REVIEW: Chris Bonington Mountaineer - Revised Edition

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Reviewed by Alex Roddie
This review has been read 4,914 times

For active climbers or armchair mountaineers, old or young alike, Sir Chris Bonington needs no introduction. He is one of the few climbers alive today who can truly be called a household name. In Mountaineer, first published in 1989, Chris Bonington tells the story of several decades climbing the world’s highest and most beautiful mountains. Vertebrate Publishing launched an updated edition of this book in late 2016. The new edition brings Chris Bonington’s story up to date, with over 500 stunning photographs and accounts of his more recent adventures.

Chris Bonington, 119 kbChris Bonington

"The amount of change that Chris Bonington has seen first hand is staggering – and, frequently, he has been at the forefront of that change"

Chris Bonington’s career is nothing short of remarkable. From early years rock climbing in Snowdonia and Scotland, he soon become a professional mountaineer, leading expeditions to unclimbed peaks and technically challenging faces. This book is, in many ways, a historical chronicle as well as an autobiographical work. Ascents such as the South Face of Annapurna and the SW Face of Everest deserve their place in the annals of 20th-century mountaineering, but there’s so much more here as well: key developments in equipment, such as the modern harness and the Whillans Box tent; the evolution of Greater Ranges mountaineering from siege-style expeditions to Alpine-style; and a fundamental shift as the obvious targets for first ascents were picked off one by one.

When Bonington led his first rock route in 1951, Everest had not yet been climbed. In 2014, when he climbed the Old Man of Hoy with Leo Houlding at the age of 80, technically extreme Himalayan projects such as the Mazeno Ridge on Nanga Parbat were being taken on by fast-and-light teams. The amount of change that Chris Bonington has seen first hand is staggering – and, frequently, he has been at the forefront of that change. A great innovator, Bonington was often the first to embrace new technologies and methods. In one part of the book he explains how he used a computer to plan expedition logistics at a time when nobody else would consider using anything but pen and paper.

Ola Einang above Camp 2, which was pitched on the rim of a huge hollow serac , 128 kbOla Einang above Camp 2, which was pitched on the rim of a huge hollow serac
© Chris Bonington

Summit team on Drangnag-ri 1995: Ralph Holibakk, Bjorn Myrer-lund, Pema Dorje, Chris Bonington & Lhakpa Gyalu, 98 kbSummit team on Drangnag-ri 1995: Ralph Holibakk, Bjorn Myrer-lund, Pema Dorje, Chris Bonington & Lhakpa Gyalu
© Chris Bonington

"If you’re new to Chris Bonington’s writing, this is a superb place to start. All credit to Vertebrate Publishing for the great work they’ve done with this new edition"

It’s often been said that Bonington’s true genius was as a leader and strategist, and that thread comes to the surface again and again in Mountaineer. He is a master of logistics, leadership and planning. There’s not much room for the romance of alpinism in the image that Bonington paints of his iconic Himalayan expeditions – these were jobs to be done, puzzles to be pieced together – but, nevertheless, an enduring love of the mountains does shine through.

There’s a quote that sums up Bonington’s practical, analytical approach to expedition life:

"The best position for the leader of a large expedition is at the camp immediately below that of the lead climbers. Here one can keep in touch with what is going on at the front and have a good feel for how the supplies are flowing up the mountain."

The book itself is an overview of Bonington’s entire career, and therefore (understandably) it doesn’t go into too much detail on any individual climb. The stories are brought to life by incredible photography illustrating almost every page. Bonington is a talented photographer (he has used Olympus cameras for decades, in case you’re interested!) and most of the images in this book leap from the page in gorgeous Kodachrome tones. To my surprise, there’s huge variety in subject matter too – not just the mountain landscapes and climbing action shots you might expect, but also a wealth of documentary and anthropological photography. Even without the words, this book would be a treasure for the images alone.

Bjorn Myrer-Lund leading on our summit push. Shishapangma is visible in the distance, 220 kbBjorn Myrer-Lund leading on our summit push. Shishapangma is visible in the distance
© Chris Bonington

A theme that pops up again and again throughout Mountaineer is that of death.

"I have to accept the fact that a high proportion of the expeditions I have led have had casualties."

Bonington writes of the deaths of friends with candour. Death is never far from the forefront of events in this book – in fact, while most of his big, famous expeditions reached their objectives, many of them also featured at least one fatality. Ian Clough died in an avalanche on Annapurna. Mick Burke went missing on Everest. Pete Boardman and Joe Tasker disappeared on Everest’s NE Ridge. The attrition rate is striking when these events are described in sequence, but Bonington does not explore his own feelings in too much detail here. Nevertheless, a sense of deep regret comes through with his words. It’s a powerful reminder that those epoch-defining ascents came at a time when equipment was rudimentary and the risks greater than those faced by climbers today.

After his years of big Himalayan expeditions and major walls were behind him, Bonington increasingly turned his attention to making first ascents of lower peaks, often 6-7000m in height. With easier objectives came smaller teams and less pressure. There’s a sense that these expeditions really allowed Bonington to enjoy his mountaineering in a way that the stress of the big expeditions never really allowed. Many of my favourite images in the book are in this section.

Bonington was still leading rock climbs well into his seventies, but gave up big expeditions for trekking. The book both begins and ends with his second ascent of the Old Man of Hoy in 2014, at the age of eighty – proof that this titan of 20th-century mountaineering is still active, and still inspiring new generations of climbers to this day.

Chris Bonington Mountaineer is a record of accomplishment, a historical narrative, a glossy coffee-table book and a damn good tale all in one. If you’re new to Chris Bonington’s writing, this is a superb place to start. All credit to Vertebrate Publishing for the great work they’ve done with this new edition.

Vertebrate say:

Chris Bonington Mountaineer is a photographic autobiography, documenting over sixty years of climbing the world’s most beautiful and challenging mountains. Few climbers can match Bonington’s climbing achievements. He is one of the most accomplished and respected climbers in the world.

In this 2016 revised edition, which features over 500 photographs, we are given a frank perspective into the surreal, majestic and occasionally tragic corners of his incredible mountaineering career. Whether in the Arctic, the jungle or on an 8,000-metre peak, Bonington’s stunning photography and engaging conversational prose take us through the detail of daily life on expedition, the action of the climbing and the grandeur of the mountains.

From his foundations – climbing in Snowdonia, the English Lake District, and the Highlands of Scotland – Bonington takes us to the Alps and on his expedition apprenticeship in 1960s Nepal. This quickly leads to trips to Patagonia, the Karakoram, the Amazon, Baffin Island and the River Nile, before the meat of his career on the big walls and 8,000-metre peaks of the Himalaya – with his leadership of the expeditions that made the first ascents of the south face of Annapurna in 1970 and the south-west face of Everest in 1975, and culminating in his own ascent of Everest in 1985. The greatest challenge and survival story of all is his first ascent and epic descent of The Ogre in Pakistan with Doug Scott. Bonington’s undying hunger for adventure leads to later exploratory trips to Greenland, India and Morocco, and a return to the scene of one of his defining first ascents, the Old Man of Hoy, with world-class adventure climber Leo Houlding.

The result is a penetrating insight into the motivations and fears of a driven climber who set out year after year from a life of comfort and success to test himself amongst the world’s most savage mountains. Chris BoningtonMountaineer is a must for anyone with a passion for exploration, mountains or climbing.

Chris Bonington Mountaineer cover, 115 kb

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