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no picnic on mount kenya

19 may 2018

I don't remember, now, where I heard of Felice Benuzzi's mountaineering memoir No Picnic on Mount Kenya (1953); it must have been five or six years ago. Benuzzi being Italian, I scorned the English versions, assuming that the original was Fuga sul Kenya – a book almost impossible to find in the U.S., and not cheap even from Italian sources. Fuga stayed low on my wishlist till recently, when I took another look and discovered that the English version, No Picnic, is actually the original, and widely available in American libraries. Serves me right for being snobbish about translations, and also for being stupid.

I finally read No Picnic on Mount Kenya last week, in just days after my library delivered it. It is honestly hard to put down. The premise is too wild for fiction. In 1942, imprisoned in a British POW camp at the foot of Mt. Kenya, Benuzzi and two friends decided to escape. They had no hope of reaching neutral territory, so their exploit took on the most elemental "because it's there" quality. Felice, Giuàn, and Enzo planned to sneak out of camp, climb Mt. Kenya (a mere 17,000 feet), redescend, and sneak back into camp again.

One of Benuzzi's themes is the blithe insanity of the undertaking. Italian POWs held by the British suffered no great privation, but they were hardly well-fed or in prime condition, either. They had no gear, and spent months scrounging and cobbling together things like ropes and ice-axes. Their only porters were themselves, so they left camp ridiculously loaded-down – and still without enough provisions for a safe return margin. Above all, the three had little idea where they were going, aside from generally "up." One of their best sources for suggested routes to the summits was a label from a tin of OXO "Kenylon"-brand rations, with a blurry picture of Mt. Kenya – a bit like arriving at Niagara Falls with an old-fashioned Shredded Wheat box as your only guidebook.

Did they make it up and back again? Well, we know that Benuzzi lived to write this book, and publish it in 1953, so the trip can't have been a disaster. (Benuzzi lived, in fact, till 1988, becoming a high-ranking diplomat in postwar, republican Italy.) But "no picnic" is an apt description, metaphorically and literally, of his adventure.

Benuzzi's book displays little larger political context. The condition of the POWs is banal: more boring than anything else, made up of squalid concerns and petty contentions that wear down the soul. In suspended animation, far from the front, Europe, fascism, and the Holocaust, Benuzzi and his friends made use of the great mountain as a kind of existential blank slate. They weedren't notably woke. They fear wild animals and had at best a wary contempt for indigenous Kenyans – whose expertise they could have benefitted from, as the three Italians didn't even realize that they could eat the bamboo shoots that grow abundantly on the slopes.

But as with all mountaineering books, the energy of No Picnic on Mount Kenya comes from its stripped-away focus on getting up and down again. In that respect, it is one of the great works in the genre.

Benuzzi, Felice. No Picnic on Mount Kenya. 1953. Place: Publisher, Date.

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