Britain’s best-known mountaineer, Sir Chris Bonington, has climbed mountains worldwide, but his early triumphs were in the French Alps, including the first British ascent of the south-west pillar of the Aiguille du Dru in 1958 and the first ascent of the Central Pillar of Freney on the south side of Mt Blanc in 1961. Oliver Rowland asked Sir Chris, 76, about the importance of France in his career
You must have spent a great deal of time in France?
Yes, I’ve spent the most time of all in Chamonix; at one stage, the campsite there was almost a second home to me.
Some of your first significant climbs were in the French Alps
We made the first British ascent, fourth overall, of the south-west pillar of the Aiguille du Dru, which at the time, was THE big, hard, climb, and then the first ascent of the central pillar of Freney, which was then the “last great problem”. A lot of very, very good Continental climbers had tried and failed on it, and died on it; and we finally climbed it.
Some people died attempting it just a few weeks before; an incredibly strong team, with three Italians, including Walter Bonatti, one of the greatest climbers of all time, and four French climbers including Pierre Mazeaud [who became the first Frenchman to climb Everest] who later became France’s minister of sport. Four of the team died when they were caught in a storm high up.
You must have had that in mind as you tackled it
Very much so, and they knew the south side of Mont Blanc a lot better than we did.
How do you prepare for something like that, to minimise the risk?
You can only rely on your experience.We were a very strong team. I was climbing with Don Whillans, who was one of the greatest climbers Britain has ever produced. Then we had Ian Clough, a very talented young British climber, and Jan Dlugosz, a very good Polish climber. In those days, the gear was nothing like it is today. If we had been caught in a storm like the others had, wewould have had great difficulty getting down. The Freney glacier is the wildest on Mt Blanc and getting down and out of it in bad weather is incredibly difficult; and we wouldn’t have known the route down as well as the Franco-Italian team.
You have been on several expeditions where people have died. How do you cope knowing your sport is so dangerous?
Maybe we just lack imagination. Extreme climbing at altitude is very, very dangerous. Some of my friends died, some on my expeditions. Any of us who have survived, you have to admit that it’s sheer luck. I have had numerous occasions when I was just unbelievably lucky to survive.
What keeps driving you on all the same?
I love everything about it: the physical business of climbing, the mountain environment, the company, and exploring. I’m challenged and excited by risk and want to keep doing it.
You went back to Mont Blanc again only recently
I climbed it by the Aiguille du Midi last summer, a good route in the Haut Mont Blanc du Tacul.
You went on to other things, climbing Everest and so on… do the Alps still pose challenges to serious climbers or do people mainly want to go to more far-flung locations these days?
I led the expedition that made the first ascent of the south-west face of Everest [though he did not reach the summit himself that time], but the Alps are the most fantastic range of mountains. The Mt Blanc massif is particularly great. It’s got everything: fantastic glaciers, very steep, very good, granite rocks, it’s got ice climbing and rock climbing, incredible situations and very, very hard routes.
But are there no unclimbed peaks?
Oh no, new routes are still being done, but all the great lines have been climbed.
The Alps are also very significant in the history of mountaineering. It’s where it started. The first person to climb Mt Blanc was a Frenchman, Saussure [in 1786]. At that time they were climbing for science, to take barometer readings etc. Nobody had been that high before. Explorers had been to South America and had seen the Andes, so they knew higher mountains existed, but no one in Europe had ventured high up in the Alps and they were going into a completely new world. There were subsequent ascents at the end of the 18th century, then a gap with the Napoleonic wars; then in the 1820s it started up again and people, primarily British climbers, started doing it for sport.
The first mountaineering club in the world was the Alpine Club [founded in London in 1857] and the British dominated Alpine climbing in the mid-19th century. Then, towards the end of the century, Germans and Austrians started doing technically very, very hard routes.
They evolved techniques for climbing in the Dolomites. After the First World War, it was the Germans and Italians who dominated highstandard climbing. The British were very conservative and disapproved of the use of pitons [metal spikes hammered into cracks to which ropes can be attached] and crampons [metal spikes attached to boots] and the French were in the middle, though they did have some very good climbers between the wars. After the Second World War, a whole series of immensely talented French climbers evolved, such as Lionel Terray and Gaston Rébuffat. They started putting up some very good routes and Maurice Herzog and Louis Lachenal were the first people to climb an 8,000m peak [Annapurna 1, Nepal, in 1950].
