British climber Sir Chris Bonington discusses conquering the greatest peaks in the world, staying active in his 80s, and why he feels lucky to be alive.
A mountaineer has to be selfish
“The difficult thing to rationalise about mountaineering is how you in fact can love your wife deeply, and you can love your children whom you brought into this world, and yet your passion for doing a dangerous activity is so strong that you don’t give it up.
I know friends of mine who have given it up when they got married and had children. They either gave it up or just did rock climbing instead of going to the Alps and the Himalayas. I haven’t. I think the love of stretching myself and stretching my experiences was just too great.
I am afraid that, yes, maybe you have to be a bit selfish. But that is what every adventurer has got to come to terms with.”
Your first big adventure will make you or break you
“I first tried to climb Snowdon when I was completely unprepared at the age of 16 and there was an avalanche. My friend Anton, whom I had been climbing with, never went into the hills again and had a very successful career as a lawyer. But I had this sense of enchanted elation. That is what adventure is all about. I found it stimulating and exciting. He found it very uncomfortable.
It is that stimulus and being attracted to the unknown, to the wildness of mountains and the beauty of mountains, that drew me to climbing.”
Climbers are ferociously competitive
“There was a real race to be the first British team to climb the north wall of the Eiger (which Bonington climbed in 1962 with Ian Clough). A load of very talented British climbers wanted to be the first to do it. Wanting to be first to do something is part of the joy of exploration. I think is the strongest thing of the lot. But also, and there is no doubt about it, that edge of ego and competition is there. Competition is just a part of ego. You want to win. You want to be the first.”
Photo (C) PA
The public are fascinated by epic adventures
“When we climbed the north wall of the Eiger we got huge media coverage. It was partly because of the name but partly also because the previous year we had been involved in a rescue on the north wall of the Eiger when we pulled Brian Nally off it. And then tragically the Scottish climber Tom Carruthers and an Austrian climber called Anton Moderegger had been too slow and got into the danger region late in the day when a lot of stone fell and they were killed. So those tragedies had focused the media into a frenzy.
There was a lot of interest in our expedition. But the success of that expedition is really what enabled me to start this career. Ever since I have been making a living out of writing and lecturing and doing what l love doing which is climbing.”
Mountains can strip you to skin and bone
“Around 10kg is the most weight I have lost on an expedition by a long, long way, and that was on The Ogre (Baintha Brakk, in the Karakoram Himalaya). With the climb itself, we took longer than planned and then we had my friend Doug Scott’s fall to deal with. We had eaten all the food by that time. Fortunately, we did have gas cylinders because if we couldn’t melt snow we would have been in deep trouble. So we had five days without food on the way down and then it dragged on and on, because I was left in the top village awaiting a helicopter that never came.
I spent seven days eating some chapati and occasionally some eggs and a bit of greenery for another five days so I was like a skeleton by the time I had finished.”
In high-altitude accidents you feel like you will keep falling forever
“One of the worst accidents I have had was on Panchchuli V (in the Himalaya). We were descending facing inwards on a fairly steep snow slope but the trouble was it was about 8-9 inches of soft snow on very hard ice so we were going down incredibly precarious terrain. I think I looked around and the point of my crampons must have come down the ice because I started tumbling. The climber Steve Sustad was just above me and it must have looked horrendous, as though there was no way I would survive it.
One of the important things was I knew I had a clean runout but there was one rocky bit with a drop where I basically took off. But the greatest danger is your ice axes. Some people have them leashed to their wrists which can be dangerous if you fall. I always had very loose loops so I lost both my ice tools very quickly. You fall very quickly and inevitably you catch your crampons on the ice which just flips you up. I had a bloody great rucksack on and I was tumbling down and down, thinking: will it ever end? Amazingly, I came through scot-free. There was blood everywhere but my injuries were superficial.”
Everest brought me to tears
“Approaching the Everest summit in 1985 I did struggle on my way up and there were occasions when I wondered whether I could do it. Technically, the conditions were perfect. But when I was going up the Hillary Step I was really struggling. I had an amazing experience when I felt my friend Doug Scott was floating by my shoulder. It wasn’t an apparition. It was just something my mind had created. But in a way reaching out to Doug to help me get to the top, that thought and that presence really helped me get up the Hillary Step.
From there I thought all I have got to do is put one foot in front of the other to get to the top. I just couldn’t help thinking of all my friends who had lost their lives and of course some were on Everest.
When I got to the top I was so tired I just slumped into the snow and cried.”
“Even on the hardest expeditions like the south-west face of Everest I liked to have time to read books. I read a hell of a lot of books on expeditions. I love playing poker and I am now addicted to bridge. On more recent trips I always make sure I have got four bridge players. On expeditions I have played chess and listened to Bach.
The kind of temperament needed on an expedition is the ability to sit around doing nothing. I am not good at doing nothing but I am very good at reading and very good at playing games.”
I don’t want to leave my wife anymore
“With my first wife Wendy (who died of motor neurone disease in 2014), I would always be away from home for six months. Not consecutively, but typically I spent half a year on expeditions and lecturing. She supported me and looked after our children throughout.
Now after getting married again to Loreto (in 2016) I realise that life is finite. I wouldn’t do a trip without Loreto with me. We both lost our partners after long and very good marriages and to have been able to fall deeply in love again, that is something to treasure.
When you get married at 28, life feels forever. Now, in your 80s, you realise that life is finite and, much more, your physical fitness is finite too. So we need to and want to make the most of absolutely every day we’ve got.”
From now on I will only climb for pleasure
“I am not really that bothered about climbing any longer. I enjoy it and for exercise climbing on Westway climbing wall (in London) is brilliant. That is where we go together. But we love walking and we had trips in France and Chile last year when we went walking every day.
Climbing has always been a joy to me. It is interesting that it was a joy until my mid-60s whereas now I don’t get the same athletic joy out of climbing but I still enjoy it. Now just being in the hills and being with Loreto is the focus of my life.”
Source: The Telegraph