A tale of “getting what you pay for”

I first saw the tall, muscular young man two days ago when he came into the Stella Maris dining room. This hotel/orphan’s school is Kilimanjaro central during climbing season, as we are just about to wrap up the first one of the two best times to climb before the April rains shut things down for two months here in Tanzania.

Today, I saw him again as I was just ordering lunch. I’m here taking a writing break while I research issues concerning the Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project or KPAP, which is a non-profit dedicated to the welfare of the twenty thousand some porters who take thousands up the mountain during the year’s two busy seasons. I asked him about his story. This is what he told me.

This young man, let’s call him Jean, is French, and he is from Luxembourg. He said that he was very sporty, especially at sea level in water sports. He’s active, clearly well-muscled, and young, probably in his twenties.

Sadly, that’s precisely the kind of guy who is most likely to come down the mountain on a stretcher. But I’m ahead of myself.

Before he came to Moshi, he said he had thoroughly researched the climb. What that entails is a bit sketchy, because Jean clearly didn’t research some of the most basic safety issues. He was focusing primarily on price, which is extremely dangerous, as he discovered.

When it comes to your safety and well-being, price is the least of your concerns. Don’t think so? Think that if you’re young and hale and hardy, nothing will happen? Kindly read on.

The basic safety issues concern altitude sickness, which can happen to anyone at any time, a genuine respect for the mountain and the conditions you face while climbing (which Jean admits he’s never done before) and the crew with which you climb.

In this regard, all guides, cooks and porters are not equal, for not all climbing companies are equal. Price isn’t the only determining factor, but after you hit a certain number (as in under about US$2000 for Machame, for example) it pays to pay attention to the details.

Finding out the devil in those details above twelve thousand feet isn’t a good plan, because now you’re committed, and in some situations, you might well be stuck. For example, as I just heard during an interview with one of E-Trip Africa’s top guides, Bosco, a guide who doesn’t have medical training likely won’t be able to ascertain symptoms if you have an episode of some kind. Too many assume that if a climber has an issue, it’s altitude sickness. That’s not always the case. You and I have very different bodies, and all of us respond to extreme conditions differently. I can’t speak for anyone else but I want someone to know the difference between altitude sickness and possibly something else, for which a swift descent might mean even more complications.

Jean asked for a reference from his cab driver, so that he could shave a few bucks off his fee. He found a guide who told him that he’d save him 500 euros and take him up the six to eight day Machame, or most popular route, for four days. For $1300 US.

That’s a recipe for disaster.

First of all, anyone who has never climbed, ever, cannot do this kind of extreme climb in four days without nearly guaranteeing themselves physical distress. It makes little difference what kind of shape you’re in. Altitude sickness is an equal-opportunity offender, striking the superb athlete and hobbyist alike. The superb athlete who has just climbed Denali might be struck with altitude sickness on Kilimanjaro while someone with a fraction of his skills walks right by. Sometimes it’s just your day to get sick.

Second, since a reputable, KPAP Partner Company will charge more than two thousand dollars for that same climb, just where do you think the scrimping is going to happen? Because that amount doesn’t include the expected tips, which are essential to all guides, cooks and porters.

For starters, the porters are likely to take the biggest hit. In far too many cases, desperate porters who need work will sign up not only for minimal salary, but the conditions are also very likely to be poor. From limited food, to a poor tent, to possibly inadequate personal gear, those porters may be in dire straits on the mountain, and hardly in any mental and physical condition to want to help if you’re in trouble.

If you’re going to climb a challenging mountain, I can’t speak for anyone else, but I would want a good team to support me. Cold, hungry porters who didn’t get adequate sleep do not a good team make.

The guide picked Jean up at the hotel. He had one guide, one cook and three porters for this trip. Jean was upset about the number of porters because he didn’t understand why they needed so many. He clearly was confused not only about how much each individual was carrying, but he also wasn’t aware that the bags had to be weighed at the gate.

