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Sir Chris Bonington: the only way is up
The legendary mountaineer has been an icon of British adventure and the great outdoors for half a century, as well as a friend of Belstaff, says Nick Smith.
Chris Bonington comes from a different age of adventure. Back in 1951, when the 16-year-old Englishman started climbing, no one had walked to the North Pole or sailed single-handedly around the world and Everest remained unclimbed. At 8,850m, the world's tallest peak was to captivate the former margarine salesman, who became a household name in British mountaineering. Over his long and illustrious career, Bonington has taken part in 19 separate expeditions to the Himalayas, during which he’s seen both the highs and lows of a sport that can be as unforgiving as it is exhilarating.
The 1970s is seen by many as the 'golden age' of British mountaineering and during this time Bonington was the sport's poster boy, making technically nigh-on impossible rock climbing look easy. It was also during this time that Bonington formed a lasting relationship with Belstaff, collaborating with the brand from '76-78 on the Great British Waterproofs line, each item of which had the suitable slogan 'weatherproofs for the great outdoors' embroidered on the label. In fact, a shell mountain parka co-designed by Chris Bonington was one of the key items in the recent exhibition of innovative all-weather clothing at Belstaff's New Bond Street store.
Although still going strong today – Bonington was still doggedly chalking up first ascents in the Himalayas into his seventies – his legacy ultimately rests on a handful of sensational climbs he made during the 70's golden age. At the dawn of the decade Bonington led an expedition to new heights with the successful ascent of the south face of Annapurna – its 3,000m wall then, as now, one of the toughest challenges in the Himalayas. This was soon followed in 1975 by a groundbreaking first ascent of Everest via the southwest face. Although the expedition was successful, giving Bonington one of the greatest of laurels as a team leader, he was also to experience the loss of his comrade Mick Burke in one of several tragedies to occur in his high-altitude climbing career. Although Bonington himself didn't summit on this occasion – leaving that honour to fellow team members Doug Scott and Dougal Haston – he was to set foot on the roof of the world in 1985, when at the age of 50, he became the then-oldest summiteer of Everest.’
Arguably, Bonington reached his personal peak in 1977, when again accompanied by Scott, he made the first ascent of the Ogre in the Karakoram Himalaya, pushing back the boundaries of what could be achieved in terms of technical climbing above 7,000m. The six-day descent was fraught with incident. Having broken both legs soon after leaving the summit, Scott was forced to crawl all the way back to base, while Bonington, who had also suffered a fall, accompanied him in agony with three broken ribs. The dramatic Ogre summit photo clearly shows Bonington clad in Belstaff outerwear – his choice for the most challenging climb of his life. Today, the Bonington phenomenon goes on, with the great outdoorsman currently writing the second volume of his autobiography, due to be published later this year. Nick Smith writes for the Explorers Journal, and is a fellow of both the Explorers Club and the Royal Geographical Society.’