British Mountaineer Sir Chris Bonington TalkAsia Interview Transcript
Airdate: April 3rd 2004
LH: This week on TalkAsia: A world-renowned mountaineer who's risked his life and made history, pursuing his passion. This, is Talkasia.
Welcome to Talkasia. I'm Lorraine Hahn. British mountaineer Sir Chris Bonington is our guest this week. For him, it's never been about the highest peak he's climbed, or setting a new record. Rather, he says it's the thrill of discovering untouched territories, and the adrenolin rush from the sport-that makes mountaineering for him, so addictive. Sir Chris has been climbing since he was 16. And he's traveled to all corners of the world scaling some of those most prohibitive mountains. From Greenland to Antartica. From Patagonia in Latin America to countless trips across the Himalayas, he's accomplished many celebrated first ascents. And after four treacherous and emotional tries over a period of two decades, Sir Chris finally reached the summit of Mount Everest in 1985 when he was 50 years old. Today, the 69-year-old climber may be a little bit slower. But that doesn't mean he's ready to hang up his boots, just yet.
Sir Chris Bonington is here now with me to share with us his life. And why he's dared to scale places-where some of us would never even dare go. Sir Chris welcome to TalkAsia --thank you so much for being here.
SCB:Lovely to be here.
LH: Tell me what was it like after four tries, reaching the top of Mount Everest. What was it like to stand there at the top?
SCB: It was kind of very confusing. I mean when I finally got there I was absolutely exhausted. And I was also-it was an emotional moment because I'd lost so many friends actually on the mountain. And those last steps to the summit-it's quite easy. The final bit of Everest --you're just putting one foot in front of the other-with the tracks of the others cause I was the last one up being the eldest. And I just couldn't help thinking of the friends who've lost their lives. And when I got there I just kind of slumped and cried my eyes out. And then slowly the awareness came that I'd done it. We got there on a perfect day. And the view from the top of Everest is absolutely incredible. And also I got there with some new friends --the Norwegians whose expedition I actually climbed in and also one very good old friend. ____-who was the sherpa's ___ who's the chief sherpa who was with me in 1975 when I climbed the southwest face of Everest. He'd been there twice before but he said "Look Chris I'd love to go with you" so he came up to the top with me. So that was very special.
LH: I mean while you were the oldest to reach the top at the time any way, it seems as if age hasn't dampened your energy or your enthusiasm-it's amazing.
SCB: Well I love climbing. And I think actually - if you stay alive - keeping climbing keeps you young. I still enjoy my climbing as much as I ever have done. But you know I've got to accept the fact that I'm a little bit slower...I most certainly wouldn't try to climb Mount Everest. But Everest now has been climbed by a 70 year old - Yuchiro Miro - who's a good friend of mine. A wonderful Japanese climber and skier, and I mean getting to the top at the age of 70 is quite something.
LH: I'm sure. Getting to the top at the age of 30 is quite something as well!
SCB: Yes indeed yes.
LH: 69 you're still climbing...aside from the love that you said you have for mountain climbing...what else is it? Is it the adventure...is it the danger...?
SCB: It's a combination of all those things. I think the danger...I find that the danger is coming lower and lower. It's funny as you get older-when you'd think you'd stop worrying about it so much because you've had your life or have had a lot of your life-but no I find that I'm getting more cautious, more careful...and perhaps because you haven't got so much in reserve as you've had and you're not as hungry as you were when you were young. But I think it's the exploratory element I love-it's being in the mountains I love. It's the companionship and friends and now for instance we're going to Lahul in the Indian Himalayas. They're not super high mountains-they're about six thousand meters high...but we're going into an area where climbers or trekkers have never been before. I've flown over it and been intrigued. It's a wonderful big wide glaciers and mountains on either side. They don't look too difficult. And hopefully we'll climb something that's unclimbed. We don't even know what it is we haven't even got any photographs of where we're going cause no one's been there. And that to me, is the fascination-it's going into the unknown.
