Mountain Literature Classics: No Picnic on Mount Kenya

© Felice Benuzzi

To experience the real freedom of the mountains, you've just got to break out of a prison camp to get to them, says Ronald Turnbull, of this enduring account of DIY mountaineering from World War Two. With lockdown still in progress we can all empathise, but don't be tempted to emulate Benuzzi's feat!

In 1935 Mussolini's Italy, playing colonial catch-up, overran Ethiopia. In 1941, with the outbreak of World War Two, the British overran the Italians. And colonial administrator Felice Benuzzi found himself interned in Prisoner-of-War Camp 354, in the middle of Kenya, two minutes' walk from the Equator. With, added to the boredom and misery of imprisonment, one especially cruel twist.

Framed in the barbed wire, 20 miles away and 3500m above, Africa's second highest hill, Mount Kenya. Looking 'like Monte Viso, but so much more impressive'.

The approaches to Mount Kenya have been tamed with huts and trails since Benuzzi's day
© Dan Bailey

And so was born one of the two great mountaineering masterpieces of the prison camp system (the other being WH Murray's Mountaineering in Scotland, famously written on bog paper under the eye of the Gestapo). One of the two great 'OMG did that really happen?' mountain stories (the other being of course Touching the Void). Felice Benuzzi, with two companions, broke out of PoW Camp 354. They climbed Mount Kenya. And then they broke back in again.

Before the breakout, they spent eight months preparing equipment. Ice axes converted out of stolen hammers. Hand-crafted crampons. A bed-net was painstakingly unknotted to make a totally inadequate sisal climbing rope. And then they had to find out about the mountain. They had just enough Swahili to ask an old local who was illegally trading bananas for camp cigarettes. An old local who didn't know anything at all about getting up Mount Kenya.

We've got no topo, but this canned meat label might do...

But then they got lucky. A tin of compressed beef, Kenylon brand, had on its label the unseen eastern face of the mountain...

Half the book consists of just reaching the base of the climbing; nine days of variously unpleasant vegetation bands nowadays crossed by four-wheel-drive jeep. There was dense jungle, inhabited by rhino, leopard and elephant, which they clambered through following the bed of a stream; above the jungle, the bamboo thickets; above the bamboo, the dreadful tussock grass.

The climbing on Batian, the main summit, is graded Hard Severe (Alpine D) by the normal route. But they don't find the normal route. Instead they attempt the unclimbed northwest ridge – a line that had been rejected as hopeless by Shipton and Tilman 13 years before. Do they get up it? Let's not spoil the story...

And then back down again, through the various vegetation zones. Their packs are much lighter now, without the added weight of the camp-made Italian flag and climbing gear. Lighter also because of carrying not a scrap of food, for the three days of the descent. They break back into the camp, enjoy a large meal and a good night's sleep, and present themselves to the Camp Commandant next morning. Who, in recognition of their sporting achievement, commutes the expected 28 days in the cells down to a week.

The book's writing style is understated and mildly self-mocking, in a way we might think of as peculiarly British, although of course it isn't. It is also peculiarly poetic; every detail of the trip, and especially the amazing landscapes of the upper mountain, brought vividly back to life during the following years of imprisonment. I looked for the name of the sensitive translator, who also imposed the ironic title (the Italian Fuga sul Kenya just means 'escape to'). There wasn't one. Benuzzi, with time on his hands and perhaps in tribute to the mountaineering history of his captors, wrote the book twice, first in Italian and then in English.

The Maclehose Press edition of 2015 reproduces the cover from the first American edition – a three-colour lithograph that only slightly exaggerates the drama of the climb. More importantly, it retrieves, in frustratingly small format, 22 of the other-worldly watercolour and pencil sketches made by Benuzzi on the expedition.

To experience the real freedom of the mountains – just break out of a prison camp to get to them.

It's a picnic, but not on Mount Kenya  © Ronald Turnbull
It's a picnic, but not on Mount Kenya
© Ronald Turnbull

Support UKC

As climbers we strive to make the kind of website we would love to visit, with the most up-to-date news, diverse and interesting articles, comprehensive gear reviews, breathtaking photographs and a vast and useful logbook system. As a result, an incredible community has formed around the site - we’ve provided the framework but it’s you who make the website what it is today. If you appreciate the content we offer then you can help us by becoming an official UKC Supporter. This can be a one-off single annual payment or a more substantial payment paid monthly or yearly which includes full access to Rockfax Digital and discounts on Rockfax print publications.

If you appreciate then please help us by becoming a UKC Supporter.

UKC Supporter

  • Support the website we all know and love
  • Access to a year's subscription to Rockfax Digital.
  • Plus 30% off Rockfax guidebooks
  • Plus Show your support UKC Supporter badge on your profile and forum posts
UKC/UKH/Rockfax logo

27 Apr, 2020

Thanks for that reminder of a book I think I have in storage but haven't seen for many years. But although I can remember the text, I don't think my edition had the watercolours, were they left out of the British edition ?

27 Apr, 2020

Only recently read it, and was in awe of their tenacity, bravery and sheer bloody-mindedness. A great read.

27 Apr, 2020

The watercolours seem to have been added only in 2015 Maclehose edition (cheap and easy to get second hand online). Sadly, they've been reproduced really, really small.

27 Apr, 2020

A friend I hadn't seen for years sent this book to me out of the blue, and I hadn't heard if it before it arrived. So a double pleasure to read such an enjoyable book, full of adventure, hardship and over-coming obstacles. And as the review says written in the understated style of the 1940's, 1950's eras

Thoroughly recommend the book, glad it's getting more exposure.



28 Apr, 2020

A book I go back and read every now and again and a place I will have to go back to.

My dad had a mid life crisis and went to work in a hospital for a few years when I was mid teens so I spent a school year plus some extra trips out there. The school was used as a POW camp during the war and still had some murals done by the Italian POWs on the walls. I walked to the top of Lenana whilst out there, and I have the ice axe the guide gave me on my living room wall. Dad had 3 attempts but never got to the top. Closest he got was Austrian hut, he says the tea on offer from another group was more tempting than the last little bit to the top! He has also said that I've got to get him to the top on his "final trip" so he'd better stop spending my inheritance if he wants that to happen!

More Comments

Loading Notifications...
Facebook Twitter Copy Email LinkedIn Pinterest