Bonington Revisits the Eiger

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Last week I saw Chris Bonington lecture twice, first at the Alpine Club's China Symposium at Shap, where he talked about Kongur. As Lindsay Griffin pointed out in his review of the day for the British Mountaineering Council, the first ascent of Kongur was arguably the highest done in pure alpine style. Bonington, with Joe Tasker, Peter Boardman and Al Rouse were forced to spend four days in tiny snow 'coffins' waiting for better weather. Tough bloke, Bonington.

Bonington in old age is an even better communicator than he was when I first saw him speak in the late 1970s. He's self-deprecating, reflective and more able to consider some of the difficult confrontations that were an inevitable part of a top mountaineer's career. These included his encounter with Brian Nally on the Eiger in 1961, whose partner Barry Brewster had just died as Bonington and Don Whillans climbed towards them, each party vying for the first British ascent.

That story was the dramatic highlight of his lecture at the Royal Geographic Society, part of an evening with Ueli Steck raising money for the Mountain Heritage Trust. It was an excellent event, punchy and revealing, and Bonington really did hold the audience spellbound as he recalled the difficult first exchanges with Nally, who was determined to continue despite obvoiusly needing rescue. He was deeply unhappy about Bonington's version of events in I Chose To Climb.

Talking to Bonington beforehand, I mentioned the footage of Nally I'd seen recently, in which he'd talked about the Eiger. In the interview, he appears to be still in shock, and it's harrowing to watch. But I couldn't remember where I'd seen it. Now I have; it was included in BBC Four's Indus Productions film about the Eiger. If you can get hold of a copy, it's worth it for the Nally interview alone. And people say climbing heritage isn't worth bothering with.

POSTSCRIPT

I'm still fossicking about on the Eiger, and came across this great Pathé news report on the Eiger Direct in 1966. It sounds like John Craven doing the commentary, which is a bit weird. Look out for Dougal Haston's haunted face at the end of the clip.

Posted by Ed Douglas at 2.16 PM