Growing up in South London in the 1970s there wasn’t an awful lot of scope for adventure. Even less was there scope for adventure involving any sort of altitude. There was the adventure playground of course, one of those strangely pre-health and safety areas where a couple of hippies in the pay of the council had fixed up rickety old structures of old bits of wood and tree branches to make 20-foot high death-trap walkways for pre-teens.
But as I discovered the first time I climbed up one of these, I have full blown ‘ground swirling beneath me combined with a vivid movie playing in my head of what it would look like as I hit the ground ten feet below’ vertigo.
And so, given that I was terrified of heights and given that at that point I had never even seen a mountain, it is something of a mystery how I became obsessed with Chris Bonington, the record-breaking British mountaineer. A shrink might say there are echoes of something a bit odd in getting a vicarious thrill reading about blokes’ toes and fingers turning black and falling falling off from frostbite. There is something about tales of cold and ice and hardship and failure which makes a man feel warm inside. Whatever it is, I don’t think, for instance that Sir Edmund Hilary, the first man ever to get to the top, could ever catch the childhood imagination like Chris Bonington, a man who had to try three times before he could match the Kiwi’s achievement. Perhaps it was because in the 1970s, Bonington was a national hero – or at least an heroic failure. His weather-beaten face with eyes that seemed to permanently squint against the glare of sun off ice crystals and snow, was familiar from the cover of the Sunday Times Magazine to the Blue Peter sofa.
Bonington was born in 1934, quite fittingly on the top of a hill in Hampstead, North London, and started rock climbing at the age of 16. He joined the army in 1956 after a conventionally disciplined education at Sandhurst and UCL and spent 3 years in Northern Germany in command of a troop of tanks. It was another two years in the army as a mountaineering instructor, and a mysterious return to civilian life working as a Management Trainee for Unilever for 6 months before he realised that the strength of his calling was likely to totally preclude him pursuing a ‘conventional career’. He was already famous from the age of 24 for his daring first British ascent of the South West Pillar of the Drus in the Alps in 1958 – a single thrust of bare granite which can take up to five days to climb. He quickly gained plaudits as one of the team who first conquered the Central Pillar of Freney on the south side of Mont Blanc in 1961 with Don Whillans, and the first British ascent of the North Wall of the Eiger in 1962. But to me he was the ice-bearded figure on the cover of my Arrow Book paperback edition of ‘Everest South West Face’.
Billed ‘The Adventure Story of the Decade’ it told the story of Bonington’s first attempt at the hardest way up Everest – which included a 2,000-foot climb up a bare band of rock at 29,000 feet which had never been attempted before. To put that in perspective, to this date a total of 15 climbers have summited via the South West Face – with four deaths – which gives a fatality rate of 27% for people who have climbed this route.
Chris Bonington's team was the first to try it and ‘Everest South West Face’ is the story of his fatal first attempt. My pre-teen imagination was captured with meticulous tales of the planning and buying and designing of equipment that he undertook as preparation with his principle fellow team members Dougal Haston and Dougie Scott. The analysis of the problems they would face, the tracing of maps and arguments over routes and the mounting sense of excitement and fear made the idea of mountaineering seem a gadget-freak's dream. 'What frightened me was the sheer size of the commitment and the challenge,' said Bonington at the time, 'and then, once we got stuck into it I enjoyed the organisation and never looked back.'
As they got nearer to their goal, the mountain started to fill their horizon and Bonington made no bones about the difficulties they would face, of the unbelievable adventure of crawling along a razor thin ridge in hundred mile an hour winds, when your body has already been living in conditions like these for days. As they waded through the jungle crawling with leeches capable of drawing up to a pint of a man’s blood, I raced from page to page. Their long trek through jungles and foothills of the approach to Everest seemed as real to me as cycling round the disused 1950s racing car track in Crystal Palace park.
And what happened on the track was pretty bad. Team member Tony Tighe was killed when he simply disappeared from the mountain. The rest of the team never reached the top, beaten back by appalling weather and the 2,000-feet of exposed rock on the route to the summit, and Bonington swore never again to set foot on that ‘bloody mountain’.
But when the opportunity arose for a further attempt, in the autumn of 1975, Bonington’s resolve had evidently weakened and he led the British Everest Expedition to exhilarating success when two of his group, Doug Scott and Dougal Haston, reached the summit on 24 September.
Speaking about how it felt to actually stand on the summit after his fourth attempt in 1985, Bonington said 'It was very confusing. I was absolutely exhausted. It was very emotional. I'd been there four times before. I'd lost a lot of friends, some of them actually on the expeditions trying to do it. So I couldn't help thinking of them – so there was a mixture of sorry and excitement and pleasure.'