At Machame Gate, Jean found out that his guide had been, as he called it, “banned” from climbing. He insisted that the park should supply “stand by guides” in cases like this, which isn’t the Park’s responsibility. It’s his, to find a guide that is duly licensed and has permission to climb. An hour went by, and his guide pleaded with Jean to make an argument to the gate guard. Finally, there was a breakthrough- Jean isn’t sure. It’s impossible to know if money exchanged hands, but suddenly the “banned guide” was now taking Jean up the mountain.

It’s safe to say that if a guide has been suspended from climbing, there’s a good reason for it. That would give most of us pause. But not Jean. He and the “banned” guide, the cook and the three porters headed up. At speed.

High altitude + Speed = Altitude sickness.

Jean was in a hurry. They made the first hut in two and a half hours, and Jean decided that they should try for the second that same night.

The guide, who told him to walk slowly, apparently didn’t explain to Jean the reason why. However, if Jean had indeed done his research, he’d have known. He was already beginning to show the effects of pushing too hard, too fast, at too high an elevation. At Machame Gate, you’re already standing at almost six thousand feet above sea level. For some, that’s nosebleed country, and you’re barely a third of the way to the summit.

He had already hurried from 5700 feet at Machame Gate to the first camp at 9350 feet, and now he demanded that his guide take him and his crew at the same breakneck speed to the next camp, Shira, which was at 12,500 feet.

Like far too many others, Jean had no idea what was happening to his body. He was treating the air as though it had the same mix of oxygen that he got while sailing in Europe.

Again, this was a man with no climbing experience at all, taking no time for acclimatization, and he was pushing hard to complete this recommended 6–7 or more day climb in four days. On top of this his guide had no medical training, hadn’t brought any equipment by which to check pulse, oxygen content and blood pressure. All professional guides do. They require daily medical checks. The trained guides demand that you head back down if you begin to show symptoms, and they don’t take no for an answer. Your life is more important than your summit picture. People who are suffering from altitude sickness can be disoriented, and argue that they’re fine, when they most certainly are not. Professional guides can tell.

For an idea of what’s happening to your body once you start climbing, you might want to understand the physiology of why so many climbers, mostly far less experienced people, died on Everest. While Brad Stolberg’s article specifically addresses Everest, the effects are the same all over the world. Because Kili or Everest, altitude sickness kills. Not respecting how the body responds to less pressure, extreme exertion and a whole lot less oxygen is a nasty way to expire.

Think of it this way. If you’re a fan of space movies, the reason humans explode if their space suit is damaged or they lose a helmet is that there’s no air pressure in space. Our bodies are designed to function at their best at sea level. While we can and do adapt as humans to higher altitudes, once we pass a certain point, the lack of air pressure which keeps us in once piece begins to have deleterious effects of the body. We literally start coming apart, because the higher we climb, the closer we are getting to outer space. While you and I can, and many do, climb to higher altitudes successfully, the only way to do that safely is to allow our bodies to get accustomed (acclimatized) to the lower pressure. Even so, many of us can’t deal with the effects. Speeding up the mountain also speeds up how quickly altitude sickness strikes.

The fix, of course, for all the issues ranging from the nausea to the dizziness to temporary blindness are first, prevention, by going up slowly. Second, head back down until the symptoms abate, and then decide if you want to continue.

But Jean hadn’t done his research. He wanted to run up and back down in record time.

He complained bitterly about his food, and blamed the cook. He said he had indigestion. However, he had altitude sickness, and nothing is going to stay down no matter how good or bad it is. The best foods are simple, but Jean reported sausage and eggs and again, lots of grease and carbohydrates.

If you insist on paying the lowest possible climb, the second area where your guide is going to scrimp is on food. Not just for you, but especially for the crew. Jean said that he got some kind of pasta with lots of greasy stuff in it, and a great deal of orange juice.

The morning of the third day, he threw up as soon as he woke up. His guide wasn’t paying attention to his symptoms. Nor was he ensuring the Jean not only respected his body by slowing way, way down, which is clearly explained in most articles about climbing at altitude, and he also wasn’t drinking nearly enough water. He’d wanted to sleep in, the guide wanted to get going.

