Man and Mountain, it's fair to say that Sir Chris Bonington found his calling in remote high areas across the globe. But when did he first realise he was made for the mountains? And did anything ever stand in his way of making these daring ascents? Mountain Heritage Trust's own Jonny Dry explains how Sir Chris' love of climbing and mountaineering helped him resist the status quo.
The conceptional years
Chris Bonington’s grand plan was beginning to unravel. Upon leaving school at the age of eighteen National Service had seemed a logical step towards a full-time mountain career. Yet upon joining he began to drift. Pulled into the fold by the military he stepped away from his initial plan to join mountain rescue with Royal Air Force and instead joined Sandhurst to commission as an officer.
Three years later in 1956, Chris’ early enthusiasm was quickly disappearing. Equally he had Hamish MacInnes pressing him to make a British attempt on the North Face of the Eiger. “I was desperate enough to agree,” remembers Chris. This was where his aspirations lay and something he could not let go of.
With Avon Gorge classics Mercavity and Malbogies and pioneering Glencoe winter lines to his name, Chris’ track record was rapidly progressing across rock, winter and alpine climbing. The military however was stealing away his focus towards a comfortable and stable life and Chris was desperate to not let that happen. “I don’t think I have really got much of a vocation for peacetime soldiering,” wrote Chris to his mother. “I think I shall try to take up climbing professionally. It’s something I love, and I think I am good at, even if it does not lead very far.” Chris’ early childhood experiences weighed heavily on him but they were rapidly drifting into the past as his military career threatened to take over.
It was difficult for Chris to ignore his early upbringing in Hampstead. Mountains were part of an entirely different world and yet Chris was already developing an adventurous spirit that saw him repeatedly escape to explore the area around his home. Run-ins with the police did little to quell his spirit, being returned red-handed by the authorities had all become part of the game.
It was not until evacuation to Westmorland during World War II that Chris first became exposed to the freedom of the mountains. Based suddenly on the outskirts of the Lake District, he found not just fields, but fells outside his window. Often accompanied by his grandmother, Chris was taken to the Grasmere valley where he explored under open skies. Yet he always retained a little mischief to escape from his Westmorland school now and again, just as he had done in Hampstead.
Now older however, military life had begun to erode this spirit in Chris. He felt isolated from his climbing community and out of place with many of his fellow officers. Was there maybe another way to devote his life to climbing? An advertisement for outdoor instructing work with the Army Outward Bound School appeared as if in answer. Here was an escape route and a perfect way to re-focus. His superior officer however gave Chris a dire warning – such a move would do little for his military career. Chris however, was immovable and arrived at the Army Outward Bound School in Shrewsbury in 1959. Immediately he noticed a strangely familiar atmosphere to the school. The scene of laid back officers on first name terms in the mess could have easily been a remote mountain bothy filled with dirtbags.
Made for the mountains
Chris slipped easily in to this environment and began climbing regularly in Snowdonia. He was startled to find that rock climbing had progressed somewhat in his absence. Pioneering routes of the mid 1950s that had previously intimidated him were being climbed with startling frequency. Overhearing a voice in the Pen y Gwryd Hotel one evening, Chris heard one climber describe Joe Brown’s Cenotaph Corner as a “piece of duff”. Rattled, he began to tick his way through the rapidly growing number of lines that were appearing in Llanberis.
He had first encountered the Snowdonian mountains enroute to his grandfather’s home in Dublin as a teenager. On the Holyhead line the range can be seen from the train window and it was these that Chris saw at the age of sixteen. For the time being though they were to remain mysterious magnet on the horizon. “I wanted to explore them, to find out more about them, but at the same time I was frightened by their size and my own lack of experience.” Snowdonia seemed larger than life and part of another world that he did not yet fully understand.
Chris shaken after nearly falling to his death when an abseil rope broke following the first ascent of central tower of Paine, South Patagonia, in 1963. Photo: Chris Bonington Picture Library
Those feelings of trepidation did not stop him convincing a friend to attempt Snowdon in the depth of winter a few years later. Underestimating the conditions, Chris and Anton hitch-hiked to the Capel Curig Youth Hostel, planning an attempt from Pen y Pass. Clad in appropriated school clothing, the two sat in a corner of the hostel. Shyness had overcome them, grizzled mountaineers swirled around and conversations of daring feats on exposed tops left them isolated and completely inspired.
They set out the next day, a good path seemed to lead the way to the top. Yet the mountains showed their true colours as the cloud descended and the snow began again. Completely ignorant of the danger, the two ploughed onward after a team ahead of them. Cold, disorientated and entirely out of their depth they found themselves upon the Crib Goch ridgeline. They had lost the party ahead of them and were completely exposed in an increasingly serious situation. The wind cavorted, whistled and suddenly they were falling, caught by an avalanche that spat them off the ridgeline.
