Sir Chris Bonington
The legendary mountaineer tells Andrea Chasanow about the ups and downs of his climbing career and what keeps him at peak performance.
'I wake pretty early, about 6am. My wife and I argue about who is going to go and get the tea and one of us will get it. We live in the English Lake District in a rambling kind of cottage. Early morning is my favourite time of the day. Especially in the summer, when there is a lovely, translucent light. At that time, the telephone doesn't go and it's very, very quiet. I can get on with a lot of work and that's very special.
For breakfast we have Columbian coffee and toast with marmalade. Then I go back to work. Work might be writing a book, planning an expedition or preparing a speech. The first book I wrote took me a couple of years to write - from 1963 to 1965 - and I've been writing ever since, about 20 books altogether. I'll usually work until lunch. In the winter, lunch is soup and in the summer it's salad. Then I go rock climbing.
There are loads of crags about half an hour's drive from our house. I'll do a couple of small climbs along there until early evening. Then, on the way back, I'll stop off at a lovely English pub for a pint before supper. Sometimes I cook, sometimes my wife Wendy cooks. She's a vegetarian. I'm not, but we tend to have vegetarian food. It might be vegetable curry, it might be pasta or it might be fish. We like simple things, usually just one course, washed down with some wine.
I was born and brought up in Hampstead. I went to a London day school. During the second world war, when I was very young, I was evacuated to the Lake District and that's when I first became conscious of mountains.
The Himalayas is my favourite place. It's a combination of the whole thing - the mountains, the culture and the people. Everything about them I find captivating - especially in Nepal, where the people are so intrepid.
These days I don't make huge expeditions. It's usually just a bunch of friends; we go to the Indian Himalayas or Nepal. We'll go for small peaks - maybe 5,500 or 6,000 metres - that haven't been climbed, ideally in areas where tourists and trekkers haven't been at all so there is an element of exploration in it. There are still literally hundreds of unclimbed peaks and unvisited valleys in the Himalayas. The crowds concentrate on the big ones. They concentrate on Mount Everest, and that's great. It means the more skilled ones are still unspoiled and that's why I like to go and climb.
You can push yourself to the limit so you're climbing as hard a mountain as you possibly can. If you're in the Himalayas, you're probably climbing at a lower technical standard [than in the European Alps], but it's all about the altitudes and the weather. You've got to be more serious if the weather breaks. Each type of climbing offers something different. It's hard work, but if you're climbing really well on rock on a lovely day, it's elating, just wonderful fun.
My most challenging climb was probably the first time on Everest. It was the sheer scale of the expedition - large and complicated, nothing like now. My most enjoyable climb was in 1982 on a much smaller peak in the Indian Himalayas. We went Alpine style - where you just take a rucksack to the bottom and keep going until you get to the top. The climb was technically very difficult and we found we couldn't get down the way we had gone up. So we had to climb down the other side, which we knew absolutely nothing about. There were just two of us and it was a great adventure.
Sometimes the adventure can be too much. My most recent one was climbing with my brother in Scotland in winter. I'd led the pitch and it was about 245 metres up, a long climb, and my belays [rope safety devices] weren't good enough. There were axes jammed in the snow. My brother fell off and pulled me off, so I was hurtling down. We just had one running belay jammed in a crack and that held us. I fell about 60 metres, broke my ribs, but survived.
I've had about 15 or 16 near-death experiences.
Any climber who has been an extreme climber has got to admit that he is lucky to be alive. On Everest there are corpses everywhere. It's saddening but that's part of it.
The attraction of adventure and climbing means you must be a bit of an adrenaline junkie. When you get to the top it is exhilarating, but the feeling is fleeting. Then you start thinking, 'S**t, I've got to get all the way back down again'. The momentary euphoria is dampered, especially if the weather has got worse. It also depends on the time of day you get to the top. If it's nearly dark and you've got a long way to get back down, then you probably spend three minutes up there.
When we made it to the top of Everest, it was good and early in the morning. The weather was good and I think we spent about half an hour up there. We took pictures, kind of gave each other a hug and headed down.
I've lost friends on expeditions before but never thought of giving up. Yes, one is immensely saddened. But one's almost got to accept it. Climbing is a dangerous game. But that doesn't either reduce your sadness at the loss of a friend or your sympathy for the wife or partner and their children, all of whom are good friends as well.
More people get killed climbing down than going up. You've put all your focus into getting up that mountain, then you want to get back down to enjoy it. You're tired. You just want to get back again - alive. There's not much adrenaline there. I am very fearful, very cautious. You just do what you can to put aside relief until you get back to base camp. Avalanche and snowfalls or a really violent change in the weather - a violent storm - can be very dangerous. So is falling down a crevasse. High-altitude sickness is a problem for some, but I've found that as long as you go slowly and steadily and are sensible, you shouldn't have any problems.
I've been on two volcanoes so far. One was a mountain called Sangay, a very active volcano in Ecuador. They're exciting but frightening, unpredictable things. Especially Sangay, which on average erupted at least once a day. It's kind of a slow eruption, with a load of ash, stones, rocks and things rolling down the crater. I was doing a story on it so I wanted to get some good pictures on the crater rim, which I did. Part of me, as a photographer, wanted to get a fantastic shot if it erupted while I was on the crater rim and another part of me thought, 'My god, I might be killed!' But I waited there for half an hour to see if there might be an eruption. Then I thought, 'I've given it my best,' and went back down.
If it's a clear sunny day, there's no problem proving you made it to the top. You take pictures back and forth on either side so you've got 360-degree coverage. That proves conclusively you've been to the top, unless you've poached the pictures from someone else! But if you get to the top in thick cloud, there is no way of proving it.
Then it comes down to your credibility, really; if people believe you.'