LH: Sir Chris, you know last year I spoke with Jamling Tenzing Norgay right here...
SCB: He's a wonderful man...
LH: He was sitting where you are...and he said for him, the respect for the mountain was prime-that was the most important. Do you feel the same way about the mountain and the need for respect, and do you think that people who do mountain climb for fun, are missing something?
SCB: Well no...I think-I mean I mountain climb for fun. I mean I enjoy and love being in the mountains. But then yes I respect them. I love them. And it's very important to respect them because mountains apart from anything else are potentially dangerous...and you've got to understand them. And I think you've got to be attuned to them. I mean one of the statements I hate, which the media love, is "conquering"...you "conquer"... You don't conquer mountains - mountains allow you to climb them. And you approach your mountain with respect and love. You're very determined to try to climb it-but you're also listening the whole time to little messages that come to back of your mind. And some times those messages say gosh this is dangerous or even...this isn't the right time, it isn't the right karma for climbing this mountain. And it's very important to listen to that. And if you have this instinctive feeling "no, it's not right", I usually turn back.
LH: Interesting. Now when I watch the IMAX movie you know like "Everest" some of the terrain we see in pictures...is scary. I mean its treacherous!
SCB: Yes but they're always worse in the eyes of the beholder. But if you've spent most of your life climbing-which I have --I've been climbing for over 50 years...
LH: Don't you get scared even now?
SCB: Oh I get scared-yes. I mean being scared is very important. Beings scared says this is dangerous-it's a warning signal. And then what you need to do then though is to look at that signal and some time you say "yeah, I'm scared but I think the risks are acceptable, I'm going to go on. Or you say "hmm no-the signals are bad, I'm going to turn back."
LH: Sir Chris we're going to take a very short break. Up next on TalkAsia: Balancing passion with responsibility. And how Sir Chris Bonington has managed to seamlessly combine them both.
LH: Welcome back to TalkAsia and my guest famous adventurer and mountaineer Sir Chris Bonington. In the late fifties, he served a short stint in the army and briefly held a desk job, before pursuing mountaineering full time. Sir Chris what made you at the age of 16 correct? to go full time into mountaineering?
SCB: Well you know at the age of 16 I discovered mountaineering. I was a school boy at the time. And I think I'd always had an adventurous kind of a nature. I loved tree climbing as a youngster and it was actually-my grandfather who was German - he had worked for the British all his life. The second world war coming on...he'd retired, he went to Ireland which was a neutral country. And I had a holiday in Ireland staying with him, south of Dublin and the 1st mountain I ever climbed was the little Sugar Loaf. Which was a tiny little mountain just to the south of Dublin. And I climbed that by myself.
LH: No training?
SCB: It was just a walk (they both laugh)...and then that winter, I'd traveled to Ireland by train and I noticed these big hills, just to the south of the railway tracks. And I though gosh it'd be great to go there. So I persuaded a school mate of mind to come with me. And we hitchhiked up to Snowdonia in the winter of 1951 it was. We knew nothing about climbing. I'd actually brought a pair of hob-nail boots and I had a cut down school mack. And we tried to climb Snowden in deep snow, we were avalanched off it I mean we were lucky to get away with it. My mate Anton hitchhiked home the next day and never went into the mountains again. And I was just absolutely hooked I mean - it was adventure, it was exciting.
LH: Just like that!
SCB: Yeah. I loved climbing from that moment. But I mean at that stage I couldn't think of making a living around climbing I thought in terms of a conventional career and I ended up going to Sandhurst which is the British royal military academy.
LH: What did you want to be? What did you think you would...
SCB: Well I wanted to be an army officer but you know that is adventurous in itself. I spend 5 years in the army, learnt an awful lot as I was in the royal regiment tank side. A troop of tanks. And I've always been and still am fascinated by military history. And then I had two years at the army's outward bound school as a mountaineering instructor. And that really got me out of the army and I wanted to go on another expedition and the army wouldn't let me and so I left and went off and climbed a mountain called Mutsy (?)
