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ExWeb Special: The Life and Climbs of Chris Bonington, part 3

Posted: Nov 23, 2005 01:40 pm EST

(MountEverest.net) American Pete Poston is a long time contributor to 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 the mountaineering legend: Chris Bonington. The series spans over the climber's career, and ends with an interview - all illustrated with great shots by John Cleare of MountainCamera.com and images from Chris Bonington's picture gallery.

Yesterday, Pete focused on Chris Bonington's biography, from the influence of his adventureous ancestors, to a frustrated military career as a tank commander, and his inevitable discovery of mountaineering. Part 3, featured today, centers on the Chris Bonington we all know: The Himalayan climber and explorer.

The Life and Climbs of Chris Bonington: The Climbs Early Climbs and Leader of Expeditions to the Great Himalayan Faces
by Pete Poston for MountEverest.net.

When asked what his favorite, most memorable climbs were, Chris Bonington listed these five: Coronation Street (1965, a rock climb in Cheddar Gorge), the South Face of Annapurna (1970), the Southwest Face of Everest (1975), Kongur (1981), and the Southwest Summit of Shivling (1983). With such an extensive climbing resume (see link below for his complete climbing resume), other important ascents will be elaborated on as well, but these five climbs will be described in perhaps more detail than the rest.

Early Climbs (1951-1969)

The Alps

1958 - First British Ascent Bonatti (Southwest) Pillar of the Petit Dru

Bonington climbed these next three classic Alpine routes, usually with "The Villain" Don Whillans as one of his climbing mates. He made the first British ascent of the Bonatti Pillar in his first Alpine season along with Whillans, Paul Ross, legendary Scottish hardman Ian MacInnes, and Austrians Walter Phillip and Richard Blach. The climb was an epic first they barely avoided being swept away by an enormous rock avalanche in the approach couloir, so they were committed to the climb since retreat was no longer a safe option. Then MacInnes suffered a skull fracture during another episode of stonefall, with no option but to continue fighting his way up. They summited in a storm, and it was the strength and experience of Whillans that got them safely down again. Sadly, in 1997 most of the lower portion of the Pillar collapsed in a massive rockslide, followed by the upper section on June 29, 2005.

1961 - First Ascent Central Pillar of Frêney

The Central Pillar of Frêney on Mont Blanc has a tragic history in the early attempts to climb it. In 1961 a Franco-Italian team led by Walter Bonatti and Pierre Mazeaud was forced to retreat in a three-day storm, and four of the party perished on the descent. A few weeks later Chris - again teamed up with Whillans - made the first ascent, along with Ian Clough and Pole Jan Djuglosz. On the téléphérique ride on the way up, the realized that they had stiff competition in the presence of ace French climbers René Desmaison, Pierre Julien, and Yves Villard. They raced the French to the crux of the climb, the 500 ft (150 m) pinnacle at the top of the route known as the Chandelle. The key pitch on the Chandelle was an overhanging roof with a bombay chimney that Chris finally aided using pebbles as artificial chockstones (more on this common British technique in Part III: The Interview). The Central Pillar of Frêney had seen its first ascent and was a world-wide sensation.

1962 - First British Ascent North Face of the Eiger

Bonington and Whillans teamed up to make many attempts on the North Face of the Eiger, but usually the conditions weren't optimal. During an attempt in 1962 they were forced to retreat from the Second Ice Field after intense stonefall made it suicidal to continue. Another British pair ahead of them was hit by a storm of rocks, and the leader Barry Brewster fell about 100 ft (30 m), suffering severe back injuries. His climbing partner Brian Nally stayed with him that night when he died, and the next day Brewster's body was swept from the Face by more rockfall. After witnessing and then recovering from the shock of watching Brewster's body cartwheeling off into space (not knowing that mercifully he was already dead by then) and then risking their own lives - Whillans and Bonington climbed over to Nally and helped him down to safety.

Later there was a considerable amount of personal controversy surrounding this rescue, where Nally never did forgive Bonington for painting him as a shocked, mindless zombie at the point in which they met on the Second Icefield (although Whillans corroborates Chris' account). According to Jim Perrin in the book "The Villain", there are apparently photographs that show that the first thing Bonington, who had just turned freelance, did upon reaching Nally was to take photographs.

Whillans, running out of money, with a lecture date coming up, and believing the season was over, called it quits and went home. But not before Chris and he made a very rapid ascent of the Northeast Face of the Piz Badile in only six hours. Chris stayed in the Alps, and after climbing the Walker Spur of the Grandes Jorasses with Ian Clough, they hustled over to the Eiger and bagged the first British ascent in perfect conditions.

