One of the seminal moments of my life was at 16. I discovered the mountains. On a visit to my grandfather in Dublin I climbed one of the Wicklow hills you could see from his back garden. Then the train back to England took me round the north of Snowdonia. The sight really caught my imagination – I remember looking into the valleys between the mountains and wondering what was at the end of the valley. I persuaded a school friend, Anton, to come with me and climb Snowdon. We tried to climb it without any of the proper gear and we were avalanched off and slid quite a long way. Fortunately we weren’t killed. I found this incredibly exciting and exhilarating; Anton found it anything but. I knew I’d found the thing I loved. I just am a natural climber.
My dad [one of the first SAS recruits Charles Bonington] left us when I was a baby. He was quite a wild man. He fell in love, got married quickly, then I arrived very soon and there was a huge row [his mother hit his father with a poker]. Then he left. My grandmother brought me up for a while when my mum was working as a copywriter, but there were disagreements between them and in the end my mum took me and looked after me entirely. Actually, she pushed Nan right out of it.
I’m not good at dinner parties when there are seven or eight people I don’t know. I clam up.
I remember finding that confusing. My mum treated me like an adult. She was a terrific mother but she had a nervous breakdown when her next relationship [with a leftist female journalist] broke up, and my nan stepped back in. I was quite a shy child. Being a single-parent family was quite hard in the 1940s and that probably made me more shy. I’m still a bit like that – I’m not good at dinner parties when there are seven or eight people I don’t know. I clam up. But I have some very close friends, I’m not a loner.
I get so much out of climbing. There’s the athletic enjoyment of doing something very well. Then there’s the element of risk, the thing that excited me when we got caught in that avalanche – the idea that if you let go, you’ll die. That can be addictive. Also the sense of exploring, discovering a new route, the boost to the ego, the joy of going somewhere no one else has gone.
And the moment of euphoria when you reach the summit, especially if you’ve been climbing for days.
I do need maps but I love wild country. And the moment of euphoria when you reach the summit, especially if you’ve been climbing for days. You spend six weeks working your way up Everest, having just one view. Then when you get to the top you suddenly have this incredible. 360-degree view. That is something special. I’m an atheist but I do feel the wonder of being in the midst of great beauty.
I met my wife Wendy at a Twelfth Night party. Before that I’d had a few relationships but never to the point of living together. In fact none in which I actually fell in love. I sometimes used to wonder, will I ever find someone I can love and be loved by? Then I was at this party, and I asked this girl to dance. And we just clicked.
We started sleeping together very soon after that and then she moved in. And we decided to get married very quickly. It just felt like the right thing. I was already a very well-known extreme climber then and she totally accepted that. She never tried to change me. She was 100 per cent behind me. It was a wonderful deep, strong relationship. When she died I felt very alone. I have a very busy life, but I always came home to a dark empty house.
When we lost Conrad… [Bonington’s toddler son drowned in a friend’s garden pond in 1966]. Well… you never get over that. We were very fortunate, we were able to have two more children to fill that terrible gap. But I still find it very difficult to talk about it. He was only three but he was a very courageous, adventurous little boy. I still find myself thinking, he’d be coming into his fifties now… what would he be doing? But he had three wonderful years.
I can’t justify my long expeditions away from home; it’s pretty selfish. It’s just such a strong passion. But the communication with Wendy when the children were young was incredibly important while I was away. In those days, in the 1970s, you had to wait two weeks for letters. I wrote long letters to her, letting my heart and all my worries out.
I sent cassettes of me telling adventure stories I’d made up to play to the children. There were times I felt very homesick. But there’s a special kind of bond you have with climbing friends. It comes when your life is literally in someone else’s hands. My favourite climbs have all been with just one other person.
I’ve never considered stopping being a climber. Even when I’ve lost good friends on expeditions. Extraordinary people taken away at the height of their powers. We lost Nick Estcourt, one of my closest friends, on an
expedition climbing K2 in 1978. He was killed in an avalanche. It was terrible, but at least he was doing something he really loved doing. I didn’t take part in any expeditions for three years after that. But I never thought of giving up climbing.
If I wanted to go back and show off to the 16-year-old me, I’d probably tell him about leading the Everest south-west face expedition in 1975. That was probably the biggest challenge I’ve had. It was a massive complex enterprise – I’d already failed it, in 1972. Five other teams had failed. But I worked out the logistical challenge. And I was good at logistics. So that was a nice achievement.
The most enjoyable climb I’ve ever done was a mountain in India called Shivling, just me and a climber called Jim Fotheringham. He’s a good friend of mine, we get on incredibly well. We climbed it completely spontaneously when we realised we didn’t have the gear for the bigger, more difficult one we’d planned to climb. I led the final pitch to the top, which is so pointed only one person can stand on it. The sheer euphoria of that moment shared with a great friend; we’ve made it! That was just sheer joy. I know Ran [Ranulph Fiennes] quite well – he likes to test himself to the absolute limit. I don’t think enjoyment actually comes into it for him. But I just love what I do.
Ten months after Wendy died I began to form this new relationship with Loreto [McNaught-Davis, wife of Bonington’s friend, mountaineer Ian McNaught-Davis, who died in 2014]. It just happened. I was incredibly lucky. We just get on so well. When you get old you realise how finite life is. I wouldn’t dream of going on an expedition without Loreto now [the couple married in 2016]. We want to make the most of every minute. I want to live into my nineties. I want to see what happens to my grandchildren.
Ascent by Chris Bonington is out now (Simon & Schuster, £9.99).
He will be speaking at The Hard Road to Everest event at London RGS on November 21
Interview by @janeannie