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Climbing Mt. Kenya to Retrace a Survival Epic

For three Italian prisoners in a World War II POW camp, the sight of Mount Kenya looming in the distance was almost too much to bear. It drove them to hatch an audacious plan: Escape, summit, then—remarkably—return to captivity. Sixty-four years later, Matthew Power retraces one of climbing's most extraordinary escapades.   Photograph by Bobby Model

Photo: Mountains

BEHIND THE WIRE: A view of Mount Kenya from the original site of POW Camp 354, near the town of Nanyuki.


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The equatorial sun blazed directly overhead, cutting shadows as sharp as concertina wire. Beyond the fence of the prison camp, the Kenyan Highlands shimmered in the mounting heat of the day. As Felice Benuzzi, a 32-year-old civil servant, trudged toward the camp's gate, other prisoners sat idly, gambling, smoking, eating lunch, and arguing politics—anything to pass time behind the fence. They tried not to notice Benuzzi as he walked by; perhaps if they didn't see him, neither would the guards.

Behind Benuzzi, Enzo Barsotti, 35, a chain-smoking, card-playing jokester, shuffled along. Giuàn Balleto, a 32-year-old doctor, came next, and after him was their friend Umberto, a fellow prisoner dressed in a makeshift British officer's uniform of khaki shorts, shirt, and knee-high stockings. To the sentries slumped over their rifles in sun-struck torpor, the group appeared like any other: prisoners marched to the vegetable gardens beyond the wire. No one expected a prison break in broad daylight.

By 1943 World War II had reached a tipping point. The Japanese were driven out of Guadalcanal, the Soviets had surrounded the German Army at Stalingrad, and the Italians had lost East Africa. Two years earlier the British had swept through Ethiopia, capturing some 10,000 Italian Army personnel and colonial functionaries in the process. Many of the prisoners were herded into open boxcars like cattle and sent to POW Camp 354 at the end of the rail line in the small town of Nanyuki, exactly on the Equator.

And there they sat, trapped on the wrong side of history, with no end in sight. Treatment under the British was not bad, but the routine was excruciatingly dull. "People in prison camps do not live," Benuzzi later wrote. "They only vegetate."

Then one morning at the end of the rainy season in 1942, the perpetual clouds that blanketed the highlands parted, and for the first time Benuzzi saw the glacier-clad summit of Mount Kenya in its entirety. The 17,058-foot (5,199-meter) volcanic cone sparkled in the sunlight, then like an apparition sank back into the clouds. The damage was done. In one glimpse Benuzzi had found something he'd been desperately without: a purpose. "In order to break the monotony of life one had only to start taking risks again," he wrote. That risk was to climb Mount Kenya.

Benuzzi, who climbed in the Julian Alps as a boy, set to work immediately. He recruited Balleto and Barsotti, the former because he was a doctor and skilled mountaineer, the latter because he was as "mad as a hatter" and up for the expedition. Working in secret for close to eight months, they stitched together backpacks, fashioned crampons from barbed wire and an old car fender, and cold-forged ice axes out of hammers stolen from the shop. Everything they could not scrounge or steal or make they bartered for with their weekly ration of 35 cigarettes. Benuzzi even managed to get a key to the prison gate. When the British commandant was out, he sneaked into the officer's quarters and made an impression of the real key in a lump of tar. A mechanic friend forged a copy from the imprint, no questions asked.

For a week, Benuzzi, Balleto, and Barsotti had been stashing their supplies in the tomato patch, burying them in the red volcanic earth. They had biscuits, tins of corned beef, some 40 hard-boiled eggs, a precious bar of chocolate, and a bottle of home-brewed brandy made from canned pineapples. And now, on a blistering morning in January 1943, the moment had come to collect them. It would end either with a flight into the Kenyan wilds or with a bullet in the back.

