CHRIS IN BRIEF
Chris, the mountaineer, writer, photographer and lecturer, started climbing at the age of 16 in 1951. It has been his passion ever since. He made the first British ascent of the North Wall of the Eiger and led the expedition that made the first ascent of The South Face of Annapurna, the biggest and most difficult climb in the Himalaya at the time. He went on to lead the successful expedition making the first ascent of the South West Face of Everest in 1975 and then reached the summit of Everest himself in 1985 with a Norwegian expedition. He is still active in the mountains climbing with the same enthusiasm as he had at the beginning.
He has written 17 books, fronted numerous television programmes and has lectured to the public and corporate audiences all over the world. He received a knighthood in 1996 for services to mountaineering, was president of the Council for National Parks for 8 years and is currently Non-Executive Chairman of Berghaus.
of climbs, honours, positions, books, etc. …click here
and first ascents …click here
Early Days 1934-1968…read on
The Great Expedition Years 1968-1985…read on
After Everest 1986 onwards…read on
Born in Hampstead in 1934, Chris Bonington was educated at University College School, London. He started climbing in 1951, while still at school, hitch hiking to Snowdonia and Scotland in his holidays, climbing with anyone he could find.
He left school before Christmas 1952 to start his National Service in the RAF. Having applied and entered the Royal Air Force College, Cranwell to train as a pilot, he failed to fly solo, and so transferred to the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. During this time he climbed avidly in the British Isles and started putting up new routes particularly in the Avon Gorge. Here he was the first to open up the big Main Wall with Mercavity and Malbogies.
He was commissioned in the Royal Tank Regiment in 1956, spent three years in North Germany in command of a troop of tanks and then two years at the Army Outward Bound School as a mountaineering instructor.
1958-1961 Spreading his wings into the Alps and the Himalaya
It was during this period that he started climbing in the Alps, making the first British ascent of the South West Pillar of the Drus in 1958 and that of the Brandler Hasse Route on the North Wall of the Cima Grande in the Dolomites in 1959.
In 1960, as a member of the Joint British-Indian-Nepalese Services Expedition he made the first ascent of Annapurna II (7937 metres.) with Captain Dick Grant MC of the Royal Marines and Corporal Ang Nyima Sherpa of the Brigade of Gurkhas.
In 1961 he left the army to join a civilian expedition to Nuptse (7,861 metres), the third peak of Everest, making the first ascent by its huge South Face. At the time this was one of the most challenging climbs to be completed in the Himalaya.
Chris travelled back overland to Chamonix to meet up with Don Whillans and they spent most of that summer sitting below the North Wall of the Eiger hoping to make an attempt but conditions were too bad. At the end of August they moved back to Chamonix to make the first ascent of the Central Pillar of Freney on the south side of Mont Blanc with Ian Clough and a Polish climber, Jan Djuglosz. Again it was one of the most difficult climbs in the Alps and even today is considered one of the great classics of the Mont Blanc region.
He had already got a job as a Management Trainee with Unilever and joined them in September that year hoping to combine a conventional career with his love of mountaineering.
1962 A Year that changed his life
In 1962, he met Wendy, his wife to be, at a Twelfth Night Party. This was to be the most important event of his life, and they married that May.
When he was invited to join an expedition to the Central Tower of Paine in Southern Chile that Autumn his boss in Unilever told him he should decide what he should do with his life – get on with his career or go climbing. He chose the latter.
He left his job in July to spend the rest of the summer in the Alps, making the first British ascent of the North Wall of the Eiger with Ian Clough at the end of the summer.
Then in October it was off to Chile with Wendy and the climbing team. They laid siege to the Central Tower of Paine, were battered by the dread Patagonian winds, and found themselves in a race for the summit with an Italian expedition which arrived unexpectedly. Finally, Don Whillans and Chris made the first ascent on 16 January 1963.
