Peak Planet recently spoke with American Survival Guide Magazine about what it takes to lead climbers on Africa’s highest peak. Read the unedited interview here:
ASG: Please tell me about how Peak Planet prepares climbers for their expedition. What kind of training do they provide? What kind of training/experience do the guides have?
Peak Planet: When people set out to climb Kilimanjaro, they understand that it is a real challenge. Our website and staff provide all the information one needs to sufficiently prepare for an expedition – including how to train, what gear to bring, and what medications and vaccinations to get. We set the expectations so that climbers know what the trail conditions are, what they will eat, and where they will sleep. We find that our clients take preparation very seriously, and that helps us because the better prepared they are the better the overall experience.
We have the best guides on the mountain. Some have summited more than 300 times and have been working for us for more than 15 years. All are licensed, speak fluent English, and know everything there is to know about climbing Kilimanjaro. Most importantly, they know how to keep our clients safe. Our guides receive ongoing training in first aid, mountain rescue and evacuation. To become a guide for us and remain a guide for us, you must be a top performer in all aspects.
ASG: How does the company educate climbers about the dangers of altitude sickness? What tips are given to ensure safety?
Peak Planet: On the day before the climb, our guides conduct a trip briefing. In addition to checking that climbers have all the necessary clothing and equipment, we discuss the effects of altitude and how to acclimatize.
There are a number of things climbers can do to help acclimatize properly. Being hydrated and well fed is very important. So our guides will encourage climbers to drink lots of water, between 4-5 liters per day, and to eat even when not hungry. Because everyone acclimatizes at a different rate, guides deliberately set a very slow pace so that all climbers will have time to adapt to the thin air. Guides also lead acclimatization hikes, taking climbers to higher elevations during the day and sleeping at a lower elevation at night. This approach, called “climb high sleep low”, is known to help adaptation.
There is a prescription medicine, called Diamox, which is FDA approved for Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). It works by speeding up breathing, which in turn brings more oxygen into the body. Climbers can obtain Diamox from their travel doctor before the trip. Lastly, we are only one of a handful of Kilimanjaro operators to offer personal oxygen systems. By using supplemental oxygen, climbers can virtually eliminate all symptoms of altitude sickness and drastically improve their chances for a safe and successful summit.
ASG: What do the guides look for in determining if a climber is suffering from altitude sickness?
Peak Planet: First and foremost, guides look for common symptoms of AMS, such as headache, light-headedness, fatigue, nausea, sleeplessness and loss of appetite. But they also look for changes in a climber’s behavior, such as food and water intake, walking pace, gait, balance, manner of speaking, and energy level. It is pretty apparent when someone is suffering from altitude sickness because they will have symptoms and a show a change in behavior.
ASG: At what point, generally, do guides decide it’s safer for a climber to turn back? What does that process look like?
Peak Planet: The decision to turn a climber around is the most important decision our guides can make. It can mean the difference between life and death. Our guides will assess the situation by evaluating the condition of the climber, the rate of deterioration, and the current and future elevation. If the guides determine that the climber’s condition will likely migrate into moderate or severe AMS, they will bring the climber down. Client safety is our number one priority.
ASG: About how many climbers who climb with Peak Planet suffer from altitude sickness?
Peak Planet: It is estimated that 75% of climbers will experience at least some form of altitude sickness while on Kilimanjaro. People generally begin to feel the effects of altitude between 10,000 and 12,000 feet. At 12,000 feet, the oxygen is 40% than what it is at sea level.
ASG: If you have a spectrum of severity for what constitutes altitude sickness, please describe.
Peak Planet: There are three stages of AMS – mild, moderate and severe. Mild AMS symptoms include headache, light-headedness, fatigue, nausea, and sleeplessness. Moderate AMS symptoms include severe headache, vomiting, and ataxia. Severe AMS symptoms include inability to walk, confusion and fluid in the lungs. Two very dangerous conditions can occur at high altitude – High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE), fluid build up in the lungs, and High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE), swelling of the brain. These conditions require immediate descent and medical attention.
ASG: Is there anything else you’d like to add or that I should know to inform readers about this subject?
Peak Planet: Your guide service is the single most important factor in determining the success and safety of a Kilimanjaro climb. Make sure you climb with a reputable guide company like Peak Planet, with professional, experienced guides, quality equipment and solid safety and crisis management procedures.
Portions of this interview appear in the January 2016 issue of American Survival Guide.