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Sir Chris Bonington’s Life Or Death Decisions

Mountaineering legend Sir Chris Bonington has completed 19 Himalayan expeditions and pioneered spectacular new routes up Annapurna and Everest, but his high-risk career taught him that success depends on calm decision-making and patience in the most extreme situations

Striving towards a life goal sometimes requires you to overcome any obstacle in your path. At other times you need to slow down, take a new direction, or even turn back and start again. Knowing when to attack, change tactics, or retreat is all part of the challenge. Mountaineer Sir Chris Bonington faced those same stark choices at critical moments whenever he set out to conquer a new climbing route or towering Himalayan peak, relying on his ability to make ice-cold decisions in high-pressure scenarios.

In 1962 he achieved the first British ascent of the North Wall of the Eiger – on ominous 3,967m pyramid of rock in Switzerland. In 1970 he led the groundbreaking expedition which accomplished the first ascent of the South face of Annapurna, an 8,091m peak in the Himalayas. In 1975 he masterminded another innovative expedition to complete the first ascent of the South West face of Everest. Ten years later he returned to summit the world’s highest mountain himself, at the age of 50, and was knighted in 1996.

But heroic firsts, stunning new routes and a letter from the Queen don’t come easily. Bonington’s climbing CV doesn’t reveal the life-or-death decisions that made his celebrated triumphs possible, from what to do in a ferocious high-altitude storm to how to manage badly-broken ribs. Bonington’s ability to make difficult decisions under pressure was a vital part of his success.

I had broken ribs and pneumonia, coughing up phlegm and blood but you focus on staying alive

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Q: Would you say that fell running is a very British kind of adventure?
‘Usually your feet are wet, cold and muddy, so yes, it's not a glamorous sport at all but there's something about it that just lures you back in, and it’s very addictive. I like that rawness of it – it's so pure and simple. The kind of races that I like to go to, you just kind of turn up, get your number and you set off. And you go and have a pint afterwards – it's a nice community, and ethos.’

Q: Is that because the experience of adversity often brings people together?
‘Absolutely, especially when the weather turns. I've been in these long races before where it's been quite nice when we've set off and then halfway through it’s: “Oh God, we could be in a spot of bother here,” or we've taken a wrong turn together and we'll have to help each other cross a stream that’s become a river.’

‘If somebody's suffering you don't want them to suffer, you want to beat them because you're better than them on the day, rather than them running out of food or something. So you help each other out but at the same time you are still competitive. You've got to in those environments, because it is quite extreme – you need some mountain-craft and to be a bit hardy.’

Q: What is the psychological inspiration behind your lifelong passion for climbing?
‘My passion has always been for the process of climbing. Climbing has been my sport and my vocation. But I like the natural progression: to be challenged by new things. When I started climbing in Britain, I didn’t have a dream of climbing Everest. But the magic of climbing and the challenge of climbing come from doing new routes. It is the concept of looking at a rock face in Britain or a big route in the Alps or a Himalayan peak and saying: that is a route and a challenge I want to meet. And then it’s all about using your skill, knowledge and experience to solve that problem.’

Q: You say you are lucky to be alive – how did you make sensible decisions under pressure instead of reckless ones?
‘Define reckless! Many would say the decision to go on an expedition is reckless in itself. Sometimes you have to keep going. Other times all the signals are telling you to turn back when the weather is bad – and so you do. The motivation for turning around or carrying on is subtle. It depends on the team, the weather, and your physical health. All these different things motivate why you are going to do it. The vital thing to notice, though, is if you are trying to do something, not because you want to, but because you have got sponsors who expect you to do things or because your personal self-esteem takes over, even when the logic says no.’

‘It is about balancing that ambition and external expectation with your own gut feeling. Your gut feeling normally is what counts. It is hard to pin down what all the various motivations are, which create that gut feeling but it is very real and very important.’

Q: How did you stay calm when you were caught in ferocious storms, jet-stream winds or whiteouts in the Himalayas?
‘You live in the present. And you stay focused on getting out alive. On the Ogre (Baintha Brakk, a 7,285m peak in the Karakoram) we were halfway down and we got stuck in the tent because there was thick cloud, blizzards and wind, and there was a big Col below us. We would never have found the way down in a whiteout so we just had to sit there. I had broken ribs and pneumonia so I was coughing up phlegm and blood. I knew if I didn’t get down soon I would be dead. But you just focus on staying alive.’

‘There is normally a simple decision: do I go on or retreat? If there are three or four of you, you talk it through. With old-fashioned siege expeditions you have to make decisions yourself as everyone is strung out on the mountain. If you are climbing alpine style, there is no leader, and all your decision-making is consensual. It is about accepting what has happened and using your knowledge and experience to get through that predicament.’

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Q: Despite your vast experience, did you retain an element of fear throughout your career?
‘I always had moments of fear, certainly at the beginning when there was so much I didn’t know. On my first visit to the North Wall of the Eiger I was very afraid. It was like being in a boxing ring. When I spent time (at the Royal Air Force College) in Cranwell and (at the Royal Military Academy) Sandhurst we had junior boxing, which is basically: go into a ring and have a fight to prove you are brave. I was nervous before I got into the ring but the moment you are in the ring you focus on the job and getting through it. You just pounded your opponent as hard as you could and that is what life is all about. I found it was the same when you go on a mountain.’

Q: Did climbing ever feel like a personal duel between you and the mountain?
‘There can be a bit of that. My only climbing expedition to South America was on the Central Tower of Paine. When I got to the top I remember the moment of euphoria and I remember shouting: “Big Ned is dead!” Big Ned was the name of the Central Tower of Paine. Then I had this terrible superstition: “Oh God, am I tempting fate?” And I was very lucky as I had a fall on the way down so I was lucky to survive. But with the Ogre, perhaps because of that name, it did feel like the mountain was this big ogre, just playing with us.’

Q: Which mountain was the greatest cerebral challenge?
‘The South West face of Everest was the biggest challenge I have ever faced. It was a massive logistical operation but it suited my temperament and intellectual capacity. But I kept going back to Everest and when I finally got the chance to go to the top there was a feeling of: “Thank God, I have got that out of the way.” But that success enabled me to do the fun things in climbing, which for me are small expeditions in interesting places. The beauty of the mountains and the natural surroundings are incredibly important to me. I am still entranced by them.’

‘Ascent’ by Sir Chris Bonington is published by Simon & Schuster and available now in paperback

Photos: Chris Bonington Picture Library

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