It’s been 40 years since Sir Chris Bonington scaled Annapurna. Although the mountain was first climbed by Maurice Herzog in 1950, Bonington’s attempt in 1960 didn’t merely end a decade in which climbing had captured the public imagination: it was the climb that arguably made him a national treasure. Why go back now? And how will it compare to his first expedition? WideWorld spoke with Sir Chris to find out.
“The Annapurna is a magnificent range of mountains. It’s about fifteen miles long, and at the eastern end you’ve got Annapurna 1: the highest peak at over 8,000 metres. That in itself is a very secretive mountain. When Maurice Herzog and the French team went to make the first ascent in 1950 – 60 years ago next year – they had a hell of job just finding a route to the foot of Annapurna from where they could climb it.
We made the first ascent at the south face of Annapurna in 1970, so it’s the 40th anniversary of that this year too. You have to go into a huge beautiful basin called the Sanctuary, through a very narrow gorge. Only then, when you got through all of that, can you actually start climbing.
It’s a brilliant, snow-glaciated peak from the north, and from the south it is very, very steep with rocky buttresses and steep ice walls. The chain stretches to the west, back towards Kathmandu for about 15 miles or so: it’s there that you find Annapurna 3 and Annapurna 4.
Quite near the end is Annapurna 2, which is 7,935 metres – only a scratch, a tad under that magic 8,000-metre height, and it’s a completely separate mountain. It is such a long way from Annapurna 1, and it’s a very impressive mountain in its own right. So it’s a huge, complex kind of area that we went around in 1960, and we will be doing that circuit in 2010.
It’s the 50th anniversary. I have never been back, and I am full of old memories. I have agreed to do a trek a year with my son, Joe: in the early part of the expedition we are getting completely off the beaten track and it’s exploratory, which is great. Then we will be going around and following much the same route as we did way back in 1960.
When we came out in 1960 there was only one major road in the whole of Nepal between the Indian frontier and Kathmandu. In Kathmandu itself I think there were two hotels! There were no trekkers at all and I think in all probability we were the first foreigners to do the Annapurna circuit.
It was the first time that I had been to Asia, the first time I had been to the Himalayas. I was twenty-five years of age. So it was a huge kind of experience, seeing not just the mountain itself, but the people too. It was exotic and strange and different: then, of course there was the mountain.
This was my first experience of this kind of altitude and scale of climbing. It was also my first experience of climbing with Sherpas. In those days it was a tradition from the pre-war expeditions that each climber, each Westerner had his own personal Sherpa: it was slightly class-ridden, I suppose, to a degree, and he looked after you. I had this wonderful old guy, Tashi who had actually been on some of the pre-war Everest expeditions – he was a grandfather himself!
We made a great friendship, and at the end of the expedition Tashi and I actually broke away from the rest. The main expedition returned by a more popular path: I wanted to cross the Tilicho Pass because this was where Maurice Herzog had been. So Tashi and I went off and crossed it. We were getting away from the expedition, it was just the two of us, it was exploratory: we were going into the unknown, and it was all an unbelievably strong experience for a 25-year-old. It was a deep emotional experience.
My passion is history. Not just climbing history, I am very into military history, I am very interested in historical biography. So I have a sense of history and especially with Annapurna, which was the subject of one of the first books on climbing that I read. That had a profound impression on me: Maurice Herzog had very nearly lost his life crossing the Tilicho pass from the other side.
Our ascent of the south face was a huge step into the unknown. The south face of Annapurna was huge. We actually decided to go there on the basis of just one photograph and as we got closer to it, I realised: “Gosh, you know what happens if we get there and we realise it’s too dangerous or we can’t even get to the foot of the face?”
It was the first expedition that I had ever led. It was certainly the hardest thing that any British expedition had ever done before, so in many, many different ways it was a huge challenge and it proved to be a very, very difficult climb. We really snatched success at what seemed almost an inevitable failure, with the monsoon very nearly upon us when they finally got to the top.
The rock band is technically the hardest part, but what we completely underestimated was that to get into the middle part of the face there was this icy ridge. Looking at the photograph I thought that would probably take about three to four days at the most. In fact it took us two and half weeks to actually make the route up through this ice arête – and then we had to ferry all our supplies up there.
We couldn’t expect the Sherpas, particularly at that time, to do that. They had never been on that steep kind of climb; so it was just the climbing team which was heading the leg up. It was technically a very hard climbing challenge, but the logistics of actually ferrying up supplies to the people out in front also proved to be a desperately hard business. It was very, very tough in every kind of way.”
To find out how you can join the Annapurna trek, go to www.boningtontreks.com
To find out more about Chris Bonington, go to his personal site at www.bonington.com
Images are the copyright of the Chris Bonington Picture Library: www.bonington.com