As Benuzzi walked toward the prison gate, he must have considered the absurdity of his escape: From Camp 354 the nearest neutral territory was Portuguese East Africa (now Mozambique). To get there would mean crossing a thousand miles (1,609 to kilometers) of hostile territory with no knowledge of the local languages and no money. He had about the same chance of reaching the moon. Instead, at the end of the climb, Benuzzi and his companions would sneak back into camp. They knew they would end up in solitary confinement, but for the chance to summit Mount Kenya that was a small price to pay.

At the gate Umberto easily slipped the key in the lock. The cylinder flipped and the gate swung open. The sleepy guard looked on indifferently as the men, penned like animals for nearly two years, walked out of the camp to freedom.

That afternoon, Umberto, having completed his duty as escort, returned to camp while the three men hid in a garden shed, waiting impatiently for nightfall. When the darkness came, the escapees crept out to unearth their supplies from the tomato patch. They packed in silence, shouldered their loads, and set out toward the cloak of jungle at the base of Mount Kenya. 
 
Outside the town of Nanyuki, just past the dusty cattle grounds that hide the ruins of Camp 354, we turn off the main highway onto a spine-jarring mud track. My guide, Alex Fiksman, grinds down the gearbox of his Subaru, plunges into a floorboard-deep quagmire, and begins climbing toward the belt of montane forest that surrounds Mount Kenya, Africa's second highest peak. Bobby Model, the expedition photographer, follows in his jeep. It's packed to the ceiling with gear and supplies for our eight-day trip.

In my lap, I hold a dog-eared copy of Benuzzi's 1953 classic, No Picnic on Mount Kenya, in which he recounts his escape and climb with his companions. Tracing a hand-drawn map in the overleaf, I try to determine where his route intersects our own. Somewhere in the ever deepening forest above, there is an unmarked trailhead and a little-used path. On it, we'll track Benuzzi's journey and, hopefully, answer a question: What was it about Mount Kenya—or mountains in general—that could push a man to stare down hardship, solitary confinement, and even death for a few weeks of freedom?

The road fades to a pair of overgrown ruts as we climb the flanks of the mountain. Alex, a 36-year-old Ukraine-born, Brooklyn-raised climbing guide who moved to Kenya in 1998, stops and looks around, hoping to see some sign of our route, a footpath or a gap in the trees. A gumbooted herder holding a battered umbrella comes over to us, speaking rapidly in Kikuyu and gesturing toward the forest. I can't understand Kikuyu but I hear one word repeated several times: njogu.

Just as I'm about to ask Alex what it means, a njogu, aka Loxodonta africana, aka a fully grown, 13-foot-tall (5-meter-tall), six-ton bull elephant saunters out of the undergrowth and onto the road. Its ears flap like luffing flags and its yellowed tusks swing menacingly. Alex and I don't move. We don't breathe. Elephants can charge with the slightest provocation. For an instant, a long instant, it's man versus beast, then the herder shouts in Kikuyu and waves his umbrella, breaking the spell. The giant creature wheels and crashes off into the forest.

"I'll take that as a good sign," I whisper to Alex. He nods, the breath only now returning to his lungs.

The herder is helpful and directs us down the road. There is no trailhead per se. Go as far as the road does, he tells us, then walk. From there, we will climb the mountain shrouded in clouds, just as Benuzzi and his companions did 64 years before.
 
Shouldering our packs, Alex, Bobby, and I set out through a forest of cedar. With us are Hiram, Charles, and Agustino, three local porters we've hired to help carry equipment and provisions. There are three main trails that scale Mount Kenya, but our choice is the obscure Burguret Route, the only established path on Mount Kenya that intersects Benuzzi's course. In the 1950s the Burguret was bustling with tourists and pack trains of locally bred zebroids (a horse-zebra hybrid with, I'm told, the worst qualities of both) but since then it has fallen into disuse. Just yards from the jeeps, we are in near-total overgrowth.

At its beginning, the Burguret runs up a ridgeline and Alex walks first, swinging his panga—an African bush knife similar to a machete—with a buccaneer's panache. Giant podocarpus trees, eight feet thick and draped with moss, stand as evergreen relics of the ancient supercontinent of Gondwana. Troops of black and white colobus monkeys leap between branches overhead.

