So you’ve decided to climb Kilimanjaro. How to know you’ve got the best group to get you safely up and down the mountain
You want to stand under the fabled mountaintop sign and give the victory V, do you?
You want to rewrite the internal narrative by being one of the relative few who touches the roof of Africa? It’s one heck of a feeling. It can, and does, change lives.
I did. And each year some fifty thousand people make the attempt, of which perhaps thirty thousand make it. There are some eight routes to the top, some more difficult than others, some more scenic. There are extremely popular routes, including one with huts so that you and your crew can sleep in relative comfort.
Some companies provide toilets, others offer better food. So many choices, and not the least of the considerations is cost. Does more expensive always mean better?
Well, that depends.
You know instinctively that some companies are better than others. Anyone who has done the trip successfully is likely very supportive of the company they chose, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good fit for you.
There’s a whole other aspect to this that most of us Westerners don’t always consider when it comes to a climbing company on Kili. That’s whether or not the company we choose is committed to porter safety. With so many of the competing companies claiming loudly that they “love their porters” it’s genuinely difficult to know not only what loving our porters means, but also, how that plays out on the slopes of the mountain and how that affects you and me as climbers.
Porters are hired in a variety of ways by the climbing companies, and there are some twenty thousand of them in the area. Kilimanjaro is the primary economic driving force in this part of Tanzania, so men and women both come from many areas in hopes of getting work.
That work, as porters, entails hauling effectively 55 pounds of equipment per person (yours and theirs) up the mountain, getting to and setting up camp for you before you arrive, ensuring that the tents and toilets and kitchen are set up and in good working order for you when you get to camp.
Those porters, like you and me, in order to do their work effectively and safely, have to have proper clothing, hats, gloves, hiking boots, food supplies, sleeping quarters. While that may be obvious to us, those conditions have not always either been considered or provided.
The reason this is so important is that each climb is assigned a certain number of guides and porters. The Park Authority establishes the guide to client ratio and has established clear weight regulations for each porter. The number of porters assigned to your climb is also formally established by the total weight of 20kgs for the company bags, with an additional 5kgs each for their personal effects.
“Loving our porters” in practice means that a good company ensures, and is willing to be strictly monitored by an outside independent organization, on those key aspects that deal directly with porter welfare. For this area, that organization is the Kilimanjaro Porter’s Assistance Project (KPAP). As a non- profit organization, their sole role in supporting the business of taking climbers up Kili is to ensure porter safety and comfort. The way this is managed is through climbing companies becoming what KPAP refers to as Partner for Responsible Companies, or Partner Companies.
KPAP is an initiative of US-based International Mountain Explorer’s Connection, which was originally formed in 1996 as a way to support porter safety and welfare in Nepal and surrounding areas.
There are approximately 156 Kilimanjaro Partner Companies at this point. Those companies have, by becoming Partners, agreed to be heavily scrutinized regularly and measured on key aspects of porter welfare including how much weight the porters carry, the proper salary (according to Tanzanian Government Notice № 228), tips and tipping procedures which must be open and transparent, tent quality, sleeping arrangements and quality, porter gear checks, and detailed information about what they were given to eat. They are to be given three meals a day, every day on the mountain.
Those companies are graded by how well they not only meet but exceed those minimum standards. Companies who are serious about porter welfare understand that not only do happy and well-fed, well-paid and well-tipped porters work hard and commit themselves to good work, but they ensure a safe and happy climb. KPAP Partnership is a significant selling point for clients who understand the critical importance of a solid crew, when client safety is paramount.
You may well see a number of porter and tour operator associations and even individual companies making the same claims which may well sound as though they are committed to porter welfare. The critical differentiation is whether or not they are a KPAP Partner, which is often proudly displayed on the company’s website and marketing materials. That moniker states that they are independently monitored, and that the monitoring ensures proper wages, tipping procedures, gear and living conditions while the porters take you up the mountain. Again, those conditions are effectively insurance both for your safety and a successful climb for everyone.
There are hundreds, potentially thousands of tour companies to choose from when you begin to do your research. Many websites look alike and many make identical claims. These companies have a broad range of capabilities and competencies. However the single factor that can affect the success and quality of your climb, outside your own commitment to training and bringing proper gear for yourself, is whether or not your support crew is well-prepared and healthy enough to do the work, which includes being well-nourished, safe and warm on the mountain.
If you have made this huge decision, you might want to think carefully not only about that monumental moment at the top, but also the entire journey up and down. Depending on the route you choose, you’ll be on the mountain for up to nine days, give or take. Choosing a company that’s committed to their team is one of the best ways to ensure that you do have the best chance to do that victory sign, have memories for a lifetime, and do it safely and in superb Tanzanian professional guides, cooks and porters’ able hands.