The making of Bonington Mountaineer

Posted by Brian Hall on 15/11/2017
Chris Bonington in the Himalaya. Photo: Bonington Archive
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Journeying through the life of Britain's most famous mountaineer, Chris Bonington, the new documentary film Bonington Mountaineer will premiere at Kendal Mountain Festival this weekend. To describe how the idea was born, Brian Hall takes us back to Chris's 80th birthday celebration to reclimb a line he first did almost 50 years before – The Old Man of Hoy.

A few weeks after BMC Patron Chris Bonington turned 80, on 6 August 2014, he travelled to the remote Orkney Isles off the North Coast of Scotland. He stared across at The Old Man of Hoy reminiscing on the first ascent almost 50 years ago with Tom Patey and Rusty Baillie. But on this day he is with his much younger friend Leo Houlding who had suggested a birthday climb,  and the BBC and Berghaus had joined forces to film and record the ascent.

Behind the camera was one of the world’s top adventure cameramen, Keith Partridge, and to make up the team I was brought in to organise the rigging and safety, helped by climbers Dave ‘Cubby’ Cuthbertson and Paul Tattersall.

Autumn had arrived early in the Orkneys and rain fell as we looked out on the ‘Old Man’. The celebratory ascent did not seem such a good idea to Chris now! Wendy, his wife of over 50 years, had tragically passed away a month earlier of motor neurone disease. Chris was grief stricken and unfit after devotionally caring for Wendy in the last years of her life. Would this be a catharsis or an embarrassing footnote to Chris’s illustrious life?

During those few days on Hoy it occurred to Keith and I that nobody had made a film of Chris’s life. The most famous mountaineer in Britain! The idea germinated then and we immediately suggested it to Chris. He was enthusiastic and agreed.

The life and climbs of Chris Bonington

I am from a different generation to Chris but over the years I have followed his exploits and read many of his books but it was only when I started to research his life in detail did I fully appreciate how impressive are his achievements. One common thread runs through his climbing life; genuine adventure. Chris is very proud of the fact that all his expeditions attempted unclimbed routes or virgin summits ….. apart from one … his own ascent of Everest by the classic South Col Route in 1985.

Over the next three years the spine of the film was formed by a series of frank interviews. Chris is a compelling storyteller and his words are complemented by interviews with Doug Scott (who supplied many great photos for the film), Paul ‘Tut’ Braithwaite, Jim Fotheringham, Hamish MacInnes and Charlie Clarke.

Keith and I became co-producers and directors, while Chris had total editorial control. Funding the film was difficult and the whole journey of raising cash was a tortuous one. We met producers and TV commissioning editors but there were always excuses. I really do not know what drives the decision-makers choices nowadays. They certainly do not seem to be giving me anything I want to watch. So we gave up with a broadcast but Chris who is Chairman of Berghaus suggested that they may be interested in helping. They did and provided the crucial financial support to get the project off the ground.

WATCH: Bonington Mountaineer – Trailer on BMC TV

We were heavily reliant on the photographs in the extensive Bonington archive together with footage from the key expeditions. The stories unfolded, stories of friendship, love, risk and devastating loss. And the one thing that stands out is Chris’s drive for exploration which is echoed in the first British ascent of the north wall of the Eiger, new routes on Mont Blanc such as the Freney Pillar and the first ascent of ‘The Old Man of Hoy’. Then further afield to the greater ranges where he was the first to stand on the virgin summits of Annapurna 2, Nuptse and the Central Tower of Paine. Followed by landmark expedition success on the South Face of Annapurna and Everest South West face and tragedy on K2 and the North East Ridge of Everest. Also came smaller but no less significant trips with friends on the Ogre and Shivling.

In many ways the film becomes a commentary of post war 20th century British mountaineering. Chris recognises Hamish MacInnes as a key person in his life, a mentor who pointed the way to the adventurous mantra he was to follow. Then Don Whillans as the most talented climber he shared a rope with. Doug Scott partnered by Dougal Haston provided the strength that finally solved the problem of the South West Face of Everest. But woven through the success is sadness of all too many friends who died in the hills, in particular Ian Clough, Nick Estcourt, Mick Burke, Joe Tasker and Pete Boardman

There was very little movie footage of his early climbs and this was an issue as moving image is so important in contemporary films and the modern social media world. We thought of staging reconstructions but this seemed to distract from the immediacy and honesty of the film. Editing the wealth of material was our greatest problem but by letting Chris tell his own powerful story, rather than having a commentator, helped with the intimacy of the story telling. We finished the film with a unique sound track composed by Harry Whalley and played by a group of Edinburgh classical musicians.

The film was finally ready for its world premiere at Banff Mountain Book and Film Festival the Kendal and Graz Mountain Film Festivals. We hope you enjoy it!

Bonington Mountaineer is a new 80 minute long documentary film on the life of Britain’s most famous mountaineer premieres in the UK at the Kendal Mountain Festival and will be available for sale as a Download or DVD on 20 November 2017 from www.boningtonfilm.com.


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