Some 100 miles (161 kilometers) in circumference at the base and surrounded by heavily cut farmlands, Mount Kenya is an island of biodiversity. It's one of only a handful of places on the planet where the Earth's major climate zones, from tropical to alpine, are represented, stacked like a layer cake from the mountain's base to summit. The elephant we just encountered is one of an estimated 2,000 that live on its slopes. Buffalo, zebras, elands, leopards, lions, and hyenas also roam freely. Foraging upward, perhaps to avoid human encroachment, animals on Mount Kenya often wander far above their normal range. Zebras and buffalo have been spotted at 12,000 feet (3,658 meters); leopards at 16,000 feet (4,877 meters). Alex tells me that the bones of a bull elephant, nicknamed "Icy Mike" by the British climbers who discovered it, lie on the mountain's north face above 14,000 feet (4,267 meters).

At around 8,000 feet (2,438 meters) we pass into a dense band of 50-foot-high (15-meter-high) bamboo. It was here Benuzzi and his companions hit some of their most difficult hiking, and it was here they came face-to-face with a "wonderful, solitary, bull-elephant," which considered them for a moment, then thundered off into the forest. Elephant sign is still everywhere; scores of pie-plate-size footprints pock the soft earth. In places, the animals have smashed through the bamboo for hundreds of yards, creating virtual tunnels straight up the ridgeline. Overhead, branches interlace and filter the sunlight a greenish gold. It's like walking through a cathedral. We make a camp for the night in the bamboo, near where the prisoners had bivouacked, and do our best to avoid the elephants' stomping grounds.

The following day we emerge from the bamboo into a Tolkienesque plantscape at around 12,000 feet (3,658 meters). Warped by the extreme growing conditions found at high equatorial altitudes, heather, which in the highlands of Europe would grow no more than a yard, towers house-high overhead. Tussock grass sprouts waist deep, punctuated by purplish, feathery, eight-foot blossoms of lobelia, which stand like floral interpretations of Marge Simpson's hairdo.

A volcanic outcrop stands above the heath and I realize that these are "The Castles," a fortresslike pile of rocks that Benuzzi described seeing above his camp in the Nanyuki Valley. We make for them and find several large overhangs, under one of which we set up camp.

Alex boils up some coffee. When he first came to Africa, his number one goal was to summit Kilimanjaro, the continent's highest peak at 19,340 feet (5,895 meters). It's one of the Seven Summits. It's home to quickly shrinking equatorial glaciers and a treasure trove of odd plants and biomes. And though Mount Kenya shares many of Kili's attributes—the biodiversity, the glaciers, the world-class views—Alex, like most, did not even consider it. Only after leading 20 or so climbs on Kilimanjaro did he train his sights on Mount Kenya. From that day, his eyes were opened.

"In some ways, I feel Kilimanjaro has lost its soul in much the same way Everest has," he says. "Twenty-five-thousand people a year try to climb Kili. The mountain is often a mess. Even doubling the park fees hasn't cut back on the impact or numbers. Kilimanjaro is a great mountain to have done, but Mount Kenya is a great one to do."

Alex pours the steaming coffee into mugs and looks out to the misty valley below. "What I love about Benuzzi's story is the symbolism," he says. "They knew they were making only a temporary escape, but they also knew it was what they needed to do to regain their souls. I feel the same way about coming to Kenya and coming to this mountain. For me it is an escape, an escape from the prison of an ordinary life." 
 
The following day I am starting to feel the effects of altitude. We've climbed to nearly 15,000 feet (4,572 meters) in two days. I walk on autopilot: hood up, head down, breathing heavily, my red blood cells racing to keep up with the demands of oxygen delivery.

Since we began our trek, Mount Kenya has been buried in clouds. We assume we have been going the right direction—the night before I think I located one of Benuzzi's camps—but that's up for debate. On a ridge swirling with fog and rain, we gather in a clutch, huddling under weather-beaten umbrellas. With no frame of reference our topographic maps are useless. I'm convinced we should go right. Alex thinks left. A droplet of fear, cold as the driving rain, runs down my back. We're lost.

