Hemingway Never Climbed Kili
Despite its iconic stature, Mount Kilimanjaro has yet to inspire a great novel. Sure Hemingway wrote The Snows of Kilimanjaro, but the book had very little to do with the mountain. He opens with a leopard found frozen near the summit and that’s it.
For what it’s worth, back in the early 1980’s Tusker’s Eddie Frank used to hang out in the same ramshackle bar that Hemingway visited, in the village of Loitokitok, at the base of Kilimanjaro. Eddie’s currently writing his own book, a field guide to the flora on Kilimanjaro, due out in the next few months.
Several non-fiction authors have tackled Kilimanjaro’s multi-dimensions with far better Kili-centric results than Hemingway. Here are several of our favorites.
Hans Meyer: The Original
Any mountaineer who also cherishes antiquarian books must get a copy of Across East African Glaciers: An Account of The First Ascent of Kilimanjaro. A good original English language first edition will cost you $6,500, but there are much cheaper recent reprints available for around $20.
In his Germanic thoroughness, Meyer gives us Kilimanjaro in all its geologic and biologic beauty circa the late 1880s. His well-researched and lively text of the first ascent by a European includes three folding maps and 40 illustrations that are true works of art.
In its 1891 review, “The Westminster Review” praised the German geologist for seeing the mountain as explorer and scientist while sparing us the emotional padding of how difficult the climb was. Meyer did recommend tourists stay away from East Africa, but his all-encompassing account of Kilimanjaro only attracted future generations of climbers.
A Good Reader
John Reader is part of that long line of intrepid British writers/photographers willing to tell an outdoor story despite being more intellectual than mountaineer. His 1982 Kilimanjaro is a solid update of Meyers’ work, but with Reader’s own photographs and observations. Those photos look dated today as some of the glaciers he captured are now memories, but the book is a solid blend of early history and what it’s like to climb the mountain.
Reader worked as a photojournalist for “Time in Africa” and has a good eye for detail. He recounts the deaths of two climbers who tried to pioneer a new climbing route down Mawenzi. One of the climbers was found dangling on his rope and the corpse had to be retrieved by a marksman who severed the rope by gunshot. Reader’s seven other books about Africa are more scholarly but perhaps not as interesting as Kilimanjaro.
On the Coffee Table
Many climbers who successfully summit Kili treat themselves to filmmaker David Brashears’s coffee table book Kilimanjaro: To the Roof of Africa. The book is a companion piece to Brashears’s IMAX film that came out in 2002. “National Geographic’s” Audrey Salkeld anoints the 271 pages with details of Brashears’s Machame route climb with both history and sharp detail about the mountain. It’s a great way to savor the achievement of climbing Kilimanjaro.
The late Michael Crichton was a thriller writing machine (Jurassic Park, Rising Sun, Congo), but his short story “Kilimanjaro” in his 1988 anthology Travels is perhaps the best primer for anyone thinking about climbing Kilimanjaro.
In 1975 Crichton at 33 tackles Kili with his 22-year old girlfriend, but his poor mental and physical approach to the climb leads to anguished humility. He blisters in the first hour and quickly realizes that he had completely underestimated Kilimanjaro. He is so miserable ascending the “tourist” route on a five day climb that he can’t enjoy the beauty and ends up discovering more about himself than the mountain. After his girlfriend begs him to descend at 17,000 feet, Crichton mentally toughs it out finding he is stronger than he ever imagined. This empowers him to seek new experiences.
“I was forced to redefine myself. Climbing the mountain was the hardest thing I had ever done physically in my life, but I had done it. Of course, part of the reason it was hard was that I had approached it like a damn fool. I was not in shape and I refused to listen to anybody,” Crichton writes.
By reading world class writer/adventurers like Crichton, Reader, Salkeld and Meyer, we can vicariously fathom Kilimanjaro’s mental and physical challenges. However, there is no substitute for experiencing a Kilimanjaro Climb for yourself as no two experiences on the mountain are the same.
So read up, shape up and climb up.