Kilimanjaro Then and Now: A Mountain Comes to Terms With a Changing World
Story and photos by Julia Hubbel



A writer looks back on a summit of one of the most popular climbs in the world, with all the problems that popularity brings, and plots a post-pandemic return.


Tanzania travel story

The sun rose slowly over the tops of the clouds, painting the cumulus with every shade of pink and orange. At nearly 19,000 feet, it's brighter than anything you can imagine, and after hours of hiking in the deep dark from midnight to sunrise, a welcome vision.

Gilman's Point is the first major rest stop en route to the summit of Africa's tallest mountain. It was the end of a perfect full-moon night, November 18th, 2013. The year I turned sixty.

Our small party, Aurelie (my safari operator's wife) and our two guides, August and Ignas, took a breather. Water, food, rest. Breathe, what little oxygen was available. Ignas had a supply of it in case things got ugly.

Aurelie and I made it just fine, albeit she managed the way down with far more grace that I possess.

I had gone up the mountain with e-Trip Africa, one of many climbing companies that compete for climber dollars on the slopes of the most accessible of the world's great summits. Each year 40,000 folks attempt, with about a third of them not making it for one reason or another. Usually, that's either moving too fast or a lack of respect for the demands of altitude.

kilimanjaro tanzania sunrise

While our small party, along with a lively and well-trained porter crew, had hiked up the then-less-traveled Rongai Route in spring, we had seen nobody else on the mountain all the way up. This is extremely rare across the Kili routes, as the climb such a popular adventure. Our crews were able to secure the sweetest of spots until we reached the summit base camp.

What wasn't sweet was the trash. Like Everest, Kilimanjaro has long suffered the effects of poor practices, leaving the mountain trails trashed with everything from human fecal matter to plastic from top to bottom. This kind of visual clutter takes away from your experience.

Mountain clutter and trash aren't the only issues that can hound those of us who enjoy and seek out challenging hikes. In too many places in the world, local subsistence farmers and day workers are tapped to be porters. They are among the least-respected and worst-paid of all the people who make up critically important crew. None of the roughly 20,000 porters who work the Kilimanjaro routes were, to the best of my knowledge, trained in any kind of skill set around how to clean up and manage the inevitable trash that any climbing company will create.

On my climb, our guide August, who by that point had more than 300 ascents to his resume when he led us up, checked our stats every single day. Blood oxygenation and pulse dictated not only speed but also whether or not we advanced. We would climb a bit higher each day, then descend to sleep. Had either of us displayed symptoms, August would have refused to take us higher until they came under control, or we would have to descend. Not all crews have that training, and it's part of what you pay for when you invest in a better-quality climb.

kilimanjaro tanzania sunrise

August and Ignas were picking up trash along the route and packing it out. Back then, crews were being tasked to do some cleanup (what the Kilimanjaro Park Authority- KINAPA called Trash In Trash Out, or TITO), but the sheer volume of the castoffs was more than most could reasonably handle, especially with many other crews and climbers leaving their garbage behind.

A lot has changed since then, and much of it for the better.

Protection for Porters

Back in 2013, when I first began researching companies for my trip to Tanzania, I was using TripAdvisor and other sites to get recommendations for a reputable company. I ended up choosing e-Trip Africa, which has since then expanded their operations and their reach. As many of us don't realize when we start searching for climbing companies, some Kili operators had become what's called Partner Companies in an organization formed in 2003 to protect porters' rights. That not-for-profit is the Kilimanjaro Porters' Assistance Project (KPAP). Ben, then as now, was an active member.

KPAP is an arm of the International Mountain Explorers' Connection or IMEC. In 1996, Boulder-based Scott Dimetrosky had completed a six- month traverse of the Himalayas and was disturbed by the treatment of both the porters and the mountains. He formed IMEC, of which KPAP has become its most prominent organization. The organization's primary agendas have been to ensure fair wages and treatment of porters, as well as lending "stores" which allow the porters to be properly geared up until they can afford their own kits. The Tanzania National Parks, along with Kilimanjaro Stakeholders, has established minimum guidelines for everything from a guide-to-climber ratio to acceptable weights and wages. Those companies who sign on as KPAP Partners take this several steps further.

kilimanjaro porters

Not only do they commit to an agreed-upon minimum wage, but they also commit to equipment upkeep, three meals a day and more, transparent tipping, and a variety of other standards which ensure that porters are both fairly paid as well as fairly treated. The real test is that KPAP Partner companies agree to being monitored on each trip as to how those standards are met.

E-Trip signed onto this right away. One way you can tell this works is how the porters behave on the climbs. Porters who have worked together a long time (on my trip, six years, which is mind-boggling for this industry) are efficient, happy and comfortable with each other. Porters and crew who are (wrongly) convinced they will make more money if you summit can not only endanger you but also themselves. That's why a minimum daily living wage for this seasonal work is critical. So are a secure tent, living quarters, adequate food, and sleep.

While all that may seem obvious to Westerners, in developing countries, it's not at all expected locally. KPAP's efforts have gone a long way towards improving those conditions, especially for those porters hired directly by the Partner companies.

Fighting for Porters and the Mountain's Health

I was back at the base of Kilimanjaro in February of 2020, right at the same time Covid-19 was starting its inexorable march across the world. I spent four days researching KPAP, its Program Manager for these last sixteen years, and interviewing both staff and hopeful porters at the base of the Machame Route, which is the most popular.

