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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 portersmany 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 receiveless than eight dollars (U.S.) per daymakes for a comparatively good wage in cash-strapped Tanzania.
But the same features that make Kilimanjaro extremely popular with adventurous trekkerseasy access to a high-altitude summit in a cheap, undeveloped countrycreate 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.
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