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Man and Mountain: Chris Bonington exhibition opening in Keswick

Sir Chris Bonington making the first ascent of Shivling with his dear friend Jim Fotheringham. Photo credit: Jim Fotheringham.

[A] MAJOR new exhibition celebrating the life and achievements of climbing legend Sir Christian Bonington CVO CBE DL is opening in Keswick soon.

The Mountain Heritage Trust has brought together Man and Mountain: Chris Bonington, to tell the story of one of Britain’s most successful mountaineers.

It’s the culmination of a 19 month long project and has been made possible by a £49,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, thanks to National Lottery players.

This fascinating exhibition, created by the Mountain Heritage Trust, is not just celebrating Chris’s life and mountaineering career, but how the landscape and mountaineering community has changed and left a mark on him.

For the first time, personal items from Sir Chris Bonington’s collection, which have never before been seen in public, will form part of this tribute to a quite remarkable life.

Sir Chris Bonington said: “I think the thing that excites me about the exhibition, and what I am most looking forward to, is sharing it with people. Because having all of these things, the experiences over the years in a very tangible form and a very memorable form, from artefacts, to  bits of old gear, from bits of stories and the pictures, it’s going to mean an immense amount to me.

“One of the most satisfying things is when I get letters or emails or people coming up to talk to me and saying that they’d been to a lecture of mine or read one of my books and that had changed their life and led them to get the same kind of joy out of climbing as I have. So I really hope that the exhibition will portray the joy and the wonderful experience you can get from the mountains and that will encourage others, especially youngsters, to go out and find it for themselves.

“You see climbing as an experience is quite ephemeral and I think if I hadn’t written about it, if I hadn’t lectured about it, it probably would have vanished, whereas if you do lecture about it, if you do tell the stories, then it is something that goes on living.”

Jeff Ford, Chair, Mountain Heritage Trust, said: “Sir Chris Bonington discovered ‘the passion that was to guide his life’ while climbing Harrison’s Rock in Tunbridge Wells at the age of 16. Chris is one of the co-founders and a Patron of the Mountain Heritage Trust, so we’re delighted to bring this exhibition together and follow the stories of his life journey up some of the highest summits on earth. We also reflect upon his life in the Lake District – where the community have embraced him as their own and celebrated his achievements every step of the way.”

Becks Skinner, Keswick Museum Manager said:  “This exhibition is like having the front seat on the rollercoaster of Chris Bonington’s life. You’ll see the incredible highs and the terrible lows that are all parts of his life story. We are honoured to bring this man and his mountains to life in this new exhibition at Keswick Museum.”

When Chris Bonington started climbing in the 1950s, his equipment was primitive and he was very much an outsider to the climbing scene. But his innate passion for the mountains drew him ever higher and further, from his beloved Lake District, to Snowdonia, the Alpine faces of the Eiger and Dru and ultimately to Annapurna and Everest.

Chris was one of the two man team to make the first British ascent of the North Wall of the Eiger in 1962, and he led the 1975 Everest South West Face expedition in which Doug Scott and Dougal Haston were the first Britons to reach the summit.

His life journey and mountaineering achievements have followed an arc in tandem with the rise of climbing, in to what is now a global sport. Chris’s constant drive and determination has seen him remain at the forefront of the sport’s development and he has helped shape its growth through his indefatigable writing, speaking and advocacy, a legacy that saw him awarded the prestigious Piolet d’Or lifetime achievement award in 2015.

When asked about the highlight of his career, he said: “It is very difficult to say that any one incident or achievement in your life was the key one because they’re all different in their own different kind of ways. I suppose the biggest intellectual, organisational, difficult challenge I ever had was to lead, climb, make the first ascent of the south west face of Everest. It was a huge challenge, five expeditions had tried it and failed, big, large expeditions and we made one attempt in the autumn of 1972 and we didn’t succeed, but we learnt a heck of a lot. Then in 1975, we had the chance of going back and at that point I was able to put together the strongest expedition I could imagine, a big, complex expedition, it numbered 18 climbers, ten very, very good climbers and eight support climbers. We had 60 high altitude porters and co-ordinating all of that and understanding the challenge of how good your logistics were, how well you use the people who are getting supplies up the mountain and so on, to actually achieve success. And then that now, to a degree, is a dinosaur, and there was already younger climbers who were beginning to push through Alpine-style and so instead of having a large expedition, besieging a mountain, you had just two people or sometimes one person solo, climbing a huge Himalayan face. But that’s much more of an individual effort and that’s what I’ve gone on to do in a much more modest way since then.”

