By Chris Bonington
Simon & Schuster £9.99 412pp
Chris Bonington has, over the years, produced a variety of mountaineering books. Many of which like Everest the Hard Way and Annapurna South Face have been deservedly applauded for their contribution to mountain literature. But the author’s latest autobiographical offering is rather different. Although any book that covers a writer’s life from early childhood to old age inevitably crosses old ground, Ascent seems less concerned with the trials and tribulations of high-altitude climbing and more with exploration of the author’s personal strengths and weaknesses. What follows is not so much an account of his struggles on ice and rock but those within himself as he tries to understand and to a certain extent justify his choice of life-style.
At the very beginning Bonington poses the age-old question of whether our behaviour and emotional responses are influenced by nature or nurture. His investigation into the lives of his antecedents show, on the one hand, a proclivity for adventure and exploration and, on the other, a tendency towards social irresponsibility and it is these areas of the author’s life that this book explores. His own childhood had its own difficulties. Domestic upset, an absent father and not particularly happy schooldays left him rather bewildered as to his future. So, when he discovered climbing, a sport where he could excel and, as importantly, enjoy, he literally seized the opportunity with both hands. His first book, I Chose to Climb, examines this early development along with his hopes and fears of what life as a professional mountaineer might bring. Ascent is very much a retrospect – a weighing-up of the profit and loss of having led such a life.
Often in life there is a seminal moment which determines the pattern of any future direction of travel. In Bonington’s case it was when he became inextricably bound up with the North Face of the Eiger. A combination of his involvement in the rescue of Brian Nally after Barry Brewster’s fatal fall, his and Ian Clough’s first British ascent of the Face and his part in the planning and execution of the first ascent of the challenging Direct Route brought him to the attention of the popular press. This notoriety meant two things. First, he realised that through his writings and photography he could make a living out of mountaineering and second, that once public interest had been aroused, he had the ability to persuade others to support his more far-flung ventures.
His success in the latter field meant any account of the author’s life must revolve around the expeditions he led or was part of and as a consequence the book is a who’s who of the British climbing community in the second half of the twentieth century and as such makes a valuable contribution to the mountaineering history of that period. Additionally, from a literary point of view, one of the more interesting elements of Bonington’s accounts is to compare them with those of other members of the party. There are, for example, obvious differences in tone between the Whillans’ description and Bonington version of the first British ascent of the Bonatti Pillar on The Dru and, rather more subtly, Doug Scott’s account of the difficulties the climbers experienced on The Ogre.
But as already suggested, the book has a greater purpose than a mere description of climbing. It is not difficult to see mountaineering as a metaphor for life at large. The early acquisition of skills to tackle the problems that lie ahead, the aspirations with their attendant moments of hope and despair, the anxious rush to see what is around the corner, not to mention that chance can irredeemably leave all before you in ruins, can apply equally to life as to climbing. As can, on a subtler level, the strain on personal relations in times of stress, friendships formed in a common cause, friends lost through selfishness or, more painfully, from premature death. And perhaps, most importantly, the realisation that as old age approaches, the things, you accomplished with such apparent ease in your youth, are beyond you and now exist only as a source of frustration.
It is in these lights, that in the final chapters of the book Chris Bonington judges his own life and the implications of spending weeks and months away from his family, particularly in his children’s formative years. In that respect, the death of Alison Hargreaves on K2 and the subsequent accusations of parental irresponsibility must have struck hard, echoing as it did the paternal neglect of his own childhood. In the same way, the deaths of so many of his companions on the expeditions that he had led must have weighed heavily in the final balance. Of course, the reader can only guess what really lies in the innermost recesses of the author’s mind but there are two images that stayed with me after finishing the book. The first was the alliterative “purr of the primus” which he found so comforting when he returned to the safety of his tent as his thoughts turned homeward. The second was the repetition of the verb “raced” as he strove for some successful ascent trying to beat the weather or some other deadline. Chris Bonington’s life seems, at least from this account, to have been torn between these two extremes of rush and rest, never really at ease in either.
All in all, this is a book that will interest anyone who is curious to find out what makes mountaineers, or, by extension, him or herself, tick.