Prisoners of war escaping during World War II were not so unusual. However, most of the time, the goal is to escape to freedom. But in the case of three prisoners in Kenya, the goal was much different: to climb the local mountain. In fact, the Italian POWs intended to return to camp once their recreation was complete.
Taken in by British soldiers, the trio set out to climb Mount Kenya, which is the second-highest mountain on the African continent. The adventure of a lifetime took place in 1943 at Camp 354 in Nanyuki, Keyna.
For many POWs, the problems are stacked by the day, with fear of comfort, malnutrition, working conditions, etc. But as it turns out, the British prison camp was quite cushy. The POWs were well cared for and fed. Instead, they faced another issue: extreme boredom.
With days in front of them and no real responsibilities, soldiers began thinking of ways they could keep themselves busy. In the case of the three Italians, Giovanni Balletto, Vincenzo Barsotti, and Felice Benuzzi, the plan was clear: they wanted to climb the mountain.
The camp was located roughly 1,900 miles from the top of the mountain. For the POWs, that meant several days of adventure, and more importantly, entertainment.
According to historic records, the climb was Benuzzi’s idea. He approached another POW, who was a skilled climber, and was told in no uncertain terms that it was an impossible task. He was given two reasons: 1) Benuzzi had little to no experience and 2) he didn’t have the right gear to attempt a serious climb.
Undeterred, Benuzzi continued to plan his climb. Next, he spoke with Balleto and Barsotti, who both wanted to join the trip. The former had some climbing background, while the latter simply wanted an activity to keep him occupied.
The next eight months were spent planning for the trip, stealing items from prison workshops to use as climbing picks. Other materials were made (their backpacks were forced with scraps), and trash was gathered to make rope and crampons (foot holds).
The trio also began stashing food from their own ratios, such as boiled eggs, canned beef, and dried foods. They also gave up smoking so they could trade tobacco ratios for food from other POWs.
Perhaps most impressively, the trio managed to steal and make a copy of the gate key with a piece of tar. They used the fake key to sneak out and stash their food and climbing gear.
Finally, on January 24th of 1943 (summer in Africa), the trio again used their false key to leave the camp. Soon, the trio was found to be missing, however, they had left a message for their commander, promising to return after their climb.
Despite the prediction of the experienced mountaineer, the trio reached the mountain in just a few days. From there they began the climb, making it nearly 14,000 feet before Barsotti, a heavy smoker, decided to stop. The other two continued, climbing to 16,400 feet – a mere 650 feet from the very top – before turning around. The pair planted an Italian flag and a covered message. (The height was later confirmed by British climbers who found the flag/message.)
A full 18 days after the escape, the three POWs, snuck back IN to camp. They were allowed a shower and hot meal before being placed in solitary confinement. Each was given a month as punishment. However, impressed that the men had returned on their own accord, the commander slashed each sentencing to a week.
Benuzzi later penned a book of the tale, called No Picnic on Mount Kenya. It was turned into an American Movie in 1994, The Ascent.