Chris Bonington: back on the stack

Posted by Alex Messenger on 29/01/2015
Sir Chris Bonington and Leo Houlding on top of the Old Man of Hoy (Photo: Berghaus)
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Last year, Chris Bonington returned to the Old Man of Hoy, 46 years after making its first ascent. In this Summit interview, find out what he thinks about a life of adventure, and climbing after 85.

They could call him Father Climbing. He’s white bearded, twinkly eyed, known to children nationwide, and yet also sharply ambitious, self-aware and stoic. Despite losing his wife to motor neurone disease, Chris Bonington gallantly continued to inspire the nation last summer, spending his 80th birthday celebrations on a sea stack, his sea stack, the fittingly named Old Man of Hoy, which he first climbed in 1966.

Claire Carter finds out how traditional an E1 Scottish sea stack was in the sixties, why Leo Houlding is his golden boy and what, after 63 years of climbing around the globe, would he pass on to the next generation?

Why did you decide to re-climb the Old Man of Hoy?

Well, Leo gathered that I’d not been back since the live broadcast in 1967, so with my 80th birthday coming up he asked, “Shouldn’t we try it?” The complication was that Wendy was desperately ill with motor neurone disease and I couldn’t get away. Sadly, she died at the end of July, and I wasn’t sure whether I’d be emotionally up to it.  I finally decided I’d go for it, and it was quite a helpful process.

Can you explain how?

I think that even when you are desperately sad, you’ve got to try and accept that death is going to happen to all of us. I did find it difficult. I’m an emotional person, I cry rather easily, but you’ve got to face it.

In the footage of the climb, you demonstrate not just how incredibly fit you are at 80, but also how articulate. Has this come with age?

Well, in the early ‘60s, I decided I wanted to make a living from climbing, but I didn’t want to be an instructor; I’m too impatient, too selfish and I like climbing to the limit. I realised the only way was to be a communicator. I got out of Unilever, whom I was working for at the time, because I’d been invited to go on yet another expedition to Patagonia by Don Whillans. But I hadn’t the faintest idea what I was going to do when I got back. I’d just married Wendy, and we hadn’t any money. I’d thought I’d go into teaching and have long holidays, probably not the right reason to go into the profession! Anyway, Don and I had been laying siege to the North Wall of the Eiger, and at the end of ’62, I finally climbed it with Ian Cough. There was a lot of public interest afterwards, I was asked to write a book and really that was it. I’ve been doing it ever since.

Did being a climbing communicator come naturally?

Not really. I’m quite a shy person in many ways. I gave my first lecture when I was still in the army and we’d done the first British ascent of the South West Pillar of the Dru. I managed to get myself invited to the mountaineering club at Cambridge, and I was absolutely petrified. Back then a Cambridge lecture would always begin at least an hour late, and you’d have been very well dined and slightly pissed before you even started. I eventually got over my nerves as a lecturer, but before I starting writing my first book I’d written just one article. Luckily, I had a brilliant editor, Livia Gollanz, who taught me a hell of a lot, so I was only two years over deadline when I finally produced I Chose to Climb in ‘65.

Do you still enjoy writing now?

No, I hate writing. It’s bloody hard work! But when I’ve struggled with it, and then think maybe I’ve got it right – actually got the experience across and crafted something good – I find it hugely satisfying.

Perhaps like climbing? W H Murray wrote about the similarities between trying to pick the right words and the right holds…

Oh yes, Bill Murray! Mountaineering in Scotland was the inspirational book when I started climbing at the age of 16; it had a huge influence on me. Then I wasn’t interested in the Himalaya, they were unattainable, but I could hitch to Scotland and do the routes he’d written about. It was a wonderful thing.

Why did you leave technical rock and ice behind for expeditions?

It was just the natural progression then, but my base has always been rock climbing. When I started, I couldn’t imagine even going to the Alps. I’d never been abroad; my mum had never owned a car. Joining the Army and being stationed in Germany got me to the Alps and then on a Joint Services expedition to the Himalaya.  But for sheer enjoyment, there’s nothing like trad climbing in the UK.

