Reconciling Kilimanjaro 
— The backside of adventure tourism  

August 2018

“Pole Pole! Pole Pole!” a voice cracks behind me. I turn, disgruntled. We were only fifteen minutes in to the six day trek, up the tallest freestanding mountain on planet earth, and I was being told to slow down. “There is no rush, Hakuna Matata” laughs Peter, our guide, as he steps in front of me to slow our pace. I reluctantly lose the “must make it to the summit before the next thunderstorm” mentality I grew up with hiking infamous Colorado 14’ers. Gradually I accept the pace, enjoy the view and begin to cherish the weeks lack of urgency.

Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania, could easily be considered one of the largest adventure tourist destinations of the modern epoch. Advertised as the easiest of the seven summits, hundreds of climbers, many new to the world of mountaineering, attempt the Uhuru Peak summit each day. Guide companies encourage anyone to make the attempt, and promise a really high percent chance you will make it to the top. The fact that the mountain is accessible to those beyond the professional mountaineer is a draw in and of itself, but it has become so popularized that people from around to world come to the mountain with little knowledge of what is at stake. The dramatic landscape surrounding Mt. Kilimanjaro is at severe risk of glacial melt and erratic thunderstorms brought on by none other than our dear friend climate change. Not only that, the complex landscape is now subject to an immense amount of human traffic affecting the sensitive environment along with the local and  tribal populations that call the base of the mountain home.

Four days go by surprisingly fast, my heart rate has never gone above a solid 75 and I secretly crave the HIIT hour I did so many times in preparation for this trip. At this point it is even plausible I have gained weight off the incredibly delicious creamy cucumber soup and constant cookie breaks. By summit day I feel confident leaving base camp at midnight to trek through the night. But as sunrise rolls around, I feel like hell. I make it to 18,000 ft before I first puke. “It’s normal” our guide says over my hunched, embarrassed body, “It happens to everyone, it will make you feel better.” I don’t know if it was his tone or my ego, but it was not easy to believe him. With another 1000 ft in elevation gain to go and  3 hours left of pole pole, I’m exhausted and about to throw up Kilimanjaro cocaine (ginger glucose tea) for the second time.“Surely if you lose enough water they send you down” I thought as I vowed to ignore my churning insides until I made it to the summit. Even the fact that I  lived at altitude my whole life, and  downed 5 litres of water in the past 3 hours, could not have prepared me for this.

Climbers often come looking for something, validation, experience, or to simply check an accomplishment off the bucket-list. But Mt. Kilimanjaro has also become popular to other less adventure driven groups; bachelorette parties, instagram influencers and soul-searchers, inexperienced and not mentally prepared for the task at hand. This has created a dangerous culture surrounding the climb, it is much more demanding than a cool, socially likable thing to do. Guides are trained how to monitor health signals and how to act in emergency situations. Stretchers line the trails in case your porters need to carry you quickly down the mountain. Recognizing your body’s ability to climb a mountain or even to perform in the outdoors adequately, does not seem to be a prerequisite for this climb. Instead we pay a guide company to judge our abilities for us, to take care of our equipment,  to make our food, and to make sure we know when to turn around. A bit of anomaly to any outdoor recreation regular. On my trip alone we witnessed three people airlifted off the mountain. We surpassed people getting sick, crying from deliria, and being carried down daily. Hundreds of guide companies compete tirelessly for tourist business, this means guaranteeing summit and pushing a ridiculously high success rate, even if it means minimizing the health risk and the danger that comes with unpredictable weather. Guides know the more successful the trip, the better tips. They have optimized how to get the best results and how to get people to the top. Still, for as many people that make it to the summit, there are many who do not. The high success rate the companies boast only further increases the popularity of the trek and, as a result, the amount of novice climbers who fail even with the latest in gear tech and pole pole on their side.

We push on, slowly slowly, and eventually make it to the Uhuru Summit, 5895 M above sea level on the volcanic rim of Mt. Kilimanjaro. It feels anticlimactic. I sit on the snow to wait my turn for a picture underneath the sign. There is a group of 10 in line to take a picture with their guides. Summit day porters watch in the distance, waiting to help carry their clients and their packs back down to base camp. I don’t feel particularly accomplished and as I observe what's happening around me, I am conflicted. This world of guide-led mountain climbing came as somewhat of a brutal surprise. It wasn’t the simple multi-day backpacking trip I grew up used to. I feel a little misguided by all the glorified stories I read during my trip research, they couldn’t possibly have had an entirely different experience right?  Is this always what it is like? Am I being (per usual) way too cynical? The amount of climbers on the mountain during the busy season is really unbelievable, it is estimated that 25,000-35,000 people attempt the summit each year. Trash, toilet paper and human waste line just about every rock outcropping right off the trail. Sometimes your guide team cannot find a campsite in the designated area due to crowding, and must go off-site. The fresh water coming off the peaks glaciar still requires decontamination tablets to be drinkable. Not to forget the climate change implications evident in the decreased glaciar size above the Western Breach. The question stirred in my mind as I sat down for my turn under the sign, “What was sacrificed for this?”

