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Ascent of Man: Interview with Sir Chris Bonington

Published The Scotsman (TSMAG) 11 Oct 2008

SINCE ITS INCEPTION IN 2003, the Edinburgh Mountain Film Festival has attracted an impressive array of guest speakers, from Andy Cave to Doug Scott to Simon Yates. But mountaineers don’t come much more famous than this year’s star, Sir Chris Bonington CBE, conqueror of the south-west face of Everest and still climbing at the grand old age of 74.

“My ambition in life now is not to climb any specific mountain, it’s to keep myself fit enough to go on climbing for as long as I possibly can,” he says. “I have no desire to go back to Everest, but I still love going to the Himalayas. This year we went to Nepal, a friend and I. We had a bit of a trek and we were hoping to get a little climb at the end of it – a 5,000m peak that may or may not have had an ascent. As it turned out, the snow was terrible so we couldn’t get there, but we did climb something. It was quite low – only about 4,800m – but it was still a real adventure.”

Born in Hampstead, Bonington began climbing at 16, and in 1960, while in the army, he joined the Joint British-Indian-Nepalese Services Expedition to Annapurna II. Then, in the early 1970s, he turned his attention to “the last great problem” – the south-west face of Everest. In 1972 he led an expedition that was defeated by savage winds and intense cold, but when the chance came for a further attempt, in the autumn of 1975, he led the British Everest Expedition to success.

Everest made his name, but Bonington’s career became even more colourful post-1975, and his EMFF talk on 19 October will focus on those climbs. The story begins with his first ascent of the Ogre in Pakistan – a four-man sortie on which he smashed his ribs, fellow climber Doug Scott broke both his legs and they all went without food for five days during a descent in a savage storm.

“The Ogre was the biggest epic that either Doug or I have ever had,” he says. “We all came close to ending up dead, but we all got out of it. The important thing was that there were four of us, and the amount of strength you get from a close-knit team like that is absolutely huge. It was one hell of an epic, but an inspiring epic, because we all worked together to survive.”

Bonington will go on to talk about his first ascent of Kongur, the second-highest unclimbed peak in the world at the time he bagged it, and climbing Shivling in the Indian Himalayas. More recently, he has ventured into the Antarctic and Arctic regions, and he will also describe his ascent of Mount Vinson, highest peak in Antarctica, and his voyage to Greenland with the sailor Robin Knox Johnston, which led to an attempt on a spectacular peak known as the Cathedral.

Another highlight of this year’s EMFF, also on 19 October, will be the screening of Echo Wall, a new film featuring Scots climber Dave MacLeod. The hardest climbs in the world used to be graded E10, but in 2006 he made an “impossible” ascent called “Rhapsody” on Dumbarton Rock, graded E11, and recorded his exploits in a film of the same name. In July he broke new ground again, making a first ascent of Echo Wall on Ben Nevis. MacLeod has yet to grade the climb, but describes it as “harder than Rhapsody, or anything else I’ve been on”.

Bonington considers MacLeod “a remarkable climber – certainly one of the greatest adventure rock climbers in the world today”, and EMFF director Stevie Christie is prepared to go even further: “Dave MacLeod is probably Scotland’s leading athlete at the moment,” he says, “but outside the mountaineering world no-one’s heard of him. Last year he put up the hardest rock climb in the UK, if not the world [Echo Wall]. He’s done the hardest winter climb in the UK and hardest sport climb in the UK.

“If he was an Olympic athlete he’d have three golds and be getting the publicity Chris Hoy’s getting, but he’s not. I suppose that’s part of our job at the EMFF – to give an outlet to these people and raise their profile a bit.” sm

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The Edinburgh Mountain Film Festival is at George Square Lecture Theatre, Edinburgh, 17-19 October. Tickets cost GBP 5-GBP 12 and are on sale from Tiso and Alien Rock 1. Visit www.emff.co.uk

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