The Love that bridge an abyss of grief
He braved the most dangerous peaks in the world. But when he lost his child, then the wife he adored, it tested him to the very limit of endurance
SIR CHRIS Bonington is our greatest living climber, and in the first extract from his autobiography last week he revealed how his adventurous parents inspired his pioneering spirit. Today, Sir Chris tells of the heartbreaking moment he learned of his young son’s death – and how he nursed his wife after she was struck by the cruellest of diseases…
THE moment I saw the Kichwa tribesman carrying a message, I knew something was terribly wrong. It was the end of May 1966. I was at the base of Sangay, an active volcano in the Ecuadorian Amazon, preparing for a third ascent to capture photographs of liquid lava spraying in the air with fiery brightness.
I dreaded opening the note, fearing something had happened to my wife Wendy, and felt a moment of relief when I realised it wasn’t her.
But then the reality struck me: it was Conrad, our three-year-old son. He had died in an accident. I collapsed on to the ground and wept while our indigenous porters stood in sympathetic silence. I had to pull myself together and get home as fast as I could to be with Wendy.
The tragedy had happened a week earlier, and the fact that I learned of it so soon was thanks entirely to an old climbing friend, Simon Clark, who was working in Ecuador.
He had seen the accident reported in The Times. After making some enquiries, Simon drove out to the village of Macas, where I had begun my trek, and sent out the Kichwa messenger to find me. I still feel a tremendous sense of gratitude for his actions.
I walked through the darkness, drugged with fatigue, repeating to myself the awful fact that I would never embrace my son again.
At Heathrow, Wendy pushed past the barrier when she saw me and we just clung together, oblivious to the world around us in our shared grief and love for each other.
I discovered that Conrad had been playing outside the house of our friend Mary Stewart. There had been a sudden downpour, turning the small stream at the end of her garden in a town north of Glasgow into a torrent. Conrad, ever independent and adventurous, had strayed from the other children and fallen in.
Wendy had found him and suffered a solitary hell while she waited for me to return home.
She had wonderful support from family and friends but neither of us felt whole without the other. Together we found strength.
I wrote at the time: ‘It is still difficult to believe that it has happened. In the house, where we still have his scribbles on the wall, it is difficult not to imagine him next door; that he will come running in, that it never happened. We want another child as soon as possible. We shall never replace Conrad; you can’t replace a part of yourself.’
In a letter to my mother Helen, I wrote: ‘I think the only thing that has carried us through this is our love for each other: it brought home to me the knowledge that if anything happened to Wendy, I don’t think I should want to go on living. And then this brought home my own responsibility to her, the dangers I have risked.’
In the two years before Conrad’s death, Wendy had developed an interest in folk singing. She had a haunting voice like Joan Baez’s, and her singing career had been gathering momentum.
Wendy, perhaps inevitably, felt a sense of guilt that she had been practising in the house for her first paid gig when Conrad died and blamed herself. I found myself fighting a constant battle to change her mind; no one could have been a better mother. The truth is you never get over it; you just learn to go on. Every time I saw a young boy in the back of a car or hand in hand with his parents, I could see Conrad and the longing for him brought on tears. Even now, when he would have been 53, I still wonder what he would be doing.
It was a blessing that Wendy became pregnant again so quickly. Joe (christened Daniel) was born by caesarean section at Whitehaven Hospital in April 1967.
Not long after moving into our new house in Bowdon, Cheshire, Joe, by then aged 18 months, suffered an acute attack of gastroenteritis. He continued to get weaker, and 24 hours later Wendy and I were both out of our minds with worry.
He was slipping into a coma when the doctor finally arrived; he immediately called an ambulance. Joe was rushed to Wythenshawe Hospital in Manchester and we spent another agonising night at his bedside before we were told that he would be fine.
By the following spring, Wendy was pregnant again, giving birth to Rupert in July 1969, at the same hospital where we had watched over Joe only a few months before. WENDY and I first met in the New Year of 1962. I was due to give a lecture and, late as always, stumbled into my compartment as the train began pulling out. My slides went everywhere, and a girl leaped up to help me. We got chatting, and I discovered she lived just around the corner from me.
She and her flatmates were having a party on Twelfth Night and invited me along. She didn’t mention that she had a friend who was looking for some adventure in her life and thought I might fit the bill.
Her friend, Wendy Marchant, was small and dark and wore a little black dress; we sat and talked as though we had known each other for years.
My son had died – I would never get to hold him again There was something kittenish about her, very sexy
When we danced, she held me close; there was something kittenish about her, very sexy. I immediately felt I didn’t want to be out of her company. After that first night we were inextricably bound to each other: we married that May.
Having fallen in love, it was natural I should want to share my other passion, and soon I took her climbing in the Peak District at a gritstone crag called Froggatt Edge. Wendy was keen but a little apprehensive as I tied a rope around her waist.
‘Now, this route is only a Diff,’ I told her. ‘Difficult.’
‘Couldn’t we start with something easy?’ she asked.
‘Difficult is easy: anything easier than this would be a walk. We’ll soon have you doing very Severe.’
