Stranded on safari in the African plains, Harry apologizes to his wife Helen for the stench of the gangrene eating its way up his leg. The two of them watch the carrion birds that have encircled the camp, waiting for his death. The couple bicker over how to handle his illness, how to pass the time, and whether to get a drink from the servant, Molo.
Harry, a writer, begins to ponder his situation, regretting that now he’ll never have the time to write everything he had planned to. Helen wishes they had never come on safari, and the two quarrel again over how they ended up in this situation. Frustrated, Harry declares that he’s never loved Helen.
In a series of flashbacks, Harry remembers various moments from his past—overhearing diplomat Fridtjof Nansen’s fateful underestimation of the Bulgarian mountain snows while traveling on the Orient Express; helping a deserter with bloody feet while living in a woodcutter’s house in Austria; Christmas day in Austria, when the snow was so bright it hurt the soldier’s eyes; and skiing, drinking, and hunting across European mountains.
Coming back to the present, Harry goads his wife into another argument, taunting her about her money and mocking the life of luxury they lived in Paris. He tells her it’s amusing to hurt her this way. Seeing that he’s made her cry, he says that he does truly love her, but he thinks to himself that this is the familiar lie by which he makes his bread and butter. He quickly insults her again and falls asleep.
Waking up from his nap, Harry discovers that Helen has gone hunting, so he is left alone with his thoughts. He muses on his life with her and among the rich, and how wasted the time has been. He had come on this safari to try to wean himself off the good life, to get back to the rougher lifestyle he had once pursued. Helen is a good and strong woman, but he does not truly love her. He has distracted himself from the more important task of writing by seducing a series of rich women for their money.
Helen returns with a ram she has shot to make a broth for Harry. Reflecting more about his wife’s past, losses, and pursuit of him, Harry makes more of an effort to be civil. Helen repeats her belief a plane will soon arrive to take him to a hospital. Harry seems less sure, asking why she thinks it will. A hyena crosses the edges of the firelight as they settle in for the evening, and while he has his first pang of realization that death is coming for him, he hides his dread.
Harry slips into another flashback, this time about the women he has loved and lost: the first woman he loved who had left him, a previous wife, and time he had spent “whoring” and fighting in Constantinople. He then remembers life on the front during WWI, full of military blunders and panic-stricken retreats. Later, he had met irrelevant intellectuals at cafes in Paris and quarreled more with his wife at the time. He had never written about any of it, even though he saw it as his duty to write it all.
Coming back to reality, Helen offers Harry some broth. It’s terrible. He looks with admiration at Helen anyway, and he feels death come again. He becomes more desperate to write, but Helen does not know how to take dictation, and he realizes the opportunity to write has passed for good. In another flashback, he recalls scenes from the mountainside, including his Grandfather’s log house and a trout stream they rented in a Black Forest valley. He thinks back in detail on his time spent in the slums of Paris and the struggles of the poor there.
Harry has a brief conversation about drinks with Helen, but he falls asleep once more, the flashbacks coming thick and fast as he weakens. He thinks about a ranch where a “half-wit” boy had killed a trespasser, and Harry had taken him to the police. He had never written these stories either. Briefly awake, Harry has a confused conversation with Helen and repeats to himself he would never write of her or her kind of people. He remembers Williamson from the WWI trenches who had died in horrific circumstances, and back in the present he thinks his own death is comparatively easy—he’s even bored with how it’s dragging on, as he gets bored with everything.
Then, death comes for him a final time. Harry can feel its head on his cot, drawing closer, and he loses the ability to talk. In the morning, a friend called Compton comes in a small plane to take Harry to hospital. On the way, they steer off course toward the bright white snows of Mount Kilimanjaro, and Harry realizes he won’t make it to the hospital but will instead lie in peace on the mountainside. None of this, however, is real: back on the plain, Helen is awakened by the distant cries of the hyena, and she discovers a lifeless Harry beside her.