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ExWeb Special: The Life and Climbs of Chris Bonington, part 2

Posted: Nov 22, 2005 06:00 pm 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" and a 5-part series co-written with Jochen Hemmleb "The Mystery of Mallory and Irvine's Fate."

This Thanksgiving week, Pete offers 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 and images from Chris Bonington's picture gallery.

Yesterday, Pete posted an introduction to the veteran climber. Today, in Part II of this series, Bonington's life is summarized with a view to identifying any major influences that may have influenced the directions he took in his climbing career.

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

Chris Bonington is of Danish ancestry, which explains his fair skin and blue eyes. He was born into a family with a history of adventuring. His grandfather, Maximilian Christian Bonig (he changed his name to Bonington at the start of the First World War) - ran away to sea at an early age, rounded the Horn, jumped ship, joined the US Marines, deserted, signed on to another ship only to be shipwrecked off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.

Surviving this disaster, he ultimately ended up in India, where he obtained a commission in the Royal Indian Marine. Incredibly he was shipwrecked again off the coast of Africa, where Maximilian heroically saved the ship by going below decks to close the watertight doors. His father, Charles Bonington, was a founding member of the legendary Special Air Service in the Second World War. So Bonington comes from a family with characteristics every great mountaineer needs: Courage, the ability to take risks, and a lust to travel the world seeking out adventure.

Tank commander

Bonington went to University College School in London, and afterwards was admitted to the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. It's not surprising he chose a military career considering his passion for military history and the playing of war games. In 1956 he received a commission in the Royal Tank Regiment, which is amusing since he once received a toy wind-up tank as a child, only to throw it on the floor in disgust and horror!

Nevertheless, he spent three years commanding a group of tanks in Northern Germany. It was this experience that convinced the young Bonington that working with tanks was not his cup of tea, especially since he showed no mechanical aptitude at all. Later on in life, Bonington exhibited an alarming tendency to drop equipment when on climbs, launching piton hammers, carabiners, chocks and even cameras into the abyss. While a competent and capable climber - which all his contemporaries attested to - Bonington just wasn't very good with his hands!

Outward bound and out of the army

Bored silly of tanks and Germany, in 1959 Bonington switched occupational gears and signed up as an Army Outward Bound instructor in Towyn, Wales. For the next two years he taught rock climbing, and it was during this time that he made his first climbs in the Alps and Himalayas. In the Himalayas Bonington did the first ascent of Annapurna II and the South Face of Nuptse - the latter was probably the hardest climb done in the Himalayas at that time. In the Alps he climbed the Central Pillar of Freney on the South Side of Mont Blanc, which had a tragic history when a brutal storm forced the retreat of seven of the best Alpinists of the day, and only three survived including Bonatti.

But in 1961 he decided to leave the Army, and while it may be an apocryphal story - apparently his superior officer had already decided it was time for him to leave also, because when Bonington asked to be released, the paperwork was already drawn up and waiting for his signature!

He chose to climb, not sell margarine

In his autobiography "I Chose to Climb", Bonington describes the dilemma he now found himself in. Now married to his wife Wendy, he craved a stable career while wanting to continue climbing. So he accepted a Management Trainee position with Unilever selling margarine, of all things. After nine months he had managed to close down half a dozen old accounts without opening a single new one!

In 1962 he had to make a decision about his career however. He was invited and accepted to go on an expedition to the Central Tower of Paine, and his line manager told him it was really time to decide whether he wanted to base his life around climbing, or try to be an executive. At this stage he thought he'd try to get to university after the expedition, so he spent the summer climbing in the Alps and making the first British ascent of the North Wall of the Eiger. It was after this landmark climb that he was asked to write a book about his climbing life. Now having something to write and lecture about, this is what enabled him to become a freelance photojournalist.

Climber and freelance photojournalist

In 1966 Bonington was hired by the Daily Telegraph Magazine to cover expeditions around the world. He climbed Sangay in Ecuador, the world's highest active volcano at the time, went caribou hunting with Eskimos on Baffin Island, and attempted the first descent of the Blue Nile in Africa where they fought gunfights with marauding bandits.

Bonington also was involved in the first ascent of the Eiger Direct as both a climber and journalist, leading a crux ice pitch and later ascending the mountain by the normal route, photographing the storm-battered climbers as they summited in a blizzard.

Bonington also had the sad duty of locating John Harlin's broken body after his horrific fall from high up on the route after the fixed lines broke.

From the great Himalayan faces to the unclimbed ranges

Up until 1970, Bonington never thought himself as an expedition leader, and only became one by default because none of his climbing mates seemed to want to take the initiative and turn dreams and talk into reality. What followed is now climbing history - succeeding brilliantly on the South Face of Annapurna in 1970 and the Southwest Face of Everest in 1975. After these classic, large-scale assaults on the high peaks, Bonington switched to smaller alpine-style ascents in the spirit of his heroes Bill Tilman and Eric Shipton. He was equally successful at these, summiting the Ogre in 1977, Kongur in 1981 and the West Summit of Shivling in 1983 among others. In more recent years, he has made first ascents in the unclimbed ranges of Greenland and the Indian Himalayas.

Techno-geek and motivational speaker

As strange as it might seem considering Bonington's klutziness with mechanical things, he's an expert using computers, the internet, and satellite technology, both at home and on expeditions. His house is full of computer equipment and his car is usually jam-packed with audio-visual equipment that he uses on his yearly lecture tours. Using his 1975 Southwest Face of Everest expedition as a model, Bonington has branched out as a motivational speaker for businesses, something that he has been very successful with as well.

Next Part III: A more detailed look at Bonington's climbing record. The early Climbs and Leader of Expeditions to the Great Himalayan Faces


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.


Young Chris (left) at the London zoo, aged 2 (click to enlarge).

Chris Bonington at the start of his climbing career, at the age of seventeen, in 1951 (click to enlarge). image from Chris Bonington Picture Library, courtesy of John Cleare, Mountaincamera.com.

Chris' Centurion tank and crew on a training exercise in North Germany, 1957 (click to enlarge).

Bonington also was involved in the first ascent of the Eiger Direct as both a climber and journalist, leading a crux ice pitch and later ascending the mountain by the normal route, photographing the storm-battered climbers as they summited in a blizzard (click to enlarge).

Chris Bonington, collecting his CBE with his mother, 1976 (click to enlarge). All images from Chris Bonington Picture Library, courtesy of John Cleare, Mountaincamera.com (find link in the links section).