When Benuzzi and his companions set out for the mountain they had no map. As reference they carried only a few handmade sketches and a tin of Kenylon-brand Meat and Vegetable Rations, which had a rough drawing of Mount Kenya on the label. Geographic innocence was for them an opportunity for endless discovery, a chance to see the world as it was "before men had begun to give names to things." It is a perspective consummately Italian in its optimism, and I pray, the same as Benuzzi did, for fate to provide us with a sign.

It does.

As if guided by an invisible hand, perhaps that of Ngai, the local Kikuyu deity that supposedly resides on Mount Kenya, the clouds tear themselves apart. The mountain emerges for the first time, towering over us. A corona of windblown snow sparkles and swirls around its three-peaked summit. To the west is the crowning peak of Batian, 17,058 feet (5,199 meters), guarded closely by its twin, Nelion, just 36 feet (11 meters) lower. To the east the mountain's third highest aspect, the 16,354-foot (4,985-meter) Point Lenana, rises above the white expanse of the Lewis Glacier. These peaks once formed the magma core of an active volcano, shaped over millions of years of erosion. We all fall silent. Benuzzi was equally moved. He and his companions felt like "insignificant, humble, escaped prisoners of war . . . gazing spellbound at the glowing colors cast by the setting sun on the mount of their dreams."

We trek along a ridge above the Nanyuki Valley, the same one Benuzzi followed, to a flat spot called American Camp. The twin pinnacles of Batian and Nelion are in full view high overhead, while half a dozen lesser peaks, points, and gendarmes surround them, all draped with ice. Aristotle and Ptolemy both speculated that the Nile was nourished by eternal snows, but it wasn't until the 19th century, when two German missionaries reported sightings of Mounts Kenya and Kilimanjaro, that the world believed in year-round African ice.

While the escapees decided to follow the northwest ridge toward Mount Kenya's summit, we've chosen the 3,000-foot (914-meter), Grade IV Southwest Ridge, which runs up the buttress of Batian. Alex thinks it's better suited to my climbing ability, which is none at all. Full disclosure: Except for a few afternoons on a climbing wall to get a college gym credit, I have never rock climbed in my life. And yet, like Benuzzi, I feel a call to the mountains. Something awaits me here. What that is, I don't yet know.

Eight days after breaking out of prison camp, after hacking through bamboo and nearly being run down by an elephant, after scraping their way through nettle-ridden valleys and dragging themselves to about 14,000 feet (4,267 meters), Barsotti began to feel a little faint. Then he collapsed. Balleto, the doctor, listened to his erratic heartbeat, likely caused by the altitude and cigarettes, and declared he could climb no further. Benuzzi and Balleto would make the summit bid from where they sat. The closest route was the one staring them in the face, the northwest ridge of Batian.

By 1943 only a half dozen parties had summited Batian (none by the northwest ridge), and Benuzzi had read none of their accounts. As well, rations were dangerously low. Delays on the mountain's lower flanks had used up all but a few biscuits, some butter, and a handful of raisins. The pineapple brandy, which Barsotti had begged for every day, was almost gone. The group even discussed trying to catch and eat the alpine rats that scurried around the rocks near their camp. Despite everything, they were determined to press on.

As one might expect of Italian climbers, style was paramount. Along with route particulars and food, a primary consideration was the flag they were going to post at the summit. Since the Italian tricolor was contraband in prison camp, Benuzzi, Balleto, and Barsotti had each sewn a single stripe into their clothing. As Benuzzi and Balleto prepped for the summit bid, Barsotti stitched together the stripes to make a homemade banner. He handed it to them with a salute.

In the predawn hours, Benuzzi and Balleto set out, their flashlight beam feeble in the darkness, hobnails scraping on the frozen scree. Somewhere above, the northwest ridge loomed. This was why they had escaped, to push themselves to their limits, to feel the farthest reaches of freedom once more.