While it's hard to fault Bonington for taking his opportunity when it arrived, Whillans harbored resentments towards Chris' perceived commercialism in particular after the Eiger - that persisted into future expeditions. Ironically Bonington's sponsor, the Daily Express, partially underwrote the 1963 Patagonian trip to the Central Tower of Paine (next section), helping to fund the entire team, including Whillans.

It's sad that in June of 1962, Whillans put up his last first ascent on British rock, in July was to be one of the heroes in the Brian Nally rescue, only to subsequently became more bitter and cynical about climbing in general. According to his biographer Jim Perrin, in 1962 Whillans had now reached the zenith of his climbing career, although as we'll see 1963 wasn't too shabby either. Whillans would still travel the world on Himalayan and South American expeditions, but would gradually get fatter and more out of shape as his drinking got worse and worse, and ultimately die of a heart attack when only 52 years old. A lamentable end to one of the greatest British climbers ever.


1963 First Ascent Central Tower of Paine

Subject to the brutal Patagonian weather, the Central Tower of Paine is a beautiful, perfect finger of red granite, sheer on all sides. The smaller North Tower was climbed by an Italian expedition in 1958, but the Central and South towers were unclimbed at the time. When asked, Bonington originally declined the invitation to go because he was working on his management career with Unilever, but ultimately the climbaholic couldn't resist the siren call. The expedition was led by Barrie Page, and in addition to Chris, the other climbers were Derek Walker, Vic Bray, John Streetley, Ian Clough, and Chris' old climbing mate, Don Whillans.

Initially during the build-up phase the weather was good, but it immediately turned bad on the very first day of real climbing. For the next several weeks progress was very slow. Things got more interesting when an Italian expedition arrived, also intending to climb the Central Tower. So the competition began, which of course, Bonington reveled in, even ducking into the forest on one occasion to avoid detection when the Italians were approaching. The Italian presence had another effect, and that was to bring Whillans and Bonington back together after their split following Chris' ascent of the Eiger.

When the weather finally cleared, Whillans and Bonington sneaked past the Italian camp early in the morning, and started up the fixed ropes. Now in those days, ascenders were unknown, so they literally ascended hand-over-hand up the hemp ropes (they did have nylon climbing ropes). Don was going first, when suddenly the frayed hemp rope broke while he was halfway up a smooth slab. With incredible balance and coordination, somehow Whillans didn't fly off the slab, with the likely result either serious injury or even death if Bonington couldn't have held the resulting 150' fall. Displaying tremendous coolness under fire, he calmly tied the two strands of rope back together, and acting like nothing had happened at all, finished climbing up the rope to their high point. Bonington followed, commenting later that he was more shaken than Whillans was.

By now the Italians knew what was up, and the race to the top was on. Hoping that they encountered no blind leads on the remaining part of the climb, Chris and Don blazed ahead. Dumping excess equipment at a suitable bivouac site to save weight, they made it to the top just as the sun was setting after fifteen hours of continuous climbing.

On the way down after bivouacing without food or water, on the last rappel right before the notch between the North and Central Towers, another hemp rope breaks and Chris tumbles backwards only about 15 ft (5 m), but starts rolling and flipping down the snow slope below. At the very last second, Lady Luck steps in and stops his fall right above a 500 ft (150 m) sheer cliff. Severely shaken by the incident, Chris lives to climb another day.

The Himalayas

1960 - First Ascent Annapurna II

Taking a step back in time, still in the army and with his reputation as a climber growing during the late 1950's, Bonington was invited to join the Anglo/Indo/Nepali Combined Services Expedition to attempt unclimbed Annapurna II (26,040 ft, 7937m). Led by Colonel Jimmy Roberts, this was a classic siege-type assault using oxygen, and Chris' introduction to climbing in the Himalayas. The result: Chris made the first ascent along with climber Dick Grant and Sherpa Ang Nyima.

1961 - First Ascent Nuptse via the South Face

The 1961 expedition to Nuptse is notorious for a high-altitude fistfight that occurred between [ahem] - Chris and another climber, Jim Swallow. Well, chalk it up to the tremendous stress of high-altitude mountaineering, as well as the fierce drive that many top climbers possess. As usual, when writing about the expedition later, Bonington was totally honest about his own weaknesses and competitive drive to reach the top. Chris wasn't the only one to freak out, either another climber had his stash of peaches broken into and went totally berserk about it!

