A Short Walk
With Sir Chris Bonington
I’ve been to the U.K. several times for business and for pleasure and have always been fascinated by the climbing culture there. My first brush with the U.K. climbing scene was in 1993, when fresh out of school, as part of a six month cycling trip from Dublin to Istanbul, I rode from Holyhead to Dover passing through the mountains of Snowdonia along the route. I visited Pete’s Eats in Llanberis and was thrust firmly into the staunch climbing history that permeates from the hills there. This was serious business I learned, something I hadn’t expected in my naivety.
Decades later, better read and much savvier about British climbing generally, I visited my friend John Porter in Cumbria. He and his wife Rose had kindly taken me in for a few nights between mountain festivals I was visiting. John and I share a love of mountain literature and have spent some time together discussing his successful writing and my desire to write more, but we’d never actually done anything outside together. John suggested we do some walking on my visit. The weather was horrific, even worse than a normal November in the U.K., and John’s knees won’t allow for much cragging anymore, so hiking sounded like a great way to finally oust my jet lag and rectify a week of sitting and watching mountain films.
“Right, I’ll just give Chris a call then and see if he’d like to come along this afternoon,” John said. And without a thought I agreed, thinking it would be nice to meet some locals. About 17 minutes later as I was contemplating which of my inappropriate footwear would be best for a trek up a saturated water-logged fell when I realized which Chris he was actually referring to. John meant to take me on a walk with Sir Chris Bonington.
I stopped what I was doing for a moment and considered the implications. Soggy approach shoes seemed a minor detail given the opportunity to have some one-on-one time with quite possibly the world’s most famous mountaineer. What the hell was I going to talk to him about? I’d never even been to Everest basecamp never mind the South Face of Annapurna, Shivling or Baintha Brakk in Pakistan. Bonington’s expediton resumé and honours are the stuff of legend. I’d certainly hoped to shake his hand one day but never expected an opportunity to actually speak to him. All of a sudden a walk in the British hills felt like an expedition unto itself, I needed to pull myself together.
John, Rose and I piled into their car, Ellie the Border Collie jumped in the boot and we were on our way to Badger Hill, Sir Chris’s humble cottage in the Lake District. ‘How do I even address him?’ I wondered ‘Sir? Sir Chris? Bonington old chap?’ I decided to follow John’s lead which didn’t make much sense since they were old friends, they’d been on expeditions together and he certainly wasn’t going to call him Sir.
We were welcomed warmly into the cottage by Chris’s charming wife Loreto. Her South American f lare and warmth filled the modest entry hallway, she gave me a friendly wink and I relaxed instantly. Suddenly I felt as though I might be able to act like a normal human being after all. Sir Chris appeared and after a quick sorting out of weatherproof gear and deciding which “wellies” would be best, we headed out and up High Pike, the hill directly behind the cottage.
Ellie broke the ice and led the way searching for sticks and circling back every now and then, rounding us up. I walked with Rose and Loreto at first, John and Sir Chris up ahead, the misty drizzle was bearable but there was little to see in the distance except fog and cloud. All of a sudden I found myself alone with Sir Chris. We chatted about the book he was writing and the current state of film and the seeming need to document every moment on today’s expeditions. Even with hoods up and collars drawn in, we managed a decent and interesting conversation. I couldn’t have been more thrilled as we approached the top of the fell. Mother Nature however was intent on making life difficult for me. The wind picked up, just a gust here and there at first until it seemed as though all the air in Britain had been inhaled all at once and then brutally weezed out onto us in one big breath. All of a sudden we were in the midst of a rain and snow storm, it was snaining horizontally, we were soaked and we needed to get back before hypothermia set in.
Sir Chris took charge and forged a new direct route to the valley through the rusty slippery bracken. He moved quickly and purposefully, I was right on his heels. I could see John behind, caught in no man’s land between us and Rose and Loreto who were trying to follow carefully through the brush. We finally reached the small creek at the bottom of the fell, the rain still falling hard and once at the car we decided to change clothes then head straight to the pub.
Sir Chris Bonington on Prana E3, Black Crag, Borrowdale, the Lake District U.K.