“Kilimanjaro is a snow covered mountain 19,110 feet high, and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called the Masai ‘Ngqje Ngai/The House of God. Close to the western summit there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.” So begins Ernest Hemingway’s short story The Snows of Kilimanjaro.
A friend gave me a book about Mt. Kilimanjaro called “The Complete Trekker’s Guide.” It is full of useful information, but I must admit, I found the section on 19th –century European fascination with the mountain quite funny.
According to the book, and other sources, English armchair geographer William Desborough Cooley was considered an African expert because he had written major essays on the region’s geography although he had never been to East Africa. He was convinced Mt. Kilimanjaro was not high enough to sustain a perennial snowfield so near the equator.
When Swiss-German missionary Johannes Rebmann actually traveled to the region and saw the mountain in late 1848, he reported that he observed “something remarkably white on the top.” He said he first believed the white to be a cloud, but closer inspection confirmed it was snow.
Cooley and others ridiculed Rebmann’s findings, gaining support from a number of powerful public figures. I can just picture Cooley, his backside girded by his leather armchair, head hemmed by pipe smoke. “Snow on Mt. Kilimanjaro,” he would scoff. “Ridiculous. Figment of Mr. Rebmann’s imagination.”
David Livingston reported on other mountains in Africa topped by “glittering whiteness” which turned out to be “masses of white rock, somewhat like quartz.” Livingston’s reports further debunked Rebmann’s observations.
Another missionary confirmed Rebmann’s sightings of snow. Cooley insisted the second missionary was hallucinating.
Later explorers, some with scientific backgrounds, attempted to summit the mountain. One reached 14,000 feet only to be turned back by a snowstorm. Cooley dismissed the experience as a “traveler’s tale” about an “opportune fall of snow” all fabricated to support the two missionaries. Eventually, others lost faith in Cooley, and the Royal Geographic Society withdrew its support. But Cooley refused to recant, and went to his deathbed declaring snow an impossibility on Mt. Kilimanjaro.
This argument between “armchair academics” and scientists sounds strangely familiar…
As for the leopard mentioned by Hemingway, its corpse was discovered on the crater rim and photographed in 1926. The mummified animal disappeared from the mountain in the early 1930s. Its presence has yet to be explained.