It was a smaller expedition - led by Joe Walmsley - with the advantage that the climbers could make more of the decisions. A route through the Khumbu Icefall wasn't logistically feasible with such a small number of climbers and Sherpas, so they established a route up the South Face instead. It was the first time such a difficult route had been attempted in the Himalayas (and as his climbing career progressed, bigger, harder and higher faces were the focus of future Bonington expeditions in the Himalayas). The climb became a battle of attrition as several members quit while the rest doggedly pushed the route through a maze of ice flutings and rock bands.

Ultimately two summit attempts succeeded in making this first ascent of Nuptse the first pair of Dennis Davis and the Sherpa Tashi, and the second team consisting of Chris, Jim Swallow, Ang Pemba, and Les Brown. 1961 was a banner year for Chris after making the first ascent of the Central Pillar of Frêney, and then being part of the first ascent of Nuptse.

Great Britain

1965 - First Ascent Coronation Street

Chris really wanted the first ascent of this Cheddar Gorge classic, after realizing a first ascent was there for the taking in Britain's most dramatic gorge (to use his own words). Cheddar Gorge is actually closed to climbing during the summer months. Steep and highly vegetated, it's easy to roll rocks and debris down on cars and gawking tourists in the deep gorge below, so they climbed it on a weekday in January of 1965. The rock is limestone, and can be desperately smooth and slick when wet, either from rain or melting snow.

By now one of Britain's most famous climbers at this point in his climbing career, the idea was to eventually broadcast the climb on television. Bonington first attempted the route with photographer and climber John Cleare. While there was a route to the right of the Main Wall called Sceptre, nothing had been put up the huge, 400 ft (120 m) blank wall in the middle. Coronation Street and Sceptre share the same first pitch, but after that it was all virgin territory. Chris led up the snow-covered holds, and faced with two overhangs, was relieved to discover that by bridging and jamming they went free (today these moves are in the 4a/4b or 5.7 range).

It was now getting late, and it seemed that there wouldn't be enough time to complete the route before it got dark. Bonington ventured across to a feature known as the Shield, a flake of rock with huge exposure beneath that seemed like it would break loose at any moment (it's still there today). Psyched by the moves that it would require, in the gathering gloom they traversed over to Sceptre and rapped off the wall. Still, Bonington would later write that it was one of the best day's climbing he had ever done.

Chris returned a week later with Tony Greenbank as his second and John Cleare photographed the attempt. Instead of repeating the first few pitches, they rappelled from the top of the wall and started at the traverse to the Shield that marked their high point from the previous attempt. Treating the flake with a certain amount of trepidation, they traversed across to a stance. It's above the Shield that the route turns into the 5b (5.10a/b) range, with spectacular exposure between the climber's legs to the parking lot many hundreds of feet below. A vertical groove and several overhangs went to Chris' surprise and delight totally free, and it remains Chris' favorite climb in Britain to this day.

Leader of Expeditions to the Great Himalayan Faces (1970-1975)

1970 - First Ascent Annapurna South Face

Chris' first experience as an expedition leader was the most ambitious and difficult Himalayan climb attempted to date. The monstrous South Face of Annapurna towers 12,000 ft (3700 m) above base camp, equivalent to four alpine faces stacked vertically on top of each other.

The climb was a classic siege climb, where the lead climbers rotated while the rest ferried loads in support (sherpas were also hired for the lower sections of the Wall). The Mount Everest Foundation covered the entire cost, with Lord Hunt as one of the patrons. As part of his first "Bonington Expedition Circus" as his critics would later label his massively sponsored and publicized expeditions, Bonington chose as climbers his "cronies" Nick Estcourt, Martin Boysen, Dougal Haston, Ian Clough, Mick Burke, American Tom Frost, and despite his lack of fitness and prickly personality, Don Whillans. To document the historic attempt, there was a four man TV crew from ITN Thames Television.

Above Base Camp at 14,000 ft (4300 m), the route ascended a vicious, icy knife-edge ridge. Camps 1 through 4 were established up to the top of the Ice Ridge at 21,650 ft (6600 m). It took five weeks to climb the Ice Ridge the crux climbed by Boysen and Escourt. Bonington then led the last pitch leading to the base of Rock Band.

But now the exhausting work of load-carrying started to severely sap the climbers' strength. Far behind schedule after the difficulties of the Ice Ridge, the monsoon clouds start to creep up the valley floors. From Camp 5 at bottom of Rock Band (22,750 ft (6900 m)), Burke and Frost led the crux pitches through the Rock Band.

Now technically it was Boysen and Estcourt's turn to assume the lead, but Bonington makes the acrimonious choice to send the strongest climbers Whillans and Haston - to the front instead. Living basically on tea, cigars and whiskey, Whillans and Haston establish Camp 6 at 24,000 ft (7300 m), and push the route to top of Rock Band at 24,750 ft (7500 m).

