Something tragic occurred on Mt Kilimanjaro 5895m. Singaporean Darrel Phee age 28, died while climbing the highest mountain in Africa. He was part of a group that departed from Singapore to Tanzania on 2 August 2023. The expedition was organised by a company called Adventures Unlimited.
From the company’s FB posts, they were climbing Kilimanjaro via a modified Machame route up the mountain which normally takes 7-8 days. They initially planned to summit on the 9th of August 2023 but ended up doing it a day earlier.
On the 9th of August 1 pm, Mr Darrel Phee’s parents received a call from an employee of Adventures Unlimited. They were told that their son had collapsed outside a toilet. No further details were forthcoming then. Thinking that he was ill and might be in hospital, they booked themselves on the earliest flight out the next day. However, just before they boarded their flight the next day, they were informed of the young man’s demise. They arrived in Tanzania to claim Mr Phee’s body and arrange for repatriation.
The family had many questions after they had gone through the documents. For instance, it was stated that Mr Phee passed away on 9 August 2023 according to the death certificate. That was also when they first received a call from Adventures Unlimited informing them that Mr Phee had collapsed outside a toilet. This is understandable as news might have taken some time to arrive at the office in Singapore.
The company explained that Mr Phee’s “readings and symptoms have been normal throughout the days of the hike. However, on the morning of the summit hike, his oxygen levels dropped and his heart rate increased. It was then decided that he would not scale the mountain and he returned to the campsite with a guide, as per safety protocols. At the campsite, Mr Phee was closely monitored. Unfortunately, due to the onset of altitude sickness and its serious health complications, his condition deteriorated and he passed away.”
According to Adventures Unlimited, Mr Phee died of asphyxia and high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE). How tragic. RIP Darrel and my sincere condolences to the family. But was this a freak accident? Could it have been prevented? Was there something that could have been done better? The family deserves some answers.
And I can imagine all the mothers out there lecturing their sons and daughters who enjoy climbing mountains, saying “you see, you see, still dare to go or not?”
But as I would always tell my mother, more people die crossing the streets. Having said that, 3-10 people out of 30,000 who climb Kilimanjaro every year don’t make it back alive. The biggest risk factor here is of course acute mountain sickness (AMS). Consider the average Everest Base Camp (EBC) trek. The entire return trip takes 14 days and the objective Kala Patar at 5644m, is reached on the 9th or 10th day. Looking back at the modified Machame route taken by the group, the summit at 5895m (higher than Kala Patar) is reached in only 5 days as earlier planned (4 days when actually executed!).
Furthermore, the Himalayan terrain is far more complex than a single mountain like Kilimanjaro. The many ups and downs allow the Himalayan trekker to follow the maxim of “climb high, sleep low”. For Kilimanjaro, it’s just either going up or going down. It’s undebatable. The risk of AMS is significantly higher on Kilimanjaro than on an EBC trek.
However, 5895m in 5 days is not as crazy as it seems. A superfit, gungho individual who is not very susceptible to AMS (naturally high haemoglobin levels like me) can possibly chiong all the way to reach the summit in just 5 days (though most groups do it in 7 days which is still quite crazy). It’s a recipe for disaster and it’s amazing how many climbers manage to get away with it. Of course, the success rate varies with the time taken.
7 days: 80% to 90%
6 days: 60% to 70%
5 days: less than 50%
Let’s now take a closer look at more details released by the company. The trekkers went on a modified Machame route and here is the planned itinerary:
Day 1 – Machame gate to Machame camp 2835m
Day 2 – Machame camp to Shira camp 3510m
Day 3 – Shira camp to Lava Towe
Day 4 – Barranco camp to Karanga camp 3960m
Day 5- Karanga camp to Barafu camp 4673m
Day 6 – Barafu camp to summit to Millenium camp
Day 7 – Millenium camp to Mweka gate (end)
The itinerary was changed on Day 4
Day 4 – Barranco camp to Karanga camp
Day 5- Karanga camp to Barafu camp
Day 6, 0000 – Barafu camp to summit to Millenium camp
Day 7 – Millenium camp to Mweka gate (end)
Day 4 – Barranco camp to Karanga camp to Barafu camp
Day 5, 0500 – Barafu camp to summit, back to Barafu camp.
