I am no climber, and never will be but have enjoyed, both vicariously and with envy, the adventures of Bonington though it is now over 30 years since I read Bonington's 'The Everest Years' that lead me to go on to read his other autobiographical works – 'I chose to Climb' and 'The Next Horizon'. I was dubious whether a new autobiography would add much to what I had already read, other than to refresh my memory, especially as 'The Everest Years' had ended with the then 50-year-old author's summiting of Everest it was unlikely that age would bring greater adventures. How wrong I was.
Of course, there is familiarity in his re-telling the tales of the Eiger, Annapurna, K2, the Ogre and Everest adventures but not only did the author continue to climb in the Himalaya in his sixties and elsewhere – notably in Morocco - into his seventies (indeed the book opens with his climbing the Old Man of Hoy aged 80 in 2014) but this is also a more personal book than his earlier autobiographies. There is much more here on the author's earlier life with many gaps filled in by his mother's unpublished autobiography. The early unconventional (for the 1940s) family life is covered with honesty – his father's desertion and his mother's arguments with her own mother, her same sex relationship and attempted suicide are all here. Also here is the story of his own long 1st marriage to Wendy and the support she gave not only to her often absent husband but also to the partners of the many climbers lost on expeditions – the roll call is long as Bonington, in reflective mood, notes that 'Four of the eight lead climbers on Annapurna's south face died in the mountains, all of them great friends. Of the four of us who climbed Kongur, I have been the only survivor for over thirty years, after Al Rouse died in 1986.'
As Bonington was a trailblazer for the professionalisation of Mountaineering in Britain – and one of the 1st to make a reasonably good living from it, not only has he been the face of Mountaineering in the British media for 50 years he has had to work to maintain that position in order to continue to earn his crust. It was this logic that drove him to be a reporter covering the Eiger Direct climb and after a stint of photo-journalism covering Blashford-Snell's 1968 expedition that led him back to lead expeditions in the Himalayas in the 70s and early 80s. In that time, the nature of the game changed from siege to Alpine style climbing and for most of this period Bonington was away from home and at the same time Bonington's fame, if not fortune, grew. When asked 'how I justified it when I had a wife and two sons. There is no justification; it was my thirst for adventure, undoubtedly selfish, that drove me on' Bonington is honest but I feel a little too hard on himself – after all he did need to earn his crust though undoubtedly his family paid a price. With frank honesty he discusses that price that was paid as he chronicles his oldest surviving son's late teenage drug habit and run ins with the law. This could be laid at the feet of an absent father but happily Joe is today himself a successful businessman in outdoor adventure so, perhaps, his father's influence has been more favourable than he credits.
The final chapters of this superb book are both poignant and inspirational. They tell of the tragedy of the developing illness (MND) and loss of his wife, Wendy and the intense grief that this brings but they also tell of the development of a new romance and that love is never closed no matter one's age. This is an enthralling and inspirational book that should make anyone's Christams reading list – you don't need to be a climber , or even an outdoors person to enjoy it. The final words I shall leave to Sir Christian Bonnington:
"What I wanted was to make every single day of my eighties mean something, get out and climb and walk, enjoy my grandchildren, keep working and make life as rich and exciting as it possibly can be."