An Odd, Brave American, Phil Snyder, Is the Angel of Mount Kenya
Above the snarl of the Piper Super Cub's single engine, a voice crackles over the radio in excited Swahili: "Tango Papa. Tango Papa. There are tracks on the moorland, Bwana." Deftly, pilot Phil Snyder, 35, hurtles down through a hole in the billowing clouds, nearly brushes a snowy shoulder of towering Mount Kenya, and levels off just 50 feet above a wild plateau carpeted with giant groundsels and lobelia. His quarry: a climber lost somewhere in the wilderness beneath him.
To the ponytailed Snyder, a fallen-away lawyer from the American heartland, the search is no once-in-a-lifetime burst of Mittyesque fancy. In the past seven years, Snyder and his elite team of African rangers have rescued more than 100 climbers from 17,058-foot Mount Kenya, Africa's highest peak after nearby Kilimanjaro. "The Bwana has no fear in him," marvels one of Snyder's native aides. "He is a lion among men."
To his friends, including Caroline Kennedy and wildlife photographer Peter Beard, he is better known as "Mountain Madness"—a nickname that barely gauges his daring. When not sweeping past jagged peaks at the controls of Tango Papa, Snyder has led midnight rescue parties across Mount Kenya's treacherous ice fields and scrambled up sheer volcanic rock to reach stranded hikers. Once, in desperation, he slashed open a climber's chest with his hunting knife and massaged his heart in a vain attempt to save him from death by exposure.
Unlike the dashing white hunters of yore, Snyder doesn't believe in gilding his image. He avoids chic safari outfits, preferring sneakers and crumpled corduroys, and wears a gold ring in his left ear. He will talk about the dangers he faces only with great reluctance. "Discussing the morbid aspects of adventure is like discussing seasickness when speaking of the sea," he explains.
The son of a wheat-and-cattle farmer, Snyder grew up in Montpelier, Ohio. "We had 400 acres and a wood where I used to swing like Tarzan from tree to tree," he recalls. After graduating from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn, and picking up a night school law degree, he was hired to write reapportionment plans for the Minnesota legislature. "I had my eye on the U.S. Senate," he confesses with a grin, "but I got footloose." He married his college sweetheart, bought a renovated hearse and headed west to climb mountains. The marriage broke up in 1969, four years after the birth of his son, John, and Snyder packed off to Death Valley to gold-prospect. The next year he and a girlfriend boarded a tramp steamer in New Orleans for a seven-week passage to Kenya.
"We hustled around selling artifacts to keep alive," he recalls, "and finally the bird moved on. We arranged to meet in New Guinea, but I haven't got there yet." A pilot since his days as a student, he was persuaded to stay on in Africa following a tragic Mount Kenya rescue mission, during which amateur climbers took nine days to bring down an accident victim and a helicopter pilot was killed. "I decided they had done it all wrong," he says.
Kenyan authorities agreed, and authorized him to train and equip a mountain rescue team. Snyder moved into a tent and spent 20 hours a day schooling his men, some of them former Mau Mau guerrillas, in arduous modern rescue techniques. Off duty, he dirt-biked his way up Mount Kenya ("for laughs") and even tried to ski on its steep slopes. He fell and injured his spine, but managed to drag his way down, carrying his broken skis over his shoulder. His back, he says now, "only hurts when I laugh." Undaunted, he hopes to be the first man to hang-glide from the top of Mount Kenya.
Even his daredevil exploits, however, cannot overshadow his fame as a rescuer. Since the formation of his 25-member rescue team, some 50,000 visitors have passed through the Mount Kenya National Park. Though many are experienced climbers, drawn by the exotic lure of snow at the equator, there is, inevitably, a sprinkling of neophytes. "The uninitiated climber is often fresh from Nairobi, totally unprepared for the ruggedness that lies before him on the mountain," says Snyder. "Too often he finds himself overwhelmed before he is aware of the depth of the difficulties he hoped to overcome." Of the climbers—one in 400—who eventually need rescuing, half fall victim to pulmonary edema, a condition in which the lungs fill with liquid after a person climbs too far too fast. Aside from getting lost, climbers also face the danger of falls, snow blindness, dehydration, frostbite, ultraviolet poisoning from the sun at high altitudes, and even attacks by wild animals. (Bull elephants are the worst.)
"Getting lost is the farthest thing from the mind of a visitor as he strolls lazily in the midday sunshine," Snyder says. "The track is obvious and he can see for miles. But two hours later he is getting tired, black rain clouds envelop him, the track becomes blurred. He wanders along the line of least resistance without realizing that the path has climbed slightly to the right. On his downward journey he reaches the forest edge, wet, utterly fatigued and alone in the gloom. The cold is bitter, and he is desperately frightened as night closes in and the forest becomes alive with strange sights and sounds. It could be the beginning of the end."
Visitors to Kenya, however, are not the only people who risk death or injury on Kirinyaga, the name given the mountain by local tribes. "Even today you meet holy men and women on its slopes who say they have been called there by the tribal god Ngai to offer up prayers," notes Snyder. "But the old god doesn't protect them from frostbite and so on. We have to get them back safely to their villages at least once a year." Thanks to Snyder's diligence, and the skills of his men, the peak has claimed the lives of only five climbers in the last seven years. (The sixth may be Eric Weinstein, 20, an American who has been missing since before Christmas.) The toll would have been seven or eight times higher without the rescue team.
When Snyder is ready to wind down from a typical 16-hour day in the field, he makes his way home to a cluttered chalet-style warden's lodge in a grove of gnarled podocarpus trees. Although he admits to "chasing women half my life," he remains an unattached divorcé whose bedroom walls are covered with Playboy nudes. Amid the collection is a photo of himself adorned with spidery lines of verse (by Coleridge) from a long-forgotten girlfriend: "For he on honeydew hath fed / And drunk the milk of Paradise." "I don't know about that 'milk of Paradise' stuff," muses Snyder. "But I have talked to old Ngai up there where Kirinyaga meets the sky. Of course," he adds with a grin, "it might have been just the gale howling in the ice caves."
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