How a collaborative team of diverse people changed the face of the world's most popular climb in the face of economic privations and Covid-19
On September 6th, some fifteen climbing companies along with more than four hundred mountain crew wrapped up an unprecedented, first-of-its-kind Kilimanjaro Leave No Trace (LNT) effort.
For those unfamiliar, the fundamental message of LNT is to enter the wild, enjoy the wild, then leave it as you found out it. Preferably without trash or cigarette butts, or the worst, a smouldering fire.
At a time when most of these companies would be eagerly anticipating another active climbing season of international summit hopefuls, the global pandemic brought those hopes to a halt. Not only that, the resulting precipitous drop in income for the porters, whose numbers top some 20,000 people, is set to cause real economic difficulty. Those porters, often subsistence farmers, use the income they earn taking climbers up the mountain to support sometimes up to one hundred extended family members.
Earlier this summer, a small group of visionaries had an idea.
A big idea.
Why not take this time to practice LNT on the mountain? Kilimanjaro sees some fifty thousand or more aspirants each year in two distinct climbing seasons. With the tourist season on temporary hold, what a superb opportunity to do a thorough sweep of all the trails.
What might happen if monies could be raised, companies and crews who would otherwise be out of work could receive essential LNT training, and then those people would do what nobody's been able to do: a Clean Sweep? And not only that, leave key people professionally trained in the very skills which would help prevent future environmental degradation?
That's precisely what just happened.
When it became clear that the normal Kilimanjaro climbing seasons would not take place in 2020, the idea of an LNT climb was born. Fifteen tour operators leapt aboard the idea. Soon, a plan took form, funding started to come in, and people got excited.
Funding was provided by the Exodus Travels Foundation, Sentinel Outdoor Institute (http://sentineloutdoorinsitute.com) for the LNT education. Climbing companies set up funding campaigns to help pay the mountain crews' wages, transportation, food supplies and support. These companies committed their leadership resources and many crew members to the task.
Peak Planet in particular supported fully half the cleanup crew. Crews love this kind of thing; it's motivating and everyone was delighted to be back on the mountain they love.
It was a feel-good story bound to succeed for all the right reasons.
By the time the tired-but-happy crews finished up on September 6th, 2020, a great deal more than just cleanup had happened. Here's the rundown.
TANAPA (Tanzania National Parks) and KINAPA (Kilimanjaro National Park), the Tanzanian governing body for the park system, helped organize the event with a set of clear outcomes:
- Training of porters and guides in Leave No Trace (LNT)* environmental care principles with Sentinel Outdoor Institute (http://sentineloutdoorinsitute.com) delivering LNT pre- and post-climb briefings and debriefings. This is an essential element of ensuring environmental health and safety for people, wildlife and the beautiful communities involved.
- Practice of Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) implementation and demonstrate mountain crew readiness to receive Mt. Kilimanjaro trekkers
- Provide employment to mountain crews
- Highlight Kilimanjaro duringthis Covid-driven slow time to keep dreams alive and generate excitement
- Maximize the opportunity to clean sweep Kilimanjaro's heavily-traveled trails and campsites during a period of tourism downturn.
Perhaps among the bigger wins of this effort is that each team had one LNT-trainer porter on the mountain with their team.
This first-ever step towards fundamentally redirecting porter, climbing company and tourist behavior is a huge win. Each of those LNT porters is now in a pipeline to become an LNT instructor with additional training.
As with those guides who have medical training, this increases the professionalism of the climbing teams, adds to their economic viability to say nothing of potentially vastly improving how Kilimanjaro fares in the future. Every porter trained in LNT, and as an instructor-leader, ensures that future porter teams are far less likely to leave messes in their wake. They also gain status on their crews and in their communities.
So how did it all go?
A total of twenty-three teams with more than four hundred crew members swarmed Kilimanjaro's slopes between August 31st and September 6th. The program was kicked off with a special event hosted by TANAPA. Teams trekked for three to seven days, covering all the major routes all over the mountain.
At any given moment during a normal year for Kilimanjaro's climbing season, competition can be fierce. These companies vie hard for the tourist dollar. However they also recognized that the chance to get their people professionally trained and paid during this temporary downturn was too good an opportunity to do the right thing for everyone, including future tourists.
Here then is what the participants had to say:
“The idea of using this idle time available to us, to beautify Kilimanjaro and provide some needed employment to our staff, was a no brainer. We were happy to help implement the Leave No Trace practices on the mountain that has given all of us so much over the years and be a part of this employment project." Kiliwarrior Expeditions
“Our team really enjoyed having the opportunity to spend some time on the mountain and focus on learning more Leave No Trace practices. Normally when the crew are on the mountain they are really focused on the clients, but this was a great opportunity to remind all of us of the importance to keep these pristine places protected.”
“It really is touching to see that so many people around the world are reaching out to us, asking how they can help the porters. Not only have these people committed to traveling and supporting local communities by ensuring fair and ethical treatment of mountain crew, but they are still thinking about the daily challenges the community faces, which are amplified greatly when tourism slows down.” eTrip Africa
It's been exciting to have had the opportunity to collaborate with tour operators, Kilimanjaro National Park (TANAPA) and the Sentinel Outdoor Institute to train our crew on the Leave No Trace principles, COVID-19 safety operating procedures and offer an opportunity to earn an income while we all have a low volume of tourists. Our team has learnt valuable sustainability lessons and techniques, re-acclimatized, and demonstrated our latest safety and hygiene improvements to ensure Kilimanjaro can once again be a safe, sustained and fun experience for many more adventure travelers! Shah Tours & Travels
“When the pandemic hit, we knew that our staff members would be economically devastated by the sudden disappearance of tourism in Tanzania. We asked our past clients for help, unsure how our request would be received. But they came through in a big way, donating over $11,000. To show our gratitude, we have sponsored a mult-iday Leave No Trace project on Mount Kilimanjaro. This initiative aligns with one of our core principles: to promote environmentally responsible enjoyment of the outdoors. Our staff have helped keep the mountain pristine and beautiful for all future visitors.” Peak Planet
“When times are difficult, it is another opportunity to give back to those who make our success possible. Majestic Kilimanjaro Treks and Safaris is proud to have been able to support some of our crew members to be part of the Leave No Trace clean up of Mt Kilimanjaro whose beauty, mystery and charm draw people from across the world to test and find themselves.“ Majestic Kilimanjaro
"After the pandemic hit and tourism stopped, we had an immense concern about the well-being and livelihood of our Kilimanjaro crew. We launched an ongoing GoFundMe campaign that would support a food distribution initiative. Our second instinct was to create a mountain cleanup project that would allow our crew to receive a well-earned salary while benefiting Mt. Kilimanjaro and uniting the mountain community. We are thrilled how the ground tour operators with the Sentinel Outdoor Institute and Leave No Trace all worked together in great length to evolve, develop, and make this event a giant success!” Barking Zebra Tours
“Alone we can do something small but together we can make big changes. COVID-19 has allowed us the time and togetherness to accomplish this amazing collaborative effort of LNT and sharIng the knowledge of LNT. A joint effort of many companies aiming for sustainability and a spirit for our mountain. I had the privilege to be on the mountain during this time and the positive energy of each and every crew member was inspiring - all proud that Kilimanjaro is our home! Summit Expeditions & Nomadic Experience
In cooperation with TANAPA AND KINAPA, climbing company leadership as well as community leaders, Mount Kilimanjaro, the crown jewel of the Tanzanian park system, is now shining brightly. As the world reopens to tourism, her lovely slopes and enticing views will be ready to welcome clients once again.