As they mounted the ridge, the pair encountered winter conditions almost immediately. The rock slabs and ledges were covered with a thick crust of rotten snow, too weak for their homemade ice axes to hold. They had to clean each step as they climbed. Balleto ascended first, with Benuzzi belaying from below on a perilously slim sisal rope (which had been appropriated from its job holding up mosquito nets). In little time Benuzzi's hands were numb—he had to look at the rope to know he held it—and small avalanches of snow came down on him routinely. Still he and Balleto worked their way steadily into the clouds.

Because it sits nearly astride the Equator, Mount Kenya always has one side covered in ice and snow. Benuzzi had no way of knowing that the northwest ridge was in its winter aspect and off-season. He had even less knowledge of how difficult his route was—even in the best conditions. The world famous mountaineer Eric Shipton, who traversed Batian and Nelion in 1929, determined the northwest ridge to be absolutely unclimbable, due to its rotten rock and unclear route.

By noon wind-whipped snow had turned into a full blizzard, blotting out all visibility. The climbers were in a lifeless, alien world of ice and rock. They couldn't even shout to one another over the shrieking gusts. Balleto descended back to Benuzzi, and they huddled together on a ledge, their ropes and clothing frozen stiff, their mustaches hung with ice, their lips white. They had come astonishingly far, compelled by nothing but their own desire for the mountain. They had reached 16,400 feet (4,999 meters), perhaps 650 feet (198 meters) below the summit, but they both knew they couldn't go on.

"Not only would any attempt to climb further have been unpardonable lunacy," Benuzzi wrote, "but the prospects of a safe retreat began to appear rather problematic." Dejected, the pair began a treacherous downclimb through the howling storm.
 
Bobby shakes me awake at 2 a.m. Only my mouth is exposed outside my cinched-down sleeping bag, and I have no desire to emerge into the bitter cold. With some prodding, I put on my frozen shoes and hop around to warm up. My water bottle is frozen solid, a curious experience to have on the Equator. Outfitted with headlamps affixed to our climbing helmets, the three of us hike carefully to the Darwin Glacier at the base of Batian, our breath pluming white in the freezing air. My light spots a tiny patch of bright yellow on the snow. At first I think it's a candy wrapper dropped by a passing climber, but it's not. Instead it's a butterfly, perfectly preserved, its wings frozen into the glacial ice at 16,000 feet (4,877 meters).

In archival pictures Mount Kenya looks completely different than it does today. The Darwin Glacier, our start point, and the Tyndall Glacier, the beginning of Benuzzi's climb, both extended well below their contemporary range. Like the highly publicized shrinking glaciers of Kilimanjaro, those on Mount Kenya are quickly falling prey to global warming. In as little as 25 years, for the first time since the Pleistocene, it's possible there will be no permanent ice left on the mountain.

Where the Batian buttress rises from the Darwin Glacier, we put on our harnesses and begin our climb in earnest. I belay Alex out as he scales the slabs above me, placing pieces of protective gear into rock fissures and clipping them to the line. When he reaches the limit of the rope, he sets an anchor and belays me from above. Bobby, an expert climber, follows. Climbing in the dark is strangely reassuring: I focus only on the bright circle of stone illuminated by my LED headlamp. There is no distraction from the hundreds of feet below or the thousands yet to come.

At 16,000 feet (4,877 meters) a lungful of air contains a little over half the oxygen it contains at sea level, and by the time I reach Alex my heart is pounding like a bass drum. We've taken four days to acclimate to this altitude and it's barely enough to avoid acute mountain sickness. Alex reminds me to breathe deeply, and we begin climbing once more.

There is an unspoken fear among Alex, Bobby, and me. For the past few days, bad weather has closed in on the peak each afternoon. To be caught exposed on the Southwest Ridge is a dangerous and real possibility. Dawn breaks clear, but by mid-morning clouds close in and tensions mount. Pitch after pitch, Alex leads upward, picking his route with the studious intensity of a chess player. Slowly I feel myself falling into a groove. Hands grip stone. Sticky rubber smears on cracks and slabs. Mount Kenya's hard volcanic rock, left behind by millions of years of erosion, is considered some of the best climbing in Africa and attracts teams from all over the world. A thousand feet below us, sparkling turquoise tarns appear as if from an airplane window.

