How boredom pushed prisoner to escape, climb Mt Kenya

It was 1942, and Felice Benuzzi (above) was bored out of his mind. A year in a POW camp in British Kenya had drained the Italian civil servant and amateur mountaineer’s sense of purpose.

So, he hatched a plan that would become one of the purest adventure tales in history: break out of camp, climb Mt Kenya, and break back in again.

Bonkers? Absolutely. Dangerous? Insanely so. Yet it became one of the most fulfilling challenges of Benuzzi’s life. Boredom is like that; it inspires crazy, perilous, wonderful things.

Humans can’t stand being bored. Studies show we’ll do just about anything to avoid it, from compulsive smartphone scrolling right up to giving ourselves electric shocks. And as emotions go, boredom is incredibly good at parting us from our money – we’ll even try to buy our way out of the feeling with distractions like impulse shopping.

“People will pay more to avoid boredom than other negative emotions like sadness, and will pay as much to avoid boredom as they would to experience love,” said Heather Lench, professor and head of the Psychological & Brain Sciences Department at Texas A&M University in the US.

It was love that brought Felice Benuzzi to Africa in the first place. He married Stefania, a fiery young Jewish woman, days before Italy’s 1938 racial laws made such unions illegal. They immediately left for the colonies where the laws didn’t yet reach. In 1941, Italian colonial Africa fell to Britain, and Stefania and their baby daughter were detained in Ethiopia. Benuzzi was sent to British-held Kenya.

Sunrise on Mount Kenya from Shipton Camp. [File, Standard]

Gloomy conditions

Conditions in Camp 354 were not dire, but they were soul-crushingly dull. Each waking moment was shared with hundreds of gloomy, worried men. Prisoners had no privacy, no agency and no way of knowing how long the situation would last.

That uncertainty was especially hard. According to Lench, “When people feel like they cannot escape boredom, it can have very bad consequences leading to apathy and disengagement and possibly to depression.”

Benuzzi was well on the way; listless and downhearted. Then one morning he glimpsed a tremendous mountain through the clouds – Mt Kenya, the second-highest peak in Africa. His heart lurched.

“For hours afterwards I remained spellbound,” he later wrote. “I had definitely fallen in love.”

Boredom is a powerful motivator, making us reach for something, anything, new. New isn’t necessarily better, though; boredom can prompt all kinds of unhealthy behaviours, from overeating to drug use.

Lench’s research suggests we tend to choose distractions with the opposite emotional context to whatever bored us in the first place.

Negatively boring situations – say being trapped in a POW camp or stuck home during a virulent pandemic – can encourage us to seek out positive distractions. They can also make us go a little over-the-top. Risky, outsized ideas are more appealing when we’re bored. And Benuzzi’s jailbreak ascent was very risky indeed.

“It was a mad adventure from start to finish,” said Rory Steele, author of The Heart and the Abyss: The Life of Felice Benuzzi.

Steele first encountered Benuzzi’s story on the bookshelf of his family’s rented villa as an adventure-hungry boy aged 10. Steele never got over the climber’s audacious certainty. “He became obsessed with the idea. He saw that mountain and knew he had to climb it.”

Benuzzi was an experienced mountaineer, but Mt Kenya (5,199m) outstripped anything he’d encountered in the Julian Alps back home. He was undernourished and undertrained, not to mention ill-equipped, with no access to climbing gear.

Then there were the dangers: altitude sickness; hypothermia; wild animals (all of Africa’s Big Five roamed the landscape between camp and peak); and the very real possibility of getting shot.

Evading guards

Especially since he’d have to brave the camp guards twice – sneaking out of the camp and back in again.

(Note: Escape was a non-starter; neutral Mozambique was more than 1,000km away through British and lion-held territory. Anyway, that wasn’t the point. This was art for art’s sake.)

Well, Benuzzi decided, he’d just have to figure it out. After all, he had plenty of time.

In the popular imagination, great adventures involve dashing out the door to take on the world.

In fact, large-scale adventure requires a whole lot of groundwork. Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay didn’t just show up to Everest one bank holiday; their 1953 summit took years of preparation and, by Hillary’s count, the combined efforts of 700 people.

Fortunately, from our brain’s point of view, preparing for a goal is just as fulfilling as achieving it, perhaps better.

“After we attain a goal, our response to it fades pretty quickly,” said Lench. “When we are pursuing a goal, that goal focuses our effort, emotions and thinking in a way that promotes positive states sometimes called ‘flow states’.”

Most of us have experienced flow states: getting so wrapped up in a project that we glance up to find hours have passed. Flow states are associated with feelings of happiness as well as increased productivity and creativity.

All this was good news for Benuzzi, as every task between him and Mt Kenya was a creative challenge. And he loved every fiddling, logistical problem.

His checklist would be familiar to a modern traveller: planning the route, getting in shape, acquiring equipment, and some serious budgeting (though in his case it was of calories, not cash).

Yet half a century away from map apps and Amazon delivery, everything had to be done the hard way: crafting crampons from scrap metal and making climbing ropes from sisal bed nets (the same twine used on cat scratching posts).

Tin label as map

Benuzzi’s sketches of Mt Kenya plus a tin can label with a picture of the mountain served as maps. Anything he couldn’t make was bartered for with cigarettes.

It took eight months to prepare everything – a period of purpose and relative happiness. But not for one minute did it escape Benuzzi that the whole endeavour was completely nuts.

“He became quite proud of it,” Steele laughed. But even a madman couldn’t do it alone. “He knew because he was an accomplished mountaineer that he would need at least two people to go with him – two more madmen.”

It just so happened the perfect guys were right there in Camp 354: Giuàn Balletto and Enzo Barsotti, who were just as bored as Benuzzi was. On the night of 24 January 1943, with the aid of a skilfully copied key and some deceptive costuming, the three found themselves outside the barbed wire and on their way to Mt Kenya.

Goals are adaptable; sometimes we get to chase them travelling through the world and sometimes we have to continue from a desk.

After a triumphant return to the prison camp 17 days later, Benuzzi prolonged the escapade by writing a book, published in English as No Picnic on Mount Kenya. (And if you’re itching to find out what happened up there, it’s a great read.)

Four more years would pass before he was reunited with his family in Italy, but Benuzzi’s outlook had changed for the better.

“I do not consider the five years I spent as a prisoner of war as the sweetest of my life,” he wrote with characteristic drollness. “But I can at least bear witness to the difference between my mental state in the years ‘before Mt Kenya’ and those years ‘after Mt Kenya’, when I was busy writing these lines.”

By Lench’s criteria, the Mt Kenya climb was the perfect long-term boredom fix – not because it was epic, but because it was deeply personal.

“It should be something interesting and meaningful, tied to their personal identity,” Lench suggests, “something they always wanted to do and never seemed to have time for.”

So, if you’re an adventurer stuck at home, now’s the time to dream big. Find some madmen to join you (how about the family?). Then get started on the groundwork that will make that dream possible. After all, we have plenty of time.