"My big peaks are over," Chris Bonington told the audience at a lecture hosted by the Royal Geographical Society of Hong Kong, last month. "But I quite like small unclimbed peaks of 5,000 metres."

To be fair, the British mountaineer will be turning 81 next month.

Born in London, Bonington began climbing at the age of 16, in 1951, and his career has included 19 expeditions to the Himalayas and many awards.

Chris Bonington - still climbing mountains at 80 years old

I meet him one recent Wednesday afternoon, on the top deck of a ferry en route to Lamma Island. We are to go on a hike with local employees of British brand-management company Pentland Group. Pentland owns and manages the outdoor clothing and equipment company Berghaus, of which Bonington is the non-executive chairman. With a maximum altitude of less than 100 metres, it seems unlikely our route, from Yung Shue Wan to the eastern bay of Sok Kwu Wan, will trouble the adventurer.

Having stepped off the ferry in Yung Shue Wan, Bonington, dressed in a sky blue T-shirt, khaki grey shorts and sandals, and carrying a bright red backpack, makes his way towards the main street under an overcast sky. Perhaps he expected to find a sleepy fishing village because, as he passes restaurant after restaurant, he quips, "It's like a town, not a village!"

Earlier Sir Chris, as those who pay attention to British honours may refer to him, had eaten a large dim sum lunch with the Pentland employees. Now, they are hoping to hike it off - but not before stopping for a bowl of sweet tofu pudding.

Kin Hing Tofu Dessert, under some large trees at the start of the Lamma Island family walk, is a dingy but roomy affair: a frame of steel rods holds up a large canopy, beneath which hang dusty old red lanterns. Bonington takes a seat on a grey plastic stool and reaches for a bowl of tofu fa proffered on an aluminium tray. He dips his spoon into the silky pudding and gives it a taste. He praises its "delicate flavour" then passes his bowl along to someone else. He is either too full ("We've been doing nothing but eat!") or sweet tofu just isn't for everyone.

"Where's the rickshaw?" Bonington asks, as the group stands to begin the hike. As will become clear during the afternoon, the climber is witty and self-deprecating, and has the timing of a stand-up comedian. When he's asked to step off the path and into some bushes to pose for a photograph, he does so with the words, "… and he was eaten by a python". And when he's asked to pose for another portrait, under a dense canopy of leaves, he glances up and says, "I'm looking for snow leopards, which are apparently found quite often on this island."

Lamma Island - a surprisingly satisfying short break in Hong Kong

We make our way up a shaded cement path towards Lamma Winds, Hong Kong's first commercial-scale wind power station. On both sides of the path is thick, lush vegetation, damp from recent rain. To our right, poised in the middle of its web, is a large black spider with bright yellow strands along its thorax and legs.

"It's rather beautiful," Bonington says, taking his metallic grey point-and-shoot camera - appropriately, a shockproof, waterproof, freezeproof, crushproof and shakeproof Olympus - and snapping away. "The worst thing when you're climbing is to put your hand into a crack and there's a poisonous spider inside," he says. "But, never has there been [for him]."

Mosquitoes descend as Bonington takes photos of the golden silk orb-weaver spider, but "they never really go for me", he says. "I guess I must be a very sour, nasty kind of person."

Bonington is not all laughs, however. He has had to deal with risk and danger, loss and death. In 1977, for example, a descent from the first ever conquest of the Ogre, a 7,285-metre peak in the Karakoram mountain range of Pakistan, turned into an epic six-day journey. Bonington suffered broken ribs; his companion, Doug Scott, broke two legs in a fall. They went five days without food and fought their way through a blizzard.

Bonington describes himself as both emotional and practical. Emotional, because he still chokes up when talking about the loss of friends and companions to the mountains, and practical because, as a climber, he has had to "take everything as it comes".

My Life: Chris Bonington

"I'm afraid it sounds hard," he says. "I suppose it's like soldiers in war; you know it's going to happen. You know people are going to be killed, and you've got to accept it. Otherwise you give up. And some people do give up climbing after that.

"However deeply sad I am over the loss of a friend, I've never thought of giving up climbing."

One of his greatest losses was that of friend Ian Clough, at the end of his Annapurna South Face expedition, in the Himalayas, in 1970.

"Right at the end, on the last dangerous bit of the expedition … he and my great friend Mike Thomson were just doing the last clearance of the mountain," says Bonington. "There was one dangerous bit where they had to go below a sérac [an ice pillar], and the damn thing collapsed. Mike dived into the wall and it went over him; Ian was too far out and he was carried away. But we recovered his body, and we buried him below Annapurna South Face.

"You never … shrug off the loss of a friend," he says.

The loss of a brother, one suspects, would be even worse. Bonington's most recent brush with death came about 10 years ago, when he was climbing with his brother Gerald, up Lochnagar, a mountain in Scotland.

