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Kilimanjaro Altitude

Understanding it...

& being prepared!

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The summit of Mount Kilimanjaro is 5895m and as such it is classed as a high altitude trek. Complex and not fully understood physiological changes take place in the body once above 2500m and this is because the air becomes thinner and there is less oxygen. When we breathe, our intake of oxygen is less and so our body has to work much harder to get oxygen to its essential organs. To put it into context, at the summit of Kilimanjaro there is half the amount of oxygen than there is at sea level. 

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The Acclimatisation Process

The process of ‘acclimatisation’, which is often referred to when talking about trekking at high altitude is a temporary change within the physiology of the body to cope this lack of oxygen. It is not possible to ever totally acclimatise to high altitude, particularly above 5000m, as there simply isn’t enough oxygen to maintain our body for a prolonged period of time. We can however, acclimatise temporarily in order to reach our summit goal.

  • We breathe faster, which is a natural and normal reaction. Our body is trying to get as much oxygen into its system as possible.
  • Our heart beats faster even at resting pace. This is because it is working harder to pump oxygen around our body.
  • We start to produce more red blood red cells to increase oxygen carrying capacity.
  • We excrete bicarbonate through our kidneys and urine which makes our blood more acidic, in turn driving our ventilation of air to take on more oxygen (and help us to acclimatise).
  • Because our brain requires 15% of all oxygen intake, it responds by limiting the body’s physical activity to preserve energy and so you will find you walk at a slower pace at altitude and become tired and breathless if accelerating movement, e.g. running to find a toilet spot!

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Helping your body...

Go slow:  It is impossible to fully acclimatise on a Mount Kilimanjaro climb. However, all of our climbs include an acclimatisation day to allow our bodies to adjust to the ever changing altitude. Climbing higher and sleeping lower allows for acclimatisation to take place gradually. Our 7 day itineraries also give you more time to do  this and so increase your chances further of making it to the summit.

Pace yourself:  Our guides will set a deliberately slower and steady pace to aid the acclimatisation process.

Eat:  The body needs as much energy as it can get to pump oxygen around your body and so it is important to eat little and often, even if you feel you have lost your appetite.

Keep hydrated:  It is important to keep drinking water to keep hydrated; adding electrolytes will also help replace vital body salts lost though perspiration during the day.

Sleep:  Shortness of breath at higher altitudes can make it more difficult to sleep, but it is important to get plenty rest to recover after the day’s walk. NB: Sleeping pills should not be used to aid sleep at altitude on Kilimanjaro.

Positive attitude: Kilimanjaro is as much a mental challenge as it is physical. It is important to mentally prepare and arrive on the mountain with a healthy mind.

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What is Acute Mountain Sickness?

Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) or Altitude Sickness can occur when the human body is exposed to high altitude. It affects everyone differently and some more severely than others. Of course it helps to be fit and healthy, but AMS has total disregard for experience and fitness. You may have trekked previously at altitude and not been effected, but another time you may experience symptoms. 

Mild AMS 
Symptoms include headaches, feeling tired and fatigued, loss of appetite, shortness of breath, swelling of hands and feet, stomach upset, nausea, dizziness, pins and needles, inability to sleep – generally feeling a bit rough!

Moderate AMS 
Severe headaches that are not relieved by medication, nausea and vomiting, increasing weakness and fatigue, shortness of breath, decreased coordination (Ataxia).

Severe AMS 
Shortness of breath at rest, inability to walk, decreasing mental status, fluid build in lungs or brain causing swelling. The only way to alleviate severe AMS is to receive medical attention and to descend to a lower altitude immediately.

High Altitude Pulmonary Oedema (HAPO) and High Altitude Cerebral Oedema (HACO) are two, more serious and life threatening conditions that are associated with altitude sickness and occur when an individual has not been able to acclimatise properly or has climbed too quickly. Symptoms that are not assessed or remain untreated can eventually result in either of these conditions, where lack of oxygen can result in leakage of fluid through the capillary walls into either the lungs or the brain causing swelling. Both conditions require immediate evacuation and hospitalisation.

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Don't panic!

You should'nt be unnecessarily worried about altitude; you just need to be aware it, how it can affect you and what you can do to help your body acclimatise. If you have any concerns about trekking at altitude and would like to speak to one of the team, please give us a call on +44 (0) 207 609 6695 or email kili@actionchallenge.com and we'll be happy to respond to any questions regarding a Kilimanjaro climb.

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