The snows of Kilimanjaro, and why seeing is believing

(I should start by pointing out to anyone hoping to read about the Ernest Hemingway short story of the same name, about a man who bullies his wife while dying of an infected leg on safari in East Africa, that this blog post – as its title suggests – is actually about snow on Kilimanjaro).

Kilimanjaro's glaciers are shrinking, and the Furtwangler Glacier in its summit crater looks like it's about to creep over the edge
Kilimanjaro’s glaciers are shrinking, and the Furtwangler Glacier in its summit crater looks like it’s about to creep over the edge

Most people know there’s snow on Kilimanjaro, and many people are also aware that its glaciers are shrinking at an alarming rate. Al Gore controversially used it to illustrate global warming in his film An Inconvenient Truth, but the concept of snow on Kilimanjaro has always been controversial, and (IMHO) the history of Africa’s highest mountain contains some much more entertaining stories than Hemingway’s fictional one.

When Hans Meyer and Ludwig Purtscheller made the first ascent of Kilimanjaro in 1889, they had to cut steps most of the way up Kibo, and crossed many crevasses and snow bridges on the way. On the descent Meyer almost died in a fall, and only survived by arresting himself with his ice axe. These days, of course, there’s no need to set foot on ice, and a crampon is about as useful as a pair of high heels. According to his rough survey there were 32 km2 of glacier on Kilimanjaro in 1889, but when he returned there in 1898 he was shocked by how far they had retreated. By 1912 there were less than 20 km2, in 1953 just 11 km2, and by 2003 less than 4 km2. Meyer’s book about the climb was called Across East African Glaciers, a title that would make no sense to the modern visitor to East Africa, and the Ratzel Glacier which he and Purtscheller climbed on their first ascent, emerging onto the crater rim a little to the east of Stella Point, no longer exists.

The reason for the alarming glacier shrinkage is complex. Gore was criticised for using Kilimanjaro as the poster boy for climate change because of all the glaciers he could have picked worldwide, Kilimanjaro’s are probably the worst example. They’ve been shrinking for a longer period, as Meyer’s evidence demonstrates, and are doing it so rapidly that a small rise in average temperature due to man-made global warming alone doesn’t account for it. Scientists currently believe the main reason Kilimanjaro’s glaciers are disappearing so quickly is not because it’s melting more quickly, but because there is much less snowfall replenishing them. This is a trend which has been going on for centuries on a global level as part of the Earth’s natural climate cycle, but it may also have been accelerated locally as a result of human activity. In the last century there has been much deforestation around Kilimanjaro to make way for fields and houses. This has made the air less humid, which in turns means less precipitation.

What's that white stuff up there - it can't be snow, surely?
What’s that white stuff up there – it can’t be snow, surely?

There’s a much more interesting story than this one, though. Climate change deniers arguing about whether or not ice is melting because of human activity can be a bit tiresome. Much more entertaining are their 19th century equivalents: the people who simply refused to believe there could be snow on the Equator at all, despite clear evidence provided by explorers. In particular I’d like to tell the story of William Desborough (W.D.) Cooley, esteemed geographer and historian, founder of the Hakluyt Society, whom history has remembered as a barking mad armchair explorer, who tried to convince the world there couldn’t be snow in Africa. Cooley managed to acquire a reputation as one of the world’s leading authorities on the geography of Africa without ever setting foot there. That much is fine – it’s possible to gain an expertise by reading and analysis – but his weakness was that he liked to publicly ridicule anyone who provided new evidence to contradict his view of the continent.

The first European to see Kilimanjaro was a German missionary called Johannes Rebmann, who arrived in Africa in 1846 to help his older compatriot Ludwig Krapf with his mission in Mombasa. As far as missionary work goes, the pair weren’t destined to be the most successful. By the time Krapf left Africa in 1859 he had made just seven converts to Christianity, which surely makes him the missionary equivalent of Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards. Luckily they were both much better at exploring and it’s this they’re now remembered for. In 1848 Rebmann was leading a caravan to spread the word of God to the Chagga people of East Africa when he saw “something remarkably white on top of a high mountain”. At first he thought the white must be a cloud, but the more he inspected it he wasn’t convinced. He asked his guide, who replied the white he could see was “coldness”. He doesn’t say what word the guide actually used, but it was probably the Chagga word Kibo, meaning snow, which is now the name of Kilimanjaro’s main summit.

Rebmann published an account of his expedition in that well-known scientific journal the Church Missionary Intelligencer, but W.D. Cooley wasn’t having any of it. He hit back in the Athenaeum, knocking over a saucer of milk as he wrote.

