Imagine Chris Bonington. Not “Sir Christian John Storey Bonington, CVO, CBE, DL” – as we know him today. Simply, Chris.
Imagine a tall man, looking upwards. He is lanky, gangly, toothy – his eyes squinting against the bright mountain light. Imagine a young man, unassuming, but possessing a quiet confidence, and an unmistakable drive. Imagine it is 1951. Imagine this man is only a boy. Imagine he sets one foot in a dark fissure, one hand upon a sloping shelf of rock. Imagine Chris Bonington. Not “Sir Christian John Storey Bonington, CVO, CBE, DL” – as we know him today. Simply, Chris.
Imagine what he felt as he began, at 16 years old, to ascend upwards into the uncertainty of a life devoted to the pursuit of the vertical; and you will begin to imagine who Chris Bonington is underneath the many accolades, honors, awards, and prestigious titles we have bestowed upon him. Imagine a climber. Toothy-grinned. At peace among the mountains, and the freedom of the hills.
It is not that Sir Chris Bonington is not deserving of his titles. He most certainly is. His list of major first ascents stretches from the Alps, to the Himalaya, and to Patagonia. His chameleon-like presence in major expeditions over the better part of three decades is almost as impressive. Bonington simply did it all. He planned logistics, organized and envisioned teams and objectives, led major siege-style expeditions, participated in small alpine-style ascent, and always, always, climbed at a high technical level.
An ordinary climber could take just one of the groundbreaking ascents in which Bonington was involved, and retire happily, having changed the world of climbing and alpinism forever. There’s the Central Pillar of Freney on Mont Blanc, in 1961; the Central Tower of Paine in Chilean Patagonia, in 1963 – during which he almost died of a rappelling accident; and, of course, an absurdly successful decade of climbing in the Himalaya throughout the 1970’s, over which time Bonington would partake in first ascents of Brammah (6411m), Changabang (6864m), Baintha Brakk (7285m), Kongur Tagh (7719m), and, most notably, the South Face of Annapurna in 1970.
But Bonington didn’t simply stop when the 80s rolled around. He changed. He progressed and evolved as the sport did the same. Abandoning the high-impact big expedition style of 1960s and 70s Himalayan mountaineering, Bonington (along with close friend, Jim Fotheringham) made the first ascent of the West Summit of a beautiful Indian peak called Shivling, in 1983.
In an interview with Stefan Nestler, Bonington noted that Shivling was – “for sheer joy and fun” – one of his most memorable climbs. Shivling was “five days up in Alpine style, one day down, very committing, a beautiful sharp pointed peak.” Bonington notes. “And that to me is what climbing is all about. I was very glad having led my bigger expeditions. In the last 35, 40 years I have really been going for much smaller expeditions, smaller peaks and the whole variety of wonderful adventures.”1
Of course, the giant elephant in the room that I’ve avoided speaking about intentionally is Mount Everest. Did Bonington go there, you may wonder. Yes. He did. Of course he did. There was the 1972 attempt on the southwest face, and then, the successful completion of that objective in 1975 – during an expedition led by Bonington. On that trip, as on many others, he did not personally step foot upon the summit. It simply was not the role he had to play in the team. “I had always seen very clearly in my mind that my first priority was the success of the expedition and not just the success of getting to the top of the mountain, but also the success of doing so harmoniously.” Bonington said of the 1975 expedition. “And from that point of view it was a wonderful expedition.”
Bonington would return to Everest in 1982 for an unsuccessful attempt of the northeast ridge. Finally, in 1985 at the age of 50, Bonington stood upon the summit of Mount Everest. At the time, he was the oldest human ever to do so.
Sadly, Bonington’s life was also marked by many tragic losses – not just on foreign mountains, but at home as well. Ian Clough, Mick Burke, Nick Estcourt, Peter Boardman, and Joe Tasker all perished during expeditions with Bonington. As if that weren’t enough, he lost a two-year-old son to a bewildering drowning accident; and, in 2014, his wife perished after a two-year fight with Motor Neurone disease. They had been married for 52 years.
In spite of the toll the mountains have taken on Bonington, he has remained their ardent supporter, spokesman, and child. “Climbing has been my life and still is. For me, the mountains represent beauty, wildness and challenge. They’ve given me the joy of companionship and lifelong friendships to help me make the most of my eighties without the love of my life.”2
For his life’s work, Bonington is as heavily decorated as any alpinist ever has been. There was the Founder’s medal of the Royal Geographical Society in 1974, appointment to the Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1976, the Lawrence of Arabia Memorial Medal of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs in 1985, his knighting in 1996, appointment as Commander of the Royal Victorian Order (CVO) in 2010. Perhaps most notably, for an alpinist such as Bonington, was the 2015 selection for the Piolet d’Or Lifetime Achievement award – the highest honor an alpinist could receive.
Of course, Bonington is also a noted author, having published 17 different books, and edited many others. I could go on. His television appearances, his public and corporate lectures, his service to National Parks, his work with Berghaus… I could sing his praises, achievements, and victories for pages. Many have before.
But I’d rather have you strip Bonington of his medals in your own mind, and imagine him among pointy peaks in some far-off corner of the globe, staring upwards, dreaming of the unknown. For beneath all the victories and losses, all the highs and lows, all the medals, awards, ceremonies, pomp, and circumstance, there is a man who loves to climb.
Imagine a tall man, looking upwards. He is lanky, gangly, toothy – his eyes squinting against the bright mountain light. Imagine an old man, anonymous, alone, unknown to the faces, ridges, and hanging glaciers that look down upon him. Imagine it is 2016. Imagine this old man is in his 80s, still climbing after half a century defined by his upward wanders. Imagine he sets one foot in a dark fissure, one hand upon a sloping shelf of rock, and smiles. Imagine Chris Bonington. Not “Sir Christian John Storey Bonington, CVO, CBE, DL” – as we know him today. Simply, Chris. Imagine what he must feel, when, moving upwards, all his life falls away beneath him, and he is left alone with ice and stone. Imagine a climber. Toothy-grinned. At peace among the mountains, and the freedom of the hills.