How did you get the idea to do the first ascent of the Old Man of Hoy in 1966, was that really just enjoyable trad climbing?

Well not quite, it was down to Tom Patey – he’d spied it out. We’d climbed together, both in winter and summer, and he was an extraordinary mountaineer. He wasn’t a brilliantly technical climber (his lead standard was only about Hard VS) but his solo standard was the same as his lead. The big challenge was to catch him up and persuade him to put the bloody rope on. If you never caught him up, you soloed the route! He was also a prodigious pioneer with huge numbers of new routes to his credit.

Had you ever climbed on a sea stack before?

Never. I think Tom reckoned it was going to be technically too hard for either of us, so he recruited Rusty Bailey, a Rhodesian who was very good at aid climbing. The second pitch is the crux and we took a whole day on it while Rusty aided up using big wooden wedges to hammer into the wide crack. The following year we had the big TV spectacular. Joe Brown arrived earlier than me and climbed it free, so I had to as well. It wasn’t too bad.

How did Leo compare to Tom Patey as a climbing partner?

Very different, but they’re both great in their own ways.  I remember first seeing Leo when he was nine or ten, and his mum would leave him to climb at Shepherd’s Crag with a mate whilst she was shopping in Keswick. It was really annoying to watch these whippersnappers nipping up things that you were finding rather hard! I’ve come to know Leo well in the last few years.  Our central values are the same, and he’s a superb adventure climber, speed climber and daring base jumper.  He’s also addressed how to make a living out of climbing, realising that all his climbs need filming to a very high standard.

Would you have fancied Leo’s Last Great Climb, or the Autana expedition? They seemed to struggle with the bugs in the jungle…

Too bloody cold! And I’ve enjoyed many a buggy climb, but I like gentle and fun climbing now. I’ve done enough of the hard stuff.

You spent the majority of your climbing career leading expeditions, did you ever crave venturing into the hills alone?

I’ve done a bit of solo climbing but I like company, though for someone who’s organised big expeditions, I actually prefer small teams. One of the best trips I ever had was with Charlie Clarke, my doctor on most of my big expeditions. Flying in to attempt the North East Ridge of Everest in ‘82, we saw the huge unclimbed Nyangla-Qen-Tangla Shan range. Right on the far horizon there was a mountain that was obviously higher than any of the others, so in ‘96 we went to try and find it. We didn’t do any climbing at all, purely exploring. It’s that kind of thing that I’ve enjoyed the most, rather than the huge expeditions.

It sounds like the wilderness was a huge draw, were you able to just disappear?

No, we couldn’t quite disappear, although back in ‘96 at least there wasn’t Facebook. When we went back for the big expedition on Sepu Kangri we had to constantly send newscasts back to ITV news and blog for our sponsors, which meant when you’d got down off the mountain, instead of reading a book or playing bridge or just going to sleep, you had to get on the bloody computer and write a story. I regard that with very mixed feelings. I think we were much better off when we had no communication at all.  Though I’ve always kept a diary, it’s mostly about people. When you are leading a big expedition you are constantly juggling the desires, the plans and everything else that your fellow team members might have, so your diary becomes a confessional.

And you’ve handed all these confessionals to the Mountain Heritage Trust?

Oh yes, they’ve got it all! I’ve put an embargo on the diaries because they were very personal and inevitably on expedition you’d be really pissed off with someone and you said so. Reading back I think “Cor, blimey, I was an intolerable young so-and-so!”, but I hope that when I’m dead and gone the diaries will give an interesting perspective.

How important was diplomacy on expedition, did you have to resort to cracking the whip?

I had a clear vision for what I wanted to achieve, but I’ve always believed in working within the consensus of the group. The leader’s got to both sell his vision to the team, and also learn from the team. Very often you might have an idea but it’s in the discussion of how you’re going to do it that that idea can be strengthened, and through that participation you get great commitment. I made loads of mistakes, but on the whole got the job done.

Your relationships at home have been equally important, you recently described Wendy as your rock.

