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Talking to Sir Chris Bonington about Ascent
24th October 2017
In ‘an unrepeatable life of adventure’, Sir Chris Bonington has led 19 Himalayan expeditions, climbed Everest 4 times, made many first ascents of other peaks and is probably Britain’s best known mountaineer.
At the Guildford Book Festival recently, he enthralled the audience with anecdotes from his extraordinary life, told in his newly published autobiography Ascent – A life spent climbing on the edge, and afterwards TripFiction’s Andrew was privileged to speak with him.
An explorer by nature, Chris described being ‘more interested in what is on the other side of a mountain, than by its summit.’
When just 16, he and a school friend hitch-hiked to Wales. They stayed in a hostel overnight, and in thick snow from one of the most extreme winters in years, started climbing Snowdon the following morning. Recognising their inexperience and unable to see the track, they walked with older climbers, but all of them were swept away by an avalanche. They survived. Chris’s friend went home immediately, never wanting to see another mountain. Chris stayed in a B&B overnight, as the hostel was full, and made another attempt the following day. His future was determined.
When asked about his most memorable ascent, Chris talked of Ogre in the Karakoram. Attempting this unconquered peak in 1977 was his toughest and coldest climb. The team went 5 days without food, and long-time climbing buddy Doug Scott broke both legs and had to crawl down the mountain.
TF: I really enjoyed your talk at the Guildford Book Festival. It was interesting to hear you say you are more intrigued about what is on the other side of a summit. Can you please tell TripFiction readers what your favourite hidden places are?
CB: Any wild, natural and open countryside. I was lucky to be President of the Council for National Parks for 10 years, and visited all the Parks. The British Isles really are beautiful, you know. Go to the Mendips. The North Downs. The Cotswolds. Norfolk Broads. Anywhere that is not manicured. And one of the benefits of recent events is that we seem to appreciating more what is on our doorsteps
TF: You spoke of the challenges of growing up. Your mother didn’t drive, there wasn’t much money around and you seemed to hitch lifts everywhere. Do you think your life would have been different in any way, had it been easier for you to travel more widely when young?
CB: I believe that if you have the desire to change the pattern of your life, you will make it happen somehow. Guts. Determination. Vision. The innate drive of an inner person can achieve anything.
TF: You said you enjoyed the film Everest. What about Touching the Void, dramatising the true story of two British climbers and their perilous 1985 ascent of the west face of the notoriously inaccessible Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes?
CB: The book was superb. Joe Simpson’s publishers asked me to write the foreword, and sent me the manuscript. I started reading it in bed one weekend, and my wife and I were so enthralled by the story that we both read the entire book without getting up, passing pages of the manuscript back and forth. I thought the film complemented the book really well, although I spotted that some of the scenes were filmed in the Alps, rather than in Peru.
TF: I love walking in the mountains, but I’m not brave enough to attempt a technical climb. I have climbed Kilimanjaro, but I don’t want to fill my rucksack with crampons and ice axes. I would love to go to the Himalayas just once before I die. Which route and area would you recommend, and which books could I read before I go?
CB: Go to Nepal. The Manaslu Circuit is off the beaten track, but amongst 8,000 metre peaks. It’s less popular than the Annapurna region but becoming better known. In general west Nepal is still relatively undeveloped. You’ll need a good guide, but there are plenty of boutique trekking companies around now.
And can I let you into a secret? I read very few climbing books!
TF: Ah….so which books do you like reading for enjoyment?
TF: Thank you so much for talking with me, Chris, and for giving TripFiction readers a little glimpse into the person behind all that climbing history. I’ll let you know how it goes in Nepal….
Andrew for the TripFiction Team
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