Mount Kenya: Simon Calder tackles Africa's other summit

With a guide, a map and lots of tea breaks, Simon Calder retraces the steps of Felice Benuzzi, a PoW who escaped to climb Mount Kenya – then snuck back into camp

Three in the morning is a tough time to start a walk, especially if it involves clambering over scree, snow and ice to gain half-a-mile of vertical altitude. But you need to begin at "stupid o'clock" if you are to tackle the final stages of Shandy Mountain. This is the uncharitable title given to Mount Kenya by those who have conquered Kilimanjaro. Africa's highest mountain, known as Kili or "the Hill" by braggarts, is located fractionally south of the Kenyan border in Tanzania. It towers over the continent at 5,895m – almost a kilometre further from the centre of the earth than the target of my climb.

To besmirch further the efforts of the trekker opting to climb Africa's second-highest mountain: Mount Kenya, a decaying volcano straddling the Equator, has not one but three peaks. No prizes for guessing which I am aiming for: yes, the easiest of the three, the 4,985m Point Lenana, the so-called "trekkers' peak", for which almost no previous experience is required; Sir Edmund Hillary need not apply. The two taller points are, well, points: shafts of rock that soar scarily skywards. These are "technical climbs", requiring of equipment such as ice axes and ropes, plus expertise. To tackle Nelion (5,188m) or Batian (just 11m higher) you need to be a proper mountaineer – like Felice Benuzzi, author of the most compelling book in the considerable repertoire of mountain stories: No Picnic on Mount Kenya.

Despite the title, this is a book about a series of picnics on Mount Kenya (and much more besides) – although, in that strangest of times during which Signor Benuzzi made his climb, the supplies became depressingly depleted as the atmosphere rarefied. The effect of the Second World War had rippled far beyond Europe. In East Africa, Italians were rounded up by the British and incarcerated in camps. Felice Benuzzi, born in Austria but educated in Rome, was among them. He was deported from Ethiopia, where he worked, to PoW Camp 354 at Nanyuki, about 100 miles north of Nairobi. The 10,000 prisoners, he later wrote, were "an assortment of all ages and trades... old and young, sick and healthy, crazy and sensible". Benuzzi ticked the box marked "crazy".

In 2007, Nanyuki is a cheerfully scruffy town with little evidence of its previous role as a Kenyan Colditz. It is the base station for attempts to climb Mount Kenya; stores and market stalls burst with provisions for high-altitude expeditions. Not that I, nor my climbing partner Ben Crichton, did any shopping when we arrived in the town this month. We paid someone else to do it for us.

These days, besides the air fare to Nairobi, you need only a relatively modest amount of cash – £300 – to climb Mount Kenya in style. Colonial style, that is: our combined £600 paid for a guide, Francis; a cook; and a trio of porters to carry the bulk of our belongings, plus their own equipment and the mobile canteen. As a job-creation scheme in a part of East Africa with high unemployment, this arrangement is munificently productive. And it leaves the trekker free to fret about the cold, the sunburn and the altitude sickness: Mount Kenya may be planted right on the Equator, but it is taller than any mountain in the Alps.

I have always imagined that being a prisoner of war was not too bad, at least when you consider the alternative. But in PoW Camp 354, Benuzzi was enduring the exasperation of being locked up indefinitely in "a small barrack with 25 or 30 or so similarly irritable people" for no crime other than his nationality. He was an accomplished Alpinist, so the presence of a magnificent mountain close to the camp accentuated his deprivation. So he decided to "stage a break in this awful travesty of life". It was quite the maddest escape plan of any during that awful conflict: "I shall try to get out, climb Mount Kenya, and return here."

Those of us fortunate to be travelling in the 21st century have to endure nothing tougher than half an hour in a truck to the Sirimon Gate of Mount Kenya National Park. From here, the hike to the first night stop is a gradual introduction to the mountain, which slowly reveals itself as a corrugation of singular beauty. Kilimanjaro (or so I have learned, as I sipped my shandy, from men and women braver than I), is basically a single massif. In contrast, Mount Kenya – or Mounts Kenya, as it should properly be called – is a muscular masterpiece. The volcanic rock has eroded exquisitely, riven by valleys and pitted with lakes, and the mountain boasts an extraordinarily wide spectrum of flora.