Breathing slow and absorbing the undeniably breathtaking view, we start our decent. I pull off my Yaktrax. Snow skiing is a remarkable energy saver. We slide past a lone porter on the left. He is struggling on the snow, trying to reach the rocky path five hundred feet away. He is wearing tennis shoes, Reeboks, the mesh toe pulling off the sole revealing his socks underneath. Our guide quickly steps up to grab his arm, helping him down to more solid ground. “It was his first time up to the Kilimanjaro peak” Peter tells us, as the Porter rushes off to meet his group. Many porters, especially the young ones, do not have a lot of experience. Porters on their first trek can have a difficult time as they are usually underfed and not acclimated to the altitude. On their first trek they are expected to perform similar to the more experienced porters. “It gets easier” Peter grins at me, “but on my first summit I puked too.”

Many porters start out in hopes of becoming a certified guide. Others fall into portership because its a high demand, full-time job, readily available without the need for an education.The Porters spend six to ten days on the mountain at a time, often with only a day off in between trips during the busy seasons. New regulations cap the amount porters can carry at 15kg (32 lbs) but they often go unnoticed carrying upwards of 50lbs.  Behind each climber is three (or more) government-required porters, carrying supplies including your food, water, sleeping equipment, and extra clothing, along with their own very meager personal supplies. They get to camp long before you do, set up your equipment, then set out on another two hour hike to return with water for the night. What seems grueling for hikers, appears easy for the porters, leaping past with your gear on their head. It's not abnormal to see porters scaling the Balaclava wall in tennis shoes with holes, sandals with socks,  or even, on occasion, Crocs. The twelve porters for your group of four share a single tent, many without a sleeping pad or adequate bag. Still, the ill equip porters scale quickly past their clients sporting brand new North Face Downs and La Sportiva hiking boots. It's hard not to cringe at the irony.

I immediately start feeling far less foggy and much more energized by Stella Point. The snow slide turns into gravel as we make our way quickly down. Several of our porters come up from base camp to meet us and grab our bags and water. We share our snacks and juice before eventually beginning the long, knee-pounding trek down the designated descent route. We jog past porters on their way up, tasked with carrying restock supplies to the larger groups at various midway camps. They sometimes climb nearly 13 miles from the Mweka Gate entry to Barafu base camp in half a day.

I still go back and forth between feelings of pride and of guilt. Mt. Kilimanjaro reminds you of what an immense privilege it is to experience the outdoors with the best gear, guided tours, and the latest solar powered equipment. What an immense privilege it is to travel 7,488 miles just to climb a mountain. And what an immense privilege it is to do so with food in your stomach and shoes on your feet. The accessibility of Mt. Kilimanjaro is greater than it has ever been and this comes with a price. At the same time you are supporting a substantial local industry, you are also contributing to the areas environmental degradation and poor treatment of the less advantaged local workforce. Fortunately, many non-profits, the Kilimanjaro Porter Assistance Project for instance, support the fair and ethical treatment of porters on the mountain. Travelers can easily research climbs led with a ‘Partner for Responsible Travel Company’ through the KPAP website. These partner guide companies commit to specific porter care standards and insure tourists are aware of these guidelines. KPAP takes gear donations from travelers to rent free of charge for in need porters. They also hold classes for porters on porter rights, HIV/AIDS awareness, money management, English, and Leave No Trace trekking methods.

As travelers, tourists, and mountaineers, it's our duty to understand the implications of any given adventure trip and to proceed responsibly. Adventure tourism has taken off in recent years. Wethers its near home or on another continent, is always important to proceed respectfully. Kilimanjaro is an important reminder to support local businesses and continue to leave no trace. But it also a moment to recognize your own ability and respect the space you take when answering a call for adventure. I felt as if our group did the best we could. We hired a local company partnered with KPAP, trekked under strict Leave No Trace guidelines, and made sure the climb was within our ability. I still left feeling conflicted, like I had done some sort of harm and  I am not sure if I will ever reconcile with that. Conquering Mt. Kilimanjaro is the experience of a lifetime, but it takes a lot more than just good attitude to reach the 19,341 ft. Uhuru Peak Summit. And please, just pack out your toilet paper.

You can find ways to help, and great sources on responsible kili travel at


© Copyright 2018 Lauren E. Lahr All Rights Reserved