Climbing Huge Peaks in Africa: Find the Right Guides, Tip Them Appropriately
The four of us sat around the wooden bench that served as our dinner table. Plates of mild biscuits and salty popcorn were laid out in front of us (the popcorn went first, we desperately needed salt).
Ben Jennings, who heads up eTrip Africa, flattened a piece of A4 (the standard paper size as opposed to our letter sized) with a long list of names.
“So,” he said, gazing at the three guides and at me, “How do you feel about the service we got?”
The process took at least an hour.
We were, as a team, assessing how to tip the safari team which had accompanied us up Mt. Kenya. This isn’t as easy as simply allotting ten or twenty percent. Each team member had a specific job, and each, from head to assistant guide, chef, the poor guy who had to build the latrine and clean up after us, all the porters, each had a role to play. What we were deciding was how well they did it, and what kind of tips that would bring them.
Our group included Ben’s three top guides. These powerful Tanzanian men were the leaders of his expeditions up Mt. Kilimanjaro, and as such, they were sensitive to the particular needs of those we were tipping. That swayed some of their suggestions.
Ben and I were looking at other performance pieces. Did the head guide stay with us and manage everything? Nope. He flat out disappeared for several days, leaving the day to day management to a surrogate, who said little to us but who was competent.
That behavior cost the head guide $35 in tips, and his surrogate got $125 USD. A relative fortune in Kenya.
The chef had worked hard to give us variety each day, and despite constantly plying me with sandwiches ( I don’t eat bread) he did a fine job of ensuring that we didn’t exist on a constant diet of hard boiled eggs. He also got a good tip.
There were two Kenyan men who were always cheerful, who memorized our names, who greeted us with enthusiasm when they passed us heading up the mountain to set up camp. That got them extra tips.
Keep in mind most of these men are villagers, farmers, those who pick up this kind of sporadic work when they can. So for them it’s not full time, but they can still earn better if they learn how. That was our whole point.
Leaving us to fend for ourselves in terms of setting up our own tents on the first day cost all of them. I had helped with that myself (which I don’t mind at all, but after a VERY long day of hiking, you’re paying for the porters to have this done by the time you arrive at camp). That was the head guide’s responsibility.
None of us had been impressed when Wilson, the 15-year veteran of Mt. Kenya hikes, never bothered to do a gear check the night before we left.
Never bothered to check if any of us had medical concerns (I do, I’m a hemophiliac among other issues). This lack of preparedness can kill on a mountain.
Ben’s guides came to my hotel room the night before we left and we went through every single piece of gear bit by bit. I’d forgotten a backpack rain cover. Critical mistake on my part, but that’s why we do a gear check. Ben had a backup.
Gear checks ensure that we know where we’re vulnerable. Medical checks predict potential high altitude warning signals, and knowing if someone has asthma or a bum knee is absolutely mission-critical. No head guide worth his salt overlooks such things. Wilson’s team did none of those things.
This also cost. For eTrip Africa, any time you’re heading up a high altitude peak, you have to be checked nightly for everything ranging from pulse and the oxygen content in your blood to whether your body is processing food and liquids regularly. They take your BP and listen carefully to your lungs.
While this can and does result in some down right cold moments in the mess tent, it can not only save your trip, it can save your life.
This is one of the differences between a professional outfit and a rookie version of same. Lots of contenders who offer swift summit ascents up Kilimanjaro have no such training, and they have few, if any, rules which ensure their clients’ safety. Too many folks don’t check to ensure that these standards are met, and end up paying a very high price.
The other piece is in the word “swift.” Americans- in particular- want to come to Africa, see the Big Five within a day, and head up to the top of Kilimanjaro as quickly as possible.
You don’t want to race up a nearly 20,000' mountain. For someone who trains at altitude, who has lived in or near high country for nearly five decades, this is the height of stupidity. When you push too fast in extremely thin air, the body rebels, and you can get some pretty serious symptoms . Note- the wiki piece pointed out swift movement at high altitude. You race the mountain, you may not make it back down alive. Yet shady outfits push the fast ascents for people who have limited time, and about 1000 people a year have to be evacuated. Ten don’t make it.
High altitude hiking is no joke and no game. Just because millions have climbed Kili and other big peaks doesn’t make them user-friendly. If anything, the sense of easy familiarity with these rather large speed bumps gives people a false sense of how achievable the summits actually are.
As Ben carefully went down each name on the list, our table had a full discussion of what this or that man did, did they go out of their way to be friendly and engage us, teach us, did they take care of our gear. All too often, the very expensive Italian- made tents that Ben brought for us ($900 a pop and more, thanks very much) were not well-treated. Poles got bent, ground covers ripped. Ben can’t insure his equipment, and that kind of sloppiness gets very expensive. So that cost tips.
