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Photo: portrait Scott Dimetrosky
Carrying a Heavy Load
Last year, more than 25,000 trekkers traveled to 19,340-foot (5,895-meter) Mount Kilimanjaro hoping to bag the least technical of the world's Seven Summits. On average, each climber uses two to three porters—many of whom are Chagga tribesmen who make their home at the base of the mountain. The porters make the visitors' hike more comfortable by hauling 40-pound (18-kilogram) loads of gear and provisions, and the money they receive—less than eight dollars (U.S.) per day—makes for a comparatively good wage in cash-strapped Tanzania.

But the same features that make Kilimanjaro extremely popular with adventurous trekkers—easy access to a high-altitude summit in a cheap, undeveloped country—create a perilous and sometimes deadly situation for its porters. While some well-established guiding companies have committed themselves to providing porters with proper gear and fair salaries, some local tour operators regularly send their porters to dangerous altitudes under heavy loads without proper clothing or equipment.

The deaths of three porters on Kilimanjaro in September of last year received international news coverage, eliciting concern from human rights groups and within the global climbing community. But according to those who work on the mountain, porter deaths are common and continue to be under-reported as Kilimanjaro's popularity soars (12,000 climbers came to Kilimajaro in 1995; 25,000 in 2002).

Thomas Holden, manager of Kilimanjaro operations for the U.S.-based Thomson Safaris, says that since June of this year at least three porters have died on the mountain, all of hypothermia. Although Tanzanian officials are reluctant to address the issue or reveal records of porter deaths, Holden estimates that between 15 and 20 porters die on Kilimanjaro each year.

"It's the result of price gouging," says Holden. "Everyone's looking to cut corners and the porters are the ones that pay the price. [Tour operators] are saving money by not providing porters with tents, food, and raingear."

According to Todd Burleson, an eminent Kilimanjaro guide who has led over 200 international expeditions, most deaths could be prevented by outfitting porters with proper gear and sound medical guidance. Burleson says that many of the tour operators that offer the cheapest treks up the mountain lack proper high altitude experience, putting customers at risk and porters in extreme danger.

"A guy speaks English and all of a sudden he's an expert on Kilimanjaro," Burleson says. "Some guides that have led hundreds of trips up the mountain have no idea how to evaluate their clients' or porters' health."

Porters with severe altitude sickness have been sent down the mountain alone, or even worse, pressured to climb higher even after showing signs of pulmonary edema, a potentially deadly condition in which the lungs fill with fluid. In Tanzania, where work is scarce, ferrying gear up Kilimanjaro is the highest-paying form of manual labor, and sick porters will continue walking for fear of losing their jobs.

"You don't see porters falling off cliffs," Burleson says. "They're dying of edema or freezing to death."

"For every death there are a lot of close calls," Holden says. "We find porters lying on the side of the trail left behind. We have to give them our own oxygen and medicine to revive them."

Despite Kilimanjaro's problems, the plight for responsible porter treatment has slowly gained momentum in response to what few reports have surfaced. Kilimanjaro National Park has spent money from park fees on increasing ranger presence and has issued guide permits in the hopes of keeping cost-cutting tour operators off of the mountain.

Non-profit groups have also committed themselves to improving porter working conditions. The International Mountain Explorers Connection (formerly the Himalayan Explorers Connection), which began three years ago as a charity to help Nepal's porters, opened up a Tanzanian office in January and has since been providing free gear, as well as English and first aid classes to Kilimanjaro's porters. In the following Q&A, Scott Dimetrosky, executive director of the IMEC, discusses how his group hopes to improve life for the porters carrying the burden of Kilimanjaro's booming trekking industry.

How does the IMEC intend to improve the working conditions for porters on Kilimanjaro?

We use a top-down approach, working with Westerners going over to Kilimanjaro to educate them on proper porter treatment. Our website, www.hec.org, includes porter treatment guidelines for trekkers and our office in Moshi, opened in January, conducts tourist education and makes clothing available for tour operators to outfit their porters. We loan shoes, socks, hats, and water-resistant jackets and pants for a refundable deposit and also provide empowerment classes for the local people, including English language, first-aid, and AIDS awareness classes.

What kinds of clothing are the poorly equipped porters wearing?

You'll see guys going up in flip flops, cotton trousers, lightweight cotton shirts. I saw a guy who had an old shag carpet cut into a hat because he didn't have anything else to wear. The main barrier is cost—the larger companies have been really responsible and have been equipping their porters properly for years. But it's a cut-throat industry for the local Tanzanian guides who don't lead enough climbs to stock all the gear on site. That's why we provide the means for them to have free access to gear.

Kilimanjaro's developing trekking industry seems to have a lot of problems, but on the whole is its influence on the local people negative or positive?

Without a doubt positive, at least if you're looking at it financially, which is how the local population would look at it. There are very few other opportunities for income around Kilimanjaro. Porters could go risk their lives working in the mines for much less money or they can try to find work on the mountain—the unemployment rate in Tanzania is outrageously high. The trekking industry brings dollars to the developing mountain regions of the world, and we want to make sure that it develops sustainably. Sometimes porters are only getting paid two, three dollars a day if they're getting paid at all. And that's poor compared to the amount of money that's being brought in.

Your organization was originally established in Nepal as the Himalayan Explorer's Connection to help fight the mistreatment of Nepalese porters by trekkers. How does the situation on Kilimanjaro differ from the one in Nepal?

Both areas have a supply and demand problem—too many porters looking for too few jobs—that leads to mistreatment and low wages. The difference is that in Nepal, there are fewer legal regulations and trekkers hire porters themselves. In Nepal, it's up to them to decide what's reasonable. On Kilimanjaro, there are laws in place, but they're not always followed. Guides are mandatory, so people leave porter management up to their guides and think that everything will be taken care of. But it takes more enforcement on the part of climbers to make sure they're treated properly.

What steps should trekkers take towards ensuring proper porter treatment?

Climbers should always look over their porters and make sure that they have the right gear. When you're starting out, ask if all the porters have tents, then ask to see them. Inspect their gear as you would your own. We ask that when you're tipping your porters, divide the tips yourself and make sure that they're being handed out to each individual porter so they get what they deserve. Also what happens is that some guides will send down porters early, loading up the other porters with extra gear. Legally that's not supposed to occur, so clients should count the number of porters throughout the trip. These guides are paid a certain amount, so the fewer porters they have, the less they have to pay out. If they can make due with fewer porters carrying extremely heavy loads they'll do so.

Are the local people physiologically adapted to carrying these loads at Kilimanjaro's altitude?

No. That's a common misconception that stems from Nepal where Sherpa porters have been known to carry 80-pound loads at altitude [Sherpas have lived at high altitudes in the Himalayas long enough to evolve greater lung capacity and more efficient use of oxygen]. Kilimanjaro trekkers think their porters will also be immune to the cold and the altitude, but they're not. In Africa, the porters are lowland farmers who aren't any better at acclimatizing than trekkers. No one in Tanzania is naturally adjusted to the cold and altitude because no one lives up on the mountain. The Chagga tribe lives at the base of the mountain—maybe at a few thousand feet, but no one's living at 10,000 feet (3,048 meters) like in the Himalaya.


Photo courtesy Scott Dimetrosky
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Related Web Sites

International Mountain Explorers Connection
Find out what you can do for the porters of Africa, Nepal and elsewhere.

Adventure's Coverage of the 2002 Kilimanjaro Disaster
Read more about the brutal storm of 2002 that left three African porters dead and sparked ongoing interest in the condition of Kilimanjaro's porters.


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October 2003

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