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ExWeb Special: The Life and Climbs of Chris Bonington, part 1

Posted: Nov 21, 2005 05:52 am EST

(MountEverest.net) American Pete Poston is a long time contributor at ExplorersWeb. His are classics such as the Chomolungma Nirvana - the Routes of Mount Everest, published right at the end of the Everest season last year, complete with an outstanding map and mouse over for all routes and fatality statistics (find the story and map in the links section).

Later, around Halloween, it was Mystery time: Pete's 5-part series co-written with Jochen Hemmleb arrived: "The Mystery of Mallory and Irvines Fate."

This Thanksgiving week, Pete is at it again, with a 5-part series on a mountaineering legend: Chris Bonington. The series spans over the climber's career, and ends with an interview - all illustrated in great shots by John Cleare of MountainCamera.com. Here goes part 1: Introduction.

The Life and Climbs of Chris Bonington
by Pete Poston for MountEverest.net

Any list of the greatest mountaineers in the world must include the name of Chris Bonington. Now seventy-one years old, he's still climbing and leading expeditions around the world with the same passion and enthusiasm he had when he first discovered climbing as a teenager in postwar Great Britain during the early 1950's.

His climbing career is now in its sixth decade, and includes such major climbs as the first ascent of the Central Pillar of Frêney on Mont Blanc, the Central Tower of Paine in Patagonia, the leader of the successful first ascents of the South Face of Annapurna and Southwest Face of Mount Everest and more recently first ascents in the Lemon Mountains of Greenland and the Panch Chuli Range in Northern India.

Lives life fully every minute of every day

Along the way Bonington has climbed with such legendary British climbers as Joe Brown, Hamish MacInnes, Don Whillans, Peter Boardman, Joe Tasker, Doug Scott, Dougal Haston, and Stephen Venables. An examination of the life and climbs of Chris Bonington is the same as following the development of modern Alpine and Himalayan climbing itself, such is the impact of this great man on the field of mountaineering.

For someone who had never met him before, if asked what your first impression was of Bonington, it might be of friendliness and gregariousness. He inevitably signs his emails "Chris", even though he's been Knighted and honored as a Commander of the British Empire (CBE). Enthusiasm is a worn-out word used to describe him also, but it gushes out in his correspondence and conversations. If you've ever met him in person or seen him in a film, his eyes shine - Bonington lives life fully every minute of every day.

"Film, you bastard, film!"

Those who know Bonington more intimately will attest to his legendary outbursts of temper ("Film, you bastard, film!" he once screamed at his barfing, seasick companion Jim Curran on a trip filming sea cliff-climbing in the outer Hebrides), as well as his even more legendary snoring and "thrashing about" when sleeping in a tent. And when it comes to climbing, his friends characterize him as "the climbaholic" - willing to climb anytime, anywhere - literally with almost anyone who happens along.

Bonington would be the first to tell you of his highly competitive nature, and how climbing on the cutting edge is fraught with danger, becoming an addiction far stronger than any drug. As such, Bonington personifies the modern extreme climber. He has survived where many of his friends and contemporaries have not, and is a testament not only to his climbing skills, but as we will see in Part III and IV of this series, to a large dose of plain old-fashioned luck as well.

"Stacks of brickbats and piss-takes"

It should also be pointed out that Bonington has been criticized in his climbing career for organizing and promoting huge expeditions the "Bonington Expedition Circus" as it's been called in Jim Perrin's book on Don Whillans, "The Villain". Perrin slips into a footnote this very colorful quote where Bonington says:

"I've had stacks of brickbats and piss-takes over the years, none of which have done me any real harm, and which I have to accept as the price of success."

And along with that success, Bonington has made his mark in the world of mountaineering with his many, many notable achievements, both in the mountains and out of them.

In Part II of this series, Bonington's life will be summarized with a view to identifying any major influences that may have influenced the directions he took in his climbing career. In Parts III and IV, we'll take a more detailed look at his climbing record. Finally, in Part V of the series, we'll ask him questions about his climbing career and his views on the current state of climbing today.

Next - Part II: Biography


 Chris Bonington, Chris Bonington Mountaineer: Thirty Years of Climbing on the World's Great Peaks, Baton Wicks Publications, 1996.

 Chris Bonington, Chris Bonington's Everest, International Marine/Ragged Mountain Press, 2003 .
 Chris Bonington, Boundless Horizons: The Autobiography of Chris Bonington, Mountaineers Books, 2000, compendium of three earlier books: I Chose to Climb, originally published: London: Gollancz, 1966 - The Next Horizon, originally published: London: Gollancz, 1973 - The Everest Years, originally published: London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1986.

 Jim Curran, High Achiever: The Life and Climbs of Chris Bonington, Mountaineers Books, 2000.

 Jim Perrin, "The Villain: A Portrait of Don Whillans", Mountaineers Books, 2005

 Walt Unsworth, "Everest : A Mountaineering History", 3rd ed, Mountaineers Books, 2000

 Stephen Venables and Andy Fanshawe, "Himalaya Alpine-Style: The Most Challenging Routes on the Highest Peaks", Mountaineers Books, 1996.


Thanks to Chris Bonington for checking the accuracy of these articles, furnishing his photographs, and allowing reproduction of his climbing resume. And special thanks to John Cleare of MountainCamera.com for contributing his historic photographs, as well as being generally very kind and helpful in the preparation of these articles.


Chris Bonington on an expedition to Shivling. A "climbaholic" - Chris is willing to climb anytime, anywhere - literally with almost anyone who happens along. (click to enlarge).
Along the way Bonington has climbed with legendary British climbers . Image of Don Whillans (with the cigar) and Dougal Haston. (Click to enlarge)
Recent image of Chris Bonington courtesy of John Cleare, Mountaincamera.com (click to enlarge).
Bonington was leader of the first ascent of the South Face of Annapurna in 1970 where Whillans and Haston made the top. (Click to enlarge)
In 1975 Bonington led the first ascent of the Southwest Face of Everest. (Click to enlarge) All images courtesy of John Cleare, Mountaincamera.com (find link in the links section).