When his guide insisted that they continue, Jean reported feeling as though the guide was pushing him. The guide had suggested an alternate route but Jean was too ill to carry on, and the route was too steep for him.

They had begun the day at 8:30, but were back in camp shortly after noon. The porters set the tent up again and he slept for three hours. The cook had insisted that he drink more water, and brought him food, but he couldn’t keep it down.

His symptoms had gotten serious. Finally at 5:30 pm, he told the guide he was done. He needed to come down the mountain.

Jean reported that he watched his guide go to a ranger and that money exchanged hands. He wasn’t privy to why, or how much the guide paid him. Only that clearly the guide had paid the ranger and that they were on their way back down.

He walked about a quarter of the way down, then they brought him the rest of the way on a stretcher. Jean showed me his photo. His face looked dangerously blue, which is potentially a symptom for High Altitude Pulmonary Edema, a very serious condition.

He made it to the bottom, however, and he was on his way back to the hotel by about mid-evening. He’s been taking it easy since. Jean doesn’t realize it yet but he’s lucky things didn’t get worse.

On a large billboard in Moshi, in a shaded hall next to a cafe, there is a white piece of paper that lists Kili climbs starting at about $1360. That might look like a superb bargain for a backpacker seeking a cool deal. However, that low price doesn’t speak to the unspeakable problems that can happen when first, you don’t understand what those additional dollars buys you, and you assume that the crew taking you up has the same professional skills as those who work for a company like E-Trip Africa.

They don’t.

And, that the equipment that they are using is of high quality not only for you but for the crew. And that the food that is taken up the mountain is high quality, based on your dietary needs, and that there is plenty enough for three meals a day for the crew.

That’s also not necessarily the case.

Because well-trained guides know how to do the medical checks, they know what to look for when someone is in distress, and they competently manage a group of porters (the number is determined by the total weight of all the gear you are carrying as a group). Those folks are hired by the best companies. And the best, most committed companies are Partner companies with KPAP.

While you and I, if we’re on a tight budget, might want to skimp on a few things, which is understandable, this is not the place to do it. Jean learned the hard way that when he signed up for the cheapest way up, he also took the fastest way back down: on a stretcher.

Every year about a thousand people have to be carried back down the mountain. While some have sustained injuries, the majority of them got ill from altitude sickness. Most often, it’s a young man who has decided he wants to run up the trail without taking proper precautions. All the information you and I need to understand these challenges is on line. Yet people spend more time worrying about the cost of the climb rather than their own health, which is priceless.

Jean showed me the exchange he had with the tour guide that he had gotten through the cab driver. The man was talking about suspending the guide and the cook as a result of Jean’s complaints. While Jean was angry about the guide and the cook, and he clearly wanted to place blame, he said that it wasn’t necessary. Still, this young man truly has no idea how close he came to not making off the mountain alive. On all the world’s big climbs, every year people die, often because they didn’t respect the conditions like Jean.

The crew wasn’t so much the issue. Not doing the real research, which is far more about the conditions than just about pricing, is more the issue. Not respecting the very serious challenge of high altitude climbing is more the issue. Not understanding that professional climbing companies, which cost more, which commit to certain standards, are worth more, is the issue. Because this is about your life, and the very real damage you can do to your body if you don’t take Kilimanjaro seriously.

He told me that he tipped everyone generously, about $200 worth. That’s fine, since he did it himself to such a small crew. But his determination to summit on the cheap nearly cost him his life.

When I asked him what he had learned as a result, he said a little sheepishly,
Safety first.”

I waited. And a few moments later,

“You get what you pay for.”

Yes. You do.

Every year some fifty thousand people attempt this climb. Every year, people are hauled right back down for identical reasons to Jean’s.

If you really want to make this climb, make the commitment to yourself to do it right. Invest in a good KPAP company, and then do the training.

Your life is worth it.

Photo by Sergey Pesterev on Unsplash