Chris and I had come out from breakfast at our hotel in New York, headed down for his panel discussion with Ueli Steck and Jim Clash, the Forbes Adventure columnist.
‘Shall we walk or just take a taxi?
‘How far is it?’ Chris asked as the morning traffic and people swirled and bumped around us in the crispness of Autumn.
‘Just over a mile?’
‘Oh, let’s just walk.’ And off we strode through the bustling streets of the city.
That enthusiasm for experiences, for having even a quick city walk vs. taking a taxi was what I’d noticed in Chris ever since we had first met at Everest Base Camp over 30 years before. There he had a very early and rather rare Apple computer that he took me through his expedition plan for the Norwegian team he was climbing with. It was complete with graphs, camps, team movements and elevations. It was classic Chris, and even then being ahead of his time.
In my earlier review of the top 5 Everest books and their authors Bonington’s, ‘Everest the Hard Way’ stands out as iconic. Yet in many ways, like many of his single expedition books, it must have been an easier book to write: a natural story with one mountain, one cast of characters and one conclusion.
With Ascent, the focus is on a life, and a host of climbs and experiences encompassing both the globe and an infinite array of climbing partners.
This makes writing an autobiography particularly challenging, given Bonington’s’ immense range of experiences. His mix of floating the Nile, climbing Everest and a very interesting upbringing and family life, all of which is related with refreshing candor, would challenge the best of writers.
While a large part of the central section of the book is taken up with well told recounts of his climbs from his many other books, it is the opening and closing chapters that truly stand out.
From a life with an absentee father, and a strong, yet challenged and also occasionally absent mother, he approaches life challenges in a way that quickly shrugs them off, and moves on to the next thing. Not without learning the lessons, not without some self realization, but still moving rapidly forward and onto something new.
On his return from his earliest climbing experience on Snowdon, having been avalanched off from the heights he relates,
‘We were tumbling down laughing and whooping until we came to a rest just below the frozen tarn.’
His friend hitchhiked home the next day. Undaunted, Chris returned to climbing the hills.
These early adventures, from setbacks with exams, to joining the RAF, are set amongst the ongoing passion to simply climb, climb, climb, be it Scottish ice or days out at Harrison’s rocks.
What comes through is not only an unequivocal passion for new adventures, but a willingness to quickly sum up the emotions, the tears of frustration at missing out on an exam score to the joys of scrabbling to the top of a first winter ascent in Scotland with Hamish MacInnes.
As Chapter 20 rolls around, we move away from climbing and into the real heart of this story – what exists beyond the peaks, even though they are the driving force in his life.
In the chapter ‘Bonington and Sons’ we see and feel the challenges of all parents, how to first teach, then guide and finally step away from our own children. Thankfully Bonington tackles this part of his life openly in a way both instructional and inspirational, dealing with the tribulations of letting go and still yet helping children find their own way.
In a ‘Strange Retirement’ we see Chris not so much retiring, as using his influence in a number of good causes, from universities to Outward Bound.
I remember seeing Chris lecture in Melbourne many years ago, and coming away with a sense of both amazing successes, but on climbs that frequently pushed the boundaries so far that teammates died in the process. And a sense if you wanted to climb hard in the Himalayas that death simply was, and still is, part of what you need to accept.
In the final and most powerful chapter, Chris writes about the loss of his beloved wife Wendy. We see and feel a man who has braved innumerable heights, touched the top of the world, seen the passing of many a seemingly invincible climber, now dealing with the inevitability of motor neurone disease. And moments of compassion are never stronger than in the simple lines about end of day:
‘At last, in bed, I could snuggle up against her, getting every bit as much assurance from her as I could give to her, by our close physical contact.’
In the epilogue we are introduced to Bonington’s new wife, and in many ways new life, as he starts another chapter in his phenomenal life.
After our weekend with Bonington in New York at the American Alpine Club Annual meeting, from dinners to breakfasts to panel discussions, I sent him an email and thanked him for his time and being so gracious in meeting so many friends.
By return, I received photos of the view from his window at home, a man who does excel at sharing his life’s moments with others.