LH: Now did anything you learnt in the army helped you at all in your climbing?
SCB: Oh an immense amount. I mean as a young man age 20, suddenly in charge of 3 tanks, 12 men-that is basic leadership. And I very quickly learnt that the pip from your shoulder are not actually-they give you authority but the moment you rely on that authority you fail. And that to get people to work together effectively, you've got to have respect, you've got to have friendship. You've got to have enthusiasm. And the only ways you can get that-is by really being honest with them. By caring for them and leading them. And so I really learnt the basics for leadership during my time in the army. So you know it was an invaluable apprenticeship if you'd like for the expeditions I was to lead later on.
LH: You must make a lot of people envious, I mean you actually make a living out of something you love. How do you think you accomplished that?
SCB: I love hard work basically. But when I finally-I tried for a for a very short time-I couldn't imagine making a living as a climber so I worked for a short time with Unilever as a management trainee that lasted nine months. And then I wanted to go on another expedition. And at that point, I realized that I was going to have to base my life around climbing. I didn't want to be a mountain guide because if you're a mountain guide you then make climbing a job. And I wanted to keep climbing and I always have done-as a past time, as a hobby. Something I love doing. And my work, therefore is communicating about it. It's writing, it's lecturing, it's taking photographs, it's helping to make films, and now motivational speaking. And of that is the work-which I enjoy doing, I mean I'm interested in communication. But I go back to my hobby, which is climbing.
LH: After all these years, do you still climb with people that you started out with-or are you one of the lucky ones who still can endure and enjoy this love you have for climbing?
SCB: I think I've climbed with both...I've got some of my oldest friends. I mean some I've known for 45 years and we still climb together. We're all getting gray haired...and silver bearded together as well! And then there are also, I climb with younger climbers. Climbing transcends age-it transcends generations. And I think the joint thing is the love we have of our climbing. And I think the enthusiasm which is more important of all.
LH And some of your friends you've lost along the way...
SCB: Too many...yes...
LH: That's part of the...
SCB: It's the price you have to pay climbing rock. Climbing is comparatively safe. But once you get into high mountain climbing. There the objective dangers are great. And if you climb on the outer age of extremes, of doing new things-the risks are huge.
LH: Sir Chris we're going to take another short break. Just ahead on TalkAsia- Where else does Sir Chris hope to explore before he retires? Or will he ever call it quits? We'll find out, when we come back.
LH: And you're back with TalkAsia. Celebrated Mountaineer Sir Chris Bonington has had several close calls. But he says his wife Wendy knew what she was getting herself into when she married him over 40 years ago. Sir Chris tell me about this recent climb you had with your son, nephew and your brother?
SCB: Well it was very very special. It was a few years ago in the year 2000 for the millennium. I'd always wanted to share with Daniel my son and Gerald the joy I have in actually reaching the top of an unclimbed mountain. James, Gerald's son also came with us, so the four of us --four Boningtons reached the top of this mountain with this incredible view. And it was very very important moment for me.
SCB: I think it was sharing an experience with people I love and particularly with Daniel. And I think it helped him as well. It helped him understand why I'd done all of this. And in some ways, my wife Wendy knew what she was getting herself into when she married me and she's never ever wanted me to change. But in a way your children are handed with you and what you do. And I don't think I ever fully appreciated until they grew up, the kinds of pressures they were under when they knew how dangerous it was because in fact the parents of their friends were being killed around them.
LH: I talked about some of the close calls, or the many close calls that you've had. Is there one in particular that sticks in your mind?