The next day the pair planned on taking a light tent and finding a spot for Camp 7 before attempting the summit, but in the back of their minds they thought about attempting the summit if things worked out that way. And that's exactly what they did. In windy, cold conditions Dougal Haston and Don Whillans make the summit of Annapurna at 26,545 ft (8090 m).

Later Frost and Burke made a failed attempt as the monsoon finally moved in. The expedition was called off but not before Ian Clough was tragically killed by a falling serac below Camp 2 while evacuating the mountain. He was buried on a knoll above Base Camp by a little rock wall where he spent so much time teaching the sherpas more advanced climbing techniques. It was a shocking end to an otherwise fantastically successful expedition.

1975 First Ascent Everest Southwest Face

The Southwest Face of Everest had seen a number of attempts by various expeditions in the early 1970's, including an attempt by Bonington in the Fall of 1972, but the Face stubbornly remained unconquered. In 1975 Chris was able to convince Barclays Bank International to sponsor another expedition, which was to be another post-monsoon attempt.

With Bonington as leader, he brings along a new generation of climbers, as well as many of the same tried and true climbers from his previous expedition including Hamish MacInnes, Peter Boardman, Martin Boysen, Paul Braithwaite, Micke Burke, Mike Cheney, Charles Clarke, Nick Estcourt, Dougal Haston, and Doug Scott.

Base Camp was reached on August 22 and Advance Base in the Western Cwm established on September 2. The expedition was blessed with good weather and smooth computer-aided logistics, resulting in the steady placement of camps up the Central Gully to Camp 5 at 25,500 feet (7800 meters). The top of the Face is blocked by a 1000' (300 m) high Rock Band, and this was ascended via a gully on the left side by Estcourt and Braithwaite, who have some sporty moments when their oxygen runs out on dicey pitches at 27,000 feet (8200 meters). Above the Rock Band, the upper icefield is reached via an awkward outward-sloping ramp, where Haston and Scott establish Camp 6 a few days later at an elevation of 27,300 feet (8300 meters). The next day they fix 1500 ft (450 m) of rope on the upper snowfield, extending the route towards a gully leading up to the South Summit.

Haston and Scott made the first assault and reached the South Summit at 3 PM after 11 hours of climbing. After preparing a snow cave and drinking a brew, they continued on to the summit which they reached at 6 PM as the sun was going down, resulting in some of the most spectacular summit photos from Everest ever taken. They descended to the South Summit and bivouaced in the snowcave. After a freezing, oxygenless night complete with hypoxic conversations with feet, toes, and imaginary companions, the pair descended to Camp 6 safely, passing the second assault party on their way up.

The second assault party consisting of Boardman and Sirdar Pertemba reached the summit and descended in a gathering storm, where they encountered Mick Burke just below the summit. They waited for him as long as possible before descending, but Burke is never seen alive again. He probably made the top but fell off of the heavily corniced summit ridge while descending in the deteriorating conditions.

Once again success is marred by the death of a close friend, but the reality of the situation is that climbers know the risks when taking off on difficult, dangerous high-altitude expeditions (this isn't meant to diminish the sorrow that Bonington feels from the loss of so many close personal friends in the mountains. More on this in Part V: The Interview). On the positive side, besides making the first ascent of the SW Face, the expedition made a profit that was funneled into the Mount Everest Foundation, benefiting many smaller alpine-style expeditions later on.

Next, Part IV: The Climbs Alpine-Style Himalayan Climbs and the Unclimbed Ranges


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 very kind and helpful in the preparation of these articles.


Bonington leading across the Shield on the first ascent of Coronation Street in Cheddar Gorge, 1965. Image courtesy of John Cleare (click to enlarge).
The key pitch on the Chandelle was an overhanging roof with a bombay chimney that Chris finally aided using pebbles as artificial chockstones. Image courtesy of Chris Bonington Picture Library (click to enlarge).
Chris Bonington and some of his 'boys' camped by Annapurna's south face. Bonington was expedition leader - summiteers were Whillans and Haston. Image courtesy of Chris Bonington Picture Library (click to enlarge).
Subject to the brutal Patagonian weather, the Central Tower of Paine is a beautiful, perfect finger of red granite, sheer on all sides. Image courtesy of John Cleare (click to enlarge).
In 1975 Bonington was leader of the expedition that made the first ascent of the Southwest Face of Everest. Image courtesy of John Cleare (click to enlarge).