I bounced up the climb, reassuring her how easy she’d find it, but when it came to her turn she was tense and hugged the rock, as beginners often do. I’d found the climbing so easy I’d gone off route to make it harder; as a consequence the rope was running to one side and when I glanced at my belay – a section of rope attached to the rock in case of a fall – it didn’t look as good as it ought to have been.
‘For God’s sake, don’t slip: I’m not sure I can hold you,’ I said.
That was enough for Wendy. I’d blown it. It was the last time she ever went climbing. WENDY had always had problems with her back and, after being impressed by the Alexander Technique to realign posture and alleviate muscular and psychological tension, became a teacher and practised for 20 years, before retiring in 2009 to focus on golf, her passion.
In 2011, after her 73rd birthday, Wendy began tripping over on kerbs or rocky steps. Since 1971, we’d lived at Badger Hill, our cottage in Caldbeck village in the Lake District; now we made an appointment at Cumberland Infirmary in Carlisle.
The neurologist there diagnosed a dropped foot caused by a damaged nerve in the lower leg and recommended corrective footwear. I don’t think either of us was convinced. In fact, we were becoming increasingly worried, not just by Wendy’s falls but her pronounced loss of energy and general unsteadiness.
In the past I had relied on Charlie Clarke as an expedition doctor. In early August 2012 I needed his professional skill as a neurologist. Charlie spent a good hour with Wendy, then referred us to a consultant called Tim Williams at the
I stroked my wife’s hand as she gently slipped away
Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle. He conducted tests, including electrocardiograms, and then life went on as usual.
When it was time for the follow-up appointment a few weeks later, we were both a bit apprehensive as we drove over. Tim got straight to the point. He had bad news. Wendy had motor neurone disease (MND).
It was like being hit very hard in the stomach. Both of us burst into tears and fell into one another’s arms and clung to each other.
Tim had a box of tissues handy and we slowly composed ourselves. Wendy told me afterwards that she had wondered if she might have multiple sclerosis, having seen a friend suffer from it. We had never thought of MND. Tim was sympathetic. He explained to us that no one knew the cause, that the disease was fatal and there was no cure. He thought it likely that Wendy could have between two and five years, but he couldn’t be certain.
That catastrophic moment of diagnosis was strangely inconclusive. Everything had changed and nothing had. We still had lives to live.
Wendy had an immense strength of character, and a philosophy of living in the present, of looking practically into the future, always thinking of others before herself, always in command of herself. It was simply a matter of focusing on priorities. At first our lives continued as before, although I cut down on my engagements.
Within weeks of the diagnosis, we had an early appointment at Cumberland Infirmary to fit Wendy for an electric wheelchair. It seemed huge, rather intimidating in fact, with a finger controller to allow her to steer it around furniture. The technician explained they didn’t want to keep changing it; this model would suit Wendy as her illness progressed. I didn’t need the reminder.
The advance of the disease was gradual. Wendy’s speech became slightly slurred. Walking slowly became more difficult, as did the stairs. We traded in Wendy’s Subaru for a bright red Renault Kangoo. The controls could be hand-operated so she could drive and regain some independence.
In the summer of 2013, we moved our bedroom downstairs and altered Wendy’s old pottery workshop so she could drive her scooter out into the garden. Gradually her illness bit harder and harder. She could no longer talk; indeed barely make a sound. Wendy would ring a little bell to get attention and then write down whatever she wanted to say.
Things came to a head in mid-April 2014. I had dozed off but was on edge as usual, in case she needed me. I was suddenly aware that something was wrong: she wasn’t lying beside me. I hurled myself out of bed but Wendy ran out of strength before I could reach her, slumping to the floor from her walking frame. I wasn’t strong enough to get her back into bed on my own and had to phone my brother Gerald in the village.
Joe, who now lived in Australia, arrived in June, and though he could manage only a few days, it was important to them both.
Her condition worsened. On July 22, she indicated she’d like to go outside and look at the garden. We sat her in her big electric wheelchair. Rupert, our son, needed to help her operate the finger-control and we navigated our way into the garden, where she went slowly from plant to plant, gazing intensely at each one. She seemed to be saying goodbye.
That night Wendy sank into a fitful sleep and seemed to be slipping away. I held one hand while Rupert, on the other side of the bed, held her other hand. I can remember very little of the detail of those moments. I don’t think we were in tears then, but united in intense love for Wendy, trying to protect and shelter her, as her breathing grew weaker and weaker and finally became imperceptible. Did she hear our words? Feel our hands on hers, our arms around her? I want to think she did.
After Wendy died in 2014, I frequently ran into Loreto Herman, the Chilean wife of my old friend Ian McNaught-Davis, who had died after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s. Without thinking, I invited her to join me on a lecture tour to Chile the following year. Without hesitation she replied: ‘I’d love to.’
That’s really where it all started. We married in London in 2016, one of the most wonderful days of our lives. What I value above all is finding, for the second time, a deep, passionate love that fills my being – and making the absolute most of whatever time we have left on Earth.
FAMILY BOND: Chris with his infant son Conrad in 1964
LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT: Chris and Wendy in 1985 – but despite their strong marriage she didn’t share his passion for climbing mountains