Have you climbed with notable French climbers?
I climbed with Lionel Terray a couple of times before he died and we did the route on which he was killed just a few weeks before his fatal accident [from a rock climbing fall in the Vercors massif in the French western Alps, in 1965]. It wasn’t even a particularly hard route; he must just have made a mistake.
Do the French have a different climbing style?
In the early 20th century to between the wars, they developed a very elegant ice climbing technique. They were using a long axe and a straight pick and they climbed very neatly and fast, and still do. Today though, you use ice tools with curved picks and it is highly specialised. A mixture of people developed the techniques since the 1970s, including the likes of the great Scottish climber Hamish MacInnes and an American, Yvon Chouinard.
People talk of Alpine climbing as being a particular style. What is meant by that?
“Alpine style” is applicable to climbs in the Himalayas and other big mountains. The traditional way to climb there, where the distances are much greater and there are problems of altitude, is to use siege tactics, with a series of camps going up the mountain and usually linked, if it is steep, by fixed ropes.
People go up and down until finally you have a camp high enough and you can make a bid for the summit. Alpine-style means you pack a rucksack at the bottom and keep going until you get to the top. When we made the first ascent of the south-west face of Everest, you couldn’t conceive it could be climbed by means other than siege-style.
We had a very big expedition and succeeded. Since then, it has only had four or five climbs, and all but one were siege-style. Four Czech climbers did it Alpine-style,
but they didn’t survive. They got to the top and one went to the summit, and then on the way down they vanished. They must have been completely exhausted.
The danger of climbing Alpine-style on very high mountains is you’ve got to move swiftly. You can’t spend more than one or two nights above 8,000m because your deterioration is so great. The probability is you will die.
You recently went to Norway to celebrate 25 years since you conquered Everest.
Yes, it was lovely. My Everest climb was a Norwegian expedition and I made 10 lifelong friends on it. We still meet up regularly and go climbing together.
Does Everest stand out as the high point for you?
Not really. It is symbolic because it is the highest, but I climbed it by the South Col route, which is technically straightforward, and it is the only mountain I have climbed in the Himalayas that wasn’t a first ascent. I like doing first ascents. I ticked it off. I was 50 at the time and I had been twice on the south-west face and
once on the north-east ridge, which was very hard, so it seemed the last chance of getting up it and the expedition leader, Arne Naess, invited me along.
You once went looking for the yeti…
We used the yeti to finance an expedition to climb a mountain called Menlungtse in Tibet. The previous year we had seen some intriguing tracks and photographed them, and the Daily Mail published them. The next year we returned and the Mail on Sunday sent out a journalist and photographer and the BBC sent a team. We left them to look for the nonexistent yeti while we got on with trying to climb the mountain.
What do you think of people like the French “Spiderman” Alain Robert, who take risks by doing very hard free climbs?
It’s great, all these adventure sports, sport climbing, free climbing, solo climbing, ice climbing… they all combine physical agility and an appetite for risk and an experience of learning how to survive and climb in a certain environment.
What would be the best way to get into climbing in France?
Contact the Club Alpin Français. The French have a very good guiding system, with a very high standard of guide. You can go on a course, which is the best thing, so you are being taught how to lead and be independent in the mountains, or hire a guide.
Is the sport bigger in the UK or France?
It’s similar. In the UK, we have always liked trad climbing, where you don’t use pitons or bolts, you just have little metal wedges and camming devices [spring-loaded
devices inserted in crevices]. You use what the rock offers, whereas in France, in the Alps, there have been big, long routes and so they have always used pitons, and
bolts, where you drill a hole and hammer a bolt in, which was a natural development from that. There is more sport climbing in France where you are cutting down the risk, by putting bolts wherever there would be a long fall if you fell off and the focus is climbing expertise, climbing to the physical limits. With trad climbing, you are saying “we will accept what the rock offers”.
It must be much more accessible than when you started out?
In every way. I started in 1951. My first rope was hemp, my first boots were nailed and all the gear was basic. The top standard was much lower. With the improvement of
footwear and everything else, the standard has gone up and up. Today what talented young climbers are doing, be they French or English or whatever, is incredible.
Do you have anything big coming up?
In May, I am going to the Himalayas with a friend and we will climb quite modest peaks, about 5,500m, but in a valley where no one has climbed anything, and hopefully we’ll get up something.