Why so many people get into trouble when hiking in Hong Kong

"I'd led the last hard pitch, and run out the full 50 metres of the rope," says Bonington. But he couldn't find any belays at the top, and was in a hurry. Instead of digging a deep trench for his axe and a wide ledge to stand on, he improvised. "I just put the point of my axe into the snow, slashed the tiniest kind of scoop to stand on, and brought Gerald up - or started to bring him up."

The axe gave way and Gerald fell off, his momentum catapulting his brother off the slope, too.

"I was zooming, head first, and I thought, 'This is it.'"

Luckily, Bonington hit the snow just as the rope came taut. He broke some ribs, but at least the brothers were alive.

"We finished the climb, but that was a very, very narrow escape. It all happens so fast that, you know, there's no particular shock about it. You just shrug, and s**t, you know, I got away with it.

"I've got a very, very strong will to survive," says Bonington, "but I don't fear death." If that sounds like a contradiction, so does his compulsion to keep putting at risk the closest of relationships.

"If you have a wife you love dearly, and by whom you are loved dearly, and you have two children whom you love as well, and yet are prepared to risk everything because of your passion for climbing, your passion basically for risk-taking - you know, there's no excuse, there's no explanation," he says. "It is actually an incredibly selfish act. And I'm aware of that … but I knew that I could never stop climbing."

Hong Kong mountaineer-turned-businessman on close encounters with death

A faint drizzle has set in - and most of the hikers, in true Hong Kong fashion, have whipped out retractable umbrellas. We head up a flight of stone steps to a viewing pavilion above Lamma Winds. At the top, a gentle breeze blows as Bonington looks out across the sea, towards Hong Kong Island.

Out come the cameras and a few women in the group, laughing, crowd around the climber for a group shot.

"Flanked by beauties!" he remarks. "My reputation will never survive this."

Bonington first came to Hong Kong in 1980, he says, en route to a reconnaissance of Mount Kongur, in Xinjiang, looking for someone to sponsor the expedition. He was introduced to Jardine Matheson, and the conglomerate agreed to back him.

"When we first went there, I'm pretty sure the Jardine building was the highest in Hong Kong," he says. "Now, it's dwarfed."

He has since returned to the city many times; what is it about Hong Kong that keeps bringing him back?

"Here there's this incredible, powerful, dynamic city, and there's also such fantastic environment around it," he says. "If you want to be a walker, if you want to be a climber, if you want to be a sailor, it's all there on your doorstep. It's … an incredibly exciting city combined with an amazing natural environment.

"There's … an amazing amount of rock climbing, both on the coast - a lot of lovely short climbs there - and up on the hills," he says. A personal favourite is Lion Rock. "It's not easy, but it's not particularly hard," he says of the climb, which he completed on one of his early visits, in the 80s.

Upturn in hiking in Hong Kong has a downside, as solitude becomes increasingly hard to find

As we crest the final hill before descending towards Sok Kwu Wan, we stop for a breather and to take in the views of the fish farms below.

"It's quite heavily populated, but there's a terrific amount of wonderful, wild, untouched country, isn't there?" Bonington says. He appears to be something of a reflective hiker: not merely putting one foot in front of the other and admiring the views, but also pondering, remembering, chewing on the past as well as what is to come. Is climbing, for him, as much an inward journey as it is an outward one?

"It's a combination of the two, always," he says. "I'm not at all spiritual. But, having said that, I am deeply and emotionally moved by the beauty of the hills and the beauty of the mountains. And from that point of view, that is an inner journey. And from that point of view, it is a reflective journey as well."

Yet on the practical side, climbing also demands concentration. He agrees: "If it's a big climb, like Everest, and you're leading it, it's almost like running a military operation. You've got to have that absolute focus."

A seafood dinner awaits us in Sok Kwu Wan but "the adventure is not yet over", says Bonington, as we near our hike's end. "All kinds of risks can come between us and supper."

None does, however, and we sit down at a large round table at the shoreside Rainbow Seafood Restaurant.

"I want lots of food and lots of beer," Bonington says, and he gets what he wants.

Bottles of cool Tsingtao are delivered, closely followed by a feast that includes mantis shrimp - more popularly known as "peeing" shrimp in Cantonese - fried in salt and pepper ("Superb flesh. Delicious. I call this 'awesome'."); steamed scallops with vermicelli and garlic, which Bonington works at adroitly with his chopsticks; lobster stir fried with onion and a hint of cheese; deep-fried squid, which the climber dips into chilli soy sauce ("That sauce is fabulous. It's dynamite."); and a huge dish of fried red snapper with a sweet and sour sauce ("Oh, goodness!").

Nourished, we shuffle onto a ferry to make our way back to the city.

Bonington climbs onto the open-air upper deck as the ferry pulls away, leaving behind the now darkened mountains. As the ferry picks up speed, he moves to sit in the front row, peering out to sea, taking photos, perhaps planning further adventures.

The Royal Geographical Society Hong Kong will be screening the film Bonington: Mountaineer - My Life Story, introduced by Chris Bonington, at UBS, 52/F, IFC Mall, Central, on March 13, 2018.