1963-1968 Learning how to make a living around climbing
On returning to England in the Spring of 1963, Chris and Wendy settled in the Lake District and Chris got down to writing his first book, “I Chose to Climb” and lecturing about his ascent of the Eiger.
He also spent the summers climbing in the Alps making first ascents, which included the Right-Hand Pillar of Brouillard on the South side of Mont Blanc, in 1965.
In 1966, back in the UK, he made the first ascent of The Old Man of Hoy with Tom Patey and Rusty Baillie and took part in the spectacular live televised broadcast of the climb in the following year.
Chris and Wendy’s first child, Conrad was born in early 1964, but tragically lost his life in an accident in 1966. They had two more children, Daniel and Rupert born in 1967 and 1969 respectively.
His career as a photo-journalist had blossomed in early 1966 with his first assignment with the Daily Telegraph Magazine to cover an attempt to make the first ascent of a direct route up the North Wall of the Eiger by John Harlin, Dougal Haston and Layton Korr. Sadly John Harlin was killed when the fixed rope broke, but Dougal Haston succeeded in reaching the top with a group of Germans who were also on the climb.
Other assignments followed; going to Ecuador to climb and photograph Sangay, one of the most active volcanoes in the world, and to Baffin Island to hunt caribou with the Eskimos. His fast-developing career as an adventure journalist and photographer reached a climax in 1968 when he accompanied an Army Expedition, led by the then Captain John Blashford-Snell, in their first descent of the Blue Nile from Lake Tana to the Sudanese frontier. This involved shooting dangerous rapids, the threat of crocodiles and being shot at in an ambush. But he was missing the activity he loved and thoroughly understood, climbing and mountaineering.
1968-1975 The Big Himalayan Walls – Annapurna and Everest
In the autumn of 1968 Chris started planning an expedition to attempt the South Face of Annapurna. At this time no Himalayan wall on an 8,000 metre peak had been climbed and tackling this huge, 3,000 metre wall was a step into the unknown since it involved climbing steep rock and ice at heights of over 7,000 metres. Careful choice of team members, logistical planning and some very hard climbing was rewarded by success when Dougal Haston and Don Whillans reached the summit on 27th May, 1970. Tragically Ian Clough lost his life at the end of the expedition in an avalanche
After the ascent of the South Face of Annapurna, the South West Face of Everest was a logical follow-up. In 1972 Chris made his first attempt but was defeated by the savage winds and intense cold of the autumn and winter. He learnt a great deal, however, from the experience.
In those days the Nepalese authorities only allowed one expedition at a time on the mountain and it was fully booked through to 1985, so Chris got on with other climbs. He made the first ascent of Brammah (6411m) in 1973 with Nick Estcourt and that of Changabang (6864m) in 1974 with Doug Scott, Dougal Haston, Martin Boysen, Balwant Sandhu and Tachei Sherpa.
When the opportunity came for a further attempt on the South West Face of Everest he took a team out in the autumn of 1975. Doug Scott and Dougal Haston reached the summit successfully on 24th September, though tragedy struck on the 2nd ascent by Peter Boardman and Pertemba Sherpa when Mick Burke was lost.
1976-1981 More Himalayan Climbs
In 1977 Chris and Doug Scott made the first ascent of the Ogre (7,284 metres) in the Karakoram Himalaya and had an epic six-day descent, aided by Mo Anthoine and Clive Rowland. They went without food for five days and fought through a blizzard, with Doug Scott crawling all the way as he had broken both his legs soon after leaving the summit. Chris also had a fall and broke three ribs.
In 1978 Bonington led a team of eight to attempt the previously unclimbed West Ridge of K2, which at 8,760m is the second highest mountain in the world. This ended when, tragically, Nick Estcourt was engulfed by a huge avalanche, which swept across their route.
There was then a break of two years spent researching and writing his book, QUEST FOR ADVENTURE, a study of post-war adventure in all its aspects.