“I deny altogether the existence of snow on Mount Kilimanjaro. It rests entirely on the testimony of Mr Rebmann … and he ascertained it, not with his eyes, but by … the visions of his imagination.”

The following year, 1849, the older missionary Krapf became the second European to see the snows of Kilimanjaro while he was travelling with his caravan in the area between Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya 350 kilometres to the north. He remarked wryly:

“All the arguments which Mr Cooley has adduced … dwindle into nothing when one has the evidence of one’s own eyes before one.”

Inner Africa Laid Open by W.D. Cooley. I wouldn't recommend buying it, though - it might just be bollocks.
Inner Africa Laid Open by W.D. Cooley. I wouldn’t recommend buying it, though – it might just be bollocks.

But Cooley wasn’t finished, and he produced a rather large handbag in the form of his book Inner Africa Laid Open, which he cleverly produced without going to the trouble of setting foot in Africa like Krapf and Rebmann had. In this masterpiece he was able to make the following bold scientific statement.

“The only true explanation of it is contained in Mr Rebmann’s confession that he is very short-sighted.”

Meow! Still, at least he had the decency to call Rebmann “Mr”.

In 1862 another German, Baron Carl von der Decken, waded into the debate by climbing halfway up Kilimanjaro and experiencing a snowstorm. He made the following remark in his diary.

“Next morning the ground lay white all around us. Surely the obstinate Cooley will be satisfied now.”

Nope. Here’s what Cooley had to say:

“So the Baron says it snowed during the night … in December, with the sun standing vertically overhead! The Baron is to be congratulated!”

At this point the men in white coats arrived and gently led the dear esteemed geographer away, presumably muttering something about “bloody Germans” angrily under his breath.

The tide eventually turned against Cooley, as it inevitably had to. The Royal Geographical Society initially backed his arguments, but in 1863 it snubbed him by giving its Gold Medal to von der Decken for his contribution to exploration in East Africa. But Cooley persisted, and took his African snow denial with him to the grave. I expect he would be delighted to hear Kilimanjaro’s glaciers are likely to disappear this century. For the rest of us, of course, it’s very sad.

(A shout to Henry Stedman for making me aware of this story. His excellent guidebook Kilimanjaro: The Trekking Guide to Africa’s Highest Mountain contains a lot of really interesting information on Kilimanjaro’s history.)

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8 thoughts on “The snows of Kilimanjaro, and why seeing is believing

  • December 5, 2012 at 10:14 pm

    Great to have a change from Everest. Cheers Kate

  • December 5, 2012 at 10:58 pm

    Oh, it’s not that bad, only about one in three’s about Everest. 😉

  • December 6, 2012 at 2:58 pm

    Mark, the retreat of glaciers in the Rocky Mountains of Canada has been apparent within my living memory. For example, the “normal” climbing route on a recent trip has changed over the past 5 years as the direct route up a hanging glacier is now unsafe due to it’s deterioration. LOL, your story of Cooley’s bloodymindedness reminds me of the persistent myth that Franklin was chasing a few decades earlier…a tropical sea at the North Pole! At least he was no “armchair explorer” 🙂

  • December 6, 2012 at 7:27 pm

    I used to love reading about Franklin’s explorations. You can’t fault the man for trying, but it was a long time before I realised so many things went wrong on his journeys because he probably wasn’t very good!

  • December 8, 2012 at 2:20 am

    And what do you think of Fiennes’s Antarctic stroll? Seems like a lot of effort to redeem Scott!

  • December 10, 2012 at 9:14 pm

    Hi Dean,

    I didn’t realise restoring Scott’s reputation was a motive for his latest adventure. Scott’s reputation was trashed in the 1980s, mainly by a biographer called Roland Huntford who had it in for him for some unknown reason, but many other writers and journalists who knew nothing of polar exploration jumped on the bandwagon. Sir Ran has been largely responsible for restoring it to its proper place, which I admire him for, especially since I can relate to it more now after all the crap that’s been written about Everest.

    Sir Ran’s latest expedition is certainly hardcore, but I’m a bit less sure about the motives behind it. The only winter journey that was made during Scott’s expeditions was for a scientific reason, to collect emperor penguin eggs during breeding season. I can’t help thinking the main reason explorers do these things today is to collect obscure ‘firsts’, though perhaps I’m being unduly cynical. Sir Ran is certainly one heck of a guy, and way more hardcore than your average adventurer.


  • January 1, 2013 at 7:58 pm

    Nice post Mark, you have a nice and interesting blog. Its beautiful like nature. I landed on “Khunjerab National Park” page on your website and then navigated to your blog. I found it great. Keep this good work up.

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