consequently, instead of having access to an accurate assessment of the risk involved, we are left to make educated guesses. This article aims to provide a perspective on the fatalities associated with Kilimanjaro. To begin with, it is important to consider the number of individuals who climb Kilimanjaro each year. On a typical season, more than 30,000 climbers are recorded, but this number can rise to 50,000 in exceptional years. In any given year, the reported tourist deaths on Kilimanjaro amount to approximately 10. However, this figure might not portray the actual number of fatalities since not all deaths are reported. It is widely believed that the true number of fatalities is likely two to three times higher. Nevertheless, these estimations lack support as well.

Below are some of the documented deaths on Kilimanjaro.

Why Do People Die On Kilimanjaro?

As previously mentioned, high elevations have less oxygen, and your body needs to adjust to the lower oxygen levels in order to function properly. There are various illnesses associated with altitude that result from a lack of oxygen, and these are the most common causes of death on the mountain. The main causes of death on Kilimanjaro include High Altitude Illness or Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE), High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE), heart attacks, and rock falls. High Altitude Illness, also known as Acute Mountain Sickness or altitude sickness, occurs when the body fails to adapt quickly enough to the reduced oxygen levels. It is a common occurrence for climbers to experience some degree of altitude sickness during their climb. The primary cause of altitude sickness is ascending too rapidly. Altitude sickness can range from mild to severe. Climbers with mild symptoms, such as headaches, dizziness, or shortness of breath, may continue their journey as long as the symptoms do not worsen. High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) and High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) are severe forms of altitude sickness. HAPE occurs when fluid accumulates in the lungs, while HACE is characterized by brain tissue swelling due to fluid leakage. Both conditions are potentially fatal and require immediate treatment. Pulse oximeters are used to measure pulse and oxygen saturation levels. Being at high altitude can also have implications for blood pressure and the cardiovascular system. It can lead to decreased oxygen in the blood and increased strain on the heart. As a result, climbing Kilimanjaro can be dangerous for individuals with heart conditions and may increase the risk of complications and heart attacks. While rock falls on Kilimanjaro are rare, they can still happen occasionally. The Western Breach area has been the site of fatal rock fall accidents, which is why Tranquil Kilimanjaro does not operate on that route. We believe it is an unnecessary risk for our clients and do not want to expose them to that danger. It is important to note that, unlike other mountains, Kilimanjaro does not have steep drops. Even the challenging Barranco Wall poses minimal risk. Therefore, falling off the mountain is not a genuine threat on established routes up Kilimanjaro.

The leading causes of death on Mount Kilimanjaro typically revolve around altitude-related illnesses and accidents. Some of the primary factors contributing to fatalities on the mountain include:

  1. Altitude sickness: Also known as acute mountain sickness (AMS), altitude sickness is the most common health issue climbers face on Kilimanjaro. It occurs when the body fails to acclimatize to the decreasing oxygen levels at higher altitudes. If not managed properly, altitude sickness can progress to more severe forms, such as high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) or high altitude cerebral edema (HACE), which can be fatal if not treated promptly.
  2. Falling or slipping: The terrain on Kilimanjaro can be challenging, with steep and rocky sections, particularly on the final ascent to the summit. Falls and slips can occur due to fatigue, poor footing, or adverse weather conditions, leading to serious injuries or fatalities.
  3. Rockfalls: The mountain’s rocky terrain on the dangerous Western Breach Route makes climbers vulnerable to rockfalls, especially in areas with loose rocks and unstable slopes. These hazards can pose a significant risk to climbers, leading to injuries or fatalities if they are struck by falling debris.

    Western breach
    Loose Rocks on the Western Breach Route

  4. Pre-existing medical conditions: Climbers with pre-existing medical conditions, such as heart disease or respiratory disorders, may be at higher risk of complications at high altitudes. These conditions can exacerbate the effects of altitude sickness and increase the likelihood of medical emergencies while on the mountain.
  5. Inadequate preparation or acclimatization: Rushing the ascent or not allowing enough time for proper acclimatization increases the risk of altitude-related illnesses and other complications. Climbers who do not undergo gradual acclimatization or ignore symptoms of altitude sickness may put themselves at greater risk of serious health issues.