Nowadays, the summit of Everest is a must for any self-respecting adrenalin junkie – it apparently resembles a litter-strewn park after a music festival – all crampons and backs of shit and frozen bodies of people left behind because it is too hard to move them from the death zone.
I know I will never experience the summit of Everest. I will wade through leach-infested jungles and even risk altitude sickness as a 20-a-day man on the foothills of the Himalayas, but I will never stand atop the peak of Everest. And you know why? It's not just because of the vertigo or sheer cliffs of ice and rock. Its mainly because I’ve read ‘Everest the Hard Way’ by Chris Bonington. And that’s as close as I’d like to get to the real thing.
I have tried to conquer my fear of heights by scaling a 50-foot climbing wall only to endure a massive panic attack at the top. I have abseiled off a hundred-foot cliff in the Israeli desert with its Special Forces but I still can't climb a stepladder without breaking out into a cold sweat.
That’s not to say I haven’t fantasised about following my hero. I eagerly walked up Scafell Pike, at 3,209 feet, on a school trip, and I followed in the footsteps of Bonington through the Picos de Europa when I was 17. Los Picos, for those who have an interest in such things, are an arid rocky string of mountain peaks reaching almost 9,000 feet which sweep down the Northern Coast of Spain’s Cantabria region in the same way their more famous cousins, the Pyrenees, do to the West. This was an unmitigated disaster – with an overweight, borderline personality disorder ex-squaddie from Doncaster for company and his emaciated mate who had that special look made most famous by Nigel Planer as Neil in The Young Ones. My companions were miserable, it was searing hot but worst of all the Picos de Europa were bloody high and sheer.
I know just how dangerous mountains can be, and that the fear isn’t irrational. I went with a bunch of mates up the Three Peaks in North Yorkshire – in weather so snowy the landlord asked us not to leave the hotel. We did two peaks in two days. Pen-y-ghent, the first one was waist-deep in snow and spectacular and amazing and a buzz to climb. But Ingleborough the next day almost killed us as we found ourselves in a blizzard as night was falling, completely lost on the top of the peak in pitch darkness without a torch or a clue or a competent mountaineer between us. I thought I was going to die. In Yorkshire.
Nowadays, a character like Ranulph Fiennes seems strangely out of kilter with modern Britain – a throwback to an era when officer class ex-military types pitted themselves against the elements and tried to get to the top, or bottom or middle of vast expanses of rock and ice. Nowadays it would be much more modern to snowboard down something than try to mount it. And by the time of Bonnington too this urge was already starting to feel old fashioned, but he gave it one last blast. His troop of mountaineers seemed counter-cultural, a bit hippy with their beards and traveller-ish mentality, a bit overland to India in their love of trekking through the Nepalese jungle and bit proto-punk in their disdain for the establishment and a determination to just get something done, by hook or by crook and who gave a fuck that everyone told them they were mad?
What made Bonnington and his team heroes in the Seventies was how they just botched their way to the top. Nowadays you can walk into a mountainering equipment suppliers, tell them you’re going up Everest and they’ll give you a bag with all the kit you need, so long as you write them a big enough cheque. There will be GPS devices, space race fabrics and clever little tins that heat up food for you.
Bonnington and his team stood at the end of the era when people climbed Everest with more or less the same kit that people went fell walking in the Lake District.
And what they couldn’t find they designed themselves.
Since then my connection with Chris Bonington has ended, apart from one very strange postscript. I moved into a house in a quiet street in West London and discovered my opposite neighbour was one of Bonington’s two sons. Something happened which confirmed to me that people who climb to the top of triangles made of ice and rock and wind and blood are in fact insane, because falling can be very bad news indeed. I was woken by screaming, but weird screaming, because in between the shouts of a mob of people in the street outside there was the unmistakable, though entirely unfamiliar sounds of the screaming of a dog in terrible fear. It was a hot London night and Bonington junior had left the window open and his boxer dog had climbed out on to the small sloping slated roof of the second floor. It was panicking and scrabbling on the roof 30 feet above the ground and all the neighbours were out in the street readying to break its fall as it slithered and scraped with its claws on the steep slate surface.
And then it fell to the street below. And it died. Loudly and slowly. Like the climbers who fall to their death every year. And that’s why I’m fascinated with Chris Bonington and all the rest of his lunatic ice-bearded breed. Because whilst the rest of us live in our comfort zones, they are only happy when they are on the verge of death.