Mawenzi Adventures



High, higher, Kilimanjaro height! Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania is the highest mountain in Africa and the tallest free-standing mountain in the world. And while it’s ‘only’ 236th on the list of highest mountains in the world, there’s quite a lot to say when it comes to Mount Kilimanjaro’s height.



So what exactly is Kilimanjaro’s elevation? Uhuru Peak, the highest point of the mountain, stands tall at 5895 m / 19340 ft. And while this makes it the biggest mountain in Africa, Kilimanjaro is obviously far from being the highest mountain on earth, an honor that goes to Mount Everest. But… the risk of altitude sickness is much higher while climbing Kilimanjaro, due to how fast most climbers reach the top!  


Now that we know how high is Mount Kilimanjaro, the next question concerns the average daily gain in altitude. While there are longer routes to reach the summit of Kilimanjaro, an estimated total of 85% of all climbers use the two shortest ones, Machame route and Marangu route. The first one takes you to the top in 5 or 6 days, the latter in only 4 or 5. 

So let’s compare. Both Everest Base Camps are lower than Kilimanjaro’s summit, with respective heights of 5364 m / 17508 ft and 5150 m / 16900 ft. Most climbers reach them in 10 to 12 days. 
Now we’re not rocket scientists but it seems clear to us… that’s twice as long to reach a point that’s at least 500 m / 1640 ft lower! 
So let’s talk about the biggest danger of Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain peak in Africa: altitude sickness. 


What is AMS?

AMS stands for Acute Mountain Sickness. It comes in its ‘standard’ form that we just call AMS, but has some much more severe variants, HACE or High Altitude Cerebral Edema and HAPE or High Altitude Pulmonary Edema. These conditions are your biggest concerns on Mount Kilimanjaro. 

Let’s start by defining ‘high altitude’ and tell you from which altitude these symptoms usually occur. There are 3 ‘zones’:

  • high: between 2500 and 3600 m / 8000 and 12000 feet
  • very high: between 3600 and 5500 m / 12000 and 18000 feet
  • extremely high: over 5500 m / 18000 feet

The higher you go, the more the air pressure decreases, and the less oxygen you get per breath – whilst making a big physical effort for which you need a certain amount of it. Your body will try to compensate this loss of oxygen by breathing faster, but will become unable to do this at some point. The main cause is climbing too high in a short period of time, not giving the body enough time to get use to the lack of oxygen. Most people can reach about 2500 meters / 8000 feet without any problem, but after that the struggle could potentially begin. 

Let’s explain how to avoid AMS, how to recognize the symptoms and how to treat it if you were to get it anyway. 

How to avoid AMS – Acclimatization

Acclimatization – the magical word on the mountain. But what does it mean and how do you do it? Acclimatization is the process during which the body adapts to the lower availability of oxygen. The best way to achieve it is by progressing slowly and gradually, and by spending enough time at intermediate levels before continuing to climb higher.
The body has a great adaptation capacity, and the maximum altitude you can reach without suffering from AMS gradually increases. All you have to do is give it enough time. For example, let’s say your current ‘altitude limit’ lies at 3000 meters. If you climb to this altitude and spend a day or two here, the body will get used to it and your limit will increase. You’ll notice your breathing rhythm returning back to normal, and potential mild symptoms disappearing. The next day you’ll be able to climb higher, etc.
Here are some practical ways to help your body acclimatize:
  • Take a pre-hike, eg. on Mount Meru, also located in northern Tanzania.
  • Choose a route that is at least 7 days long, especially if you don’t have much experience with high altitude trekking. Click here to see the options.
  • Advance ‘pole pole’ – slowly!
  • Pick a route that allows you to climb high and sleep low, like Machame route or Lemosho route.
  • Drink at least 3 liters of water per day. Don’t drink alcohol, take stimulants, smoke or consume caffeine.
  • Take preventative medication. Consult your doctor to get the best advice.

Symptoms of AMS and how to treat them

So what if you don’t take enough time to acclimatize?

First of all it’s important to say that ANYONE can get altitude sickness, and that it has nothing to do with physical condition, age or gender. You can be the fittest person in the world… and still suffer from altitude sickness. So how can you recognize it and make it go away? We’ll tell you!

The most common and very often the first symptoms you’ll experience are headaches, fatigue and the inability to sleep, nausea, dizziness, shortness of breath and loss of appetite. If you experience these symptoms, it is very important to inform your guides and stay vigilant! The best thing to do is to stop ascending and wait until the symptoms disappear.

However, in case the symptoms persevere or get worse (strong headaches that won’t go away with medication, vomiting, loss of coordination, …), you’re probably suffering from moderate AMS and it’s important that you descend at least 300 m / 1000 ft and stay there until you feel well again. 

If you keep climbing with these symptoms, they’re most likely to get worse until the point where you’ll loose your ability to walk, breathe and think straight. Fluid might start leaking through the capillary walls into the lungs (HAPE) or into the brain (HACE) and a rapid descent and a trip to the hospital will be inevitable. If you make it there, that is, because yes, this degree of altitude sickness (and even the moderate one) can be fatal…
So, long story short, if you experience mild symptoms, take some time to acclimatize and stay vigilant. If it gets any worse, descend and give your body time to adapt. If you see any of your climbing partners experience even worse symptoms, don’t wait, even if it’s the middle of the night. Inform your guides, they’ll do everything they can to descend the victim as soon as possible and bring him/her to a hospital if necessary.
Note: Obviously we have quite some experience climbing Kilimanjaro, but we’re not doctors or scientists. Therefor the information in this article should only be used as a guideline, and can never replace any kind of medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is your own responsibility to make sure you have correct and up-to-date medical information when going to high altitude.  

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MOUNT KILIMANJARO HEIGHT – Facts and tips for dealing with altitude - Tanzania