Sir Chris Bonington: Climber who still fights shy of ‘cotton wool’ life

Sir Chris and eldest son Joe Bonington with Everest in the background
Sir Chris and eldest son Joe Bonington with Everest in the background
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Sir Chris Bonington is one of Britain’s best known mountaineers and explorers. He talks to Chris Bond about his career and why we shouldn’t be afraid to take risks.

THERE are some people who see a mountain and admire its beauty, while others stop and want to paint it. There are those, too, who see its jagged, snow-capped peaks and have the urge to climb to the summit.

Sir Chris Bonington is one of those who fall into the final category. He is one of Britain’s best known mountaineers and explorers and among the most successful expedition leaders in history.

He’s been climbing for more than 60 years during which time he’s been on 19 Himalayan expeditions, including four to Everest, and conquered some of the world’s most notorious and formidable mountains, suffering broken legs and ribs along the way.

Now, at the age of 79, he spends more time writing and lecturing than he does risking his life on rock faces and on Friday he’ll be talking about his remarkable career at the Octagon Centre, in Sheffield. “It’s a good old retrospective lecture,” he says with genuine gusto.

But while his name today is synonymous with mountaineering his background didn’t mark him out as a would-be future adventurer. He was born and raised in London by a single mother.

“My father left when I was nine months old so it was left to my mother to raise me,” he says. The capital, while not offering much in the way of mountains, did at least have plenty of green spaces to explore. “I had the run of Hampstead Heath when I was a youngster and it became my playground.”

As a teenager he visited his grandfather in Dublin with the Wicklow Hills looming on the horizon. “They were in sight and I would go off exploring on my own, so that’s really where I started,” he says.

Bonington says the post-war period opened up new opportunities for those interested in outdoor pursuits. “Before the Second World War climbing on the whole had been a middle class activity because they had the leisure time and money to do it. But then a wave of young working class lads, people like Don Whillans and Joe Brown, came along which helped enable others to develop and flourish.”

Bonington started climbing in 1951 while still at school and hitch- hiked to Snowdonia and Scotland during his holidays. He says he was hooked from the start and went climbing with anyone who’d go with him.

“From the moment I climbed my first rock face I knew I’d found something that I absolutely loved,” he says.

“My generation who came into adulthood just after the Second World War, were incredibly lucky in almost every field of activity. In 1951, when I started climbing, Annapurna was the only eight thousand metre peak that had been climbed.

There was so much to do, it was just a matter of doing it. Today, the modern climber has to find different challenges in a sense because almost everything has already been done.”

A self-taught climber he spent the next decade honing his skills although he never imagined he’d be able to make a living out of it.

He joined the Royal Military Academy and having trained at Sandhurst he was commissioned to the Royal Tank Regiment in the late 50s and spent three years in Germany, using any spare time to go climbing in the Alps and the Dolomites.

In 1961 he left the Army and got a job as a management trainee with Unilever in the hope of combining steady work with his love of mountaineering. The following year, having recently got married, he quit his job and spent the summer in the Alps where he and Ian Clough became the first Britons to conquer the north face of the Eiger.

It was a turning point in his life. When he returned home he was asked to write a book and started giving lectures about the expedition, paving the way for him to carve out a career as a professional mountaineer.

Since then he’s become a household name and not only in mountaineering circles. In 1968, he led the expedition that made the first ascent of the south face of Annapurna, one of the most difficult climbs in the Himalayas, and seven years later he led a successful British expedition to climb the south-west face of Everest. A decade later, at the age of 50 and on his fourth Everest expedition, he finally reached the summit of the world’s highest mountain himself as a member of a Norwegian team.

Bonington believes the desire to go climbing and to seek adventure is inherent in humans. “It’s a combination of seeing the beauty of the natural world and being outdoors, mixed with the spirit of adventure and the spice of risk and dangerous games,” he says.

However, reading through the long list of expeditions that he’s either led or been a key part over the years, not all of them have been successful and you’re struck by the number of friends and colleagues he’s tragically lost along the way. “It’s very difficult and you absolutely dread it happening, it never gets any easier,” he says.

He admits, too, that he’s had plenty of narrow escapes over the years. “I’m lucky to be alive. There are nine or 10 times when it was a miracle that I survived.”

But he says mountaineers know the risks involved every time they go climbing. “With any dangerous sport whether it’s motor racing or sky diving, there are risks. But that’s part of the attraction and stimulus for doing it.” However, his days of heading off on far flung and dangerous expeditions are behind him. “These days they’re much more modest and I hope to die in my bed.”

Bonington has passed on the baton to a younger generation but says the motivation to go climbing and put your body on the line remains the same. “Sport has changed and the challenges have changed but the innate desire for adventure and to stretch the limits hasn’t.”

We hear a lot about “health and safety” these days and he’s concerned at the direction modern society is heading towards. “We do live in more risk-averse times, therefore adventurers are even more important.”

He says we should be encouraging more young people to take up outdoor pursuits, rather than trying to wrap them up in cotton wool.

“You always want to avoid accidents but whenever one happens there’s a danger you get a knee-jerk reaction and people start calling for tighter regulations. But the answer isn’t always to make them tighter and in some cases it can, oddly enough, increase the risk.

“Of course you try to minimise any unnecessary risks, but the fact is there’s always an element of risk if you allow young people to go wondering in the hills and mountains.”

He feels we ought to be encouraging young people to embrace the natural world. “For society to develop and explore different ideas and different places, you need a sense of adventure.

“You’ve got to be prepared to take some risks, they might be physical, or financial or business-related and whether you’re an artist or a mountaineer it’s good to get out of your comfort zone and do something different,” he says.

“But at the moment we have a society that seems frightened of doing anything that might be dangerous.”

Sir Chris Bonington is appearing at the Octagon Centre, Sheffield, on Friday (October 18). For tickets call the box office on 0114 256 5567 or visit www.speakersfromtheedge.com

A life on the edge: Sir Chris Bonington

Sir Chris Bonington was born in London in 1934.

He started climbing at the age of 16 in 1951, while he was at school, hitch-hiking to Snowdonia and Scotland during his holidays.

In 1962, he and Ian Clough become the first Britons to conquer the north face of the Eiger in Switzerland.

In 1968 he led the expedition that made the first ascent of the south face of Annapurna, regarded as the biggest and most difficult climb in the Himalaya at the time.

Bonington went on to lead the successful expedition making the first ascent of the south west face of Everest in 1975. A deacde later, at the age of 50, he reached the summit of Everest himself with a Norwegian expedition led by Arne Naess.

He has written 17 books, fronted numerous television programmes and has lectured to audiences all over the world.

Bonington received a knighthood in 1996 for services to mountaineering.

He was president of the Council for National Parks for eight years and is deput patron of the Outward Bound Trust.

He is married with two children.