By the time we scramble up the last pitch to the top of Batian, the sun is low in the sky. The mist that swaddled us all day has fallen away. From the kitchen-table-size summit, the entire geography of Mount Kenya spreads below us like a satellite photograph. To the east the mountain's conical shadow stretches to the horizon, sharply etched across a sea of clouds. I stand at its apex, feeling alone and atop the world. This is the point Benuzzi tried so hard to reach, and I marvel at his brave attempt. Even with guides and gear and a bellyful of energy bars, beef jerky, and some sort of blindingly sweet caffeine-infused energy gel, climbing Batian was a serious challenge. The escapees had none of that. They were fueled by spirit alone, powered solely by the urge to reclaim their humanity in the face of something utterly beyond them.

"All right, we better get moving," says Alex. The sun is dropping fast, and our climb isn't finished. The twin peak of Nelion, the location of our shelter for the night, juts up a mere hundred yards away. To reach it we'll have to cross the infamous Gate of the Mists, a three-foot-wide (1-meter-wide), 50-foot-long (15-meter-long)  snowbridge that spans the divide between Batian and Nelion. On either side the drop-offs are thousands of feet, express elevators to the glaciers below.

By the time Alex is set to traverse the Gate full dark has fallen. The stars are laser-sharp in the black sky, Orion's belt setting west and the Southern Cross pointing south. As he leads off I follow him with my headlamp, spotlighting him like a tightrope walker. Every few feet he crouches to hack a foothold in the snow crust with an ice ax. One slip would leave him dangling by the rope 50 feet (15 meters) below. At last he sets an anchor in a rock outcrop on the other side, and I feel a slight relief. But now it's my turn.

I step out onto the bridge and breathe slowly, concentrating on my feet to suppress my fears. My focus is absolute, my mind clear. At this moment, I understand—or rather I experience—why Benuzzi and his companions would risk their lives to escape, knowing they had no choice but to return. I understand why a few weeks could be worth months of solitary confinement: On Mount Kenya, or on any other mountain for that matter, an instant can be worth a lifetime.

When I finally reach Alex, he chuckles and says, "I'd say you're a mountaineer now."

Bobby traverses the Gate, and then leads us on the final pitch up Nelion, postholing up a steep snow face and shouting encouragement in the inky darkness. We reach the sardine can of the Howell Hut, a small aluminum shelter hauled to the summit of Nelion over 13 ascents by a climber named Ian Howell in the 1970s. There, bitterly cold and totally spent after climbing for 17 hours to 17,000 feet (5,182 meters), I collapse into a deep, dreamless sleep. 
 
Retreating from the storm on Batian, Benuzzi and Balleto returned to Barsotti at their base camp, exhausted, dispirited, and nearly frozen. There was no chance of attempting the summit again—they were almost completely out of food—but their effort would not be in vain. Benuzzi had a backup plan.

A day later and terribly hungry, they set out for the summit of Point Lenana, at 16,354 feet (4,985 meters) the third highest peak on Mount Kenya and taller than Mont Blanc, the highest peak in the Alps. As it is today, Lenana was then a walk-up, and after scrambling to its apex Benuzzi and Balleto staked their homemade flag. It was less a statement of nationalism than a defiant reassertion of their indomitable spirit. "This was the climax of eight months' preparation and of two weeks of toil," wrote Benuzzi. "It was worth both."

In symbolic solidarity with the Italians, Alex, Bobby, and I decide to climb Lenana as well. The morning after our night in the Howell Hut, we'd rappelled down the face of Nelion (the equivalent of lowering oneself down the Empire State Building in the middle of winter) and pitched camp at the nearby Austrian Hut. Maintained by the Kenya Wildlife Service, it is a base camp for summit parties scaling Batian and Nelion and for trekkers hiking to Point Lenana. When we arrived it was teeming with groups from Poland, Romania, Switzerland, and a half dozen other countries.