Day 6 – Barafu camp to Mweka camp
Day 7 – Mweka camp to Mweka gate (end)
They pushed on from Karanga camp after lunch and arrived at Barafu camp 4673m, in position to summit in 4 days! The reason for this change, given by the ground operator, was that it would not be as cold to start off near dawn. Furthermore, there’s only one hour of darkness for the team to climb in. That makes perfect sense, but do they really have to bring the summit push forward? How about bringing it back and start off at 0500 on Day 6 instead of the originally planned 0000 on Day 6? It’s only a difference of 5 hours. By pushing on from Karanga camp to Barafu camp on Day 4, they were not practising climb high, sleep low like they did on Day 3.
I was very surprised to learn later on, that all members of the team managed to summit except for the man who passed away. That’s a very impressive success rate indeed. It’s hardly an exaggeration to say that it’s a miracle that they were not knocked out at Barafu camp. Frankly, I’m not sure if I can do it in spite of having done Everest Three Passes in just 16 days.
Now let me comment on my pet topic AMS. Anybody who has trekked and climbed extensively in the Himalayas with limited time would have experienced one form of AMS or another. It’s a speed bump that slows you down, but though potentially fatal, not that many people trekking at extreme altitude die from it, because AMS is basically a “self-limiting” sickness. In other words, it knocks you out and prevents you from getting yourself into deeper trouble.
And even though AMS is acute, it progresses in stages. You get moderate symptoms if you ignore mild symptoms and you get severe symptoms if you ignore moderate symptoms. There are many instances where climbers have popped a couple of Ponstan tablets for their headache, chiong all the way to the summit and return without serious issues. The hypoxic environment is hostile, but quite often, the “supermen” can get away with antics like that.
Acclimatising for a climb to almost 6000m in 5 days is simply not possible. At most, you can acclimatise to 4000m with that kind of schedule. But AMS takes time to get you. Fortunately for trekkers and businesses, Kilimanjaro’s summit is just 7-8 hours from the highest camp at Barafu. Getting down takes 5 hours. As long as you have the strength and can endure the headache and nausea, most people can do a quick hit and run on the summit.
It’s the same with Kinabalu 4095m. Nobody can acclimatise to 4000m in less than 24 hours. Fortunately, the summit is only 3-4 hours from Laban Rata or Panar Laban. Climbers only need to endure that last stretch to the summit before dawn and get down to Park HQ on the same day. AMS doesn’t stand a chance against the fast movers.
Obviously, the risks are literally much higher for Kilimanjaro – in every sense of the word. Had they adhered to the original itinerary, the teams would have had more rest at <4000m. The chances of any member of the team coming down with severe AMS would have been significantly reduced. Sadly, Mr Phee was not well at all when they arrived at Barafu camp on the evening of 7 August 2023. It was initially decided that he would not join the summit team. At 5.00 +/- on 8 August 2023, the entire team minus Mr Phee set off for the summit.
For reasons unknown, Mr Phee had a change of mind and tried to set off after the main body had begun the summit push. At around 5400m, a guide noticed that he was not going to make it and brought him back down. According to teammates, Mr Phee was already showing significant morbidity by then. The operator claimed that he was better after making it back to Barafu camp and having dinner. They have a pulse oximeter reading to show for it, but it’s just a number and not a digital photo (if you know what I mean). What they did for him after that is a bit sketchy but his buddy reported that he left the tent at 4.00am on 9 August 2023 and was found collapsed outside the toilet at 6.00am. They evacuated him by stretcher but was he pronounced dead when he arrived at the hospital.
Mr Phee had apparently died of HAPE which is a severe form of AMS. Unlike High Altitude Cerebral Edema HACE which can be treated with steroids, someone with HAPE has fluid in his lungs. In other words, he is drowning and you can’t remove the fluids fast enough to get him breathing normally again. Depending on severity, the victim needs supplemental oxygen and immediate evacuation to a hospital. Once the lungs are filled, there is little hope of saving his life.
We not know that Adventure Unlimited’s statement that “readings and symptoms have been normal throughout the days of the hike” is unreliable. How did he get from “normal” to life threatening HAPE? He should have had difficulty breathing when lying down long before HAPE became fatal. We now know that things were not quite the same as what the operator described. Perhaps more will be uncovered in the coming days, weeks and months.