Chris Bonington Interview | We Speak To The Legendary British Mountaineer About His Climbing Life And How The Sport Saved Him
“Whatever your problems there’s a soothing quality through the beauty of nature…"
Words by Sam Haddad | Photos courtesy of the Chris Bonington Picture Library
Losing someone you love can send you to a pretty dark place. But in the case of Sir Chris Bonington, arguably Britain’s most important mountaineer of the past century, grief can also take you somewhere a lot less expected. Namely to the Old Man of Hoy, a precarious sandstone sea stack 150 metres high in the sky above the Orkney archipelago.
83-year-old Bonington has twice suffered from a serious bereavement. First in 1966, when he lost his three-year-old son Conrad in a drowning accident, and then in 2014 when Wendy, his wife of 50 years, died from Motor Neurone Disease. Each time a climbing friend, first Tom Patey and later Leo Houlding sought to lift him from his deep anguish by suggesting they climb the iconic rock tower in northeastern Scotland.
"I sought consolation in this wild and lonely place…"
When his son died, Bonington had been climbing in Ecuador. Communication being what it was in the mid-1960s it took him days to find out the news, which made things even tougher for him and his wife Wendy back home. “I travelled non-stop to get back to England," he tells me. “Then some weeks later Tom Patey [a leading Scottish climber at the time] one of the best climbing mates I’ve ever had, phoned me up and said, ‘We’re going to climb the sea stack the Old Man of Hoy.’ At first I thought, ‘No.’ But Wendy insisted I go for it. It did me the world of good."
“It didn’t stop the grief I had but it made it much easier to contain it. I sought consolation in this wild and lonely place; with Leo Houlding it was a mirror of that. I’d just turned 80, and Wendy had recently died…"
Science tells us that with older couples when one partner dies the remaining partner can be at risk of following suit, due to what’s called the widowhood effect. Yet Bonington found the strength to go on through climbing and hiking. “It did help me there’s no doubt about it," he says. “Most of us will experience grief in our time, and that personal loss is something you have to handle. It doesn’t in anyway change the love you had or have for that person but if you want to go on you have to be able to accept it."
“Whatever your problems there’s a soothing quality through the beauty of nature…"
I lost someone close to me earlier this year and while I haven’t climbed anything remotely hardcore, I too sought, and continue to seek, great solace from doing sport in nature.
“Whatever your problems there’s a soothing quality through the beauty of nature," says Bonington. “I think it’s incredibly important that the hills and the wild and wooded country are the lungs and therapy area of a urban society that lives under increasing pressure. Getting out for a walk in natural country or even a park in the middle of the city will really help."
But then Bonington of course believes it’s important to get out in nature even when you’re not having a hard time. He’s been a lifelong brand ambassador for outdoor brand Berghaus and is presently their non-exec chairman. “I’ve always encouraged the office-based teams to take walks together in the wild country, it brings people together," he says.
Sir Chris Bonington started climbing at the age of 16 in 1951, two years before Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay first reached the summit of Everest, propelling climbing into the collective consciousness. I ask him how different things were then? “There were only a couple of tiny climbing shops in London. Blacks and a gentleman climbing outfitters in Mayfair that didn’t even have a shop window, you rang a bell. There were no national climbing magazines, and actually getting to the mountains was so much harder, there were no motorways at all and not that many people had cars, certainly not young students or working class lads. They’d either hitchhike or they had motorbikes. The hills were so much emptier."
"Sometimes you’d climb in socks or put your socks over your shoes for grip"
The kit itself was incredibly basic, in ways that would often prove dangerous too. He says: “The first rope I had was a second-hand frayed hemp rope. You did a few slings around your neck and tied the rope around your waist, and if you did fall off, you were dangling and had about 10 minutes to live before you’d suffocate. There were no specialist climbing shoes, ordinary tennis shoes from Woolworths were the best, as they had rubber soles and you could fit them tightly. Or sometimes you’d climb in socks or put your socks over your shoes for grip."
Bonington’s uncle was a photographer, whose assistant happened to be a climber. “He took me down to Harrison’s Rocks, near Tunbridge Wells. I touched the rock and immediately found it was what I loved. I loved the athletic gymnastic thrill of climbing combined of course with the stimulus of risk, but also being in the hills and mountains and the beauty of them and the friendships and people I met."
Having honed his skills in the Welsh and Scottish hills, Bonington headed to the European Alps bagging several first ascents including the Bonatti Pilar of Petit Dru and the West Face of the Petit Jorasses. In 1960 he was amongst the first group to climb Annapurna 2 in the Himalayas, followed by Nuptse a year later; in 1962 he was the first Brit to climb the North Wall of the Eiger, a hugely significant 'first' at the time, which received lots of attention from the British public back home.
He feels very grateful to have found climbing when he did, at a time when public interest in the sport was growing, and newspaper colour supplements were starting up, which enabled him to make a moderate living from writing about his climbs.
"Suddenly working class lads around the country had that tiny bit more money and time. You had this huge anchor of frustrated talent just waiting to hit the crags."
“My generation, those of us who came into adulthood after the war were incredibly lucky, right across the board. Before World War II if you were a working class lad most people were working a six-day week so didn’t have a full weekend. Pay rates were incredibly low and the great revolution if you like was that Labour government getting into power and the opening up of employment law so suddenly working class lads around the country had that tiny bit more money and time. You had this huge anchor of frustrated talent just waiting to hit the crags."
Fast-forward to today and Bonington loves how popular and accessible climbing has become. He loves the broadening of the church of climbing to include hill walkers and sports climbing, and the advent of indoor bouldering walls and inclusion of climbing in the Olympics. “I love going down to the Westway in London, which I think is a fantastic climbing set up. If you go in the late afternoon when all the schools are there, seeing all the little kids go zooming up high, it’s an absolutely wonderful and thrilling sight."
Does he worry that because climbing and adventure are so in fashion there will soon come a day when they’re out of fashion? “That doesn’t matter," he answers. “Climbing has gone through phases of being fashionable and unfashionable before and often what the very best climbers are doing doesn’t get into the media at all."
“Leo Houlding is a superb climber; his climbing integrity is huge. The Baffin Island films he’s made, Antarctica and what he’s doing now with [an attempt to climb the never-climbed south face of] Spectre. But they haven’t managed to get any of those superb films onto mainstream TV. Media people tend to want actuality TV, Bear Grylls doing his thing. He’s a very good communicator and he’s found the formula for adventure programmes people like but he’s not a climber, he’s honest about that himself."
"Often what the very best climbers are doing doesn’t get into the media at all."
“They race for the pole but they’re being shadowed as there’s all sorts of health and safety involved. And the media always found it difficult to get away from Mount Everest [which Bonington summited in 1985] so you’ve got 150 people climbing it on a single day, 1000 people at base camp but then also there are superb mountaineers going off and doing superb things on impressive routes but they don’t get much beyond attention beyond the mountaineering field."
Bonington does concede that Alex Honnold and his free climb of El Capitan is the exception. “The solo climbing of Alex Honnold is incredible. He is a sure sign that climbing and the spirit of adventure is alive and well," he says, his voice full of glee and excitement for the future of the sport which has defined, and at times saved, his life.