Felice Benuzzi and the two fellow prisoners he recruited to share the climb, Giuan and Enzo, came into uncomfortably close contact with the bamboo forest in the foothills: to avoid detection, they had to walk through it, rather than beside it. Their expedition was also cartographically challenged: they had made sketches of what they could see from the camp, but the only printed map they had was an artist's impression of Mount Kenya used as a logo by the makers of Kenlon preserved meat and vegetables, a consignment of which had reached the camp.

"Resourcefulness" hardly begins to describe the escapees'planning. As the tide turned in the war, with Germany facing defeat at Stalingrad, Benuzzi was busy preparing for the climb with, well, military precision. He stopped smoking, to convert his cigarette allowance into bread to build up his strength. He foraged for scrap metal to forge into ice axes and crampons. Scraps of fabric were fashioned into high-altitude clothing, and curtain cords twisted into ropes that might hold the weight of a man.

The trio made their escape one day when on a working party despatched to the fields. Their appearance would instantly identify them as escapees, and so had no choice but to hide in ditches during the day and walk at night. When finally they reached the cover of the forest, they climbed painfully slowly along the course of the Nanyuki river, its banks thick with punishing bamboo. "Doggedly we followed its convolutions, scrambling over rocks, sliding over wet stones, jumping and making very little progress."

Today, the path to the first night's camp is clear, the experience joyful. At the park gate, you leave the cornfields and peach orchards behind and ascend through an encyclopaedia of flora and fauna. While Benuzzi & Co feared a too-close encounter with a leopard or rhino (and, indeed, found evidence of both), our first contact with wildlife was a quartet of zebras, followed by a troupe of baboons who emerged from the forest to peer closely at us. Evidently, we were the afternoon's entertainment.

As with the atmosphere, so with the vegetation: the higher you get, the thinner it becomes. Our hike began amid a profusion of ferns and conifers and grass, with flaming flowers that seemed to droop with the weight of sunshine they had captured. The birdlife, too, is intriguing:evolution has equipped the malachite sunbird with an extra-long beak, the better to extract nectar from the hardy plant life. Part of the approach is over swampy moorland, bedecked with giant heather.

Within a couple of hours, the last frail trees had been left behind. The terrain degraded to gravel on rock, with only a few species continuing to flourish: cacti, trees as skeletal as Italian PoW escapees, and what looked curiously like genetically modified cauliflowers perched on top of colossal golf tees (or maybe it was the altitude getting to me). These are giant lobelias, the size of basketballs when the cold of approaching night causes their leaves to curl around the heart of the plant. When the sun warms them next morning, they open to reveal what looks like a tangle of knitting wool, in shades from pale yellow to violet.

We narrowly won a race against the darkness to Old Moses Camp – not a transplant from Mount Sinai, but a collection of tin sheds. Not a burning bush in sight; indeed, the only Old Testament aspect that I could detect was the Babelesque babble of languages over dinner. We two dozen climbers encompassed the "old and young, sick and healthy, crazy and sensible". The party of Italians who insisted on sleeping in tents, at 3,300m and at zero degrees, belong in the "crazy" camp with Felice. u

o Back in 1943, the escapees' typical picnic on Mount Kenya was "a combined lunch and dinner consisting of porridge, corned beef, biscuits and tea", all of it extricated from the meagre supplies at the camp. This was the feast that the three enjoyed on the afternoon that they established their base camp for an attempt on the summit. Enzo's health had deteriorated, as fever combined with the altitude to weaken him. His bleak duty was to sit and shiver while the other two went off to reconnoitre.

Shivering is easy at this altitude. Even after a dinner of chicken, pasta and fruit, and some miraculous banana pancakes, the rarefied atmosphere seems to drain calories from the body with ease. I made a pretence of sleeping for about six hours, followed by a couple of hours of the real thing – enlivened by the most vivid of dreams. Altitude has that effect on the brain.

