My Perfect Day: Chris Bonington
The knighted, 77-year-old British mountaineer tells walk about hunting the yeti and quitting corporate life
Where would you wake up on your perfect day?
In the Hotel les Amandiers in the Tafraoute region of Morocco’s Anti-Atlas mountains. I’ve been climbing there with the same group of friends for 20 years.
Where’s your perfect walk?
A horseshoe walk near me in the north- eastern corner of the Northern Fells, going over Blencathra and finishing at the Mill Inn in Mungrisdale. Sharp Edge can be slippery on the way down, but that adds excitement.
Who’s your ideal walking companion?
My half-brother Gerald, who lives nearby.
Your perfect meal?
Wholemeal bread, extra-mature cheddar, pickle, an apple and a banana. In the winter I drink Marmite in hot water.
What’s your latest project?
I’m in Sydney Airport, about to fly home after a month here. I came to see my son Joe and the grandchildren, and while here I joined him on one of his trekking company’s trips in Bhutan. If I go, Joe can charge a bit more!
Are you pleased that trekking is now so much more accessible?
Nepal has gone for volume, but Bhutan has a cultural policy. Only a limited number of trekkers are allowed, the commissioning agent has to be Bhutanese, and tourists pay a tariff of $200 per day. This produces revenue, yet Bhutan remains very special.
Is ease of access damaging our last wildernesses, in the UK and abroad?
You need to get the balance right. Some environmentalists don’t want to let anyone in at all, but that’s counter-productive. Some areas need control, though. In the Lake District, you get problems of foot erosion because of the huge numbers. But the National Parks cope well. If paths are good you don’t need notices saying: ‘Keep to the path’. And the remoteness of the Highlands acts as a natural curb on numbers.
How should novices prepare for a trek?
Sensible escalation is the key. If you’re an experienced fell walker in the British Isles, go on a standard trek to the Everest base camp or the Annapurna circuit. And give yourself time to acclimatise to the altitude: if you have a headache, stop and retreat; don’t go on.
You lasted nine months at Unilever, as a management trainee. Was giving up a regular salary to follow your heart as hard in the early 1960s as it is today?
I joined Unilever after the army and quickly realised it wasn’t the life I wanted. I took the risk of joining an expedition to climb the north wall of the Eiger and wrote a book about the experience, which gave me something to lecture on. There were fears in the first few years;
I had a family with a baby to support. But I had a wonderful bank manager, who let me clear my overdraft at the end of each lecture season, then build it up again. I realised I had to become good at writing and photography – simply through practice.
You did a TV show called Search for the Yeti on Melungtse, in the Himalayas. Are you a believer?
In 1987, I saw tracks in the snow that could conceivably have been the yeti’s, and took photographs. But a deer’s back and front legs are naturally close together, and if their tracks are smudged in the snow they can look like a two-legged animal’s. A year later we took the BBC Natural History unit to look for the yeti. We didn’t find it. I don’t think that it exists: every sighting turns out to be that of a known animal.
Is getting to the top the most important part of mountain-climbing?
You always go with an objective, whether it’s an ascent or a new route. Getting to the top is important, but the success of a climb is also about the journey, how the team get on, and what you learn about the culture and the people who live there.
Has walking become more important to you as you’ve got older?
When you’re young, it’s exhilarating to be able to get your body to do what you want it to do. As you get older you lose that spring. But I still enjoy the risky game of climbing, where your life is at stake if you make one mistake. Walking isn’t the same, but I love it, and I love being outside, so you tailor your activity to your limitations.