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Teutonic Nonsense

It took a lot of moxie, money and German arrogance, but Hans Meyer was the total package. It was Meyer who first recorded summiting glacier-capped Mount Kilimanjaro in 1889.

In the 1880s, Meyer was drawn to the emerging colony of Tanganyika today’s Tanzania. Meyer, a professor of colonial geography at Leipzig University, wanted to escape the constraints of 19th century Europe like many adventurers and wealth seekers. They saw Tanganyika as Germany’s prize in the European colonization game and their shot at fortune and fame.

Tanganyika was pried open for exploration by the predatory German East Africa Co. whose leaders convinced the Otto Von Bismarck regime in Berlin there was riches to be had in East Africa. By planting 100,000 acres of sisal, two million coffee trees and 200,000 acres of rubber trees, the company’s CEO, Carl Peters, assured Bismarck it would bring great wealth for the empire. Bismarck supplied the military muscle to keep the colony together. Together they built rail lines to bring the crops to the coast.

The biggest prize for explorers and geographers was climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. Before Meyer’s success there were multiple efforts but all failed for what seem to us obvious reasons, i.e. altitude sickness. But there was a much greater obstacle that no longer exists. In the late 19th century, Kilimanjaro’s summit crater was encased in a massive glacier. It was unthinkable then that the mountain’s summit could be covered by an ice cap 300 feet deep. When the German missionary Johann Rebmann reported in 1849 seeing a white capped mountain three degrees south of the equator, London’s Royal Geographic Society dismissed his report as Teutonic nonsense. The stuffed frocks in London didn’t realize how high the mountain was or how over centuries of capturing abundant rainy season moisture glaciers could form.

The native Chagga tribesmen knew it wasn’t nonsense. Rising above the plantations and the bush country, the snow cone mountain inspired reverence in them. Their ego didn’t require trying to scale it and there are no records of an African summiting. They saw its value in the majestic mountain’s lower forests where they dug massive pits and covered them with branches to trap elephants. They bartered the ivory to the Swahili seacoast traders. The villagers from Marangu at the mountain’s base harvested Kili’s timber, honey and medicinal plants. Colobus monkey hides were also valued.

For the Germans, the mountain stirred both their intellectual and mercenary curiosity. Was there gold on the mountain? Could it be farmed? What secret did the mountain possess?

Caught in the Revolution

Meyer was born with a silver spoon in his craw, his father a rich publisher and had academic rather than monetary ambitions fueling his quest. The theory that Kilimanjaro was the source of the Nile was au current, but not proved. Since no one had scaled the mountain no one had accurately measured its height. Meyer set these goals but knew it would not be easy. He met and interviewed the men who had come before him and learned from their failures. He was also driven by German nationalism.

“Kilimanjaro was discovered by a German— the missionary Rebmann and it seemed to me to be almost a national duty that a German should be the first to tread the summit of this mountain,” Meyer wrote in his much respected, but now out of print, “Across East African Glaciers.”

It was an American medical doctor/naturalist, William Louis Abbott and an Austrian-Hungarian Count Samuel Teleki whose failed climbs Meyer digested and learned from. They got sick on the mountain and couldn’t navigate the ice; never getting higher than 15,800 feet. In 1887, Meyer set off with Baron Von Eberstein and pushed to 18,000 feet before encountering 100-foot ice walls. Meyer could now see that the ice was continuous over the entire peak. To summit he would have to navigate the ice walls. With the Baron in the throes of high altitude pulmonary edema, Meyer decided to descend and mount a future campaign with more men and better planning.

His second attempt in 1888 was a disaster, the victim of politics not natural forces. He knew Tanganyika was a cauldron of pissed off people and hired mercenary guards to transport his expedition from Mombasa to the mountain. Despite carrying 50 rifles Meyer’s men couldn’t protect him when the Swahili Arab revolt boiled over. The Abushiri Revolt was led by a planter Abushuri al Harthi who was able to unite the Arab traders and Swahili tribesmen who were getting shafted by the Germans. On his 14-day march from the coast to the mountain, Meyer was a tempting target.

