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ExWeb Special: The Life and Climbs of Chris Bonington, part 4

Posted: Nov 24, 2005 04:00 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. Today, part 4 resumes yesterday's report on Chris Bonington's Alpine Style Himalayan climbs, and his new routes from the legendary Ogre in Karakorum to the heights of Everest, plus expeditions to unknown ranges in Tibet, India, and Greenland. Tomorrow, final part: An interview with the senior climber.

The Climbs alpine-style Himalayan climbs and the unclimbed ranges.
by Pete Poston for MountEverest.net.

Alpine-style Himalayan climbs (1976-1985)

1977 First ascent on the Ogre

In one of the greatest mountaineering survival stories ever, in 1977 Chris and Doug Scott made the first ascent of The Ogre (23,900 ft, 7300 m). Located in the Karakoram Himalaya, this many-headed beast had been attempted numerous times before without success. In a spectacular display of high-altitude alpine climbing, Doug Scott led the crux pitches up the Ogre's summit tower with Chris seconding. But while rappelling on the descent, Scott slipped on a patch of verglas and pendulumed into a wall, breaking both his legs. What followed was an epic six-day descent in a blizzard, aided by fellow climbers Mo Anthoine and Clive Rowland, where Doug Scott had to fight for his life by crawling down on his hands and knees.

During the descent, Scott rappeled off the end of the rope and by a stroke of luck managed to save himself from certain death by desperately grabbing a fixed rope. Bonington follows, not realizing that one end of the rappel line was now longer than the other, falls off the rope and breaks a rib. To add to the ordeal, the food runs out, and when they finally stagger into Base Camp, they discover that it had been abandoned by the rest of the expedition. Eventually they are saved by expedition members returning to search for them.

1981 First ascent on Kongur

In 1980 China opened its borders to mountaineering expeditions and tourism, so Chris, Dr. Michael Ward and Alan Rouse were sent out under the auspices of the Mount Everest Foundation to negotiate with the Chinese Mountaineering Association for a permit. They were interested in 25,325 ft (7719 m) Mount Kongur, then the highest unclimbed mountain in the world, located in Western Xinjiang Province. After gaining permission to do a joint medical research-climbing expedition, they set out to do a reconnaissance of the mountain that same year, but ended up underestimating the difficulties of the mountain. At a press conference afterwards, when asked if he thought there would be any unforeseen problems, Rouse jokingly responded that yes, they may have to use a rope!

Ward and Bonington were able to obtain sponsorship from the Hong Kong trading company, Jardine Matheson. They returned in 1981 to attempt the peak alpine-style with a climbing team consisting of Bonington, Peter Boardman, Joe Tasker and Alan Rouse. When Boardman first had a glimpse of Kongur through a break in the clouds, he scolded Rouse by saying "it looks bloody big and serious to me!" The mountain was to prove to be a very serious undertaking indeed.

After retreating from an earlier attempt up the long SE Ridge, they ascended the West Ridge and dug four "snow coffins" above a prominent gendarme. They're trapped there for four days by a storm, gradually losing strength on half rations. But when it cleared on the fifth day, instead of retreating they climb to the summit on terrain Chris later described as being similar to the North Face of the Matterhorn. They safely descended, but Boardman was hit on the head by a large rock while abseling and knocked unconscious. He was only saved from rapping off the end of the rope when his mitten jammed in the carabiner brake of his rappelling gear. Unlike Bonington, Boardman's luck was to sadly run out next year on Everest.

1982 complete Northeast ridge on Everest

In 1982 Bonington, together with Boardman, Joe Tasker and Dick Renshaw, attempted the long unclimbed North East Ridge of Everest, alpine-style without oxygen. Renshaw suffered a mild stroke early on and had to drop out of the climb, accompanied by expedition doctor Charles Clarke all the way to Chengdu, China. Now forty-seven years old, Bonington came to the realization that he wasn't strong enough to keep up with Boardman or Tasker at high altitude, so he also decided to descend. Boardman and Tasker were still feeling relatively strong, however, so they set out together for a final attempt on the summit. They were last seen late in the day on the col between the 1st and 2nd Pinnacles before disappearing.

In 1992 a combined Kazakh/Japanese expedition found Boardman's body on top of the 2nd Pinnacle, but no trace of Joe has ever been found. Since Boardman was found sitting up, and hadn't removed clothing as is common in the last stages of freezing to death, it seems likely that they simply pushed too high, too fast, and died of exhaustion after a long series of grueling days in the Death Zone. Bonington is adamant that any speculation that one or both continued on in an attempt to reach the summit seems unlikely since the route was under constant surveillance by him on the North Col below, and he would have seen something.