SCB: Well I think funnily enough it was with my brother Gerald only a few weeks before we actually went to Danga. And this is ironically not in the high Himalayas it was in Scotland. And we'd gone off to winter climb...which is quite a hard ice climb-it's about 800 foot high. And we'd got right to the top of it. And it was my mistake-I'd run up this long rope length up this steep rocks and ice and everything. At the top I'd run out of rope, couldn't find the belay-which is where you anchor yourself to the rock or the ice. And so I just stuck my ice axes into the snow-and thought "oh that will be enough" and tied it off. And then started taking Gerald up. So he's on the end of the rope. And if you're the second, you should be 100 percent safe cause you've got a rope to you. And unfortunately right at the bottom is an over hanging kind of ice bulge. Gerald went and fell off and he's a big strong guy 6 foot 3 inches tall. And my anchors weren't good enough and he pulled me straight out. And I remember going head first, hand it pulled me right out and I was completely in the air. And I've still got this snapshot of looking straight down this huge face and thinking this is it. I've had it. And I remember just being curious about --is it gong to hurt, being killed. And then I'd put in just one bit of protection which is where you-it's a little metal wedge-and you jam it into a crack. And that held us. And so I came hurtling down. Gerald couldn't understand what was happening he was whistling down as well until it was zap-we were held. I mean I had some broken ribs-but was alive.
LH: I can't imagine. As a great ambassador for the sport is there one thing that you want people to know about mountain climbing?
SCB: I think respect the mountains-which are Jamling's feelings I feel very strongly about that. Incredibly important-respect the environment. And care for the environment. And I think all too often we don't. I mean for instance on Everest there's great loads of rubbish all over the place. And I think that it's really that care that's the most important thing. Don't leave your rubbish around. Take it off. And even more important on a mountain like Everest-there's been some appalling cases-of where some one's gotten into trouble-and there's up to 600 people on the mountain at the same time. And you get groups of people who are so obsessed on getting to the top of that mountain. That they would walk past some one in trouble and not go to their help because they want to get to the top of that mountain. That to me is appalling. And so it comes to respect the mountain-respect the people around you-and have integrity and have compassion.
LH: Sir Chris when you're not climbing, or preparing for your next climb-what do you do?
SCB: I've got one computer game which I'm absolutely hooked on called "Civilization" where you kind of have to conquer the world. And I play all too much of that. I do a lot of reading. I play bridge. And I go walking.
LH: So all sort of very...I mean, keeps you fit!
SCB: Oh yes except playing "Civilization"! (they both laugh)
LH: Your climbs have taken you all over the world. What do you pick up from them aside from looking at the mountains and going to the top. What else is there about all these various places around the world that you see?
SCB: I think it's meeting and coming close to a whole series of different people from different cultures and that's what I love actually I think about the Himalayas and climbing central Asia. And whether it's the Tibetans for instance we spent 1996 to 1998 trying to climb this mountain called Seppu Kingri which is in North east Tibet and around our base camp there were just five Tibetan families-who were living if you'd like by our western standards-poverty stricken lives. But it wasn't poverty stricken because they'd always lived in that way-and they were simple, proud people living the way they've lived for hundreds of years. And getting to know them over three years was something we were very privileged to do.
LH: Will you ever call it quits? Will you ever retire?
SCB: Well not until I have to . I mean as long as I go on loving climbing and I can put one foot in front of the other-I'll go on into the mountains. What I've got to accept is that each year - you can actually see it - you're not quite as strong as you were. You weren't quite as fast as you were. But you know you accept that. You always push yourself a bit. But I hope I can go on climbing for many many years.
LH: Well Sir Chris good luck-thank you very much for coming by. It's been a privilege speaking with you. Thank you so much. World-renowned British Mountaineer and adventurer Sir Chris Bonington. And that is TalkAsia this week. Be sure to check out our website CNN.com/Talkasia for upcoming guests. And you can let us know who'd you'd like to see on our show, that address Talkasia@cnn.com. Thank you very much. I'm Lorraine Hahn. Let's talk again next week.