He Chose to Climb

viewpointCameron McNeish admits to having been hugely inspired by Sir Chris Bonington’s early failures, rather than his successes.

IT was a long time ago and I was lurching between jobs, unsure of my future and dreading the thought of suffering some corporate nine-to-five regime for the next 40 years.

The only things I really wanted to do were to climb mountains and explore wild places and at that relatively youthful stage in my life I couldn’t think of a career that would enable me to do that. At 24 I was married with a young son and I didn’t have the confidence to break loose and follow my dreams.

I had read every book I could find about mountains and mountaineering and then I discovered one called ‘I Chose to Climb’ by a guy with the unlikely name of Christian Bonington.

A curious name perhaps, but vaguely familiar. Didn’t he live in the Lake District and had partnered the old fox of Glen Coe, Hamish MacInnes, on a couple of hard winter routes on the Buachaille? Wasn’t he one of the first British pair to climb the notorious Eigerwand?

Intrigued, I read the book at a sitting and it was a revelation, and not because of Chris’ great successes. What inspired me more were his failures!

A child of a broken marriage Chris was brought up by his grandmother and was sent to various private schools where he failed to distinguish himself in any way. He lacked the qualifications to go to University so joined the RAF to do his National Service but, “was ham-handed in the cockpit of the aircraft.” He failed to become a flyer so joined the army, without much success. He then worked as a management trainee with Unilever but that didn’t work out either.

By his own admission Chris Bonington didn’t really start to achieve anything until he was almost 30 and I could really relate to that! I had enjoyed some success in sport but having given up athletics for the hills I was at a bit of a loss. However, if this guy Bonington didn’t begin his outdoor career until he was in his late twenties then I could too.

Newly married to Wendy, his partner for the next 52 years, Chris made the tough decision to go it alone. Given the stark choice of taking part in a mountaineering expedition to South America or continuing his corporate management training with Unilever he plumped for a life of adventure, and the rest is history. Chris Bonington became one of the most accomplished and respected mountaineers in the world.

Chris with Don Whillans (left) in Patagonia. Credit: Chris Bonington Picture Library

Chris with Don Whillans (left) in Patagonia. Credit: Chris Bonington Picture Library

I had no ambitions like that – nor Chris Bonington’s abilities! I simply wanted to make a career out of climbing mountains and Chris’s first book was a huge inspiration to me and played a huge part in my own decision to forgo the normal nine-to-five routine and forge a life from the outdoors. I did that, but what Chris went on to achieve is incomparable.

Reading his newly revised autobiography, ‘Chris Bonington Mountaineer’, (and in particular his climbing record that’s recorded in the book in some detail), I’m genuinely astounded. His climbing mountaineering CV is truly incredible.

Like many others at the time Chris’ career followed the classic progression from the home hills of the Lake District, Snowdonia and Scotland to the Alps before his first visit to the greater ranges. And Nepal in the 60’s was a hugely different place to that of today, long before the trekking phenomenon that has produced the tea-houses, hotels and infrastructure that exist today.

And can you imagine this? Think of being weeks away from home, in a remote area of North-West Pakistan called Hunza, when news reaches you that your youngest son has been drowned in an accident at home! How do you cope with something so personally tragic, so far away from home and those you love and care for?

Chris and Wendy did cope, and Chris went on to lose a string of close friends in the mountains, friends that he never fails to mention in his many talks and lectures throughout the world. It’s as though these personal losses have been a stimulus for him to continue and strive ever higher, as though his successes are as much for them as for himself.

Literally Chris couldn’t have climbed any higher. After leading the successful South Face of Annapurna and South-West of Everest expeditions, in which Dougal Haston and Doug Scott became the first Brits to climb Everest, Chris eventually reached the highest point on Earth at the grand old age of 51. In many ways that was only the beginning…

Freed from the constraints of big, unwieldy expeditions he then organized a string of small lightweight expeditions with close friends and relatives to a series of smaller, more technical mountains: Menlugste, Panch Chuli, Rangrik Rang, Drangnag-Ri, Sepu Kangri and a host of others.

Chris and Leo Houlding at the Old Man Of Hoy. Photo © Dave Cuthbertson

Chris and Leo Houlding at the Old Man Of Hoy. Photo © Dave Cuthbertson

By the millennium, aged 66, he reckoned he was beginning to feel the first effects of growing older, but he still didn’t ease up, with more expeditions to Asia and annual rock climbing trips to Morocco and Greenland. Finally, at the impressive age of 80 and only months after his wife Wendy had passed away, he climbed the Old Man of Hoy in Orkney with his great friend and protégé Leo Houlding. He had come full circle, having made the first ascent of the famous sea stack in 1966 with Tom Patey and Rusty Baillie.

What a career, and what a fine ambassador for British mountaineering Chris Bonington has been. This past summer he married Loreto, the widow of his long-time friend Ian McNaught-Davis and this new love appears to have given him a new lease of life. Who knows what new adventures are being planned in that active and intelligent mind.

Mountaineer at 80: Chris Bonington today

Mountaineer at 80: Chris Bonington today

And it would be amiss of me to write about the latest incarnation of this fine book without mentioning its first publisher, who died earlier this year. I served for a number of years on the BMC PR Committee with Ken Wilson, who became a highly valued friend, someone who encouraged me greatly as a writer and magazine editor. And I couldn’t do better than quote Chris Bonington himself, from a small preface to the second edition of the book;

“To Ken Wilson, who inspired, designed and edited the first edition, a good friend who contributed so much to mountaineering as its resolute and vocal conscience.”

Chris Bonington Mountaineer is published by Vertebrate Publishing

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