They turned tail, soaked and with a valuable appreciation of the mountain’s danger. Anton was convinced that one close encounter was enough and the two never climbed together again. For Chris it merely made him want to learn and climb more. So much so that by the time he joined the Outward Bound School he had already climbed the South West Pillar of the Dru and made an unsuccessful attempt on the Eiger.
Living continuously in Wales with Outward Bound School had given Chris unparalleled access to the growth of climbing in North Wales. However the threat of a return to the Royal Tank Regiment loomed large in his mind. He began to panic. Up until now he had jumped on every opportunity to escape on expedition but those options appeared to have run dry. A chance meeting with Joe Walmsley in North Wales led to Chris being accepted on to an expedition to Nuptse. Nine travelled to attempt the South Face of Nuptse and Chris could barely believe his luck. He handed the army his resignation determined to blag his way into a stable job that balanced security with the freedom to climb. He was an established part of the climbing community and was determined to not let that go.
The making of the man
As a boy he had begun as an outsider but his youthful persistence had paid off. After his early escape on Crib Goch he found himself with no family connections and miles away from anything that resembled a mountain. Yet upon discovering that a family friend had previously climbed and lived close by, he convinced them to take him out to Harrison’s Rocks in Kent.
The crag nowadays is a well worn escape spot for many a city climber, but even in the early days Chris remembers the activity that reverberated round the crag. It was the energy of the crag that first struck Chris, climbers shouted advice, crowds assembled to watch, and above all their heads a multitude of potential lines; Dick’s Diversion and Slim Finger Crack, all seemingly impossible.
They began at a narrow chimney which quickly proved to be a battle as he mindlessly floundered upward. The experience was a release he had not found before in other physical activities; “I felt sympathy with the rock; I found that my body somehow slipped into balance naturally, without any conscious thought on my part.”
This experience sparked a determination to go even further, and Chris travelled with John Hammond to Glencoe during the winter of 1953. The conditions were atrocious and the inexperienced pairing had little success. After unsuccessful days trudging through the cold, they met a group of “rough-looking climbers” drinking tea round the fire of Lagangarbh climbers hut; amongst them the notorious Hamish MacInnes. Chris made a bold request to follow them up their first winter attempt on Agag’s Groove and an amused MacInnes agreed. The next day saw the two young climbers battle their way behind a singing MacInnes and his party. In the days that followed more coveted lines were claimed, including Raven’s Gully. Little did Chris know in 1953 that his first trip to Glencoe would contain what is now a classic of the notorious Slime Wall. But it was an experience that had opened his eyes to what the very top climbers of the day were achieving, and an insight into the camaraderie that Britain’s mountaineering huts are renowned for.
Chris and Don Whillans re-enact the first ascent of Dovedale Grooves. Photo: Chris Bonington Picture Library
Throughout his early years Chris balanced convention and climbing. Yet his exploration in Cumbria, Wicklow, Glencoe and the Alps made too deep an impression to be ignored. Increasingly it became clear to him that traditional life couldn’t come close to such experiences. Even when convincing himself that he needed a stable corporate job upon leaving the army, it only ever sounded like a lie. “Why choose marketing?” asked the then managing director of Van den Berghs Ltd – an associate company of Unilever at Chris’ second interview for a position in the marketing department. “I’m interested in selling things,” came Chris’ reply, “and the whole process of marketing.” The stability that the military had provided weighed heavily on him, and the urge to maintain such a conventional lifestyle was strong. Yet Chris’ driftings in the mountains were irrepressible; the mountains slowly growing in his mind ever since his early days in the Lakeland fells. He may have managed to convince himself a job with Unilever seemed the right course of action, but it was a trip to Nuptse that had really taken over his mind in 1961.
It was perhaps inevitable that his plans for a stable life would prove unattractive upon his return. Chris resented missing a trip to Patagonia and was again becoming enthralled by a huge triangular vision. After retreating with Hamish MacInnes in 1957, Chris still had the Eiger bug deep within his soul. Finally convinced that a life of security was the last thing he wanted, he quit, packed his rucksack and rode out with Don Whillans in 1962 to Alpiglen. Their goal was the first British success on the Eiger’s massive North Face.
A photo taken by the Daily Express in Hampstead shows Chris and Don astride a motorbike laden with ropes and hardware. Both men cut calm figures for the camera that does little to show just how big a leap Chris had just taken. The Eiger would prove to be the start of an entirely new chapter in Chris’ life, yet all that was unknown to him as they thundered south through Europe. For now it was simply an escape from normality.
Words: Jonny Dry, marketing co-ordinator at Mountain Heritage Trust. Man and Mountain, the Mountain Heritage Trust’s new exhibition on world renowned mountaineer Sir Chris Bonington, is open at Keswick Museum until 6 January 2019. Many thanks to the Chris Bonington Picture Library for kindly allowing us to use their images.
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