A word about heading to Africa's highest peak, if you put that on hold in 2020, and what to do to prepare if you live in the Pacific Northwest
Eugene, Oregon a town of adventurous outdoor folks. A local woman, Chris, and I just went for a hike this past week on Mt. Pisgah. She too has climbed Kilimanjaro. She's an active member of a local hiking group called the Obsidians, which has a reputation for moving fast up the mountain. Those folks might be slightly grizzled but they rival grizzly bears in their speed. They are hikers, bikers,kayakers, the lot- so it's fair to say more than a few have done this climb., and many others are planning on it.
Ther reason I want to touch on travel to Africa here is because Chris, like many of us, is thinking about traveling again. The Obsidians are interested in possibly having me speak. This article is going to address what I am planning to present. If you are a hiker, and Oregon is full of them you might harbor a dream to hike this iconic mountain. I want to touch on some important points. Most of myfellow Obsidians are already vaccinated, and the Eugene VA jabbed me for the second time yesterday afternoon. In a few weeks I am going to be seriously looking for a plane ticke back to Africa. To that, then.
As the vaccination programs have been rolling out, a lot of buzz has grown around which generational groups are going to be leading the travel boom, with a wholesale, eager return to beloved places. I am most certainly one of the Boomers, and among my target destinations is Tanzania, with the hopes of investigating how well the tourism industry has fared after Covid.
While it is both tempting as well as potentially dangerous to speed things up without being very careful about basic Covid protections such as masking, social distancing and handwashing, it's also a good idea to start thinking about revisiting that dream trip. If your dream trip is to climb Africa's most iconic mountain, now is both a good time to start your training program again, as well as to start looking at your options for operators.
However, that advice comes with a proviso.
If you are new to the climbing world, where porters are tasked with carrying the bulk of your goods up the mountain for you, and they are also responsible for camp set up, food preparation and all the rest, you might not be aware of some of the historical issues which have plagued the tourist end of the climbing industry.
Suffice it to say, those people who bear the brunt of the grunt work up the side of the mountain to support your climb have not always enjoyed the best treatment. In many if not most cases, those porters are drawn from local villages, are often strictly seasonal workers, and have to support their families and sometimes extended families at least in part on what they might earn going up the mountain for you and me. They have traditionally been underpaid, at best, if not badly treated outright, which can endanger both their lives and yours.
Some years back the International Mountain Explorers Connection was formed in response to a very real and immediate need worldwide to protect the rights and lives of porters, especially in areas where there is considerable traffic. They have become the leaders in ensuring that porters have a combination of proper gear, food, tents and basic wages. The reason this is relevant right now is that given the potential temptation for operators to offer a fire sale to get tourists back on the mountain, those porters' gains in better conditions might suffer.
As a result, so might your trip.
Worker’s rights and protections are not necessarily enforced the same way you and I as Westerners might understand, or assume they should be. That fact, however, does not justify those of us as Western climbers and tourists taking advantage of difficult conditions, which might mean that some operators cut the costs.
This is one reason that there are organizations which have been formed in order to ensure that porters are treated fairly. The Partner for Responsible Travel Program, monitored by the Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project is one example.
If I may, again, if this is new to you, let's draw the larger picture.
Porters are the most vulnerable of the populations which surround one of Africa’s most popular tourist destinations. Some twenty thousand of them work the mountain during the two climbing seasons every year. They make what is effectively a few dollars a day (about ten, what you’d pay for a few Starbucks coffees), plus what tips you and I choose to award them.
However, that's in normal years, and only if the climbing company agrees to better porter wages and working conditions. Working conditions which you and I might assume are provided to those who do such hard work aren't guaranteed. Those range from adequate clothing and shoes, hats, gloves, tent space, a sleeping bag, even enough food for the incredibly hard work of schlepping our heavy gear up the base camp so that we don't have to.
Kilimanjaro Park Rules dictate the number of guides that you and I must have per climb, as well as the number of porters, each of whom carries the 20k weight limit. Not only does this protect your porter crew but it also ensures that if someone gets ill- you or a crew member- there are still enough people to get up and down the mountain safely.
The author (right) and her climbing partner on their way up, November, 2013 Julia Hubbel
Understanding fixed trip costs:
Every Kilimanjaro climb comes with a set of fixed costs which can’t be reduced or avoided. In 2016 the Tanzanian government added mandatory VAT (Value Added Tax) collection on park fees, guiding services and transportation. So effectively, when you determine the total price of a trek, 18% is deducted at the front end and paid directly to the government.
Then there are Park fees. These alone make up a significant portion of your Kilimanjaro climb costs. These include: a daily conservation fee ($70), a camping or hut fee ($50-$60 per night). On an eight-day trek, for example, park fees alone add up to $1097.40, per person. These aren’t negotiable, as they go straight to the Park System. Trying to slip under the radar to "barter a better deal" is impossible just based on these fees alone.
Kilimanjaro’s climbing community is highly competitive, being made up of huge international operators all the way down to local guides cobbling together a crew when they find a likely climber. That's in any normal season to begin with. Now, as people look to re-book adventures after what was a difficult year for those without a substantial bank account, some may well resort to cost-cutting to attract tourists. As their fixed costs are quite high and non-negotiable, if those operators want to compete solely on price, something has to be slashed.
What does all this mean?
