View From The Top: Sir Christian Bonington’s Passion For Mountaineering

Nov 18, 2013 1 Min Read

One of the world’s most celebrated mountaineers in the history of mountaineering, Sir Christian Bonington, 78, is not showing any signs of retirement just yet.

Best known for leading the first ascent of the 12,000ft south face of Annapurna, the most difficult climb at that time, Bonington also successfully led a British expedition to the first ascent of the immense south-west face of Everest in 1975.

Although he was not able to reach the summit in both cases due to his leadership responsibilities, he returned to Everest in 1985 for his fourth expedition and finally arrived at the summit of the world’s highest mountain at the age of 50.

For his achievements, Bonington was honoured by Queen Elizabeth with the Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1976 and was knighted in 1996.

Bonington speaks to The Leaderonomics Show about how he discovered his love for climbing in Snowdonia as a teenager.

He describes it as a steady, yet natural progression for him over the years.

“As a youngster, I had always been adventurous. I loved walking, going for long bicycle rides, discovering the hills and rock-climbing.

“My grandfather lived in Ireland during retirement and I lived with him during the holidays. One winter, I travelled there by train and noticed these big hills from a distance. I was in awe,” Bonington shares.

He then tagged a schoolmate to hitchhike up to Snowdonia, the highest mountain in Wales, during the harsh winter of 1951.

Both of them were avalanched off in the heavy snow. Consequently, his friend gave up and hitch-hiked home the next day, but Bonington persevered.

“It was such an adventure; I was excited about the risk and the beauty of the mountains. From that moment, I was hooked. Ever since then, mountaineering has dominated my life,” he says.

“It wasn’t as though my ambition at that stage was to make a living out of scaling mountains. I was more interested in rock-climbing, climbing harder and pushing the limits.

“After climbing the Alps, I took it to a higher level by accepting an invitation for a Himalayan expedition. That was when my Himalayan career started,” he continues.

(watch the full interview here:

A Fighting Spirit

Having successfully conquered some of the most notorious mountains across the globe, Bonington had his fair share of narrow escapes, with at least 10 near-death experiences. He recounts the story of his toughest climb of Pakistan’s The Ogre (7,285m) in 1977.

“There were four of us in the team. After successfully arriving at the peak, Doug Scott broke both legs right on top of the mountain, while I later fractured several ribs.

“The descent was agonising, as we were later caught in storm and went on for five wrenching days waiting for rescuers without food. Scott had to literally crawl the entire way down the mountain,” he says.

Although stretched to the limits, Bonington muses that they never once doubted they were able to get out alive and attributed their ability to survive to their “never-give-up” spirit and teamwork.

“We worked together as a team; including Scott who, in spite of the accident, still participated actively in the decision-making process. That’s what team work is really about.”

“Each of us are born with different potential, which will be developed throughout our life,” he remarks, sharing his philosophy on gaining a high level of mental strength to push beyond physical pain.

“People who achieve great things possess the basic instinct, endurance level and ability to develop this potential, coupled with a certain amount of luck and environmental influence,” he says.

The important thing in life is for every individual to work towards fulfilling their own potential. An unhappy person is one who has that potential but hasn’t been able to realise it, he offers.

When suggested that not everyone is cut up to be a mountaineer, he guffaws, “Just as well! Not everyone is created to be an entrepreneur or a musician for that matter. Let’s face it; there are many jobs which are considered mundane. The challenge is to be happy in whatever role you are playing.”

In order to understand the potential that resides within, Bonington advises:

Ask yourself what excites you, put in your full commitment and go for it!

He stresses that success involves a huge amount of hard work, which may be grinding and boring but necessary.

Be determined, because there are no short cuts to success!

Developing A leader

Although leaders, to a certain degree, are born with an intrinsic ability to influence and lead, leadership may also be something developed, Bonington opines.

“I never saw myself as an expedition leader. There were endless chats about going to the Himalayas, but I had to do something to make it happen. So, I tasked myself to organise it and realised that I enjoyed it.

“It was fulfilling, exciting, at times very challenging and I made mistakes which I learned lessons from. Through the years, I have become a better leader,” he divulges.

Asked what exactly is the responsibility of an expedition leader, he explains that leading a large expedition involves influencing, coordinating, planning, delegating various roles and essentially trusting the team members to play their part.

It requires clear vision and a good report back system just like any organisation, to immediately see if something’s not right or someone needs support, he says.

“That enterprise becomes your baby and you want to see it successful. You put the best people,not necessarily yourself, on top of the mountain,” he adds.

A leader is capable of having that broad overview of the whole enterprise and making the whole mechanism work, he elaborates.

“Being worried of how famous will I be, or whether I myself would be on top of the mountain is no longer of significance,” he says, displaying his seeming aversion to fame.

Of course, there were instances where even after pushing to the absolute limit, Bonington had to take a realistic approach to turn back and discontinue the climb. These situations, according to him, are usually predictable.

“It may become obvious that we are not going to make it, due to the extreme danger, harsh weather, or where everyone is absolutely exhausted.

“At that point, you have to make that decision. Many people perish in the mountains due to an obsession to reach the summit.”

Similarly, all too often, an organisation in a business world may be heading for financial disaster if it doesn’t have the courage to say “This is not going to work and we have to turn back,” argues Bonington.

For young enthusiastic climbers who aim to emulate Bonington, he advises: “You should first learn to be a competent rock climber, and then get into bigger mountains. Develop and learn along the way and you will succeed eventually. Do it step by step, as rushing will only get you into trouble,” he emphasises.

Inspiring Corporate Leaders Through Mountaineering

Bonington travels widely, using his Everest experiences to inspire companies and workforces by skilfully making links between his challenges on the mountains and challenges faced by the global business world.

Bonington offers three tips to corporate leaders:

Be clear of your vision

All too often objectives get mixed up, which can be counter-productive. Focus on the end and cut out all extraneous issues.

Share the vision with your team

While sharing, ask for opinions. Listen and learn from the people tasked to accomplish it and be prepared to adapt.

Make clear-cut and firm decisions

Finally, once you are clear on your vision and have consulted, go on to make a firm, clear decisions.

Bonington, who has been the chancellor of Lancaster University since January 2005, has achieved so much in life that one wonders what’s left on his bucket list.

“I’ll be 80 in a couple of years. I’m not going to climb Everest again!” he laughs.

My objective is a modest one – that is, to climb a small, unclimbed peak to celebrate reaching the young age of 80.

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