My Life: Chris Bonington
The British mountaineer, who recently took part in a Hong Kong student leadership programme, tells Liana Cafolla about the thrill of the climb
PASSION FOR THE PAST At school, I was quite academic, and my passion has always been history. My hobby is still history, military history, and all my reading - I'm a voracious reader - tends to be historical biographies. I'm intrigued by good military history. At the moment I'm reading Antony Beevor's huge book titled The Second World War, which is brilliant; one of the best I've read.
VIEW FROM THE TOP When I finally climbed Everest, in 1985, the views on the southeast ridge on the south side - the final ridge - were absolutely breathtaking. We were lucky: we were the last expedition in which the Nepalese authorities only allowed one expedition on the route at a time; so we had the Western Cwm and the mountain to ourselves on our summit day. There were six of us - three sherpas, three climbers - and that was wonderful. We were the only people. It was pristine; there were no tracks, no fixed ropes, no bodies. Today, people get in a dirty great queue, following up a fixed slope, and they have literally got to step over dead bodies. It must be a turn-off.
REACHING HIGH When mountains and climbing have been so much a part of your life, it's like getting into a bath - everything becomes second nature. You're constantly evaluating the risks of the situation you're in - where you're going to go, watching what you're doing, keeping your concentration on that, but you're also intensely aware of your surroundings. You are doing your thing in the most magnificent scenery, the most magnificent environment. The physical side of the climbing experience is just one [albeit] very important part of it. For instance, when one is young and climbing at the top of one's athletic power, it's the same kind of joy that any athlete has in having complete command of their body - whether you're doing the high jump or the 100-yard dash. The extra buzz as a climber is that element of risk - that if you make a mistake and you fall, sometimes you're a long way away from the last running belay [a type of anchor used as a safeguard in case of falls]. But equally there is the environment; being mindful of the natural beauty of the mountain environment is incredibly important to me. And the other important, enjoyable aspect is companionship - your climbing partners, and sharing that joy with other people. It's a sport that people here can get involved with, too. There's some great rock climbing to be done in Hong Kong and there is a lot of very good multipitch climbing in the New Territories. There's also some great sport climbing just around the sea cliffs, particularly around Shek O. The first time I came [to Hong Kong] was in 1980. I must have been here 15, 16 times over the years.
DOWN TO EARTH My wife, Wendy, not so much complains about but comments on [the fact that] when I was on my big expeditions in my 30s and early 40s, she was left to look after a pair of stroppy boys. I've always been homesick at the end of a trip; but having said that, I'm also usually planning the next trip on the way back home. And when you get back, you haven't got time to mope. Quite apart from the joy of seeing your family, there's a mass of work to do. You've got to close the expedition down, write the expedition book, give lectures, all this kind of stuff. So your time is filled. And then you've got the next year's expedition to plan.
SLIPPERY SLOPES As a parent and a grandparent, one must be concerned about what's happening in the world. It's a very dangerous world in a whole series of ways at the moment. With climate change and global warming, I think that is part of the natural cycle, but it is difficult to evaluate how much mankind is affecting that. You need a combination of renewable energy and nuclear energy and some fossil fuels, and you've got to get a balance between them. I think the biggest problem we've got, though, is population growth; that's the really frightening thing. Unless we find ways of limiting population growth, particularly in the Middle East and African countries, and Catholic countries - the Catholic Church has got a hell of a lot to answer for - that is one of the greatest dangers. And as we run out of resources, particularly water, I think you could see more conflict. Also, when you see the amount of deforestation that is occurring both in Southeast Asia - in Indonesia, for example - and in Africa and India it's a real concern. Quite apart from how many species are becoming endangered, the Earth needs these forests for its health. If we get rid of all of that, we'll have created a huge problem.