No picnic

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(HOST) It takes real will power to get through a Vermont winter. Commentator Vic Henningsen reminds us of a story that provides inspiration to keep on going.

(HENNINGSEN) By now, winter seems a permanent condition:
we can’t remember when it began; we can’t imagine its end. Everything takes longer; everything requires extra effort: effort that’s increasingly hard to give.

That’s why it’s refreshing to remember that February 6th marks
the day in 1943 when two Italian climbers placed their country’s flag on Lenana, a subsidiary summit of Mount Kenya in what was then British East Africa.

It’s no ordinary mountaineering story. Felice Benuzzi was a prisoner of war, determined to overcome the soul-rotting boredom of internment. With two companions he organized a breakout with the specific aim of climbing 17,000′ Mount Kenya, which loomed over their POW camp. They made all their climbing gear in secret: fashioning crampons from steel sheets meant for an oven; weaving ropes from bed netting. They scrounged clothes and stashed food for months before they escaped.

They hadn’t climbed in over eight years; they’d been prisoners for two and a half. Their knowledge of the mountain consisted of what they could see from their camp and a picture of the summit they found on the label of a tin can. They attempted a route under winter conditions that experienced mountaineers considered impossible even in summer.

Leopards, rhinos, and water buffalo menaced them on the approach. All three were fighting malaria; one had a heart attack part way up and had to be left at a base camp. Supplies ran low: on the last day of the climb, Benuzzi and his companion shared a cracker the size of a postage stamp. In the end, they didn’t reach their objective, Kenya’s highest peak, and raised their homemade Italian flag on a lesser summit.

They then retraced their steps, now entirely without food, and broke back into the POW camp before turning themselves in. They’d been gone eighteen days.

Theirs was a harrowing ordeal. But you’d never know it from Benuzzi’s account of the trip, aptly-named No Picnic on Mount Kenya and now a classic of mountaineering literature. Benuzzi called their experience “a revolt against inertia.” Far from being intimidated by their limitations and their ignorance, he wrote, “Every step led to new discoveries and we were continually in a state of amazed admiration and gratitude.”

Throughout the expedition they stored in their memories spiritual wealth with which to endure an imprisonment that ultimately lasted six years. Even at moments of total exhaustion and maximum danger, Benuzzi and his companions repeatedly exclaim: “It’s so beautiful. Do we deserve to experience this?”

On winter mornings, when it’s an act of will simply to light the stove that gives us warmth, it’s good to recall the exploits of Benuzzi and his companions. Their revolt against inertia inspires us to face the daily task of re-conquering ourselves.

This is Vic Henningsen in Thetford Center.

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.

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