| 7.1°C Dublin

The high life: from the Little Sugar Loaf to Everest

He's a mountaineer and writer, but Chris Bonington is still best known to some as the star of a 1979 Bovril ad. He talks to Lorna Siggins about his first ever ascent - in Wicklow - Everest queues, his fears for Brexit and his Irish ancestry


On top of the world: Chris Bonington on an Everest Base Camp trek in 2009. Photo courtesy of Chris Bonington Picture Library

On top of the world: Chris Bonington on an Everest Base Camp trek in 2009. Photo courtesy of Chris Bonington Picture Library

 Chris in the Bovril advert from the 1970s

Chris in the Bovril advert from the 1970s


On top of the world: Chris Bonington on an Everest Base Camp trek in 2009. Photo courtesy of Chris Bonington Picture Library

Everest it isn't, but a glimpse of Wicklow's Little Sugar Loaf is still always enough to make Chris Bonington's heart skip.

The 85-year-young British mountaineer, who has seen the curvature of the earth from the planet's highest places, has a special fondness for the hill where it all began. He was a 15-year-old only child and visiting his grandfather in Dublin's Mount Merrion, when he decided to take the bus to Bray.

The Wicklow hills "hadn't quite the atmosphere" of the mountain landscape he had seen on the train through Wales, he wrote in his autobiography, but he was still "frightened by their size and my own lack of experience...".

He was also fascinated by his Danish-born grandfather, who had spent a life at sea, been shipwrecked several times, saved an entire crew on a Royal Indian Marine ship by securing the watertight doors off Mauritius, and had surveyed the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean.


 Chris in the Bovril advert from the 1970s

Chris in the Bovril advert from the 1970s

Chris in the Bovril advert from the 1970s

After scrambling to the top of the 342-metre-high quartzite hummock near Kilmacanogue, a young Bonington was besotted. Next stop was Snowdon, across the Irish Sea in Wales, which he climbed and almost "avalanched off" in parts with a school friend, Anton. Both had set off without any proper climbing gear.

For the next seven decades, Bonington led ascents of Everest, and summit 'firsts' on Eiger's North Face and the South Face of Annapurna. His first climbing of 'The Ogre' in the Karakoram with Doug Scott in 1978 is regarded as his "greatest epic".

He has written 19 books, appeared on television many times, received a knighthood in 1996, and yet is still remembered for his "hot beefy Bovril" ads by an older generation. "Oh yes, my leg still gets pulled on that."

Sir Christian John Storey Bonington - "Call me Chris," he laughs - has returned to Wicklow many times, and is due back in Ireland next month to receive the latest in a long line of awards.

This one is very special, he emphasises, as it is due to be presented by Mountaineering Ireland in memory of the late Joss Lynam, climber, author and advocate for hillwalking.

"Joss Lynam wasn't a superstar but fulfilled the same role in Ireland as I might have done here in Britain," he says.

"I never climbed with him but met him many times and he was one great guy. And a medal from one's peers means a lot."

His lecture, also named in memory of Lynam, in Dublin next month is already booked out without much advertising, and Mountaineering Ireland has set up a waiting list.

Bonington says any excuse would draw him over to Ireland, due to past family connections - "two sets of great-grandparents, and, if I qualified, I'd be trying for Irish citizenship", he says.

He has only one word for Brexit - "awful" - and fears for both the future of Northern Ireland and for his own country as a general election approaches.

"Anything could happen... I've always been a social democrat, so I am a Lib Dem voter, but the centre ground really is being squeezed..." His other big concern is climate justice, and the impact on his grandchildren, but he firmly believes it requires a "whole world" approach, given how certain economies are "booming on regardless".

Calls for ethical tourism must be tempered by the fact that some societies depend heavily on visitors - Nepal being one - he notes.

"So the queues on Everest are terrible, and people risk hypothermia when waiting so long, and when you have 100 people camped on the South Col... that's not mountaineering. Yes, there should be systems of limiting or staging permits but if you cut the numbers going trekking, it will hurt the local economy - because mountains are their main resource," he says.

"There are hundreds of unclimbed peaks in the Himalaya, and it is a bit like being in the Lake District and going to the lesser hills, where you can have it all to yourself..."

His first trip to Nepal was in 1960, where there were no mobile phones, and communication home was via a 'mail runner' who took letters and cassette tapes to post in Kathmandu or the nearest town.

Gentle bubble

"We read books, we played bridge, we lived in a gentle bubble... but I would get incredibly homesick, and I wrote letters to my wife, Wendy, with carbon paper backing to make a copy as my diary," he says. "The only problem was that when you were really worried about safety issues, you'd be editing a bit," he says.

"There was such a long delay between what people at home would hear and what might have actually happened that it did avoid unnecessary worry. Whereas now, in this era of instant communication, you have much more scope for anxiety.

"So when British climbers Peter Boardman and Joe Tasker went missing on our Northeast Ridge Everest expedition in 1982, Charles Clarke [the expedition doctor] and I went around the back of Everest searching for them," he recalls.

"None of that was reported until after that was over. There is nothing worse than a period of doubt..."

He was away in Ecuador when he received news that his two-and-a-half year-old son, Conrad, had drowned after wandering down to a swollen stream in Scotland. He had been a child with "a rare quality of gentleness, tempered with intrepid independence", his father wrote later, and this was "one of those one-in-a-million chances you can never guard against".

He wrote in his autobiography of how he collapsed and cried inconsolably, and of how he realised his wife had endured "a hell that I can never know", as it was a week before her husband could be reached.

Bonington's extensive writing earned him both respect but also some envy, he suspects - his autobiographies are candid in their descriptions of the best and worst of human behaviour in extreme situations, with injury and death an integral part of the text. Even a Sunday Times journalist sent to accompany one expedition is not spared.

In spite of losing friends, and witnessing the impact on their partners, he has described high-altitude mountaineering as an addiction he could not shake.

The ascent of The Ogre in Pakistan in 1977 was particularly testing, as he smashed ribs and his partner, Doug Scott, broke two legs and had to crawl back down the mountain. Team members Mo Anthoine and Clive Rowland risked their own lives to save them, and, as Bonington has noted, also forfeited their own summit attempt.

However, the part played by both Anthoine and Rowland was almost ignored by the media when word got out. A two-part biography by Doug Scott released in 2017 drew on diaries, letters and film footage by Anthoine to "set the record straight".

Bonington's first wife, Wendy, was his constant in all his exploits. She died of motor neurone disease (MND) in 2014. A month after her death, he climbed the Old Man of Hoy sea stack off the Scottish coast with mountaineer Leo Houlding. Bonington was 80 and he wanted to raise awareness about MND.

"It was 48 years after I had done it, and Leo came up with the idea," he says. "He is one of the world's best adventure climbers, and I think he was the youngest and I was the oldest person to do it."

He still embarks on adventure with his second wife, Loreto McNaught-Davis. She had been married to mountaineer Ian McNaught-Davis, who also died in 2014.

"We have our adventures, and I find going walking on Hampstead Heath, my childhood playground, to be the closest that London has to wilderness.

"I have climbed every hill I can see from my house in the South of France... really, you don't have to do something hard, though, as one can find adventures everywhere..."

Chris Bonington is due to receive the 2019 Mountaineering Ireland Lynam Medal in Dublin on December 18 and will deliver the annual Lynam Lecture in memory of the late Joss Lynam (1924-2011)

Please register or log in with for free access to this article

Already have an account?

Most Watched