I have a childhood memory of being ill in bed, bored and grumpy until my mother came up with an idea of genius. This must have been in late 1953 or 1954 because we had a children’s version of The Ascent of Everest and, like most people at the time, were captivated by the con- quest of the world’s highest mountain. My mother showed me how to position my knees under the eiderdown, roped two miniature naked pink plastic figures together with blue wool and we re-enacted the ascent. Through the Khumbu icefall, up the South Col and the Hillary Step and on to the summit. The magic of those names.
It was a game that kept me entranced for hours and inspired my lifelong interest in the literature of mountaineering, despite a deep-rooted dislike both of heights and of being cold and uncomfortable. Sherpa Tenzing Norgay was my hero, and in all my ascents, he, naked and bright pink, reached the summit first.
And so it began. Over the years I read about Mallory and Irvine, followed Eric Shipton’s exploits in the Himalayas, felt the hair on the back of my neck prickle as I struggled off a Peruvian mountain with Joe Simpson, broken leg and all. But only later did I find a copy of No Picnic on Mount Kenya (1952) by Felice Benuzzi, though I already knew of the book. My parents had both been stationed in Kenya during the Second World War – it was where they met and married – and I remember hearing them reminisce about the stir Benuzzi’s adventure had caused during the war.
Felice Benuzzi was an officer in the Italian Colonial Service in Abyssinia. He was captured by the British in 1941 and ended up in a POW camp in Nanyuki at the foot of Mount Kenya. Benuzzi was an experienced mountaineer, with climbs in the Dolomites and the Alps to his credit, and when he caught a glimpse of the summit of Mount Kenya emerging from its encircling wreath of cloud, the vegetative state of captivity he describes took on a new dimension. Escape was a possibil
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