Sir Chris Bonington
In the 1950s, most British mountaineers were obsessed with the prospect of being the first to bag Mount Everest, a feat that would ensure immediate immortality. Chris Bonington, on the other hand, was focused on simply having a jolly good time. He spent much of his twenties in the nearby Alps, honing his craft alongside the revered French, Swiss, and Italian climbers of the day. By the early 1960s, he was putting up first ascents on ambitious routes to the top of iconic mountains like Mont Blanc. When Bonington eventually turned his focus and considerable talent to the Himalayan Mountains, he went looking for “real” Himalayan challenges: unclimbed (some unnamed) 7,000-meter peaks that looked far more interesting to him than Everest. During a 10-year period between 1973 and 1983, Bonington scored a handful of impressive first ascents in the Himalayas. Eventually, Bonington’s reputation for having a steady hand on rock and ice and his high summit success rate led to a few stints as a non-climbing expedition leader, such as on the first ascents of the south face of Annapurna, in 1970, and the southwest face of Everest, in ’75. (Bonington did get around to climbing Everest himself, with a Norwegian team in 1985, at the age of 50). In 1968 he even accompanied a British Army team in the attempt to make the first-ever descent of the Blue Nile. In 1996, Bonington was awarded a knighthood by the British government for his services to the sport of climbing.
• In 1962, Bonington made the first British ascent of the North Wall of Eiger, which has developed the nickname “Mordwand” or murder wall, for its high death toll.
• Led the first ascent of the south face of Annapurna in 1970, the 10th highest mountain in the world.
• In 1975 he led the expedition making the first ascent of the southwest face of Everest, a climb that had defeated him three years earlier.
The Last Word: Bonington is basically the Paul McCartney of mountaineering (knighthood included) and, perhaps, no less important a figure in British climbing history than Hillary himself for the sheer breadth of his resume. He may not be the most famous name outside his home country, but he has more important historical first ascents on record than almost anyone.
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