There are two sides to this and they are intertwined. First your safety, and the safety of your crew. Both depend on well trained, well-prepared, well-rested and well-fed crews, as well as medically trained staff and good food.
What gets cut if an operator offers a "fire sale" deal? To understand some of the responsibilities your operators have to juggle, let's discuss.
First, a good climbing company invests in top-quality gear, such as well-made tents. Tourists are famously brutal on tents, and even the best only last a few seasons before they leak and tear. Good operators research your food needs — that of everyone in your party — and commit to bringing proper nutrition for you and all the support crew. You might not think this is a big deal except for this: as you climb higher, your appetite suffers. To ensure you're being properly fed, you need food you will eat with gusto, for you have to have solid nutrition to make it up and down not only alive but successfully.
You gotta eat, but you also gotta eat well
Fresh fruit and veges are heavy, and it costs money to take them up with you. If you have food preferences or challenges, this also costs to ensure that you get what your body can handle.
One more key piece about safety. Even the best professional climbers, and that includes people who have summitted Everest or Denali, are subject to altitude sickness. It’s completely unpredictable and can strike anyone at any time. Good companies have medically-trained guides who check your stats daily. These people cost more because of their professional training. If you have a health issue on the slopes of this huge mountain, you need to know you're in safe hands. Fire-sale deals may not include such trained people and that puts your entire expedition at a higher risk.
So even though you might be a regular on Mt. Rainier, or Mt.Hood, even taken on the harder climbs up the Sisters in the harshest parts of the year, that doesn't mean that Kilimanjaro is going to be a walk in the park.
And one more factor, which many newcomers to this world may not know about. Tips are expected, and the best operators let you know in advance what's customary. On occasion, a climber might tip a porter or guide an ungodly sum Word gets around and people will give anything to go on a climb in the slim hopes of getting a tip like that. Those people can be exploited to climb for less or for free.
Not to belabor the point, but this bears repeating: truly good companies ensure a living wage (minimum or more) and ensure a transparent tipping process.
By the time you and I take into account the flight, our personal gear, training, and all the other elements of a Kilimanjaro climb, it can seem like a really good idea to try to bag a bargain deal. You're investing thousands, and that's before you even got on the airplane. Long before Covid-19 put a hold on the tourist industry, people have tried to shave thousands off the climb, which all too often ends up in disaster.
That’s in the best of times.
Operators and porters have been short of their seasonal incomes for a year, and they are eager to return to work. It's unfortunate, but desperate operators may well resort to desperate measures to get you to sign up.
So here's what you can do:
First, do your research.
Climbing companies which have joined the not-for-profit Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project’s Partner for Responsible Travel Program have committed to fair wages, equitable treatment and safe conditions for their crews. They are monitored on every trek to ensure that they honor their commitment.
That is an investment in our safety and success.
Second: look for good business practices.
Check which of those KPAP members worked hard during Covid to raise money for their people, who did what they could to provide food, training and interim income. Those actions go a long way towards demonstrating their intent to support their crews even curing lean times. That kind of commitment results in dedicated, loyal crew members who are very grateful not only to their employers, but even more so to taking care of you and me when our boots hit the trails again with their help. Most Eugenians I know are very committed to sustainability so this is a perfect fit for the thoughtful tourist and adventurer.
The better operators are not going to be the cheapest. They rarely are. However, your safety and that of your crew are at stake, and worth it.
If getting to the top of this amazing mountain is important to you, please consider the critical importance of a properly-outfitted, well-fed, fairly-paid crew whose enthusiasm and gratitude for work are already guaranteed long before you take your first steps to destiny.
Now, where do you train? Around here, everywhere.
The beauty of living in the Pacific Northwest is that you not only have lots of places to train, there are also lots of folks to train with. I joined the Hiking Oregon facebook site. Not only is the site full of gorgeous photos but the singles version allows folks to find friends with the same interest. There is plenty of solid advice on where to find easy to hard hikes all over the state, pupper-friendly places where your animal can go safely off-leash and where beloved parks are closed due to snow or fire damage. You can start on the family-friendly Spencer Butte and Mt. Pisgah trails. Pisgah also has harder, steeper trails for more sweaty work on the eastern side:
For Kili, while short, steep hikes are great for leg strength, you're looking for endurance training.
I just found this:
Which for my training dollar is a perfect place to build leg strength and endurance right in the city of Portland. What you want isn't speed: it's strength, resilience, and powerful lungs. You do not speed-hike at high altitude. You begin climbing at Kili at around 8-9K feet, which for some is already gasp-inducing. The better trained your lungs are from effort, the better you can handle this. A good training program also includes cycling, weight training, and swimming, which builds lungs and upper body strength. We have all that here and more, especially as the quarantine is slowly being lifted.
If you live around here in Eugene, or any part of the green Pacific Northwest, you're in the perfect place. Now you know how to choose a climbing company, if your dream is to take what you learned hiking the Cascades to the top of the African continent. See you at the top!
The author summitted Kilimanjaro in November of 2013, using a KPAP member company. If you have questions about the climb or are interested in additional details about the experience, please contact the author, KPAP directly, or any of the KPAP Partner companies who are dedicated to safety and above all, fun.
Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this story, here’s my hopefully gentle way of ushering you to click the box below to follow my stuff. When you do that, I’ll know you’re comfortable with hearing from me once in a while.