In 1980 after China had re-opened some of their mountain areas to foreign mountaineers Chris, Dr. Michael Ward and Alan Rouse were among the first Europeans to go there, making a reconnaissance of Mount Kongur, a remote unclimbed mountain in Western Xinjiang. They returned again in 1981 for the successful ascent of the 7,704m. peak accomplished by Bonington, Peter Boardman, Joe Tasker and Alan Rouse.
1982-1985 Back to Everest
In 1982 Chris, together with Peter Boardman, Joe Tasker and Dick Renshaw, attempted the long unclimbed North East Ridge of Everest without oxygen. Dick Renshaw had to retire when he suffered a mild stroke (diagnosed by Charles Clarke, the expedition’s doctor) . The other three continued, but Chris decided that as he was moving so much slower than either Boardman or Tasker at high altitude, they should go for the top on their own. They both disappeared on the summit ridge on what Chris had described up to that moment as ‘the happiest expedition any of us had been on’. He was deeply distressed by the loss of two such close friends but he never thought of giving up climbing.
In 1983 he made the first ascent of the West Summit of Shivling (6501m) with Jim Fotheringham in the Gangotri Himalaya in India. They climbed alpine-style taking five days, up and down. A few weeks later he joined millionaire Frank Wells and Dick Bass on a fascinating expedition to Antarctica to climb Mount Vinson (4,897m), its highest peak in temperatures down to -35C and with winds of over 50 miles an hour.
In June 1984, together with Al Rouse and two Pakistani climbers, he attempted the unclimbed 7,500m Karun Koh in the Karakoram Himalaya but was defeated by bad weather.
In 1985, Chris realised a life time’s ambition when he reached the summit of Everest by the South Col route as a member of the Norwegian Everest Expedition led by Arne Naess.
1986-1995 There’s life after Everest
There was no sense of anti-climax after his ascent of Everest, rather a sense of relief at getting it out of his system and getting on with the exploratory climbing that he loved. In 1987 and 1988 he led expeditions to Menlungtse, (7150 metres), at the time one of the most beautiful and technically difficult unclimbed peaks in the world. In 1988 the expedition made the first ascent of the West Peak of Menlungtse. In addition they searched for the legendary yeti and were accompanied by a BBC Natural History Unit film team who made a documentary of the search.
For two and a half years he was involved in the writing and production of a pictorial autobiography, ‘MOUNTAINEER’, and a television series and book about the history of mountaineering ‘THE CLIMBERS’.
Then he joined forces with Robin Knox-Johnston and Jim Lowther, an experienced Greenland hand, on an expedition to Greenland to give Chris and Jim the experience of sailing and Robin, that of climbing. They sailed from Whitehaven in ‘Suhaili’, the yacht in which Knox-Johnston had made the first non-stop, single-handed circumnavigation of the world, to the East Coast of Greenland which is guarded by dense pack ice. They then skied, pulling pulks, to the foot of the unclimbed, 2,660 metre Cathedral peak, in the remote Lemon Bjerge range but did not succeed in climbing it.
In 1992 he led jointly with Harish Kapadia, an extremely successful Indian/British expedition to the remote Kumaon Himalaya in northern India. Several first ascents were made including the West Ridge of Panch Chuli II (6904m) by Chris and Graham Little.
In July 1993, he joined Jim Lowther, Graham Little and Rob Ferguson on a return expedition to the Lemon Bjerge range in Greenland, this time flying into the Chisel Glacier and making three first ascents, a mixed route on the Chisel and two technically challenging rock routes on the Ivory Tower and the Needle.
In August he visited the Russian Caucasus, climbing Mount El’brus (5642m) – the highest peak in Europe – and the demanding North East Ridge of Ushba.
In 1994 he returned to one of the little explored areas of northern India and, together with Harish Kapadia, led another joint Indian/British expedition. Their objective was Rangrik Rang an unclimbed peak of 6,553m in the upper reaches of the Tirung Gad in the Kinnaur Himalaya, a region previously unvisited by climbers. They succeeded in putting eight members of the team on the summit.