Abushuri himself took Meyer and his climbing buddy, cartographer Dr. Oscar Bauman hostage. He put them in chains, but didn’t kill them as he did many German East Africa Company men. Abushuri needed money for his revolution. Meyer’s deep pockets saved his sunbaked skin when he paid a 10,000 rupee ransom and lived to climb again. It didn’t help Abushuri though. Bismarck came to the colony’s rescue and put down the revolt. Abushuri ended up on the gallows while Meyer would end up on top of Kilimanjaro.

Hans, Ludwig and Yohani

Meyer would never make the summit if it weren’t for Ludwig Purtscheller, an Austrian mountaineer and Yohani Kinyala Lauwo, a rebellious Chagga villager who would guide the expedition. Purtscheller was a mountaineering superstar in 1885 after he summited La Meije in France, the last major Alpine peak to be summited. He knew how to use an ice ax and that was crucial in bagging Kibo, the highest of the three crater cones. Lauwo was a rebellious teen who didn’t want to be conscripted into building the German’s roads along with his fellow villagers. He was in the courthouse the same day Meyer showed up seeking permits for his third expedition. Meyer needed a guide and Lauwo figured walking up the mountain barefoot draped in blankets was better than broiling in a construction crew destined to become road kill.

Meyer’s plan was simple, but well thought out – a guide to future trekking companies. By using a series of base camps, food and equipment could be supplied to the team without delay. He used Abbott’s camp at 13,000 feet and established new camps at 14,201 (Lava Tower Camp) and another at 15,260 just below glacier line. He took state of the art equipment and chose to scale the southeast slope whose ice cliffs had less severe inclines than the northern crater.

At 1 a.m. on Oct. 3 1889 Meyer’s party left their camp at 14,100 feet, and by 10 a.m. were on the lower slopes of the Ratzel Glacier. The incline was 35 degrees and the team started cutting ice steps. Meyer wore no climbing irons and chiseling each step required twenty strokes with the ice saws. Hard work in the thin air. It took two hours to reach the upper limits of the glacier where the incline was much less severe. With the ice scaled it was another two hours trudging in waist high snow over weathered ice grooves that put them at the crater’s rim.

The summit was still another 500 feet, and Meyer and Purtscheller knew they were running on fumes. They decided to retreat to base camp and try again. Three days later using the route they already marked and carved they reached the rim in six hours and successfully summited. Once atop the rim, the secret of Kilimanjaro was revealed. A huge gaping crater with a 600-foot drop to an ice floor below was the secret concealed for centuries. On Oct. 18 they entered the crater and Meyer studied it. In all, the expedition spent 16 days above 13,800 feet.

Historic Meltdown

Kibo would not be climbed again for another 20 years and it wasn’t until 1912 that Mawenzi, the second highest cone on the crater and the more technically challenging, would be successfully climbed.

Meyer continued to climb in Europe and South America but spent much of his life as a respected academic at the University of Leipzig before dying in 1929. His plaque commemorating his effort is prominent in today’s Kilimanjaro National Park.

Purtscheller returned to Europe and would die from pneumonia following a climbing accident. In all, he conquered 1700 peaks and is in the unofficial Alpinists Hall of Fame. Lauwo would outlive everybody and become Kili’s most famous guide over the next 70 years. He lived to be 125 and at the 1989 centennial celebration of Meyer’s expedition was honored as a co-first ascendant. Posthumous certificates were issued to the anonymous African porter guides on the Meyer expedition.

Meyer had named Kibo Kaiser Wilhelm Spitz (peak) but with Tanzania’s independence in 1961 it was renamed Uhuru Peak (freedom) an apt name. Kilimanjaro’s majesty has become a symbol for today’s African independence, but its history is tied to the colonial era through Meyer, Purtscheller and Lauwo’s heroics.

As for Tanganyika, it was a bad bet by Bismarck. The colony never turned a profit and with the loss of World War I, Germany’s East African gambit melted into history along with the glacier atop Mount Kilimanjaro.