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ExWeb Special: The Life and Climbs of Chris Bonington, part 5 final - interview

Posted: Nov 25, 2005 08:15 am 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 offered a 5-part series on the mountaineering legend: Chris Bonington. Today, the fifth and last part of the series.

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

ExWeb: If you were to pick only one of your climbs, which one brought you the greatest personal satisfaction and why?

Chris: I think, probably my ascent of Shivling which I did with Jim Fotheringham in 1983. It was a spontaneous, alpine-style ascent. Spontaneous in the sense that we went to climb something else, the East Face of Kedarnath Dome, which turned out to be a real big wall and we just didn't have the gear to attempt it, so we just changed to the West Summit of Shivling which had never been climbed before. It was a very challenging and intricate climb.

It took us four bivouacs to get to the top and then realized we couldn't get down the same way so we had to traverse the mountain and go down the other side. That to me had all the elements of spontaneous climbing and total commitment.

ExWeb: You've stated that you think the Ogre has never seen a second ascent because of the good luck you had with the weather. Aren't there technical reasons as well?

Chris: No, actually it had a second ascent the year before last. I think there have been as many as twenty attempts on the mountain though. It's really a technically complex mountain, there's not any doubt about that. I think also, in recent years due to global warming that the route that we took would probably be very dangerous today.

ExWeb: Have you seen any other evidence of global warming in the Himalayas?

Chris: I've seen plenty of evidence of it everywhere. It was quite obvious how much snow and ice had disappeared on Kilimanjaro when I was there a couple of weeks ago, for example. I think you've seen this in the Himalayas as well, in the world as a whole, and mountains in particular. The weather is just all over the place - usually it's completely unpredictable as it was compared to say, twenty years ago.

ExWeb: During your first ascent of the Central Pillar of Frêney, to aid the crux section didn't you use the Joe Brown technique of using pebbles as artificial chocks?

Chris: Yes, but that was then the standard way we climbed back in the 50's and early 60's. The first kind of manufactured nuts that I actually came across were normal machined nuts with perhaps some webbing threaded through the hole. The first commercial ones were in about 1963-64, and of course they very quickly evolved as nuts they strung on a length of cord, taylor-made wedges which developed into the nuts we have now in the early 1970's such as Friends and camming devices.

But back then you had a piton which of course if you were English were seldom used in Britain and we just used what the rock provided - a sling on a little spike of rock and artificial chockstones. You collected a few, sort of nicely rounded pebbles from a stream on the way up to the climb, put them in your pocket and inserted them into a crack and then thread your rope through them. So that's what we did on the crux on Frêney. We had wooden wedges that were too wide for the crack, and our pitons that were left were too narrow, so we found some rocks in the back of a crack and used those.

ExWeb: So you did lead that crux pitch then?
Chris: Don Whillans had tried to climb it free but needed a way up this undercut chimney. I knew I couldn't climb something Don couldn't climb. Don Whillans at the height of his powers, I think, was one of the best climbers in the world, so I knew I needed to cheat my way up it, so when he'd fallen off it, I tried it using inserted chockstones.

ExWeb: It must have been a spectacular pitch because I think the whole Pillar fell away beneath you there.

Chris: It was an absolutely wild, wild situation there, and it's immensely satisfying to actually have made the first ascent of what became one of the classic climbs in the world.

ExWeb: Looking back on your mountaineering career, do you have any regrets, and is there anything that you would have done differently?

Chris: I think so, I've regretted the number of friends I've lost, but I don't climb to the extreme level any more so I don't worry about it as much. But it's something you've got to accept pushing the absolute thresholds in climbing, particularly at altitude. It's an extremely dangerous game and therefore the risk factor is something that you have to accept. Having said that, I don't think you get hardened about that, you just hope it doesn't happen again, knowing in your heart of hearts it could.

ExWeb: You have stated that you support guiding amateurs on mountains like Everest because there are plenty of other unclimbed mountains and routes in the world for the professional mountaineer..[interrupts].

Chris: Well first of all, I don't agree with the premise of your question. Competent climbers are not necessarily professionals. There are plenty of superb amateurs putting up new routes in the greater ranges of the world. Also there are many quite competent climbers who go on commercial expeditions up Everest because they can't get a permit, for example, so it's not like all the climbers on these commercial expeditions are helpless. Do you see the difference?

ExWeb: Yes, but I guess what I'm getting at with the question is whether or not you're concerned, as I am, that another 1996-type of disaster might happen again?

Chris: I think that it probably will happen again, but so what? People have the right to choose to climb Everest if they want to. They know the risks and are prepared to take them. I do think though that the commercial operators have a duty to warn clients of the potential risks and to steer them into a sensible sequence of training climbs if they lack experience - say a trekking peak or two, followed by an eight thousander like Cho Oyu before going on to Everest.

ExWeb: David Roberts has written a new book "On the Ridge Between Life and Death: A Climbing Life Reexamined" where he examines the tradeoffs between the gains, risks, and losses of mountaineering. I think you've basically answered this already, but how have you rationalized the risks, especially considering the many close friends of yours who have died in the mountains?