By the end of our conversation, we tallied up some $689 in tips. Ben and I split the $600 down the middle between us, and the three guides threw in $89. I later paid each of them $50 for their help on the trip, something they hadn’t expected, and which was very well deserved. Since they had come for training, at Ben’s expense, this wasn’t a working trip for them, but an education. But they did work, and work hard, and it was my pleasure to add to the kitty.
The next morning, Wilson drew the entire Kenyan team out in front of our team. In Kenya, it’s traditional for the head guide to get all the tip money which he distributes as he pleases. We didn’t agree. Ben handed out the tips, in $USD, to each person, along with our feedback and compliments.
Wilson wasn’t happy but that was his problem. He came to understand why we did what we did, and the way Ben did it allowed each man on the team to hear what value he gave us, and how to improve next time.
We found out later that our tips fully doubled the salary that each of these people might have normally earned. That says a lot about Wilson, and it also speaks to how important it is to acknowledge individual achievement. Wilson didn’t earn top guide dollars because he didn’t perform a. Others did his job for him, and better in some ways.
Our discussions about those parameters helped Ben’s guides better understand how they are valued and tipped. It was also a superb experience in being able to gauge their competence against another team, on another, more challenging mountain, and see where they stood.
They stood tall indeed.
I learned a lot from this experience. While this is my third trip with Ben, this the first time I got to participate in the kind of thoughtful, focused discussion about how to value performance in the sometimes challenging world of summit climbing. It may vary a lot by country, but for my dollar, what I learned that night was priceless.
I always bring plenty of 10s and 20s for tips (it is hugely helpful) and I always plan on at east ten percent or more, depending. Smaller bills allow you to tailor your tips. Anything lower than a $5 costs them in bank fees, so it’s better to go a bit larger.
Ben had chosen to bring his three guides on this trip as a training exercise. These men tended to assume that the Kenyan team would be better, more professional. The reverse was true.
For example, as we headed up the mountain, tall, quiet Caspar cut in front of me and slowed the pace way, way down. Wilson was heading up as though it was a NASCAR race. I was simply following, and hadn’t yet noticed how swift the pace was. This is how people die.
Wilson and the others were highly annoyed at our pole pole (slow slow) pace, but this is what professional outfits do. Ben’s guides protected my health, my safety, and the pleasure of my trip. That’s how it’s supposed to be done.
Caspar, Bosco and Davis, each highly individual in style but delightful and funny and capable, surrounded me with a level of competence and humor that had a lot to do with why I was able to summit the mountain rather easily despite the difficulty of the terrain. We all were surprised at how much harder it was, but then, this speaks again to the need for well-trained guides who are focused on safety and professionalism. We hoped that by providing financial incentives for what worked, the team would take an interest in becoming better at their work.
One of the most important aspects of choosing a guide service for Kili, or any other mountain, has far less to do with cost than it has to do with proper practices. Tanzania is full of low-cost, low-brow operators who help you cut corners. The cost is on the mountain- to your comfort, your safety, your sense of well-being.
Far better that a guide gently takes you by the shoulder and forces you to head back down the mountain for a night to acclimate, rather than you press on, pushed by guides intent on big tips, to end up dead or damaged at the bottom of the mountain. I’ve seen it myself.
As Ben runs a lovely guest house in Arusha , he hears all the horror stories. Not everyone who stays at his place hires e-Trip, but as the manager of the place he hears all the terrible tales. That helps inform him about what to do and what not to do.
That includes being part of a professional porter’s organization that ensures a living wage, tip equity and good conditions. That’s a moral imperative, and another part of making a good guide decision. Who takes the best care of their guides is who is going to put money into training, medical skills and professionalism. Those are part of what you pay for, although going top dollar is usually way over the top. Ben has had his folks check out the neighboring camps to see what many thousands more buys you.
Not much. A raised platform on your toilet, perhaps a slightly nicer mattress. That’s overpayment for a big brand name.
Getting to the top isn’t the point. Having a full and joyful experience is. I trained like a banshee for this trip, and by the time we got into the final day of our hike, I was limping badly and in a lot of pain. I’d developed arthritis in my left hip. Didn’t know it at the time.
Ahead of me, Caspar and Davis were just a few yards away, staying close as I slowed further down, the pain accelerating. I had no idea why I hurt so much, only that it was an agony to keep hiking hour after hour. Yet, there was my team, encouraging, making me laugh, keeping my spirits up.
You HAVE to have that, for something will happen. It always does, from an ant swarm to skidding down a scree wall at high speed long after the sun has gone down. That will get your attention.
I dealt with it by trading fart jokes with Bosco, who was right on my tail all the way down. We were in hysterics. That’s an experience. Had I never summitted, it wouldn’t have mattered. There were too many other fantastic experiences.
Safe. Fun. Exhilarating. For that safety, the confidence that you’re in good hands that know the mountain better than you do (trust me, they do) you tip well. If you’re heading up one of these peaks, this is a way to think about how to choose, and how to value those who serve you.