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Aug 20, 2018

Sir Chris Bonington - living life on the edge

Angela Sara West talks to Britain’s best-known climber, Sir Chris Bonington, about the highs and lows of his impressive career, how climbing equipment has evolved, why risk is essential, and his tips for travelling to the top for mountain therapy

Sporting an adventurous spirit from a very young age, world-leading mountaineer and author, Sir Chris Bonington, was born into an adventurous family, becoming an avid tree climber from the day he could clamber.

He first climbed a mountain at 16 and was hooked. This monumental moment on Sugar Loaf in Ireland’s Wicklow Mountains, near his grandfather’s house in Dublin, led to a gripping avalanche of adventures which would shape his entire life.

His mountaineering bug was born, and he couldn’t wait for the next exciting exploit. “Just the sight of Snowdon fascinated me as I took a steam train to Holyhead. I persuaded a friend from my school in London (where I was born and brought up) to hitchhike up the A5 to the heart of Snowdonia. It was one of the hardest winters and we had an epic climb.”

Throughout his impressive career as a climber and photojournalist, Bonington has enjoyed an extraordinary life of escapades, exploring the world’s highest and wildest mountains, scaling supposedly-impossible slopes and leading some of the greatest expeditions of the 20th century. Following his first brushes with danger, he joined the RAF and Royal Tank Regiment, which posted him to Münster, Germany. He tells me his subsequent adventure travels have come in different shapes and sizes. “Each of my major climbs has been special in different ways, all as equally important at the time.”

Audacious ascents - a series of firsts…

From the Alps to Tibet, and from the Russian Caucasus to Patagonia, Bonington’s travels have taken him all over the globe, whether for an Alpine-style push, photography assignments climbing the world’s highest active volcano in Ecuador or hunting caribou with Eskimos, or lectures and award ceremonies. He’s also accompanied army expeditions, including their first descent of the Blue Nile from Lake Tana to the Sudanese frontier, shooting dangerous rapids and surviving close calls with crocs, along with being shot at in an ambush.

Overcoming the fear factor while forging lifelong friendships along the way, he’s not only scaled slopes with broken bones, without food and succumbed to pneumonia, but been yeti hunting in the Menlung Glacier (where he discovered footprints of the legendary beast!), and navigated icebergs with sensational sailor, Robin Knox-Johnston, to Greenland, attempting to climb its highest mountain, Cathedral, a previously unclimbed peak. “Our map was incorrect and, as a result, we climbed the wrong mountain, but it was still a right epic!”

Renowned for having made many first ascents in the Alps and all the greater ranges of the world, the legendary mountaineer made the first British ascent of the north face of the Eiger in Switzerland’s Bernese Alps. “At the time, the Eiger was a huge challenge. It also gave me the opportunity to lead the life I’ve led ever since, making a living around climbing, lecturing about it, writing about it and taking photographs.”

He says they had no idea what huge impact it would have on the media. “We just wanted to climb it as a fascinating mountain challenge, really. It was a frightening mountain challenge because the death rate is very, very high and there had only been comparatively few ascents back in 1962. So, it was an exciting step into the unknown and, of course, I’d also made quite a few attempts on it, which had failed either because we got involved in a rescue or the weather had been bad or the conditions wrong. So, it was a very important climb in my career.”

As one of the world’s most respected mountain expedition leaders, he went on to lead the expedition that made the first ascent of the South Face of Annapurna in Nepal in 1970 and then the biggest leadership and organisational challenge of all, the large expedition that made the first ascent of the southwest face of Everest in 1975, a huge logistic challenge (and Bonington’s biggest) of which he is incredibly proud. He realised a lifetime ambition on reaching the summit (at 8,848m, nearly 30,000ft) with a Norwegian expedition on a later mission ten years on, seeing Bonington briefly become the oldest known person to summit, at the age of 50.

“Well, that was a big experience in itself, but when I finally climbed Everest, it was by the trade route via the South Col, of the original ascent, which even in 1985 had had many ascents. It was the first ever Norwegian expedition and I’d been invited by the leader, who was a friend of mine. It was partly out of friendship but also because they had never climbed an 8,000-metre peak, let alone Everest, and they got me on board to help with logistics and planning etc.”

