The conquest of Kilimanjaro

Early attempts on the summit: Teleki and Meyer

While all this was going on, attempts to be the first to conquer Kilimanjaro continued apace. In 1887, Count Samuel Teleki of the Austro-Hungarian Empire made the most serious assault on Kibo so far, before ‘a certain straining of the membrane of the tympanum of the ear’ forced him to turn back.

Then the American naturalist, Dr Abbott, who had primarily come to investigate the fauna and flora of the mountain slopes, made a rather reckless attempt. Abbott was struck down by illness fairly early on in the climb but his companion,Otto Ehlers of the German East African Company, pushed on, reaching (according to him) 19,680ft (5904m). Not for the first time in the history of climbing Kilimanjaro, however, this figure has been sceptically received by others – particularly as it is at least 8m above the highest point on the mountain!

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Both Teleki and Abbott, however, played a part in the success of the eventual conqueror of Kilimanjaro, Dr Hans Meyer: Teleki, by providing information about the ascent to Meyer in a chance encounter during Meyer’s first trip to the region in 1887; Abbott, by providing accommodation in Moshi for Meyer and his party during their successful expedition of 1889.

Hans Meyer was a geology professor and the son of a wealthy editor from Leipzig (he himself later joined the editorial board and became its director, retiring in 1888, one year before the conquest of Kili, to become professor of Colonial Geography at Leipzig University). In all he made four trips to Kilimanjaro. Following the partial success of his first attempt in 1887, when he managed to reach 18,000ft (5400m), Meyer returned the following year for a second assault with experienced African traveller and friend Dr Oscar Baumann.

Unfortunately, his timing couldn’t have been worse: the Abushiri War, an Arab-led revolt against German traders on the East African coast, had just broken out and Meyer and his friend Baumann were captured, clapped into chains and held hostage by Sheikh Abushiri himself, the leader of the insurgency. In the end both escaped with their lives, but only after a ransom of ten thousand rupees was paid.

Kilimanjaro conquered!

However, on his third attempt, in 1889, Meyer finally covered himself in glory. Though no doubt a skilful and determined climber, Meyer’s success can largely be attributed to his recognition that the biggest obstacle to a successful assault was the lack of food available at the top. Meyer solved this by establishing camps at various points along the route that he had chosen for his attempt, including one at 12,980ft (3894m; Abbott’s camp); one, Kibo camp, ‘by a conspicuous rock’ at 14,210ft (4263m); and, finally, a small encampment by a lava cave and just below the glacier line at 15,260ft (4578m).

Kilimanjaro conquered! Hans Meyer holds up a German flag and a large stone while Ludwig Purtscheller crouches behind him at the top of Kilimanjaro

Hans Meyer and Ludwig von Purtscheller conquer Kilimanjaro

Thanks to these intermediary camps, Meyer was able to conduct a number of attempts on the summit without having to return to the foot of Kili to replenish supplies after each; instead, food was brought to the camps by the porters every few days.

He also had a considerable back-up party with him, including his friend and climbing companion, Herr Ludwig Purtscheller – a gymnastics teacher and alpine expert from Salzburg – two local headmen, nine porters, three other locals who would act as supervisors, one cook and one guide supplied by the local chief, Mareale, whom he had befriended during his first trip to the region. These men would help to carry the equipment and man the camps, with each kept in order by Meyer’s strict code of discipline, where minor miscreants received ten lashes, and serious wrongdoers twenty.

The size of his entourage, however, shouldn’t detract from the magnitude of Meyer’s achievement: as well as the usual hardships associated with climbing Kilimanjaro, Meyer also had to contend along the way with deserters from his party, a lack of any clear path, elephant traps (large pits dug by locals and concealed by ferns to trap the unwary pachyderm), as well as the unpleasant, rapacious chief of Moshi, Mandara.

It is also worth noting here that Meyer did not begin his walk on the mountain, as today’s visitors do, but in Mombasa, 14 days by foot, according to Meyer, from the Kilimanjaro town of Taveta!

Then there was the snow and ice, so much more prevalent in the late 1800s on Kili than it is today. Above 4500m Meyer had to trek upon snow for virtually the whole day, even though his route up Kibo from the Saddle is not too dissimilar to that taken by the vast majority of the thousands of trekkers every year – and today there is no snow on the route.

Memorial to Hans Meyer, the first man at the summit of Kilimanjaro. The memorial has a profile of Meyer in relief, above which is written in yellow capitals

A memorial to Hans Meyer at Marangu Gate

The added difficulties caused by the snow are well described in Meyer’s book Across East African Glaciers. Rising at 2.30am for their first assault on the summit, Meyer and Purtscheller spent most of the morning carving a stairway out of a sheer ice-cliff, every stair laboriously hewn with an average of twenty blows of the ice axe. (The cliff formed part of the Ratzel Glacier, named by Meyer after a geography professor in his native Leipzig.) As a result, by the time they reached the eastern lip of the crater, the light was fading fast and the approach of inclement weather forced them to return before they could reach the highest point of that lip.

On their second attempt, however, three days later on 6 October 1889, and with the stairs still intact in the ice from the first ascent, they were able to gain the eastern side of the rim by mid-morning; from there it was but a straightforward march to the three small tumescences situated on the higher, southern lip of the crater, the middle one of which was also the highest point of the mountain.

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