Chris: I think you just have to keep clear in your mind is that I love my climbing passionately. When I was young I wanted to take my climbing to the limit, and take the challenge of looking at something that seems almost impossible in the Himalayas or Alps or what have you, and then actually using your skills and knowledge, actually make that possible, to make it happen.

And that's the thrilling, intriguing part of it. You also have to remember that climbing is a risk game and playing that risk game cheating death if you like has consequences. The down side of it is that people get killed and is just something that if you want to go on doing it, you've got to accept. I think you're inclined to rationalize it but I think it goes deeper it's an innate drive for some people to climb to the limit.

ExWeb: Which climbers today impress you the most?

Chris: I think probably one of the greatest climbers of all time has got to be Reinhold Messner. He did so many innovative things at the height of his powers, during a time when there was an awful lot to do. I think that one of the problems of today is that most of the really great lines on the highest mountains have been climbed - have been solved. Having said that, there are some absolutely brilliant climbers out there.

I think that the cutting edge of the sport - what climbing is all about - is doing the new routes in the purest, cleanest way - and that must be in alpine style - using the minimum of aids. In other words, I think putting a bolt ladder up a big rock wall on an 8000 meter peak is counter productive. I think it's kind of attacking the mountain - it's ignoring natural lines. The purity of climbing is actually accepting the mountain as it is. Accepting the lines of weakness as they are, and then use one's skills and determination to reach the top.

I think there are some superb Slovenian climbers and climbers in Eastern Europe like Tomaz Humar who are doing very fine, bold alpine-style ascents. And here in Britain our own Mick Fowler, who I think is one of the greatest climbers Britain has produced. Before him, I think that Doug Scott was our greatest high altitude climber, without a shadow of doubt. It's true that when he climbed the Southwest Face of Everest he used oxygen, but after that he made many alpine-style ascents without it. Mick Fowler has done some incredible routes in the Himalayas alpine-style also.

ExWeb: There is a lot of controversy today on some of the recent Piolet d'Or awards, for example the Russian Jannu North Face expedition as compared to Steve House's solo ascent of K7. The two climbs illustrate the difference between expedition-style and alpine-style ethics in the Himalayas. What is your opinion?

Chris: Yes, I'll go every time for the lightweight, alpine-style ascent.

ExWeb: Some climbers are saying that climbing all fourteen 8000ers is no longer important. What do you think considering that only a handful of climbers have achieved this?

Chris: Well, I personally think it's a total waste of time! But having said that, it's a very real, personal achievement to have done it. You need lots of personal stamina, very good endurance, and you need very good mountain judgement. But people who do all fourteen 8000m peaks tend to end up doing them by the ordinary routes. Even Reinhold Messner, he started off doing new routes, but as the competition built up - Jerzy Kukuczka was on his heels - he also ended up climbing the final few by the normal routes. I think that getting up the normal routes that people have already done before to me is not what individual climbing is all about.

And so I think doing all the 8000m peaks nothing wrong with that but I think it's a kind of sideline. It's a kind of peak-bagging operation which doesn't actually on the whole include what climbing should be all about, which is going off to explore new things. Also, all too often, climbing the fourteen 8000m peaks not always but a lot of people who have done it end up doing the ordinary routes. There's loads of people already there they're using fixed ropes already put in place, and everything else. So I think it's a kind of aberration and it's not really what climbing's all about.

ExWeb: While some climbers such as Andrew Lock feel this is comparing apples to oranges, which do you think contributes more to advances in climbing routes on the 8000ers or big wall climbs?

Chris: I think they're two different aspects of climbing and each is uniquely valid in it's own way. I think the key thing is how they are addressed. In other words, climbing an 8000m peak alpine-style in a pure kind of way by a new route up one of its ridges, and tackling a big wall on it, are both equally valid.

The ultimate big wall climb that still hasn't been done is the directissima up the Southwest Face of Everest where you go straight up the middle of the Rock Band and you carry on up to the top. It would be a great big wall climb with technical big wall climbing on the Rock Band and challenging mixed climbing above the summit Ice Field. You'd almost certainly need to use siege tactics and probably oxygen because of the length of time climbers would be spending above 8000 meters.

And there are things like the North Face of Jannu and the West Face of Makalu which are extraordinarily challenging routes on the high peaks. But most of our modern climbers are going for slightly lower peaks which give high standard technical climbing and being at a slightly lower altitude enable the climber to use Alpine techniques, ideally without using bolt ladders. So I think that big wall climbing or climbing the 8000m peaks have their different challenges. The key thing is the integrity of style with which they are climbed.


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.


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 courtesy of John Cleare (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).
Recent image of Chris Bonington courtesy of John Cleare, Mountaincamera.com (click to enlarge).
Bonington and Don Whillans teamed up on many climbs like the first ascents of the Central Pillar of Freney and the Central Tower of Paine. IMage courtesy of John Cleare (click to enlarge).
Annapurna South Face, below the Rock Band. 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).