He says it was the only mountain that he has climbed in the world’s greater ranges that wasn’t a first ascent. “Because I love exploring… going where others haven’t been, solving a climbing challenge that seems impossible using my skill, and that of my team, to find the solution. Yet reaching the highest point on Earth was very important to me, symbolically, because of the incredible view we had from the summit but even more important was the quality of the experience – the lifelong friendships I had made with my Norwegian and Sherpa team members.”

Realising victory after victory, other pioneering assaults on the world’s most challenging peaks included China’s challenging Kongur, adding to his succession of successes which put Britain firmly on the map as a leading nation of climbers.

 

Triumphs & tragedies

Exuding enthusiasm for remote and little-known places, the inspirational climber has led numerous expeditions, thriving on companionship and sharing experiences with others, undergoing a number of near-death experiences and overcoming many emotional obstacles, too. Climbing dangerous peaks, alongside many luminaries of the mountain fraternity, including Don Whillans, Hamish MacInnes, Dougal Haston, Peter Boardman, Doug Scott and many more, their shared hair-raising experiences have witnessed both triumphs and tragedies.

“Our ascent of the Ogre, an unclimbed peak in the Karakoram in Pakistan was undoubtedly my biggest epic. Doug Scott broke both legs at the beginning of our descent from the summit. He had to crawl all the way down as the three of us with him could not have carried him, though we carried all his gear and helped him where we could. The weather broke. It took us six days to get down to base camp without any food. I also had a fall and broke two ribs and yet, by working through it together, we survived and can look back at our epic almost with affection.”

He explains it was 20 years and 20 attempts before The Ogre had a second ascent and it could, therefore, arguably be described as the most challenging mountain in the world.

“Most of my close friends are climbers and, of course, tragically with that risk of the danger, and especially when you’re pushing the limits at altitude, you’ve got to accept the fact that it is dangerous. I’ve lost all too many good friends.”

 

New tech & contemporary kit

Bonington’s a lifelong brand ambassador, and currently non-Executive Chairman of, the outdoor clothing brand, Berghaus, which also creates equipment using cutting-edge technology.

In 1996, Chris used satellite technology for the first time on an expedition during a trip to North East Tibet to attempt the peak he had seen through a plane window on his way to Lhasa in 1982. How has the world of mountain climbing changed over the years with new technology and materials entering the market? “The change is huge. When I started climbing in 1951, we were using the same kind of equipment pretty well as we were using at the being of the 20th century. My first rope was a hemp rope, my first pair of boots were ex-War Department hobnailed boots from an Army Surplus Store, you had practically no protection on the climbs you were doing and, of course, the standard of climbing was very much lower.”

“I’ve seen all these technical advances that have occurred where you’ve got a situation now where we have knowledge of nutrition and lightweight equipment that is both waterproof and can breathe, like GORE-TEX.”

He says these advances haven’t actually made it any easier for our top adventurers to push the limits, but have allowed them to push them even further. “Now, you’ve got climbers like Leo Houlding, who is a brilliant climber, and he solo climbs to a very high level but he’s doing other things as well. He’s a bold base jumper, he’s done exploratory climbs, pushing the limits in a way that we couldn’t have dreamt of doing because we didn’t have the gear to do it. We couldn’t travel that light. So now, your very best climbers are climbing alpine style, where they just pack their rucksack at the bottom, and keep going until they get to the top. And they’re doing it in two or three days, moving very, very fast, very light, so they’re doing things that, in my generation, you couldn’t even imagine doing. The actual level of adventure climbing, at the top of our sport, it’s amazing what they can do!”

 

Mountain therapy

We’ve been seeing a huge increase in people climbing, hiking, camping etc. What does he reckon the reason is for this recent rise in numbers of those heading to the hills and enjoying the great outdoors? “I think it’s a combination of everything. For a start, I think the hills and mountains give a terrific, almost a therapy. Even the modest hills around London, the Chilterns and so on, are gentle walks, but I think for people to be able to get out into a world of hilly country is a fantastic help and in this increasingly-complex and dangerous world we live in, that release that you get in the hills, in the outdoors, becomes even more important. And then the challenge is to actually make it possible for people to do that without trampling the hills to death, and that’s where a lot of effort is being put in to putting sensitively-designed footpaths where they’re needed and so on, in the national parks.”

