Felice Benuzzi of an Austrian mother and Italian father was born in Vienna, Austria on 16 November 1910 and died in Rome on 4 July 1988. After his birth the family moved to Trieste where he grew up and climbed the Julian Alps, Western Alps and the Dolomites. A sportsman, he represented Italy as an international swimmer in 1933–35.
He studied law at Rome University graduating in 1934 and married in 1938, the same year that he entered the Italian Colonial Service. He served in Italian-occupied Abyssinia, where the Allied forces captured him when the country was liberated in 1941. He was imprisoned in Kenya at P.O.W. Camp 354 in Nanyuki. There he took part in a remarkable episode that made him known worldwide.
In 1942, although well treated by the British, he found life at Camp 354 pointless and he felt that his life had no real purpose anymore. All that changed one morning at the end of the rainy season when the clouds cleared and Benuzzi could see the totality of Mount Kenya with its impressive 5,199 metre eroded volcanic cone. The sighting of the mountain changed all that and he decided to escape to climb it!
With two other prisoners, he started to plan their feat. They chose the route following a sketch of Mt. Kenya on a label of a tin of Oxo corned beef that offered them the only map of the South face of the mountain! Working in secret for about eight months, they made backpacks, crampons from barbed wire and an old car fender, and fashioned ice axes out of hammers stolen from the shop. They made everything they could not scavenge, steal or swap until they gathered the necessary equipment and rations for the climb. They even managed to get a key to the prison gate!
On 24 January 1943 they finally set off. They decided to walk out of the camp, so the troupe walked single-file, with Benuzzi leading the way, and Enzo Barsotti and Giuàn Balleto escorted at the back by another prisoner dressed like a British Officer. Although it was broad daylight, the group seemed normal to the sentries as they used the main door that led to the vegetable gardens outside the camp!
While the fugitives hid in a shack their friend returned to camp undetected. After dark the trio collected their provisions that were buried in the camp’s vegetable garden -including a bottle of pineapple brandy- and set off towards the mountain.
Eight days after breaking out of prison camp, after hacking through bamboo (even avoiding an elephant) and after rubbing their way through nettle-ridden valleys and crawling to about 4,267 meters, Barsotti was forced to abandon the climb as he started feeling the ill effects of the altitude and Balleto, a doctor, decided that he could climb no further. Benuzzi and Balleto decided to go on following the northwest ridge leading to Lenana, the third highest peak. At the time, only a few parties had climbed Lenana (4,985 metres) but none through the route chosen by our climbers. Unaware of this Benuzzi decided to push on as they were fast finishing their food. So, before sunrise Benuzzi and Balleto set out knowing that the northwest ridge was somewhere above and ahead! They were now close to the reason for their escape, which only the freedom of Lenana’s summit could offer them.
They climbed through the dark and their basic tools were not really able to manage the snow and mud they encountered but they pressed on and finally managed to get to the top after negotiating really difficult conditions. There they planted the Italian tricolour which, as it was forbidden at the camp, they each carried a piece of, hand-stitched inside their clothes. The flag was stitched together by Barsotti before they left him behind below.
Their way down was as perilous as the ascent, until on 10 February, to the astonishment of the British camp commandant, they broke back into Camp 354. As a prize for their adventure they each received 28 days in solitary confinement. However, the camp commandant, acknowledging their “sporting effort” reduced it to seven days!
Repatriated in August 1946, he entered the Italian Diplomatic Service in 1948, serving in Paris, Brisbane, Karachi, Canberra, West Berlin, and (as Head of Delegation) at the United Nations, before his appointment in 1973 as ambassador in Montevideo, Uruguay. Benuzzi retired to Rome (Via Nepi, 13), serving in retirement as Head of the Italian Delegation for the Antarctic.
In 1947 he published Fuga sul Kenya – 17 giorni di liberta (L’Eroica, Milano; illustrated). The English version was published in February 1952 as No Picnic on Mount Kenya (William Kimber, London), with the subtitle The Story of Three P.O.W.s’ Escape to Adventure.
The French edition helped inspire Roland Truffaut’s August 1952 expedition to Mt Kenya, described in From Kenya to Kilimanjaro (London, 1957), during which the home-made crampons and other equipment of Benuzzi and Balletto were retrieved from Hausberg Col. These were later donated, with Benuzzi’s permission, to the Musée de La Montagne, Chamonix (Roland Truffaut, From Kenya to Kilimanjaro (London 1957), p.60).
English climbers had retrieved Benuzzi’s flag and message-bottle left on Lenana; they were returned to Benuzzi who donated them to the Museo della Montagna, Torino (Enea Fiorentini, Fuga sul Kenya: Commento, http://www.eneafiorentini.it/irecelib/irec01.html).
The saddle between Point Dutton and the Petit Gendarme on Mount Kenya has been named Benuzzi’s Saddle in his honour.