I was very lucky that I fell in love with someone who had her own strong interests, all of them creative, and who encouraged me to follow my passion for climbing to the full. The only time when she would get unhappy was if she sensed I was unhappy, perhaps I was carrying on with a climb for career reasons or not to let someone down, in other words I had some doubts. In most cases I realised it was simply the wrong thing to do, and so I backed out of one or two expeditions. 

What do you think of modern alpinism?

What this generation of climbers are doing is absolutely incredible. The long alpine-style routes on big Himalayan peaks, nine or ten days on the face by yourself. I’m rather glad I don’t have to do that.

But the cutting edge must always seem intimidating; when you were breaking climbing boundaries, either in the Himalaya or on a sea stack, the equipment you used wasn’t much different to what people took fell walking?

When I started in 1951, the equipment was similar to what you had before the Second World War. My first rope was a hemp rope, my first boots were nailed, although Woolworths’ gym shoes were very good for rock climbing.  I wasn’t a very technical person, and it never occurred to me until I climbed with Joe Brown in ’61 to have a pocket full of pebbles that you could place in a crack to thread. I’ve always just used the latest device available to make myself a bit safer.

You are also very concerned with keeping wild spaces safe, and quite politically active in their defence?

The environment is under a much greater threat now than it ever has been, much more so than when I was young. I enjoyed my role as President of the Council for National Parks (now Campaign for National Parks) helping to preserve their beauty and balance out all the needs of the different people using them. The BMC do a good job, and on the whole there are enough people within the climbing body that young climbers can just get out and on with their climbing, which is what they should be doing.

Can you recommend me a wild British climb or walk?

While I was still at school, I hitched up to the northern highlands with a guy called Tony Taylor, and we spent the night in a lovely little dungeon in the ruins of Ardveck Castle on Loch Assynt. We walked in to Suilven and inadvertently did a new route up its West Buttress when we got lost. We traversed the mountain, walked back to pick up our sacks and walked south, completely pathless, along the shores of Loch Sionasgaig and got to the foot of Stac Pollaidh at two o’clock in the morning. It was mid-summer and still twilight that far north. We spent the night there in a bothy and then climbed Stac Pollaidh the next day. That’s what British adventure is about.

Are there any adventures that you wouldn’t recommend, new routing can’t always have been so pleasant?

Well, I tell you, you forget the bad things! I’m not a brilliant new router. I’ve got to confess my best new climbs were when my climbing partner had the eye for a route. But we’ve put up some decent ones over the years.

Are you planning to go back and re-climb any others?

Well, my climbing standard has gone catastrophically low…

It didn’t seem too bad on the Old Man!

No, it’s a fact. Mostly, I’ve got a good constitution, but the Old Man of Hoy crippled me, I managed to trap a nerve in my back so it’s off to the osteopath. My leading standard is about 4a and, really, I want to pull that up. Buy you suddenly realise when you are 80, looking around at climbing friends, that you are going to be doing pretty well to be still climbing over 85. Then you look at your 90-year-old climbing mates, and there’s very few of them doing very much. So all you can hope for is to keep climbing as much as you can and as well as you can. But I also enjoy working, for Berghaus, my charities and Lancaster University. I need those things to inspire me to keep climbing.

Chris, if anyone can keep climbing beyond 85, I think it might be you.

I’ll certainly be doing my best.

Chris Bonington is a BMC Patron

Poetry graduate and reckless writer Claire Carter is based in Sheffield. Follow her on Twitter: @CJ_Cart

Old Man of Hoy: essential facts

What: iconic 137m-high sea stack.

Where: the island of Hoy, Orkney Archipelago.

First climbed: the Original (East Face) Route, a 5-pitch E1 5b was first climbed in 1966 by Bonington, Baillie and Patey.

On TV: on 8-9 July 1967, Bonington and Patey repeated their original route, whilst two new lines were climbed – by Joe Brown and Ian McNaught-Davis, and by Pete Crew and Dougal Haston – for a live BBC three-night outside broadcast.

Watch Leo Houlding climb Napes Needle, Cumbria on BMC TV:



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