Please note: this exhibition has now closed, but please enjoy this illustrated article exploring the life and achievements of Sir Chris Bonington.
For the best part of thirty years from the 1960s Chris led the British climbing scene with some of the most ambitious expeditions mounted in the era. These are shown here in their international context while retaining their rightful beginnings in Britain. Chris made his home in Cumbria forty years ago and has played a major role in many aspects of Lake District life.
Chris’ mother, Helen Bonington, and his grandmother, were the stalwarts of his early life and protected him physically and emotionally during the Blitz. His desire for adventure began early on with a trip to Dublin when he climbed his first peak, The Little Sugar Loaf (335m), in 1951.
A hair-raising expedition to Snowdon that summer was followed by more serious climbing on Harrison’s Rocks, near Tunbridge Wells. ‘Until that day on Harrison’s I had never found a complete release in physical expression… I had discovered the passion that was to guide my life.’
Ropes were made of hemp. Most climbers still wore hobnail boots, harnesses were a decade away and flat caps rather than helmets were the norm. Change was about to come.
‘In 1955 I might place the odd sling over a flake of rock, but the basic principle that the leader must not fall was as true then as it had been before the Great War. Now I carried a pocketful of pebbles to insert into cracks, a practice that Joe Brown did much to perfect. Soon there would be metal wedges. The margin of safety was starting towiden.’
By 1959 Chris and other climbers had graduated from tight gym shoes for rock-climbing to ‘PAs’, the forerunner of the modern rock boot.
He took up the offer of a commission but soon switched to officer training for the army at Sandhurst. During this time he started putting up new routes in Britain and especially the Avon Gorge near Bristol where he opened up the big Main Wall with routes called Macavity 1955 and Malbogies 1957. Three years in the Royal Tank Regiment in Germany and two years at the Army Outward Bound School were the backdrop to the start of his Alpine climbing.
In 1957 the legendary Scottish climber, Hamish MacInnes, suggested attempting the North Face of the Eiger. Chris wrote: ‘I was desperate enough to agree. I thought: this would be a good start to my Alpine career.’ Chris had not yet been to the Alps and this first attempt did not get far.
By the mid-1950s Joe Brown and Don Whillans, representing a new breed of post-war climbers from working class backgrounds, had become associated with the cutting edge of British rock climbing. Joe Brown climbed a number of legendary new routes in Snowdonia and the Peak District.
In 1958 Chris Bonington, Don Whillans, Ian Clough and Hamish MacInnes completed the first British ascent of the South West Pillar of the Dru above Chamonix in the French Alps.
In early 1960 Chris was part of the successful joint-services expedition to Annapurna II (7,937m). A year later he joined Don Whillans and, having had no luck on the Eiger, they went to Chamonix to make the first ascent of the Central Pillar of Freney with Ian Clough and Jan Djuglosz from Poland.
In May he married Wendy, who he had met at a twelfth night party in January. Later that summer he and Ian Clough became the first Britons to climb the North Wall of the Eiger. It was his third attempt and he wrote later: ‘I have never been on a climb with such a grim atmosphere, partly from my own dark experiences, but also from its very structure, an amphitheatre that focuses all your fears. On the summit, in sunshine, we munched dried fruit and basked in feelings of joy and relief.’
Far away, in the world of newspapers, a celebrity had appeared. From then onwards Chris Bonington devoted his career to climbing and the press to following it.
Public recognition came with a popular televised broadcast of the ascent of the Old Man of Hoy, one of the tallest sea stacks in Britain off the Orkney Islands, with Tom Patey, shown on the BBC in 1967.Chris’s career as a photo-journalist blossomed in early 1966 with his first assignment with the Daily Telegraph Magazine to cover an attempt to make the first ascent of a direct route up the North Wall of the Eiger by John Harlin, Dougal Haston and Layton Kor. Chris, alternating between climber and photographer, led an 80ft ice-pitch which he still considers the most extreme of his career. The climb ended in tragedy when a fixed rope snapped and Harlin was killed. Haston made it to the summit with a group of Germans attempting the same climb.
Chris’ journalistic career reached a climax in 1968. He accompanied an Army Expedition in their first descent of the Blue Nile from Lake Tana in Ethiopia to the Sudanese frontier, which included travelling in a small boat down a fast moving river and avoiding crocodiles.
Barclays Bank underwrote the expedition and Chris then got support in kind of gear, food and travel costs. Improvements in equipment included better quality climbing ropes, metal shaft ice axes, high altitude double boots, fleeces, down suits and lightweight Karrimor climbing rucksacks which had all been developed over preceding years, often in association with leading-edge climbers. This tradition of climbers developing kit and clothing continues today.
In 1983 Chris made the first ascent of the West Summit of Shivling (6,501m) in the Garhwal Himalaya in India with fellow Cumbrian, Jim Fotheringham. Finally, a personal lifetime’s ambition was fulfilled in 1985 when Chris reached the summit of Everest in the company of a Norwegian Expedition. This was the only ascent of all his climbs in the Himalaya which was not a first ascent.
Jim Lowther, an experienced climber and Greenland explorer, joined them on an expedition to Greenland to give Chris and Jim the experience of sailing and Robin that of climbing.
They sailed from Whitehaven in Suhaili, the yacht in which Knox-Johnston had made the first non-stop, single-handed circumnavigation of the world, to the East Coast of Greenland which is guarded by dense pack ice.
They then skied, pulling pulks (a type of small toboggan), to the foot of the unclimbed, 2,660 metre Cathedral peak, in the remote Lemon Bjerge range, but did not succeed in climbing it.
Chris wrote of this expedition: ‘We’d been together for two months, with several weeks of that in the confined space of Suhaili. We had undeniably had some cock-ups but I don’t think there was a cross word in the course of our adventure and we forged friendships that have lasted a life-time.’
Sir Chris Bonington has been one of mountaineering’s greatest contemporary communicators and his extensive books have been accompanied by lectures, photography and journalism throughout his career. As a school boy it was a book of Scottish mountain photography that first sparked his imagination and this has gone on to fuel a lifetime of passion for both the written word and the photograph.READ MORE
The Boardman Tasker Award has been won by authors such as Jim Perrin, Joe Simpson, Peter Gillman and Bernadette MacDonald.
It is in Cumbria that most of Chris’ major expeditions were planned and it is to Cumbria that he returned after triumphs and tragedies. If the fells offered him a sense of place then the history of this region gave him inspiration to embed himself in its legacy. Chris is an honorary life Vice-President of the Campaign for National Parks and Ambassador for the YHA. Further afield he is involved in charities that support some of the least fortunate members of society including Community Action Nepal, of which he is Patron, which focuses on long term projects for health, sanitation and education.
In 1996 Chris was knighted for his services to sport and in acknowledgement of everything he had given back to the environment that had nurtured his career.
There is something in all of us that appreciates the sentiments of Ruskin. The mountains of the Lake District have long been a subject for painters and writers. Thousands have chosen the Lakes as their home over the past few centuries. Ruskin was been profoundly influenced by the Lakeland poets William Wordsworth, Samuel Coleridge and Robert Southey, sharing their conviction in man's potential nobility to be found through a love and reverence for nature.
Mountaineers are often portrayed as ‘conquerors of mountains’ but this is not the way they see themselves. Most have a profound connection with the environment, and know that they need to respect and work with the mountain is they are to succeed. As Chris Bonington once said:
“I look at climbing not so much as standing on the top as seeing the other side. There are always other horizons in front of you, other horizons to go beyond.”