Perhaps the best known fictional representation of Kilimanjaro is in Ernest Hemingway’s famous story, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” In the story, the narrator, fearing that his death is near, reflects on his life—his failures, achievements, and loves lost.
Frankly, there’s really not much about Kilimanjaro after the opening:
“Kilimanjaro is a snow-covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called the Masai ‘Ngaje Ngai’, the House of God. Close to the western summit there is a dried and frozen carcas of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.”
Questions of accuracy (and spelling) aside, the introduction raises one important question:
A frozen leopard near the summit? Really?
According to legend, Hemingway’s reference was inspired by a 1926 photo taken by missionary Richard Reusch.
Reusch claimed to have cut an ear off the leopard as a souvenir, but apparently he wasn’t the only souvenir hunter; at some point after Hemingway’s story appeared in print (originally, the story ran in Esquire magazine in 1938), the leopard carcass disappeared.
If it ever really existed, that is.
The photo that inspired Hemingway is the only one of a creature that, so high on the mountain, would certainly attract attention from curious trekkers. While treks were far less frequent in the first half of the 20th century than they are today, it’s still surprising that no other photos of this curiosity seem to exist.
Not that we’re conspiracy theorists or anything; we’re just asking the tough questions.
Like this one: what WAS it doing up there?
Leopards have been spotted on Kilimanjaro before, even in recent years, when the volume of trekkers on the mountain has pushed many species further down, or even off, the mountain. But above 13,000 or 14,000 feet, the climate would not only be forbidding, there would be few if any prey animals capable of sustaining a leopard for any length of time.
Was the leopard chasing a long-ago antelope up the slopes, only to realize, too late, that it had been caught in a blizzard? Was it brought up the mountain, already dead, by a climbing prankster? Or was it seeking the summit as a sort of personal achievement, a quest for enlightenment that ended tragically? Which begs the further question, what would constitute enlightenment for a leopard, anyway?
For now, no one has the answer. It’s possible, though, that someone has the leopard…