I was recently vacationing in Nepal, where I spent a few days in Pokhara, a lovely city that offers spectacular views of the soaring snow-clad mountains of the Himalaya’s Annapurna Range. I have never, ever had any desire to climb mountains—I’m lazy and even standing still in the Mile High City leaves me breathless. But something about those 20,000-plus-foot peaks inspired a twinge of yearning. I fantasized about giving up my vices, getting in shape, and trekking over the 14,000-foot passes leading to Mustang, a high-altitude desert, photographs of which depict achingly beautiful wind-swept landscapes lightly dotted by red-hued temples and small, walled towns. Maybe I’d just stay there and become a mountain crazy lady. Mustang Susan.
I was reminded at that moment of the best book I’ve ever read about mountain climbing: a true story called No Picnic on Mount Kenya. (Actually, the only book I’ve ever read about mountain climbing but, because I like it so much, I figure it must be at least better than most.) On the face of it, author Felice Benuzzi’s fantasy was even more unlikely to be fulfilled than mine.
An Italian colonial official stationed in East Africa during World War II, Benuzzi was interred in a British prisoner-of-war camp that happened to lie in view of Mount Kenya. Catching a starlit view of the glacier-capped summit one evening, he suddenly realizes what he needs to do to overcome the soul-destroying aimlessness of prison life: escape from the camp, climb Mount Kenya, and then return and accept the inevitable punishment of 28 days in a cell.
His life was now full of purpose, and he even manages to enlist two other POWs to join this quixotic escapade. Over the next eight months, they buy, beg, borrow, barter, and scavenge to assemble a rough kit of essentials such as boots and blankets (as well as a small Italian flag to plant at the summit and a bottle of brandy in which, once emptied, they could leave a note). They fashion crampons of scrap metal and bits of barbed wire. And they plot their route with the aid of an illustration of Mount Kenya that adorns the label on a tin of meat and vegetable rations, that being their only map. Then, as prepared as they are ever going to be, the trio slip out of camp to tackle the 17,000-foot-high mountain. “So hungry for adventure and hazard were we, so convinced of our good luck that joyfully and happily we went on into the forest towards the lonely equatorial peaks, into a world untainted by man’s misery and bright with promise.”
Thus started an experience sometimes hilarious—Benuzzi has a flair for dry understatement—often harrowing, but ultimately triumphant. They succeeded in planting their flag on one of Mount Kenya’s highest peaks, and 18 days after they left, they were back in camp, hobbled, hungry, and exhausted. “Thus, happily, we entered our cells. Life was truly sybaritic.”
What is so memorable to me about Benuzzi’s story is not the madcap mountaineering, however. Instead, it is his descriptions of their intoxicating encounters with nature. Indeed, the entire story is a testament to the power of the natural world to inspire the human spirit.
As they set out through the forest, the men are afraid of meeting elephants, rhinos, and leopards—and they do run into all three. But their first encounter with a lone bull elephant is filled with awe—“genuine, deep admiration”—not fear. After the elephant disappears into the dense foliage, Benuzzi reports, “For a long time we stood where we were, gazing spellbound at the closed curtain as if blinded by an unnatural vision. Had we not met at close quarters the king of the forests of Mount Kenya? Was he not worth the twenty-eight days’ cells? He was worth everything, all our past and future toils.”
In a forest full of majestic trees, vibrant flowers, colorful birds, and shining butterflies: “At every bend of the stream,” Benuzzi writes, “new marvels made us either shout for joy like schoolboys on a holiday trip or murmur confused words in a low voice, as though unwilling to violate such beauty by talking.”
And of the peaks themselves, “. . . they had given us the memory of an inexhaustible store of beauty, on which we would draw during the years behind the barbed wire which would follow our adventure.”
Benuzzi remained interred until the end of the war and wrote No Picnic soon after. Subsequently, he served in Italy’s diplomatic service, continued to climb mountains and write about his adventures, and while stationed in South America became a champion for the preservation of Antarctica. He died in 1988. No Picnic was his only work written in English; I feel lucky that he made this exception. It is a marvelous story. And perfect for anyone contemplating escape.