Then he revealed what his most joyful mountain experience was: “The greatest big achievement was Everest south west face but it wasn’t necessarily the most enjoyable and I think the best climb I have ever done was with a local friend Jim Fotheringham, a local dentist, and we went off and we climbed a mountain called Shivling, which was an unclimbed peak in the Indian Himalaya, a mere 6,400 metres high, but it was alpine style, it was completely spontaneous. We’d actually set out to climb something else, realised it was much too hard and changed our mind, we thought let’s climb that, it looks good, and we did. That was five days of just concentrated wonderful climbing. Jim and I get on very well together and so that was an absolute joy. So you’ve got the big challenges and you’ve got the joyous parts. But climbing to me, I think, is a joy. But there is the fact that it is dangerous and the fact that I’ve lost all too many friends on expeditions that I’ve led. So there can be that mixture of sorrow as well as joy in climbing.”

Sir Chris went to Everest several times before standing on the summit, he explains: “I went to Everest four times altogether and the first two times were to climb the south west face and then as leader of a very large expedition. I always had a thought in the back of my mind that I’d like to get there because I was a very good hard climber; I probably was amongst the best, technically, of the climbers, of the groups I was with, but if it’s a big expedition, your job is to actually make the expedition successful and so your job is to get other people to the top, not yourself, but I still wanted to get there.

“In 1982, I led a very small expedition, there were just four of us attempting a new route on the north east side of Everest and that ended in tragedy. Peter Boardman and Joe Tasker, who were two of the finest climbers in Britain, in the world to a degree, at that time, and they made one last attempt on trying to climb it and they vanished high up on the mountain.”

“So I still hadn’t reached the top of Everest and then this Norwegian friend of mine, a multi millionaire, wanted to finance and lead the first ever Norwegian expedition to Everest and he invited me to go along with them basically to organise their logistics and I couldn’t resist it and it was just to do the south col route in 1985 and I that’s when I actually got to the top of the mountain.

“Everest is the only mountain I’ve climbed in the Himalayas that wasn’t a first ascent and yet it was a wonderful experience. So at last, at the age of 50, I was the oldest person, at that time, I finally got there. It was a wonderful expedition, we got on incredibly well together, we were really lucky with the weather, nobody was hurt and I made ten Norwegian friends for life out of it.

Yet against such global recognition, it is Chris’s passion for, and commitment to, Cumbria and the Lake District that is perhaps most striking. Throughout a career of triumph and tragedy on the world’s most inhospitable peaks, Chris has returned time and again to his home in the Lake District. In doing so his achievements have resonated locally at a level that is often not found in mountaineering.

“It doesn’t matter where I have been in the world and I have been to so many incredible, beautiful places, Nepal, down to Antarctica, the far south of South America and in the Alps themselves, but I don’t think there’s anywhere that is more beautiful than the English Lake District. And I have lived in the English Lake District, since I stopped trying to have a conventional career, in 1963. I think it is the beauty of the combination of a compact mountain area and the beauty of it is in the texture of the hills, the extraordinary range of colours you see. For instance if you go Nepal, if you go to Norway, they can be magnificent, but it’s all evergreen, it’s all dark green, but here in the Lakes there are so many different shades of colouring. And the beauty as well is each valley of the Lakes is different in so many different way and the people are very special too. It’s all of these things, so that every time I come back here, and I don’t feel until I’ve really got home until I have walked up High Pike which is this very, very gentle hill that’s at the back of the house. I’ve walked up that a thousand times over the years, but I never tire of it. It’s so beautiful.

“From the top of High Pike you are right on the edge, it’s the north east bastion of the Lake District National Park, if you look to the east you are looking to the line of the Pennines, if you look to the north you are looking at the Solway and to Scotland, if you look back, you can see Blencathra, you can see Skiddaw, you can just get a glimpse of Scafell. It’s wonderfully familiar.

“There are so many walks I do love, I think Skiddaw is a lovely mountain, if you go up Ullock Pike, which is kind of an offshoot of Skiddaw and it’s a steep little kind of walk climb, when you get to the top of Skiddaw and go left and come down the easy scree slope which runs you right back to where you started.”

Chris’s natural flair for communication has seen him become a symbol of British mountaineering, President of the Campaign for National Parks and Deputy Patron of the Outward Bound Trust, while his honesty and humility has repeatedly drawn the ordinary climbing community towards him.

He said: “Looking back at my life and seeing what I have done, I’ve been incredibly fortunate in what I have been able to do. But, of course that’s not fortune, it’s actually making a series of difficult choices and a lot of hard work and just pushing through.” His advice to others, is: “Find the things you really love in life and that’s particularly the job you do because it take such an awful lot of time and in my case I was able to make my work, my job my hobby the the thing I loved doing, was climbing and the work side of it was communicating about it, talking, writing lecturing about it.”

It is these threads that the exhibition seeks to capture; through oral history recordings of local Cumbrian organisations, people and tourists, and a program of learning resources for local schools.

Visitors to the exhibition – 19 May 2018 to 4 January 2019 – will learn about the life of this iconic mountaineer and his inseparable links with the incredible Cumbrian fells. Alongside this will be unique perspectives from the public and organisations on their own experiences of the Lake District.

Man and Mountain: Chris Bonington, opens to the public on 19 May 2018 and will be on show until 4 January 2019.

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