I was in on the street in Bristol, England, and bumped into Chris Bonington. For some, maybe many, that sentence means little.
For me, it meant my childhood flittered in front of my eyes. Chris Bonington was a hero of my school years — as were his team members, those who survived, and their books were where I lived most of my years as a boy, then teenager.
I followed Bonington’s mountain climbing expeditions, usually to the Himalayas, and often to Mt Everest, or Qomolangma , with an avidity and passion I no longer have in me.
I used to compare his books to that of his team members, noticed the slight differences in details, and thought about those slight differences, in whether it had been a good idea to tackle the mountain by this route or that, whether Bonington had selected the right pair of mountaineers to go for the final summit push, whether an accident could have been avoided or if the the expedition had been a success or not.
Mountain climbing is so rare and fulfilling in its simplicity it is not found anywhere else in life. You go to the top, and you come back down. Nothing else matters — nothing can, because one slip and one fall and that is maybe your last mountain.
And nothing teaches decision-making like mountain climbing. You must know when to turn around and go down. Even, and especially even if you have not made it to the top.
If it is too late, and dark, or a storm is coming, or your team are too tired, you must be brave enough to turn around and go down. Even within sight of the summit, or especially when within sight of the summit. You need to be able to turn around, to make that decision. It’s a pretty important one, isn’t it? You need to make those calculations, quickly: would you make it back down before nightfall, or before the storm? Will your friends be able to make it back down if you continue to the summit?
I remember the quotes from all Chris Bonington’s books, but others too, like Edmund Hilary, first to the top of Mt Everest with Sherpa Tenzing, in 1953, and his wonderful, unforgettable quote:
“As far as I knew, he had never taken a photograph before, and the summit of Everest was hardly the place to show him how.”
Edmund Hillary, referring to the Sherpa Tenzing Norgay.
So bumping into Chris Bonington on the street was a reminder of everything that had been important as a school kid, and when and we went into a pub for a beer all those years and films and books all made sense.
We discussed climbing. I mentioned Heinrich Harrer, of Seven Years in Tibet fame, his seven years between 1944 and 1951.
“Do you remember Harrer’s colleague, in the book, Peter Aufschnaiter?” Bonnington asked.
I told him I did.
“We met him, on the ten day walk towards Mt Everest from Katmandu,” he said.
“What was he doing there?” I asked Bonington.
“Walking,” he said.
“Just walking?” I asked.
“Yes, since 1951, just walking around, in Nepal, India and Bhutan.”
That was 20 years of walking, and I knew then, that this was a man I understood, and was the one that I too, am.
by a mountain
is victory enough