As mountaineering writer Mike Thompson quipped about Chris Bonington's first book, I Chose to Climb, it should have perhaps been more aptly titled He Chose Not to Sell Margarine. Jim Curran's account of the life of legendary British mountaineer Sir Christian Bonington (more commonly known as “Chris”) is a fascinating story of an amazing man who is still hard at it today.
Chris Bonington grew up during the Second World War in Britain and fancied a career as an Army officer, to the point of going to the well-respected officer training school at Sandhurst. After several years in a tank division and training soldiers in the British Army's equivalent of Outward Bound, Bonington realized that the military wasn’t quite for him. He then took a job with a multinational margarine corporation as a management trainee, but was dissatisfied. As a passionate climber and mountaineer, Bonington then set out to be one of Britain's first professional mountaineers, making a living solely through his mountaineering prowess. Rather than take the more commonly traveled path of professional guiding and instruction, Chris Bonington trained himself to be a mountaineering journalist, photographer, and professional adventurer. He has canvassed and pleaded for sponsorship, written for magazines and journals, sold photographs, and lectured. He has written numerous books on his expeditions, both successes and failures. What seems to many of us to be an exciting and romantic life is actually a tough way to make a living and support a family, but amazingly and admirably, he has succeeded. This book tells his inspiring tale.
This is not to downplay Bonington's considerable achievements, including the first British ascent of the North Face of the Eiger, first ascent of the Central Tower of Paine, leader of the successful Annapurna South Face Expedition, leader of the first successful Southwest Face of Everest Expedition, first ascent of The Ogre, first ascent of Kongur, his own successful ascent of Mount Everest, and the first British ascent of Mount Vinson. These are only a scant few of his accomplishments and to detail all of the first ascents, ascents, and climbs of Bonington's life until now surely takes an entire volume, if not several. Many of his expeditions have been failures. He has been turned back by weather and dangerous conditions. He has suffered the death of many friends and yet still climbs to an impressively high standard, carrying on as they would have. He has floated the Blue Nile and sailed to Greenland to climb. He has trekked to the fabled land of Hunza and climbed on Sepu Kangri, Tibet's “secret mountain.” Somehow he has also managed to maintain a viable marriage and raise 2 sons.
Curran, despite being a friend and climbing companion of Bonington, has produced a balanced volume. He portrays Bonington not as an invincible superhero, but rather as a human being, fraught with insecurities and legendary indecisiveness, but driven by an unrelenting love of remote and mountainous places and a desire to stand atop unclimbed summits and to try the harder route on peaks that have already been climbed.
This is the first work I have read of the many Bonington biographies and autobiographies that exist, but surely not the last. It kept me spellbound in admiration for a man who has done what many only dream of. Recently, I checked Bonington's Web site (www.bonington.com). At 66 years old, he has just accomplished first ascents on the rocky crags of Morocco (March 2001) and has several expeditions to remote areas planned for the next couple of years—truly a life well lived and still living well. Viva Chris Bonington!
© 2001 Wilderness Medical Society. Published by Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.