Chris’ early years are perhaps best described in two ways, enthusiastic and inexperienced. His instinctive draw to the mountains from a young age was equally matched by just how isolated he was from gaining appropriate experience. Undeterred however he threw himself at them, exploring first Grasmere and then ever higher mountains across the UK. It was only a couple of chance encounters and Chris’ doggedness that finally gave him a step into the world of true mountaineering.
An unlikely story that began in Hampstead Heath. Sir Chris Bonington’s beginnings were of a typical suburban standard until WWII saw him evacuated to Westmorland. He was often restless in Hampstead Heath and ran away to go adventuring before being caught by a local policeman and returned home. The outbreak of the war however gave Chris his first exposure of mountains. Here young Chris’ adventurous personality ran free amongst the Grasmere fells and his grandmother would often accompany him upon his various exploits. Although he still escaped twice more from his Westmorland school!
On the Holyhead line one can see the Welsh mountains from the train window. It was these mountains that Chris saw at the age of sixteen when he travelled to Dublin to visit his grandfather. Yet for the time being they were to remain mysterious magnet on the horizon, “there were no crags, just big rounded hills that gave a feeling of emptiness, of the unknown.” Instead Chris arrived at his grandfather’s in the Wicklow Hills, climbing The Little Sugar Loaf (335m), exploring the area and already feeling the draw of mountainous landscapes; “I wanted to explore them, to find out more about them, but at the same time I was frightened by their size and my own lack of experience.”
To the young Chris both the mountains and the climbers of Snowdonia seemed larger than life and part of another world that he did not yet fully understand. It had been a harsh winter and after convincing a friend to hitch-hike with him, the two of them sat in appropriated school clothing listening to the conversation swirling around them. Completely inspired yet still self-conscious, the two made their plans in the Capel Curig Youth Hostel – an attempt on Snowdon from Pen y Pass, a good path seemed to lead the way to the top. Yet the mountains showed their true colours the next day as the cloud descended and the snow began again. Completely ignorant of the danger, Chris and Anton ploughed onward after a team ahead of them, quickly becoming cold, disorientated and completely out of their depth. Suddenly upon the Crib Goch ridgeline, the two were swept down in a small avalanche, landing at the bottom. They turned tail, soaked and with a valuable appreciation of the mountains danger. For Chris it was an experience that made him want to return again, better prepared to deal with such an environment.
Chris’ persistence paid off. Discovering that a family friend had climbed and lived close by he convinced him to take him out to Harrison’s Rocks in Kent. It was the energy that first struck Chris, climbers shouting advice, crowds assembling to watch, and above all their heads a multitude of potential lines. Cliff pointed some out; Dick’s Diversion and Slim Finger Crack, all seemingly impossible. They began at a narrow chimney, Chris’ first climbing experience quickly becoming a battle as he mindlessly floundered upward. Yet the experience was a release he’d not found before in other physical activities; “I felt sympathy with the rock; I found that my body somehow slipped into balance naturally, without any conscious thought on my part.” The day left him flustered and happy and put him in contact with another climber, Tom Blackburn who agreed to take Chris back for his second trip to North Wales’ mountains.
It was an early photo taken from the summit of Bidean nam Bian that looked out towards the Cuillins that Chris first came across in a book whilst staying with his aunt in Wallasey. Captivated by this ‘wild, virgin country’ that was yet just within his reach, led Chris’ imagination to run free. Yet it wasn’t until a few years later when Chris finally got to climb around Rannoch Moor and the Buachaille. Here Chris and partner John Hammond found the going difficult in the deep snow that covered Glencoe yet stumbled across a group of ‘rough-looking climbers’ drinking tea round the fire of Lagangarbh climbers hut; amongst them the notorious Hamish MacInnes. A bold request to follow MacInnes and his friends up their first winter attempt on Agag’s Groove the next day saw the two young climbers battle their way behind a singing MacInnes and his party. Chris got more than he perhaps bargained for, seconding Hamish up Abraham’s Traverse and Raven’s Gully to claim yet more unclimbed lines. For Chris, still relatively new to climbing, it was an experience that had opened his eyes to the very top climbing of the day.
Man and Mountain, our new exhibition on world renowned mountaineer Sir Chris Bonington is open at Keswick Museum until the 6th January 2019.