Alex, Bobby, and I stumble out of our tent and hike the trail to Lenana by headlamp, reaching the summit just as the eastern glow arrives. A dozen other pilgrims have made it, and we watch in silence while the dawn spreads across the horizon. As the needle point of flame builds, I can see the curvature of the Earth. Two hundred miles (322 kilometers) to the south, the snow-covered massif of Kilimanjaro breaches a sea of clouds like a white whale.

I pull my ragged 1953 edition of No Picnic on Mount Kenya from my pack. I can smell the oxidation of its yellowing pages. Here, atop the same peak Benuzzi visited, I feel a powerful connection to the man. He risked everything to get here. For those of us following his footsteps, he opened a window into the very heart of adventure. To stand in the face of something so much greater than yourself is to reaffirm your position in the world. Looking out from Lenana, I understand Benuzzi when he wrote that the experience had given the escapees "an inexhaustible store of beauty, on which [they] could draw during the years behind the barbed wire."

Nearly starving, Benuzzi and his companions hiked off the mountain, sneaking back into prison camp the same way they'd escaped. They managed to get a hot meal and a night's rest before being tossed in a jail cell (despite the fact that the British commandant had appreciated their "sporting effort"). At night in his stifling confines, Benuzzi felt the cool wind from the glaciers wafting between the prison bars. He imagined the journey was a dream and now the mountain was talking to him: "In your dream you did not conquer me," he wrote, "but you have reconquered yourselves." 
 
The crowd at the summit snaps congratulatory pictures and begins the walk down. Alex claps me on the back: "A traverse of the three peaks of Mount Kenya in a day and a half! Not bad for an amateur." Just then there's a scream. We scramble toward the sound. The trail down from Lenana leads across a steep snowfield, frozen as hard as a boilerplate. A group of trekkers huddles on the track, afraid to descend any further. A woman fell, one of them tells me. A hundred yards (91 meters) below, where the slope eases into a field of boulders, a tiny figure lies prone. A man kneeling next to her is screaming for help, his voice ragged with panic.

Bobby turns and runs toward the ranger station near the Austrian Hut to get help. Alex borrows an ice ax from one of the trekkers and self-arrests down to the scene. I stand at the point in the track where the woman fell. A witness tells me that she stumbled on a frozen boothole. For a nightmare moment their eyes met before she slipped down the frozen face.

Alex reaches the woman and the man next to her, who is shouting himself hoarse. From the slope above, the three are tiny figures, a pietà composed amid a world of snow and rock and cloud. Alex leans over her for a few moments, then stands up and pulls the man away. She is dead. Her body is a bright spot against the white, a butterfly bound by ice.

After a while Alex, visibly shaken, climbs back up to me. "There was nothing I could do," he tells me. "She was already gone." She had suffered massive cerebral trauma and internal injuries when she struck a boulder. The woman was Sophie Wynen, a 26-year-old from Belgium, traveling in Kenya with her boyfriend, Laurent Staudt. Reaching Point Lenana was to be the highlight of their trip.

I never knew Sophie, but her death forces me to look hard at mankind's relationship to the mountains. For Benuzzi, placing himself in the sublime was redemptive and life-sustaining. Like most mountaineers, Sophie probably felt the same way. Why else would she be drawn to this high peak thousands of miles from her home? But there is a flip side, one that Benuzzi openly acknowledged when he said he needed to start "taking risks again" to regain his humanity. That there are risks in the wild is no mystery. What I wrestle to understand is, What is it about those risks—what is it about that fine balance between absolute control and total surrender—that makes the affirmation of the mountains that much stronger?

We find Bobby, break camp, and begin the trek down the mountain in silence, following the Naro Moru route along the Teleki Valley, through the strange forests of giant groundsels and head-high alpine flowers. I can feel the oxygen surging in my blood with each step down. Despite the tug of gravity, I am reluctant to leave. The pinnacles of black stone, the milky blue tarns, and the white glaciers—they all glow in the silvery light, as though our vision has been enhanced. Indeed, I think it has. 

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