Kilimanjaro High Altitude Illness Death Study

In a study conducted in 2004 by Hauser, Mueller, Swai et al., a comprehensive review was done on the deaths of tourists who were participating in the challenging activity of climbing Kilimanjaro over a span of eight years. The study titled “Deaths due to High Altitude Illness among Tourists Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro” focused on the autopsy results of climbers who unfortunately lost their lives on the mountain between 1996 and 2003. It was mentioned in the study that, as per the legal requirements in Tanzania, autopsies are mandatory for all fatal incidents involving tourists. Now let’s take a closer look at the findings: During the eight-year period under examination, a total of 25 tourists tragically lost their lives while attempting to climb Kilimanjaro. The age range of the deceased individuals varied from 29 to 74 years, with 17 being male and 8 being female. Among the 25 tourists, 14 succumbed to advanced high altitude illness (HAI). Out of these 14, one suffered from high altitude cerebral edema (HACE), while five experienced high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE). Surprisingly, eight out of the 14 had both HAPE and HACE. Moving on, 11 out of the 25 deaths were unrelated to high altitude illness, with three resulting from trauma, four from myocardial infarction (heart attack), two from pneumonia, and one each from cardio-pulmonary failure and acute appendicitis. The mortality rate for HAI, stated as 7.7 deaths per 100,000 climbers (equivalent to a death rate of 0.0077%), was calculated based on the eight-year period analyzed in the study. The overall mortality rate, accounting for all deaths both HAI and non-HAI related, was reported as 13.6 deaths per 100,000 climbers (or a death rate of 0.0136%). It is remarkable to note that this overall mortality rate is remarkably low, with only one death per 7,353 climbers. If we apply the mortality rate of 13.6 deaths per 100,000 climbers from the study to the estimated annual number of climbers on Kilimanjaro, ranging between 30,000 and 50,000, we find that the number of deaths on the mountain amounts to approximately 4 to 7 per year. This figure is considerably lower than the commonly stated mortality rate of 10 deaths per year. Additionally, it is significantly lower than the estimated 20-30 deaths, which is believed by experts within the industry to be a more accurate number. So, what could possibly explain this discrepancy? Several factors may play a role in accounting for the difference.

Less Experienced Climbers Attempting Kilimanjaro

Mount Kilimanjaro’s popularity has grown compared to the past, when skilled outdoor enthusiasts primarily enjoyed adventure travel. Back then, climbers were likely to have prior experience at high altitudes. However, with the increasing inclusivity of adventure travel, more inexperienced and ill-prepared individuals are now attempting to conquer the mountain. Consequently, the mortality rate on Kilimanjaro could be higher due to the lack of fitness, preparation, and suitability for high-altitude trekking among these climbers. These individuals often possess risk factors that have not yet been revealed. Astonishingly, approximately half of the clients of Tranquil Kilimanjaro have never engaged in backpacking or tested their ability to acclimatize in their entire lives. From a logical standpoint, the danger faced by inexperienced climbers surpasses that faced by their experienced counterparts.

This is because less experienced climbers may not have the necessary skills or knowledge to navigate the challenging terrain and unpredictable weather conditions that Kilimanjaro presents.

Growing Number of Low-Quality Operators

The increasing number of unreliable Kilimanjaro guide companies could potentially contribute to the death rate. As of now, there are over 200 authorized operators on Kilimanjaro. Regrettably, the vast majority of them are cheap operators lacking appropriate safety measures. Only a few companies, maybe around two dozen, can be deemed as dependable, long-standing, and reputable operators. It is concerning that numerous tourists unquestioningly entrust their lives to companies with staff members who lack medical training to handle emergencies. Several visitors have shared their experiences of selecting budget companies for their climb, only to discover that safety precautions were completely disregarded during their journey. It is always crucial to ensure that your guide company places your health and safety as a top priority (refer to “Why You Should Never Climb With a Budget Company” for further information).

