Mr. Hemingway’s Leopard and I
Mr. Ernest Hemingway, who was a Serious Writer, in introducing his short story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” shares the following curiosity:
Close to the western summit there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard.
No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.
I am happy to be in a position to clear up this mystery—too late to edify Mr. Hemingway, alas, but perhaps in time to spare you some brow-wrinkling. Would you like to know why that leopard was up near the western summit of Kilimanjaro, over 19,000 feet above sea level? Because it was stupid. Very, very stupid.
This truth flashed into my consciousness one October day a few years back as I stood near the top of Chacaltaya in Bolivia, and I asked myself: “Why are you standing near the top of Chacaltaya in Bolivia?” The answer came to me all at once, and collided with the analogy to the leopard that was wheezing its way from the back of my mind: “Because you’re stupid. Very, very stupid.”
Please allow me to provide a context for this self-abuse. I was in Bolivia, a fine country in many ways; I had one free day left before flying home; I had prowled the streets of La Paz pretty thoroughly. I wanted to do something, and I felt the Conscientious Tourist’s compulsion to Do Something. The only tour available on that particular day, except for a couple I had already taken, was an excursion to Chacaltaya, billed as the World’s Highest Commercial Ski Slope. I bought it.
Now, I have never learned to ski. In any case, it was not the right season for skiing. So I was paying good money to ride in a microbus for hours in order to visit a place where, at another time of the year, some people went to engage in an activity of which I had no experience or understanding. You may already be forming an opinion of my intelligence, but just wait for the juicy parts.
I came up with a whole string of plausible arguments in favor of going, as one will after making a snap decision for no adequate reason at all. This would be a chance to get a taste of mountaineering with little effort or expense, I declaimed. I would surely see sublime vistas, and one can never have too many sublime vistas, As a keen birdwatcher, I cherished the hope of spotting a condor. All so much blarney, of course, but I was too dull-witted or too lazy to see through it, so I bought the tour and went.
It started pleasantly enough. I already knew and liked the guide, and the other members of the group appealed to me. There was an Argentine policeman whose midriff rivaled even mine. There was a hyperactive little German who was forever setting up his camera on a tripod, turning on a timer, and scuttling into the frame; I never got to ask him why he didn’t get someone to push the button for him. There was a French couple, both diminutive, both red-haired, adorable together. There were two good-looking blond fellows, Italian-speaking Swiss; I daresay they may have been a couple: I have poor instincts in these matters, and it makes no difference to me anyhow. Finally, there were four Irish mountaineers. I deduced that they were mountaineers because two of them were wearing T-shirts celebrating the First Irish Assault on Everest (1993). Also, they looked intrepid, half-mad, and preposterously fit.
So I was feeling rather clever, on the whole, as we climbed out of La Paz and toiled across the altiplano. (It is a strict rule of writing about travel in Bolivia that one must employ the term “altiplano” at least once. I have now complied.) Eduardo, the guide, put on a tape of Queen, which I quite enjoyed, and which was not demonstrably more absurd than any other musical choice under the circumstances. The horizon was full of subtly-colored mountainsides, seen across a virtually empty sweep of plateau. Not bad.
Then we started going up the mountain, and I began to suspect that I might have been somewhat imprudent. You see, it was a narrow gravel road, with about three inches of shoulder and then a long, long drop. I was on the side of the bus next to the shoulder, and so whenever my eyes were open I could see that long, long drop getting longer by the minute. I could—and did—contemplate the fact that only the experience and reflexes of a Bolivian microbus driver were preserving us all from a spectacular hurtle into a far from negligible void. I remember thinking earnestly that I did not want to end my days sardined in an impromptu metal coffin with an Argentine policeman, a German photographer, a Bolivian guide and driver, a diminutive red-haired French couple, two possibly gay blond Italian-speaking Swiss, and four Irish mountaineers. I also remember that a part of my brain, which apparently functions to find the darker side when everything already looks bleak, kept whispering to me: “And guess what? Best-case scenario: you survive the ride up, and have to go through all this again on the way down.” Heights make me nervous, and nothing could lure me onto a roller-coaster. And yet there I was. Very stupid.
It seems that we must have gotten there, but please don’t ask me how. Out of the bus, I looked around me. There was a squat building at the base of the final slope leading to the summit, a few hundred feet above. There was a modest parking area with one car and one truck, an ankle-high cable around the perimeter, and long drops. There was a dog; I have learned on my travels that there is always a dog. There was a ski slope with no visible amenities, mostly covered with a patchy layer of dry old snow, with the odd rock poking through. There was—let’s be fair—a Sublime Vista of peaks and narrow valleys and the altiplano in the distance.
There was, however, no air. La Paz had not troubled me much, but up here, a few thousand feet higher, I went through all the standard procedures of breathing, only to have my lungs send up a message saying, in effect, ayayay. Finally, by dint of the sort of determined air-guzzling usually associated with Polynesian pearl-divers before the plunge, I gulped enough oxygen to stave off a coma. I find that I have not yet mentioned that I have asthma. Very, very stupid.
I declined to accompany the group for a lighthearted scamper to the summit. Instead, I mooched about and breathed. I entered the building—I don’t know what to call it: it seemed to have been designed for no specific function, but to be pressed into service for everything. There were perhaps ten people around: the Argentine policeman and I, three or four civilians, five or six soldiers in uniform. It is not clear to me why a squad of soldiers was stationed 17,000 feet up on Chacaltaya. I suppose they had to be somewhere. So far as I could see, they divided their time among three activities: noisily directing the truck driver as he backed up; eating from plates piled high with root vegetables; and playing table tennis. For Chacaltaya boasts what must surely be the World’s Highest Ping-Pong Table, and those soldiers had such lungs that they could even banter while swatting the ball back and forth. I stood and watched and huffed and puffed, and I had a vision of a ping-pong ball flying out the open window, skittering across the gravel, and disappearing into the void. It didn’t happen, but it probably could.
Haunted by this vision, and made even more breathless by the sight of people playing table-tennis at 17,000 feet, I shuffled back outside, leaned against a rock, and asked myself—but I have already told you what I asked myself. And I thought of Mr. Hemingway’s leopard, mummified at the top of Kilimanjaro, and I imagined myself being found by a bearded Nordic anthropologist, many years later. The anthropologist, closely resembling the fellow who found the mummy of the little girl in Peru and wrote all about it in National Geographic, would uncover me, still substantial but a tad sunken, like a basketball in need of some pumping up, and write a very good article, with a photograph or two of me and close-ups of my fillings, a shot of a dented ping-pong ball, and several Sublime Vistas. Oxygen deprivation makes one imagine with rather more vividness than taste.
No one can explain what I was seeking at that altitude, because I wasn’t seeking anything: I just went. It was stupid—very, very stupid—and I was not comfortable. On the other hand, I’ve been there, and I’ll bet you haven’t. Do you suppose that that is what the leopard would have said to his pals if he had managed to get back down?