1983 First ascent Southwest summit on Shivling

In 1983 Bonington and climbing mate Jim Fotheringham were invited to a mountaineering conference in India, so they took the chance to do some climbing in India's Gangotri Himalaya. They originally had planned to attempt the East Face of Kedarnath Dome, with similarities to El Capitan but located in the Himalayas, but upon closer inspection it was obviously too big for two men with the limited time and equipment available to them.

So they switched their objective to the soaring Southeast Ridge of the unclimbed West Summit of Shivling instead (21,330 ft, 6501 m). They set out alpine-style with five days worth of food and fifteen kilo packs. To reach the ridge, they had to ascend a dangerous serac-threatened couloir, and on the way up barely missed being bowled over by a careening volkswagen-sized boulder as it bounced its way down the gully. Things were getting a little intense, to say the least.

Once on the ridge, they enjoyed good weather while climbing on beautiful, gray granite. As the ridge became progressively steeper and looser the higher they went, water became harder and harder to find too, forcing them to scrape for ice in the back of cracks. Somewhat to Chris' disgust, Fotheringham got to lead the crux corner at a difficulty of about 5b/5.9. Above the crux the climbing eased up, but it became too loose to put runners in, so a fall would have been fatal to both men.

Just below the summit they were forced to bivouac for the fifth time, and on the next day they climbed to the sharpest Himalayan summit Bonington had ever climbed. Obviously they couldn't descend the route up, so unroped they down-climbed horrifically exposed snow slopes to the col between the two summits. Eventually they found their way down to the middle section of the unclimbed North ridge of the main summit, allowing them to reach the valley floor below.

This was one of Chris' favorite climbs because of the total commitment it required, and the fact that it was done in pure alpine-style. Two guys saying, what the hell, let's give this beautiful mountain a try with just the packs on our backs, using our skills and determination to reach the top.

The unclimbed ranges (1986-2005)

1988 Menlungtse West, Tibet

Isolated from the main Himalayan range, and located in Tibet about 10 km north of the Nepalese border near Gauri Sankar, Menlungtse is distinguished by its severe beauty, knife-edge ridges, and poor spring weather conditions. The Main Summit is at 23,559 ft (7181 m), while the West Summit tops out at 23,042 ft (7023 m). Its real name is actually Jobo Garu, but was given the name Menlungtse by Eric Shipton in 1951 during an illegal journey into Tibet. It was during this journey that Shipton took his famous pictures of yeti tracks on the Menlung Glacier, and as we'll see, yetis will play a role in one of Bonington's attempts on the mountain too.

When Bonington first applied for a permit in 1987, the CMA didn't know what mountain he was talking about until they realized he was actually applying for Jobo Garu. After finally receiving permission, Bonington teamed up with Jim Fotheringham and his partners on his successful 1985 ascent of the SE Ridge of Everest Norwegians Bjørn Myrer-Lund and Odd Eliassen.

They attempted a buttress on the West Face, and after three bivouacs reached 6400m before horrible weather forced a retreat. Fotheringham was actually hit by lightning and knocked unconscious for a few seconds. While retreating in a storm on technical ground, Bonington was leaning on a snowstake when it suddenly popped out, flipping him over backwards "arse over kettle" as the Brits say. He certainly would have fallen to his death except somehow he managed to save himself by miraculously grabbing the fixed abseil line. How many lives does a cat have, anyway?

Bonington obtained permission to return in 1988, and one of the sponsors was the BBC who would join the expedition and film a search for the yeti. Not only did Shipton find strange tracks in 1951, but in 1987 Bonington's group found some too. This time in addition to Chris the climbers were Andy Fanshawe, David Breashears, Alan Hinkes, and Steve Shea.

A different line was attempted up the West Ridge, across a terraced glacier, up the icy West Face, and then through the rocky summit headwall to the summit ridge. Chris was feeling really tired on this trip and turned back after reaching the summit headwall. Hinkes and Fanshawe made a second attempt which succeeded in making it to the top of the West Summit. As for yetis, no traces were found except for some strange-looking animal poop. Enough said.

1991 and 1993 Lemon Bjerge Range, Greenland

As part of his exploration of the unclimbed ranges of the world, in 1991 Chris sailed with Robin Knox-Johnston on his yacht the Suhaili to the Lemon Mountains of Greenland. Knox-Johnston had previously distinguished himself by winning the first Golden Globe award for making the first eastbound non-stop, single-handed circumnavigation of the world. Sailing from Britain to Greenland had a romantic appeal that Chris could just not resist. Their objective was to attempt previously unclimbed 2660m Cathedral Peak, the highest mountain in the range, but because their map was wrong, they attempted the wrong mountain! After giving the wrong peak several attempts, they had to turn back just shy of the summit. Sailing back was much harder than the trip out because the weather turned bad, but Chris displayed his newly-learned sailor's skills by skillfully steering the boat through tricky seas and winds back home again.

