BARBED wire is not the best material for making crampons. Over 5,000 metres into the sky, facing blizzards and walls of ice, you want the most secure footwear available. Metal spikes snipped from the rusted fences of a prisoner-of-war camp—and hammered into footplates made from spare car parts—are not ideal for the task.
But Felice Benuzzi did not have the luxury of choosing his equipment. An Italian soldier in the second world war, he spent half a decade in internment camps after British forces took Abyssinia (modern Ethiopia) in 1941. In the years that he passed at P.O.W. Camp 354, just a few days’ trek from Mount Kenya, Africa’s second highest mountain, its snowy peaks taunted him. Occasionally, inmates would slip past the sentries and head for neutral Portuguese East Africa (now Mozambique). But Benuzzi, a climber, dreamed only of standing on the top of Batian, the summit of Mount Kenya, just a few miles away. Hoisting an Italian flag there, where only a handful of mountaineers had ever trodden, would be an act of defiance that no dash to the border could match.
“No Picnic on Mount Kenya” is Benuzzi’s account of how he and two accomplices eventually escaped in January 1943, reached the lower peak on Mount Kenya, Point Lenana, and then broke back into the camp for good measure. The book crackles with the same dry humour as its title. It contains the prison-yard bartering and candlelight stitching that mark a classic jailbreak yarn; the encounters with wild beasts in Mount Kenya’s forest belt are as gripping, and the descriptions of sparkling glaciers as awe-inspiring, as any passage in the great exploration diaries of the early 20th century.
The book has become a classic among climbers since it first appeared in Italian in 1947, and then in English in 1952. But readers will be grateful for this new edition from Maclehose Press, which contains an extra chapter not published before in English, a detailed map and Benuzzi’s watercolour paintings of the mountain. Even those familiar with the terrain will find themselves lost at points during the author’s description of his ascent. That is only natural: the most reliable map he and his mates had was a picture of the mountain on a corned-beef tin.
Credut: No Picnic on Mount Kenya. By Felice Benuzzi. Maclehose Press; 320 pages; £18.99.