Climbing Kilimanjaro and Covid-19
The serious dangers and potential damage of a “fire sale” to reboot Tanzanian climbing tourism
If you’re one of those hopefuls whose plans to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro this year got sidelined due to Covid-19, you may well be looking with some real eagerness to having your opportunity return while you’re still in good enough shape to get to the top.
Many who put off their plans might also be looking for a real deal.
Not a real good idea.
There is some temptation to take advantage of competing companies’ very real desire and need to get back into the business of bolstering tourism. However, looking for a bargain basement price for your climb could not only be damaging to a great many people, but it could also seriously undermine your safety.
Any time trip costs are reduced, that cost has to come out of someone’s pocket. That “someone” in this case is invariably the porter, without whom there is no trip up Kilimanjaro at all.
Understanding the role of the porter
Many of the porters count on the seasonal income from their treks to supplement their subsistence farming. They have at times had to make the climb inadequately dressed, without proper gear, shelter, shoes or possibly even adequate food. All this while carrying significant weight, at times not getting adequate sleep, and other hardship conditions.
Worker’s rights and protections are not necessarily enforced the same way you and I as Westerners might understand, or assume they should be. That fact, however, does not justify those of us as Western climbers and tourists taking advantage of desperate times which could exacerbate those conditions.
This is one reason that there are organizations which have been formed in order to ensure that porters are treated fairly. The Partner for Responsible Travel Program, monitored by the Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project is an example.This is neither a new idea nor is it limited to Tanzania; similar efforts have been in place in countries like Peru.
Let me explain.
Porters are the most vulnerable of the populations which surround one of Africa’s most popular tourist destinations. Some twenty thousand of them work the mountain during the two climbing seasons every year. What income they make can support as many as 100 members of their extended family. All that, on what is effectively a few dollars a day (about ten, what you’d pay for a few Starbucks coffees), plus what tips you and I choose to award them.
That’s if the climbing companies which hire them agree to provide a decent wage. Not all of them do. Nor do all climbing companies ensure that porters have tents that don’t leak, that their porters have a proper gear kit* for their own safety, they receive three adequate meals a day, have enough sleeping space, and aren’t forced to sleep in the mess tent (which means a very short night).
Kilimanjaro Park Rules dictate the number of guides that you and I must have per climb, as well as the number of porters, each of whom carries the 20k weight limit. Not only is this for our safety, it also ensures that should a guide or porter get ill, there are both enough people to get that person to safety as well as continue the climb, if conditions allow. Safety is the key word here.
Every climb comes with a set of fixed costs which can’t be reduced or avoided. In 2016 the Tanzanian government added mandatory VAT (Value Added Tax) collection on park fees, guiding services and transportation. So effectively, when you determine the total price of a trek, 18% is deducted at the front end and paid to the government.
Then there are Park fees. These alone make up a huge portion of your Kilimanjaro climb. These include a daily conservation fee ($70), a camping or hut fee ($50-$60 per night). On an eight-day trek, for example, park fees alone add up to $1097.40. These aren’t negotiable, as they go straight to the Park System.
Kilimanjaro’s climbing community is highly competitive in any normal season to begin with. Now, as people look to re-book adventures that were delayed, some may well resort to cost-cutting to attract tourists. As their fixed costs are quite high and non-negotiable, to compete solely on price, something else has to be slashed.
What does all this mean?
It means that you and I need to be informed, intelligent consumers.
A “great deal” is impossible on Kilimanjaro. When it comes to a difficult summit, there are certain things you cannot skimp on if you plan to return not only successful, but also alive.
First, a good climbing company invests in top-quality gear. They research your food needs — that of everyone in your party — and commit to bringing proper nutrition for you and all the support crew. These companies all pay taxes, minimum wages, food, transportation and all the gear costs, which can be considerable.
Clients are brutal on gear, such as tents. The best companies purchase excellent tents which can cost upwards of a grand apiece. They don’t last very many seasons. Poor tents teak, tear and disintegrate quickly. If you want protection from the elements, you want good tents that don’t leak. A cheap tent that saves an operator money could endanger your life. Good operators invest in regular maintenance and updates, including for your crew.
You gotta eat, but you also gotta eat well
Fresh fruit and veges are heavy, and it costs money to take them up with you. Not only that, you want not only a competent cook, but an excellent one. I can speak from experience: the higher you go, the less hungry you are. It’s far too easy to skip lousy meals, which could cost you not only the summit, but a trip marred by diarrhea and ill health. You want fresh, delicious, tempting, varied and filling meals.
One more key piece about safety. Even the best professional climbers, and that includes people who have summitted Everest or Denali, are subject to altitude sickness. It’s completely unpredictable and can strike anyone at any time. Good companies have medically-trained guides who check your stats daily. These people cost more because of their professional training. While you may honestly believe you’ll be “just fine,” most folks do. Until they aren’t. At that point the last thing you want is a mountain crew that has no clue.
Let’s circle back to that crew. There is an unfortunate fantasy that circulates among porters that rich Westerners might just tip them an unholy sum. In fact, that might well have happened, as Kilimanjaro has seen its fair share of celebrities. That can potentially encourage some porters to work for free or almost free, simply on the dream that they might get a huge windfall. This is a setup for exploitation. Good operators ensure that all crew get the proper living wage.
On top of that, you and I are expected to tip. Budget operators might not always inform you of that requirement. Good operators also ensure that the porters are fully aware of what you and I as climbers tip, and that the entire process is transparent, so that guides and porters get precisely what we intend them to receive for their efforts.
Not to belabor the point, but this bears repeating: truly good companies ensure a living wage (minimum or more) and ensure a transparent tipping process.
By the time you take into account the flight, our personal gear, training, and all the other elements of a Kilimanjaro climb, it can seem like a really good idea to try to bag a bargain deal. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, people have tried to shave thousands off the climb, which all too often ends up in disaster. That’s in the best of times.
These aren’t the best of times.
Porters will be hard-pressed to find work, and companies may be tempted if not eager to take advantage of that desperation. In order to ensure not only a safe summit attempt for you and your party, I would urge you to do your research. Climbing companies which have joined the not-for-profit Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project’s Partner for Responsible Travel Program have committed to fair wages, equitable treatment and safe conditions for their crews. They are monitored on every trek to ensure that they honor their commitment.
That is an investment in our safety and success.
That costs money. So does being hurt, injured or sick on this mountain. If getting to the top of this amazing mountain is important to you, please consider the critical importance of a properly-outfitted, well-fed, fairly-paid crew whose enthusiasm and gratitude for work are already guaranteed long before you take your first steps to destiny.
For more information please see:
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The author summitted Kilimanjaro in November of 2013, using a KPAP member company. If you have questions about the climb or are interested in additional details about the experience, please contact the author, KPAP directly, or any of the KPAP Partner companies who are dedicated to safety and above all, fun.
*Kit refers to proper jacket, pants, boots, hat, warm clothing, sleeping back, backpack, etc. KPAP provides a lending program to allow porters to properly kit themselves until they can afford their own gear.