THE BLOG
08/21/2013 12:23 pm ET | Updated Oct 21, 2013

Reading Hemingway on Kilimanjaro

From the balcony of our hotel in Moshi, in eastern Tanzania, I was lucky enough to catch a brief glimpse of the square summit of Kilimanjaro. It was floating between the rain-laden clouds like a heavenly iceberg, far higher than where I'd first looked. The brilliant snowy slopes were momentarily unveiled and then obscured once again by the furling curtain of grey.

We were there to climb to the top. My girlfriend and I had circumnavigated Lake Victoria over two months, bringing us closer and closer to Africa's highest mountain.

Its magnetism proved irresistible and we signed up for a six-day trek with a local company, joining seven other climbers.

The first of the five nights we spent on the mountain was at around 2,800 meters and it was already much cooler. We bundled into our dining tent -- carried up the mountain by one of our group's 24 Tanzanian porters -- and sat down to a three-course dinner, cooked by our own mountaineering chef.

After dinner, one of our group mentioned that they'd never read "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" and had meant to bring a copy. I said that I had the story with me and offered to pass it round to anybody who was interested in reading it.

However, the suggestion was raised that instead of sharing it round, I should read the story aloud to everyone. I had just finished a stint teaching English at a primary school in southeastern Uganda, and had entertained the children by reading stories to them, so I felt that I was in practice, and agreed to read.

Hemingway visited Africa twice. The first time in 1933, going on safari, hunting big game and collecting the material that would become "The Green Hills of Africa," "The Short Happy life of Francis Macomber" and "The Snows of Kilimanjaro." Hemingway considered the trip a success, and there are photographs of him posing with animals he shot, including lions, buffalo and rhinos.

Hemingway's second trip, in 1952, was a disaster. A flight over Murchison Falls in western Uganda ended in catastrophe when the aeroplane he and his wife were travelling in crashed. The next day as they sought medical assistance for burns and cracked ribs, another plane they were in exploded on take-off. Hemingway's wife escaped through a window, while Hemingway was forced to head-butt his way out of the door of the plane. He suffered a fractured skull, severe burns, a dislocated shoulder, two cracked discs and a ruptured liver and kidneys. The events precipitated the physical and eventually mental decline towards the end of his life.

"The Snows of Kilimanjaro" was written soon after Hemingway's first visit to Africa and concerns the death of a writer, named Harry, on safari in Tanzania with his wife. A cut on his leg has turned gangrenous and as he grows weaker, he is bemoaning the squandering of his talent as a writer and the poor choices he made in his life.

He rains invective over his long-suffering wife who remains at his side in the safari tents as they wait hopelessly for rescue, and eventually succumbs, dreaming of flying to the summit of Kilimanjaro.

For three nights in a row, after dinner and our nightly blood-oxygen level tests, I read aloud for about 15-20 minutes, while we huddled in the dining tent, wearing warm hats and drinking hot chocolate.

Each day we gained considerable altitude and one by one the members of our group were forced to deal with the effects of the rarefied air and the accompanying altitude sickness. But by the evening, after supper, everyone maintained that they were keen to hear me read the story.

Despite the mountain's proximity to the equator, the peak, at 5,896m above sea level, remains snow-capped all year round and summit temperatures regularly fall below -20 degrees Celsius.

We reached the summit at 7 a.m. after an exhausting scramble up the scree slopes at night. As dawn arrived, the sun cracked an orange light over a perfect sea of white cloud blanketing Africa some 3000 meters below.

Even though we endured temperatures below minus 10, and even though my girlfriend described the final climb as "near constant hell," reaching the top was staggering. The hardship of the climb, combined with relief and the astonishing beauty of the snow-capped peak made it a profound moment.

As the sun rose higher, towers of ice and vast frozen lakes became visible and from the top we could see down into the black crater of the dormant volcano.

As Hemingway's protagonist perishes, and he takes his final flight to the top of the mountain, it comes into view "as wide as the world, great, high and unbelievably white in the sun".

Unlike the end of Hemingway's book, however, we had to climb all the way back down again.