An Interview With Sir Chris Bonington
Sir Chris Bonington is one of the greatest British mountaineers of all time. An author, photographer and lecturer whose passion for outdoor adventures spans over five decades. Along the way he has gained the highest respect as an exceptionally skilled climber, made many friends and survived some of the most gruelling conditions.
Some of his most notable mountaineering achievements include leading a successful expedition to the South West Face of Everest, bagging the first ascent of the Ogre with a small team including Doug Scott and more recently, re-climbing the Old Man of Hoy in a charitable effort to raise money for Motor Neurone Disease (as well as to celebrate his 80th birthday).
So in honour of his ‘Life & Times’ lecture series we caught up with Sir Chris and got the chance to ask him some questions about the tour and received some insight on a lifetime of mountaineering expertise.
You got into climbing as a teenager, what do you remember the most from those early experiences?
The sense of discovery as I found people to climb with, some of whom were more experienced than I – from whom I could learn. Others knew as little as I did and with whom I could muddle through and learn through experience. This led to quite a few epics, but then this is what climbing is all about.
Your successful first ascent of the Ogre could be one of the most infamous and gruelling climbs in mountaineering history; if you had the chance to do it again, would you do anything different?
Inevitably yes, but that is hindsight and I think therefore a waste of time. We dealt with each crisis as they occurred to the best of our ability and through this, survived and at the same time learnt a great deal. Yes, we should have taken some first aid gear, but I’m afraid I’ve left that out on occasion since.
What is your proudest mountaineering memory?
Making a reasonable job of leading the successful expedition to the South West Face of Everest in 1975. It was big and complex with plenty of logistic and man management challenges.
How much has climbing changed since you began?
A huge amount – better and lighter clothing and equipment, better communications, greater knowledge about nutrition, changes in method from siege style to Alpine style and so on.
What piece of kit can you not leave home without?
My Kindle – you can carry the equivalent of 100 paper backs in it – but remember to take a solar panel; to keep it charged. Another essential is a pack of cards. Even if your kindle stops working, you’ve run out of food and are trapped by a storm half way up a mountain face, you can pass the time away with a game of cards – we did this on Ogre – playing ‘Hearts’.
Why did you want to do the lecture series?
Because I thoroughly enjoy doing a few lectures; rather than as in the old days, after a big expedition, when you did thirty or so on the trot.
What do you hope people will take away from the talks?
Most important of all, that they enjoyed it, but it is always good to hear when someone comes up and tells me that my lecture, years ago, inspired them to start climbing. Also I hope I can encourage people who are getting on a bit that they can still get out on the hill, even if it is only to walk, and have a great time.
Which modern day mountaineers do you respect the most?
My good friends Mick Fowler and Leo Houlding.
Of all the routes you have climbed, which mountain has the best line to the summit?
A peak in the Lemon Mountains of East Greenland which we named “Needle” because it was so slender and sharp. It’s height above sea level was only around 2000 metres, but it towered above the glacier and our route went straight to the summit and had on it the best pitch I have ever led – not the hardest, but very technical, full of surprises and where the final outcome was in doubt until the last move.
Many say climbing isn’t just about getting to the top. What do you love the most about mountaineering?
I definitely do want to get to the top, but how I get there is equally important, how well we got on as a team, the style in which we completed the climb, the quality of the line, the beauty of the surroundings, the sense of exploration and isolation.
If you could assemble a dream-team of mountaineers, past and present, who would be in it?
A.F Mummery, arguably the father of modern climbing, and from what I have read, a really nice guy. Tom Patey, with whom I did some of the most fun climbing I have ever experienced and Nick Estcourt, the best climbing mate I have ever had. That’s enough – four is the ideal size for any expedition.
Sir Chris Bonington is one of the world’s most prestigious and highly acclaimed mountaineers.
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