Weekend Warm-Up: Whillans & Bonington At the Torres del Paine, 1963

Today, Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park receives thousands of visitors every year. Straddling the border with Argentina, it’s become one of the most popular and scenic places to visit in all of South America.

But the “Blue Towers”, which takes its name in part from the Teheulche Indian word for the color, saw virtually no one back in 1963. That’s when Don Whillans and Chris Bonington made the first ascent of the Central Tower, widely regarded as a watershed moment in mountaineering.

Thanks to the endless wonders of YouTube, an old documentary of the expedition, narrated by Bonington himself, tells the story with plenty of dry British humor.

At a time when most of the Western world feared nuclear annihilation during the Cuban missile crisis, these tough Brits absconded to the tip of South America to test themselves against one of the most remote and beautiful mountains in the world.

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The three Towers of Paine in Torres del Paine National Park. Photo: Shutterstock


An old-school expedition

In 2022, it takes just a few days to reach Chile’s treasured national park from Europe. But in the 1960s, it required five weeks of travel to get there.

Regardless, the British expedition came well-prepared, with 700 cans of Guinness and “copious supplies of whisky”. The team volunteered to evaluate their supplies “by vigorous field testing,” Bonington says in the documentary.

“I consider this the best-fed trip I’ve ever been on,” Whillans said at the time.

In 1960, many of the park’s mountains still didn’t have names. Of the three main towers, an Argentine expedition had already climbed the north tower. But the other two remained unclaimed, and the Brits were set on getting to the top.

The Torre Central has captured many rock climbers’ dreams, with 1,600 metres of uninterrupted granite. It contains every conceivable feature and offering endless challenges, Bonington says.

“I have climbed or seen some of the most spectacular peaks in the world,” Bonington wrote at the time for the UK’s Alpine Journal. “But I have never seen one to match the Central Tower for sheer perfection of line and unrelenting steepness. It’s not as hard as a Himalayan peak, but it is steeper on all sides. There seems to be no break or weakness in its defense.”

The only thing more difficult than the highly technical climbing, he added, would be the weather. To withstand it, Whillans invented what became known as the “Whillans Box Tent”, a mobile shelter that gave the team respite. It later became an important part of Himalayan alpinism.

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Don Whillans “slack-lining” in a screen grab from the documentary


‘Big Ned is dead!’

The documentary gets some extra drama when the Italian Alpine Club shows up, also intent on climbing the Torre Central. They had promised the Pope they’d climb it, and informed the Whillans’ team that the Brits did not have permission to do so.

Whillans told them his team had already started up the Tower. If the Italians wanted them gone, the Brits would have to be removed by force.

“It was news to me the Pope was interested in climbing,” Whillans says in the doc. “I thought he was high enough already.”

Eventually, the two teams compromised to climb different routes on the Tower. The Brits seem to make short work of the ascent, though both Whillans and Bonington have close-calls with death when the weather and sharp rock cut through ropes.

“Big Ned is dead!” they shouted to each other upon reaching the summit, using their pet name for the tower.

Whillans and Bonington would later achieve even greater fame with a 1970 ascent of the South Face of Annapurna.

But that’s another story.

Andrew McLemore

An award-winning journalist and photographer, Andrew McLemore brings more than 14 years of experience to his position as Associate News Editor for Lola Digital Media. Andrew is also a musician, climber and traveler who currently lives in Medellin, Colombia. When he’s not writing, playing gigs or exploring the outdoors, he’s hanging out with his dog Campana.