To celebrate the 10th Anniversary of the successful 1985 Norwegian Everest Expedition the original team came together again, this time to make the first ascent of Drangnag-Ri, a beautiful and steep 6,801m peak in the Rolwaling Himal, appropriately, in sight of Everest.
1996-1998 The Sepu Kangri Odyssey
In 1996 Chris made a reconnaissance with Charles Clarke to North East Tibet to find the peak they had seen through a plane window on their way to Lhasa in 1982. They found their mountain (Sepu Kangri 6,950m) and in the Spring of 1997 made their first attempt to climb it. Jim Lowther, Jim Fotheringham, John Porter and Chris made up the climbing team, supported by Charles Clarke, Jim Curran (filming) and Duncan Sperry (Email and Internet technical support). This was the first time that Chris used satellite technology on an expedition to run a web site. The team were beaten by appalling weather and retreated having reached 6,100 metres on the North East Face of Sepu Kangri.
Chris returned there in the Autumn of 1998 with Victor Saunders, Graham Little, Elliot Robertson and Scott Muir (climbing team), Charles Clarke and a film crew comprising Jim Curran, Martin Belderson and Greg Cubitt from ITN. Clarke and Robertson had set out a month early and explored a fresh approach to the mountain from the east but the main party were once again beaten by the weather. This time the team approached the summit by the “Western Cwm” of the mountain, making two attempts. Victor Saunders and Scott Muir reached a height of 6800 metres, very close to the summit and Graham Little made the first ascent of the Turquoise Flower (6650m), an outlying peak of Sepu Kangri.
1999 on… Fun treks and climbs
In Spring 2000 Chris had a family trip to the Kanchenjunga region in Nepal making the first ascent of Danga II (6190m) with his eldest son, Joe (Daniel), his brother Gerald and nephew James.
Later that summer he climbed in South Greenland with Jim Lowther, Graham Little, John Porter, Mark Richey and Mark Wilford making several first ascents.
In 2001 he co-led an Indian, American, British expedition to the Arganglas range in Ladakh, N.W. India. [more info] He also made his first trip to the Tafraute region of Morocco to join a group of legendary rock climbing figures, including Joe Brown, Les Brown, Derek Walker and others who had been exploring and making new routes there over a period of twelve years. He had a great time and has been returning almost every year since.
In 2003, another new development – he joined Harish Kapadia and a group of Indian and British friends in an enjoyable trek and climb in Kullu. [more info] They met up again the following year in Lahoul, and in 2005 in Kumaon. He also climbed Kilimanjaro for a second time [more info] with a group of Pentland executives, (Pentland own Berghaus, of which Chris is non-executive Chairman) and made an attempt to sail once again into Kangelugsuaq to climb the Cathedral but this time was beaten by the pack ice.
In 2007 Chris joined Rob Ferguson, Graham Little and Jim Lowther on an expedition to unclimbed Sersank (6095m) in Lahoul, but due to appalling rock they failed to reach the top.
In March 2008 Barney Rosedale and he made a reconnaissance of the route to the Namun Bhanjyang (5560m), a high pass on an old trade route between Pokhara and Manang.
The following year his son Joe led his first commercial trek to the Everest Base Camp and Chris joined him as a guest. It brought back many memories and it was extra special, sharing these with Joe.
Chris also climbed Mont Blanc by Mont Blanc de Tacul and Mont Maudit with Richard Cotter, Brand President of Berghaus, and Dave Cummins. [more info]
In 2010 he joined his son Joe once again on a trek to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Chris’s ascent of Annapurna II. [more info] The party included the son and grandson of Dick Grant, with whom Chris had made the first ascent. For Chris it was an emotional journey. They visited the Base Camp and ended by crossing the Tilicho Pass which he had crossed with Sherpa Tachei all those years ago.
In 2011 he had an expedition with Charlie Clarke to the Sorang Valley in the Kinnaur range of the Indian Himalaya, making the first ascent of Ram Chukor Basera (5084m). [more info]