I sat through two days of constant debriefings by KPAP-trained porters who take on the job of reporting on a laundry list of conditions, from how many meals the porters received to what they ate, whether or not there was a ground sheet, and if porters had to sleep in the mess tent (which meant much shorter nights). When problems arise, such as leaky tents, the Partner company is notified and given a chance to fix the problem. Those who are serious about their partnership status rectify the issue immediately.

kilimanjaro tent camping

All this is going on largely out of the climbers' sight. The value of that is that when porters are well-fed, happy, healthy, warm, and protected, they can take joy in their work. A porter who falls ill or can't climb for some reason can delay or undermine a climb, at great cost to the climbing group. My experience in 2013 was of a well-trained, well-organized, very happy crew from cook to guide to porter. That culminated, for my part, in having two porters meet us at the base of the summit after a very long climb and descent. August and Ignas had helped me down as I had jammed my knee. The cold mango juice those two porters put in my exhausted and grateful hands remains, for me, the Ultimate Nectar of the Gods.

The next day was tip day. Ben had given me a guideline, and I had extra set aside for particularly good work. The ensuing dance party on the side of the mountain wasn't just something to behold, it was irresistible. Even my sore pegs had enough energy to join in.

About 7000 out of 20,000 of porters are currently employed by Partner companies. Many more hope to, for good reason: the promise of better treatment.

Kilimanjaro Takes a Breather

kilimanjaro summit congratsBy the time I left Africa in March 2020, the virus was well on its way.

When it became clear that there was real danger, KPAP went to work. Among their first actions was to create a Covid safety instruction sheet in Swahili.

As it became evident that there would likely be no regular climbing seasons in 2020, KPAP's more forward-thinking Partner companies began GoFundMe campaigns to raise money for food and supplies. Each porter may support anywhere from 20 to up to 100 extended family members. The loss of climbing revenue can be devastating. KPAP hosted weekly conference calls to manage the crisis, including instituting classes in budgeting and money management as well as organic farming.

One very bright spot that came out of the year was that in September, a crew of some four hundred porters was funded to do a total Kilimanjaro Leave No Trace Event. Not only did this effort sweep the mountain of most of its mess, KPAP and the Partner companies worked with the Sentinel Outdoor Institute to provide training in Leave No Trace principles. Twenty porters are in the pipeline become LNT instructors. A future Kilimanjaro is likely to have far less trash left on the many routes, and will also feature more crew trained in how to take far better care of their mountain.

Tanzania and other African countries didn't suffer quite the same infection rates that many Western countries experienced from Covid, which was good news. The bad news was that the tourism industry took a terrible hit. However, some climbers summitted anyway, and wrote poetic reviews about how perfect it was to head up the mountain with a grateful crew and no crowds. All reported that their crews followed masks, social distancing and hand-washing precautions.

Back in 2013, like many if not most eager climbers looking for a safe and fun way up Kilimanjaro, I had no clue that KPAP existed. Nor did I understand how porters were treated before IMEC had been formed. Since then I've traveled all over the world and witnessed precisely why Scott formed IMEC. As the world of adventure travel begins to shift more towards sustainability and local control, it makes solid sense to choose those outfitters which commit to porter and crew safety and comfort. KPAP is in the process of handing over the management to Tanzanian control.

Sustainable Travel Has a Price

These stories of progress contain a note of caution. As mentioned, many trekking outfits are still not members and you can't expect them to follow the same sustainable practices. It can be tempting to seek out a fire sale offered by international adventure outfits who are hoping for your business no matter where you travel. While a potential adventurer may find their tempting prices right now, just as they can find those who offer bargain-basement fees during normal years, there are good reasons to rethink that strategy.

kilimanjaro summit congratsFirst of all, cheap, under-the-market prices mean that costs were cut somewhere. The Tanzanian government exacts fees for the use of the park, each climber, and more. No outfit can circumvent those fees, so those considerable costs have to be cut elsewhere. Invariably that means that porters get paid less, possibly get less food or worse living conditions. Or all three.

Climbers on a budget Kilimanjaro summit are not guaranteed good food and nutrition. That's a problem because it's difficult to climb strong for days on boring food. The higher the altitude, the lower the appetite. Good food, variety, and solid nutrition mean a greater likelihood of success.

Low-budget trips may not have medically trained guides to help climbers in distress. A quality Kilimanjaro adventure company will have someone who checks every climber's vitals daily, forcing a break if someone is clearly unwell. They'll ensure proper medical training so a guide can tell the difference between altitude sickness and something else. A lack of preparation could cost a tourist their life. An average of 10 climbers die annually and many more have to give up and descend after getting sick.

A Kilimanjaro climb is an epic experience, a major accomplishment, and something people dream of for years. I made it up and down at age 60 thanks to a happy support team that was trained, outfitted, and fed. If I had tried to save a few bucks with an inferior operator, maybe not.

I plan to return to Kilimanjaro this coming June, conditions willing. Assuming that travel improves and the climbers come back, it's going to be a very happy time on the mountain.

IF YOU GO

The best way to ensure a quality adventure where the crew is treated right is by using a KPAP Partner company. They aren’t the cheapest, but they are the best. You can find the updated list here.

Julia HubbelJulia Hubbel is the author of two books, a prize-winning journalist, and adventure athlete. Her primary interest is in adventure sports in the farthest reaches of the world, learning about indigenous cultures and discovering the last of the world's pristine places.




Related Features:
Touring Arusha with the Flycatchers in Tanzania - Claudia B. Flisi
Where Wildlife Protection and Human Prospering Work Together in Kenya - Julia Hubbel
Last of the Bushmen in Tanzania - James Michael Dorsey
The Kidnapping of Edward the Maasai - Claudia B. Flisi


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