Actual Mortality Rate Lower Than Believed

In addition, we must also take into account the possibility that the claim of 10 to 30 tourist deaths per year, as believed by certain operators, may not be accurate. There is a tendency for rumours of deaths to spread rapidly on the mountain, however, their validity remains uncertain. Annually, around 1,000 individuals are rescued or evacuated, and once they descend to lower altitudes, most of them fully recover. Some may require further medical attention and are transported to the hospital. Our guides frequently come across accounts of potential fatalities that supposedly occurred a night or two earlier. However, these stories often lack substantial details, merely stating the person’s gender, nationality, and alleged place of death. Consequently, many of these rumours are unverified or ultimately proven to be untrue.

Are There Dead Bodies on Mount Kilimanjaro?

Mount Everest is renowned for the presence of deceased individuals along its summit path. It is estimated that more than 200 bodies remain on the mountain, implying that approximately two-thirds of Everest’s fatalities are still present. The rationale behind leaving the bodies lies in the immense danger involved in their recovery. A frozen body can weigh in excess of 300 pounds, posing a significant peril to the team venturing to retrieve it. Additionally, transporting the bodies across treacherous terrain places the Sherpa guides at a heightened risk. Moreover, the logistical expenses associated with organizing such endeavours are exorbitant. In stark contrast, Mount Kilimanjaro offers a significantly easier route from the peak to the base. In the event of an injury or fatality, climbers can be swiftly evacuated from any location on the mountain within a matter of hours. In cases of severe emergencies, where individuals are unable to walk unaided, porters possess the capacity to manually carry climbers or make use of stretchers for descent. Kilimanjaro benefits from the presence of roads that extend to the lower slopes, facilitating the transportation of individuals off the mountain in park vehicles. Furthermore, designated landing sites are available for helicopter rescue operations. Consequently, due to the relative accessibility of the areas frequented by tourists on the mountain, Kilimanjaro does not harbour any remains.

How Can You Decrease the Dangers of Climbing Kilimanjaro?

Ascending Mount Kilimanjaro carries potential hazards, yet on the whole, it is comparatively secure, as indicated by the previously discussed mortality rates. By meticulously organizing and preparing, the majority of risks can be substantially diminished. Measures such as opting for a lengthier route, undergoing training for the hike, and procuring suitable equipment play a crucial role in safeguarding oneself. Additionally, partnering with a seasoned and safety-oriented operator like Tranquil Kilimanjaro almost completely eradicates any remaining risks. The most outstanding Kilimanjaro companies implement comprehensive safety measures and protocols that are specifically designed to mitigate the inherent perils of scaling a towering peak at high altitude. At Tranquil Kilimanjaro, our guides possess the necessary training to handle injuries, illnesses, and rescues.

Tranquil Kilimanjaro’s Safety Precautions

Our guides are extremely experienced when it comes to preventing, detecting, and treating altitude sickness. With over 1,000 climbers handled per year, they have a wealth of knowledge in this area. As part of their daily routine, the guides conduct health checks using a pulse oximeter to monitor oxygen saturation and pulse rate. By using the Lake Louise Scoring System(LLSS), they can assess the severity of any altitude sickness symptoms. Furthermore, our guides are certified Wilderness First Responders(WFR), ensuring they have the necessary skills and tools to make critical medical and evacuation decisions on the spot. To cater to any climbers experiencing moderate to serious altitude sickness, our staff always carries bottled oxygen on all climbs. In cases where climbers are unable to descend on their own, our staff also carries a portable stretcher on northern routes to facilitate their evacuation. Additionally, wheeled stretchers provided by the park are available on other routes. Should the need arise, our staff has the capability to initiate helicopter evacuation through Kilimanjaro MedAir, a reputable helicopter rescue operation. Our staff is well-prepared for any minor injuries that climbers may encounter. They carry a comprehensive first aid kit, enabling them to treat minor scrapes, cuts, and blisters effectively.


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