A full Kenyan breakfast, and vat after vat of tea, made the world seem a far better place at dawn. From here at Old Moses Camp, you can see a fair bit of the planet. Far below, the Equatorial plains breathed with productivity: after the rains, this is a land of plenty. Along the western horizon, the Aberdare Ranges perch on the verge of the Rift Valley, that mighty rip in the earth's surface extending from Jordan to southern Africa.

In the colonial exploitation of East Africa, climbing mountains was not high on the agenda. Dr Johann Ludwig Krapf, a German missionary, was the first European to see Mount Kenya. But after his report in 1849, 34 years elapsed before another European did anything about it. Joseph Thomson, a Scottish naturalist, was commissioned by the Royal Geographical Society to " examine" the mountain. Only in 1899 was the summit finally conquered, by Sir Halford Mackinder, and it was a further 30 years until Eric Shipton made a second successful attempt. Shipton is commemorated in the hut at 4,200m that bears his name. Although only 900m higher than the first overnight, Shipton's Hut is a far more forbidding prospect. You are roughly at the same breathless altitude as the peak of the Matterhorn. "Climb high, sleep low" is the slogan used by sensible climbers. While Ben and I cannot be thus described, our guide Francis urged us to spend an hour or two ascending higher, in order to give our red blood cells some comfort when we came back down to the camp. Francis, meanwhile, intended to pass the afternoon smoking outside the hut with his hyper-fit colleagues. I could barely breathe, let alone inhale a cigarette.

Anyway, our excursion had the additional benefit of allowing us to see some of the scenery that we would miss with our pre-dawn start. In certain lunar phases, Mount Kenya is closer than anywhere else on the planet to the moon. And on a sharp, bright October afternoon on the north face of the mountain, you can feel comfortably familiar with the surface of the satellite: a raw carpet of volcanic debris that whispers of the beginning, or end, of the universe. Now, where's that tea?

With water boiling at just 85C, the next flask of tea is never far away. Just as well, because the best physiological way to deal with altitude sickness is to drink plenty of fluids. Possibly the worst psychological way to deal with altitude sickness is to discuss the symptoms at length with sufferers who are on their way down the mountain. Any chance of meaningful sleep (together with meaningless dreams) was extinguished, and 3am could not arrive soon enough for someone wearing two thermal vests, two shirts, a fleece and two coats while still managing to feel cold.

As soon as we started ascending – steeply, zigzagging up an unforgiving slope to the first ridge – I became acutely aware of three benefits of climbing in the dark. First, it is warmer than lying in a tin hut feeling intimidated by altitude. Next, you cannot see just how far you have to go, so you plod unknowingly upwards. Finally, if you happen to suffer from a fear of heights that manifests itself when you look over the edge of a void – well, you cannot see further than the meagre beam of a head torch.

Every 100m or so, we would rest for five minutes and chew some Kendal mint cake (only one up from a sugar lump in nutritional terms, but endorsed by Sir Edmund Hillary). Francis know exactly where we needed to be at precisely 6.05am, when he announced "Just a bit of technical here, and we'll be there."

Hang on: I clearly remember signing up for the non-technical experience. But we followed his hand- and footholds up a short, sharp slab of rock and found ourselves, miraculously, on a small, well-populated plateau. Most of the people were concentrated on the highest corner, where a metal flag was planted amid a cairn of stones: the top of Shandy Mountain.

Within five minutes of our gasping to the summit, the eastern horizon burst into flames. Sunrise when you are three-and- a-half miles above the surface of the earth is a revelation that outweighs all the suffering. Africa is the continent of vast skies, but to add an extra dimension some of the sky was below us. In fact, almost everyone on the African continent was below us. Except, precisely 200 miles to the south, the climbers atop a small hump of rock that I could just see peeking above a narrow band of cloud. That is the summit of Kilimanjaro: we were witnessing the longest view between any two points on earth. As were they, while no doubt pitying our puny efforts and imagining us celebrating with beer diluted by lemonade. But at least Ben and I, with the aid of our entourage, had matched two malnourished Italian PoWs equipped only with a map from a tin can.

