From the highest point in London to the highest point on the planet, Chris Bonington’s life is one of extremes, as his remarkable autobiography reveals
19 October, 2017 — By Gerald Isaaman
Chris Bonington climbing on the Central Tower of Paine, Chile. PHOTO: Chris Bonington Picture Library
His earliest memory, living in Tanza Road, on the edge of Hampstead Heath, was being out there with the girl next door when he was aged just three. The police were called to find them when they failed to return home from what became their perfect adventure playground.
He soon scaled Parliament Hill and became a tree-climbing addict, not bad for a boy born in the now-forgotten Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Maternity Home, opposite Whitestone Pond, appropriately the highest point above London.
And while the Heath’s magical foothills may have inspired many a painter and poet before – and since – the sky-haunted Constable and ill-fated Keats, it can claim but one mighty mountaineer.
Indeed, Chris Bonington, the now-knighted, celebrated climber whose passion to reach fabulous summits turned mountaineering from a minor sport to one that has produced generations of mountaineers after he conquered the impregnable north face of the Eiger.
Now, at 83, he reveals the remarkable story in his autobiography – called Ascent, of course.
“From that first escape onto the Heath as a very young child, I explored its mysteries with a variety of friends – the woods and duelling ground of Kenwood House, the deciduous trees of the northern Heath, stretching down to Golders Hill and its deer park, swimming in the Hampstead ponds, smoking my first and only cigarette in the dark vault under the viaduct at the age of nine,” he writes. “I still love wandering over it.”
Hampstead subsequently played a vital role as the place he married his first wife, Wendy, and, when she sadly died, found love again with Loreto, widow of fellow mountaineer Ian McNaught-Davis.And that, coincidentally was a wedding ceremony at St Mary’s, Holly Place, the very church his mother had her own, albeit disastrous marriage blessed before his birth, Bonington growing up without a father forever present.
His career since those early days has included 19 expeditions to the Himalayas, including four to Mount Everest – he was the oldest to conquer it when he was 51 – and the first ascent of the formidable south face of Annapurna.
It was in 1955 that he hit the headlines for the very first time when he joined a successful joint-services attempt on Annapurna II in Nepal, at almost 8,000 metres one of the highest mountains then unclimbed, on what was his debut expedition to the Himalayas.
As a young reporter in Hampstead then, I tracked down his mother in Redington Road – not far from University College School where Bonington had been a pupil – to be told she hoped he would give up his climbing mania and “get a useful job,” something he too remembers.
As Bonington recalls that initial triumph: “When we did arrive, at a small cone of snow from which everything dropped away, I barely believed it. It was a tremendously moving moment, perhaps because it was my first big unclimbed peak but more I think because we had worked so well together. We were cut off from the others by the flood of cloud around us, perched on our summit, marooned in space. It was four in the afternoon. We would do well to make camp before dark. That sensations of isolation hadn’t left Sherpa Ang Nima’s mind for a moment. ‘Down going, Sahibs,’ he said.”
Yet this was Bonington, the boy taken to the Tavistock Clinic because he was bullied at primary school – he was assessed to have a high IQ of 143 – and he admits he was a shy child, adding: “But on a mountain side I instantly felt totally at home.”
Young Chris Bonington, aged 16, at University College School. Right, a portrait by Robert Wilson
Before that opportunity seriously arose his mother applied to UCS junior school for a place for him. “All I had to do was survive the interview with the headmaster, ‘the alarming Dr Lake’, as my mother described him. He was tall, very thin, white-haired with fierce dark eyes.
“Remarking on my name, I explained my Danish origins. ‘Well Christian, my young Dane, what is the capital of Denmark?’ ‘Belgrade, sir.’ I might not have known the answers to all of his questions, but I stood firm and looked him in the eye and never once glanced towards Mum for reassurance.
“I was accepted and soon settled down, making a few friends, though none of them close. I was conscientious in class but still behind and a terrible speller, something that worried Mum a great deal.”
Then, aged 12, he went off to a Devon holiday farm. “I can remember the thrill of having an illicit bath with one of the girls I met,” he writes. “There were riding lessons, and they had some ferrets, which were put under my care.”
Trips to Ireland, North Wales and Scotland provided his first climbing exploits at 16, which ultimately became a lifetime passion. “It’s funny, I have never felt anxious before a climb, but I suffered terrible from exam nerves,” he says. “I ended up failing my English A-level and couldn’t face going back to resit, so I decided to go do my National Service with the RAF mountain rescue team. “I remember one of the officers saying, ‘Wouldn’t you rather be a pilot?’ My mum didn’t even own a car and I knew I wasn’t remotely mechanically minded, but I said, ‘Yes of course, that’s what I’ve always wanted to do’.”
At Buckingham Palace with his mother, receiving his CBE
However, he soon switched to the Army and served with the Royal Tank Regiment, which gave him the opportunity to face the Himalayas at a time when climbing was still only a hobby before he eventually ended up with a management job with Unilever, as his mother wanted, albeit temporary as reaching for the sky took him off on new hazardous expeditions.
His final barrier has been to overcome writer’s block to tell us of his amazing story of adventure and personal happiness as he climbs the mountain of old age.
“Looking back over all the years, has been a challenging exercise of introspection, reliving the joy and despair,” he acknowledges. “But that is now all in the past. What I value above all is finding, for the second time, a deep passionate joyous love that fills my whole being, and the love also for our families and friends – and making the absolute most of whatever time we have left on earth.”
• Ascent: A Life Spent Climbing On The Edge. By Chris Bonington, Simon & Schuster, £20