In July of 1993 he returned to the Lemon Mountains with Jim Lowther, Graham Little and Rob Ferguson, but rather than sailing to Greenland, flew into the Chisel Glacier instead. This time they were more successful, making three first ascents - a mixed route on the Chisel and two technical rock climbs one on the Ivory Tower and the other on the Needle.

1992 first ascent on Panch Chuli II, India

In 1992 Bonington joined forces with Harish Kapadia, and co-led a joint Indian/British expedition to the remote Kumaon Himalaya in northern India. Here they explored and made climbs in the beautiful Panch Chuli Mountains near the Western border with Nepal. The poetic name of the range comes from the Hindu epic story Mahabharata where the five (panch) Pandava brothers rested on chulis (cooking hearths) for their last meal before ascending to heaven.

Other expedition members included Dick Renshaw, Stephen Venables, Graham Little, Victor Saunders, and Steve Sustad. Several first ascents were made including the West Ridge of Panch Chuli 2 by Chris and Graham Little (at 6904m, the highest peak in the range). The first ascent of Panch Chuli 5 by Renshaw, Venables, and Sustad was almost marred by the death of Venables when he fell 70 meters after his rappel anchor failed. The accident happened after dark, and Bonington witnessed the fall when he saw a headlight suddenly drop precipitously from the ridge. Venables sustained severe injuries a broken leg and ankle, as well as chest injuries. He must have borrowed some of Bonington's luck to have survived the fall!

The next day while descending for help, Bonington had his own accident when he fell 150 meters down a steep snowslope, flipping arse over kettle (again) right over the bergschrund, fortunately coming to a rest with only a few bruises. A few days later an Indian Air Force helicopter was able to evacuate Venables to safety.

1996-1998 Sepu Kangri, Tibet

In 1996 Chris made a reconnaissance of the unclimbed peak Sepu Kangri (6950m) with Charles Clarke. Sepu Kangri is located in the relatively unexplored Nyenchen Tanglha Range of Central Tibet a range as extensive as the Swiss Alps. In the spring of 1997 they returned to make their first attempt to climb the mountain. The climbers on this expedition were Jim Lowther, Jim Fotheringham, John Porter, Charles Clarke, and Bonington. The team had to retreat from 6100 meters on the North East Face by appalling weather conditions. Chris returned in the Autumn of 1998 with Victor Saunders, Graham Little, Elliot Robertson Scott Muir, and Charles Clarke again. The weather once again wasn't on their side, and after making two attempts via the "Western Cwm of the mountain, were forced to give up.

Recent expeditions

In recent years Bonington's zest for adventure hasn't diminshed one bit. He's still leading and putting up new rock climbs at the 5a level such as on climbing trips to the Macgillicuddy's Reeks, the highest mountain range in Ireland, and the Anergui Upper Crag, Morocco. He's returned to climb in India and Greenland, and just got back from a climb up Mount Kilimanjaro by the Rongai route. This climb was able to raise about £20,000 for the two charities Rays of Sunshine and Student Partners Worldwide. The first charity helps to grant wishes to terminally ill kids in Great Britain, and Student Partners Worldwide is a Tanzanian charity helping to educate students about AIDS.

With Bonington, one is reminded of Ricardo Cassin and Fritz Wiessner who climbed hard routes well into their eighties. Let's wish Bonington the same longevity in his distinguished climbing career as well. Cheers.

Next: Part V the interview


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.


Sepu Kangri reflected in the Sam Tso Taring. Image by Bonington, courtesy of Chris Bonington Picture Library (click to enlarge).
In one of the greatest mountaineering survival stories ever, in 1977 Chris and Doug Scott made the first ascent of The Ogre. Image courtesy of MountainCamera.com (click to enlarge).
25,325 ft (7719 m) Mount Kongur, in 1980 the highest unclimbed mountain in the world, located in Western Xinjiang Province, China. Image courtesy of John Cleare (click to enlarge).

Shivling (21,330 ft, 6501 m), is located in India's Gangotri Himalaya. Bonington and climbing mate Jim Fotheringham made the first ascent of the Southeast Ridge of the West Summit . Image by Chris Bonington courtesy of Chris Bonington Picture Library (click to enlarge).

The complete NE Ridge of Everest. Image courtesy of Colin Monteath/MountainCamera.com (click to enlarge).