 

Moving memoirs of life, loss & mountaineering…

A busy year for Bonington, his business travels have seen him set sail on his first cruise, joining an around-the-world itinerary in Darwin, Australia, to Hong Kong as an inspirational speaker for Viking Cruises. Next on the agenda was a quick trip across the Pond to receive an honorary degree from Weber State University before flying to Norway for a reunion with the Norwegian Everest expedition team with whom he reached the top.

September sees him off to a book and film festival in South Korea to showcase his acclaimed moving memoir, Ascent, the epic saga of an unrepeatable life on the edge, and his feature-length film, Bonington: Mountaineer My Life Story, which recently won ‘Best Mountaineering Film’ at Bilbao Mendi Film Festival. “My book, Ascent, has been translated into Korean, which is rather exciting, and my biographical film will be shown there. We’re going around the world with it.”

It’s then time to pack for Poland to present the Piolet d’Or international climbers’ award. “I had the honour of receiving their lifetime achievement award a few years ago, and they’ve asked me over to take part in the film festival, showing my film, and also to present the award to this year’s winner.”

He’ll embark on his UK tour, Life & Times, an audio-visual account of his 60 years of adventures in the mountains with original images and raw footage, in November.

 

Keeping fit

Although still active today, Bonington’s now showing some signs of slowing down. Just a few years ago, however, the climbing conqueror reenacted an iconic climb from his past, summiting Orkney’s Old Man of Hoy again (this time with Leo Houlding), 48 years after his original climb at the grand old age of 80!

The celebrated mountaineer says it was a success, but a struggle. “Firstly, you recognise the fact that as you get older your physical performance inevitably declines. I was climbing very hard up into my mid-60s and was climbing and performing well at altitude as well, but as I crept up towards my 70s and through my 70s, I noticed I hadn’t got the same kind of stamina… I was stiffening up, my rockclimbing ability was decreasing, so effectiveness got a lot lower. When I finally climbed the Old Man of Hoy to celebrate reaching the age of 80, I was really struggling on it and found that in pure rock climbing, and actually getting into altitude, you no longer walk and drift up climbs easily, you struggle up, you lose that euphoria of super athleticism, if you like.”

His next challenge? “Getting myself fit again. I’ve had various operations, a new hip and I never expected it but I had an angiogram and have had three stents fitted, so I’m gently, steadily rebuilding my fitness and stamina again by walking and a doing a bit of climbing. So, my ambition now is to stay fit and really make the absolute maximum of life for as long as I’m on this earth.”

 

Family values

The daring adventurer has also faced struggles in his personal life, bringing up a family and maintaining a successful marriage over the decades of travelling the world in his quest for adventure. Bonington sadly lost his Wendy, his wife of 52 years, a few years ago, but has now found love again amidst the sadness and grief, with a fellow climber’s widow.

“I tragically lost Wendy, but I also had the fortune to actually find love again with Loreto. We do as much as we possibly can together, and the other thing is your perspective.. when you’re young and get married, you’ve got the path of your life in front of you. Wendy knew she was marrying a top climber, she knew what she was getting into and she always gave me huge support, but it was tough on her. And, of course, you’ve got your responsibility to your children, so you can argue that it’s selfish. But now it’s different in a sense because you realise, at nearly 84, that life and physical fitness are definitely finite.”

Sir Chris Bonington’s forthcoming tour, Life & Times, kicks off in High Wycombe in November, and takes in Horsham, Bath, Chelmsford, Birmingham and Newtown with two joint lectures with Doug Scott and Paul Braithwaite at the Royal Geographical Society in London and Oxford for Community Action Nepal, of which he is Patron. For dates and details, see his website www.bonington.com.

He has fronted numerous television programmes and is the author of 17 books. His latest, Ascent, is available from Amazon and his website: www.bonington.com/shop/ascent/ Download his award-winning documentary film Bonington: Mountaineer My Life Story at: www.boningtonfilm.com

 

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