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The morning is still crystal, the mountain still glinting and beckoning. On a January day 42 years earlier, Felice Benuzzi, an Italian prisoner in a British war camp near the base of the mountain, having recruited two other prisoners, took the steel spikes they had made for their shoe soles from barbed wire and scrap metal from an abandoned motorcar, and used as their map the label from a tin of meat on which there was a picture of the mountain. They escaped from the prison not to seek their freedom but to climb Mount Kenya, and then steal back into jail. Several hundred feet from the top a blizzard drove the three escapees back. As punishment, marveling British officers gave them a slap on the back and a slap on the wrist: just seven days in close confinement.
Omira sorts through his equipment, then looks up at the photos of his two wives tacked on the station wall. The first bore him no children, and the people of his island in Lake Victoria in West Kenya whispered that Omira's place of work had made him sterile. "It is the magic of the mountain," some said. "Snow kills the male organs," others claimed. However, his second wife, who had been selected by his first, promptly broke the mountain's spell—twice.
It is noon. No word from above. Omira waits. Around his neck he ties his tattered plaid scarf, the one the island people believe lends him the strength to have remained unharmed on the mountain for 13 years. Sometimes even Omira thinks he might need it. Lately the mountain has made him feel dizzy and slow-thinking, yet he does not want to leave. Every few weeks, even if there is no emergency, he feels compelled to climb to the little lakes near the top and listen to the wind blow. "I feel like I am home then," he says.
He goes outside to check on the Toyota Land Cruiser that is supposed to take the rescue party as high as 10,000 feet, where the dirt road ends. From there they will hike to the injured climber. The Toyota is broken; some substitute vehicle will be needed.
Far above, Margeson checks the time and the anguish on his partner's face.
It is 2 p.m. Another message trickles down at last. Mzungu (white man) needs stretcher. At the gate station, a 25-person rescue party begins to form. Rangers, women in scarves and skirts who work in the park, maintenance men, youthful porters who will take turns carrying the stretcher and equipment—all pile into a trailer hitched to a farm tractor. This is the substitute vehicle. Omira is in charge. They start the slow crawl up the mountain. Why rush? Why the mzungu climbs the mountain remains a mystery to most of them. Some believe mercury or a precious gemstone draws white men to the top. Others believe this is the mountain on which Moses received the Ten Commandments, and the mzungu goes up in quest of Moses's long-lost staff.
In 1849, a German missionary, Johann Krapf risked his life crossing terrain alive with disease-carrying insects and spear-carrying Masai warriors in order to "discover" Mount Kenya for the world of white men. His reward when he returned home was universal ridicule: Snow on the equator? Get the poor fellow out of the heat! Thirty-four years later a Scottish explorer, Joseph Thomson, became obsessed with tales of this freakish peak. He ignored warnings from traders familiar with the area and covered the same desperate ground. Why? "My only reply," he wrote later, "was that Mount Kenia [sic] had to be reached somehow, as all my countrymen wanted to know the truth about it." When he was able to report to them about it, rapture ruled his pen: "Suddenly there was a break in the clouds far up in the sky, and the next moment a dazzling white pinnacle caught the last rays of the sun, and shone with a beauty, marvelous, spirit-like and divine, cut off, as it apparently was, by immeasurable distance from all connection with the gross earth.... At that moment I could almost feel that [Mount] Kenia [sic] was to me what the sacred stone of Mecca is to the faithful who have wandered from distant lands, surmounting perils and hardship that they might but kiss or see the hallowed object, and then, if it were God's will, die."
It is 3:50 p.m. Abruptly, dramatically, this schizophrenic mountain changes personalities, repainting the heavens and the mood of men beneath it. Now, Omira's crew in the trailer behind the creeping tractor is halfway up the mountain on the dirt road. Rain clouds begin foaming over the peaks, and the sky becomes a cruel gray. The forest birds and Colobus monkeys, exotic black-and-white creatures with great sweeping tails, fall silent. Camphor trees, of extraordinary height because of the phenomenon of gigantism unknown in temperate alpine areas, brood above the rescuers. Pale green moss, beardlike, hangs thickly from every branch, straining the sickly light until it becomes utter gloom. "Go back!" All of nature seems to be croaking "Go back!"
Omira forges on. Being a rescue ranger on Mount Kenya means repressing every superstition an African is taught, every ounce of instinct he is born with. On the slopes above him, the mountain is becoming devious. Rocks begin to ice over, curling mists obscure paths, rain bursts cover tracks. There may be wild animals in the jungle around him, but at least he has no fear of encountering any Ndoroba, a tribe of wild forest dwellers who live lower down on the opposite side of the mountain and who have on occasion attacked rangers with spears and clubs.
Omira does come across an elite Kenyan Army corps of 20 long-distance runners with world-class potential who train at least 15 miles a day at high altitude in hope that some of them will reach the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. They are neither wild nor dangerous. Their training, however, is not without risk. One says, "The main thing we have to worry about when we run up here are the big buffalo." He pauses, then adds, "Could you perhaps arrange to send me some Nike or Adidas shoes?"