Felice and Giuan made several forays at the highest point on Mount Kenya, but were driven back by the lack of food and equipment. So they settled on Point Lenana, planted an Italian flag and, in -10C weather, beat a hasty retreat. Amazingly, the flag was found a few days later by another party of climbers.

The camaraderie at the summit was warming; we all took pictures of each other, and a couple of fellow climbers even forced a smile when I suggested we needed to form a human pyramid to go the extra 15m to break the 5,000m barrier. My humour evaporated when I saw the plaque reading "Go safely, friend, for here is high; go daringly, where eagles fly; go eternally, with Jesus nigh". It was dedicated to the unfortunate Richard Carles, who met his maker on the descent from Point Lenana.

"Descending in mountaineering is as a rule more difficult than climbing. " Thanks for the tip, Felice. Luckily I read the advice from the Lonely Planet guide only at the foot of Mount Kenya: "Plenty of inexperienced trekkers have come to grief on this section, falling off icy cliffs or even disappearing into crevasses." We were to descend by the western route – and Francis had somehow failed to mention the knife-edge ridge, interestingly caked in ice and snow, that stood between us and the rest of the world. While fearless Ben skipped ahead in the carefree Alpine manner of Julie Andrews, Francis and I inched along, hand in hand, as my feet slithered precariously close to the brink.

The scare was worthwhile. The glaciers, which are still sculpting the mountain, glisten above the lakes they create. At Austrian Hut, an hour below the summit, we noted the spectacular view from perhaps the most scenic toilet in Africa. Mackinder's Hut, at 4,300m, matches Benuzzi's description of quarters at the internment camp, and there we spent another Arctic night in "a small barrack with 25 or 30 or so similarly irritable people" ; somehow the trip plan called for the unconventional notion of acclimatising on the way down. At least the interlude at altitude provided a chance to make friends with the local speciality wildlife, a genetically modified gerbil known as the hyrax.

The final day was a romp that became more agreeable with every 100m of descent, as the oxygen replenished our blood. Besides yet more contorted flora, we had the exhilaration of the "Vertical Bog": a swamp down which you leap from one grassy hump to the next (or, as the mud in my socks testifies, not).

The Italians, as always, had a much tougher time. From a point of principle, they were determined not to be re-captured. They stumbled back to the camp and infiltrated it, even sleeping in their own bunks for a night before announcing their arrival. The camp commander was a forgiving fellow: instead of sentencing them to the customary 28 days in solitary confinement, he gave them a week, commending their "sporting achievement".

He did not say "For you, Benuzzi, the war is over" – because it wasn't. Felice Benuzzi was repatriated a year after the Second World War ended. He died, aged 77, in 1988, after having written a book as gripping as I wish my boots had been.

'No Picnic on Mount Kenya' is available through www.amazon.co.uk, price £9.99

Traveller's guide

GETTING THERE

Simon Calder paid £575 return for a flight from Heathrow via Addis Ababa to Nairobi on Ethiopian Airlines (020-8987 7000; www.flyethiopian.com), in order to get a stopover in Ethiopia. Non-stop flights from Heathrow to Nairobi may be much cheaper; Ben Crichton found a short-notice deal with Virgin Atlantic (0870 380 2007; www.virgin-atlantic.com) for under £300; the other two competitors, British Airways (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com ) and Kenya Airways (01784 888222; www.kenya-airways.com).

RED TAPE

British passport holders can get a Kenyan visa on arrival at Nairobi airport. The most economical way to obtain it is to pay US$50 (£25) in dollar notes, rather than the £35 cost if you pay in sterling.

CLIMBING MOUNT KENYA

While it is not compulsory to have a guide (nor a cook, nor porters) on Mount Kenya, it is a good plan. The author paid £300 to Chameleon Tours (00 254 20 890541; www.safari-selection.com) in Nairobi; other adventure travel operators can provide similar services. On top of the cost of the trip, it is customary to tip each member of the support team US$15 or $20.

HEALTH

While the upper reaches of Mount Kenya are a mosquito-free zone, malaria and other diseases are prevalent at lower reaches. Seek professional medical advice on precautions well in advance.

MORE INFORMATION

Kenya Tourist Board: 020-7367 0931; www.magicalkenya.com.

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