Sir Chris Bonington, the UK’s most celebrated mountaineer, sits in his friend Kelvin Kent’s elegant living room in Ridgway, recounting his most recent near-death experience in the mountains. It happened on Tuesday night.
He and his wife, Lady Loreto, were driving to Ridgway from Denver International Airport via Interstate 70 through the fangs of a freak spring blizzard, and slithered through Glenwood Canyon just moments before a massive rockfall shut the freeway down.
The morning after the ordeal, Bonington looks no worse for the experience. Comfortably dressed in leather slippers, comfy trousers and a navy blue zip-neck sweater, he takes a sip of hot tea and smiles modestly. It’s not quite as bad as that time on the Ogre in Pakistan, when his mate Doug Scott broke both his legs and they ran out of food and barely made it down alive, but still, a decently harrowing adventure.
Bonington has traveled to the San Juan Mountains from his home in England for the U.S. premier of his biopic “Bonington: Mountaineer,” screening at Mountainfilm Sunday afternoon at 3:15 p.m. at the Sheridan Opera House. Then, on Wednesday, he’ll be at the Ouray County 4-H Event Center at 7 p.m., with a multi-media presentation titled “Annapurna” about the Himalayan expedition where he and Kent first met, back in 1970.
Bonington, a renowned climber by that time, with the first British ascent of the North Wall of the Eiger under his belt, was leading the British Commonwealth Expedition’s assault on the South Face of Annapurna — a 26,000-foot Himalayan peak — and one of the most formidable mountain walls in the world.
“It was named the suicide route, the Last Great Problem,” Bonington recalled. “That’s what the appeal was — not just to climb a mountain. It was the impossible route. A 12,000-foot, siege-style climb.”
For this effort, Bonington had assembled perhaps the most expert and experienced team of alpinists the world had ever seen. Kent was in charge of logistics — a feat as remarkable in its way as the actual conquest of the mountain. Kent was particularly well-suited for the effort, with his years of service as a Signals and Transportation officer at the Headquarters British Gurkha Line of Communication in Nepal, and fluency in Nepalese language and culture.
“We were having to deal with all kinds of logistical crises,” Bonington recalled. “But getting around Katmandu with Kelvin, he knew all the right people. He was racing around, seeing government officials, telling me ‘Make sure you bring a jacket and tie and you look respectable.’”
Kent ultimately oversaw the transportation of over 13 tons of equipment from the Nepalese-Indian border to the Annapurna base camp.
“We took 158 tea chests, weighing 100 pounds each. I remember counting them,” Kent said. “And in those days, you had to know how to bribe people. They had a word for it: ‘gush.’ There were all these levels of hierarchy. And you had to know the right man and know what the going rate was. And how to describe the whiskey as ‘medical supplies.’”
With the logistics of the climb in such capable hands, Bonington focused on getting his climbing party up the seemingly impregnable South Face of Annapurna — an objective, which was achieved on May 27, 1970, when Don Whillans and Dougal Haston reached the summit.
Just as Kent was making the official announcement over the radio about the expedition’s success, a serac the size of a four-story building collapsed on the last two climbers in the party to descend the mountain during the final evacuation phase of the climb.
One of them, Ian Clough, was killed. Bonington’s eyes still fill with tears 49 years later as he recounts the death of his close friend and climbing partner.
“We recovered his body and buried him below the mountain he had come here to climb,” he said. “It still hits me. I still find it hard. It was the first of many expeditions where we had achieved success, and then had the loss of someone right at the end of the expedition.”
Bonington has never returned to the place where his friend died. But in 1999, Kent and his wife Becky trekked to the Annapurna base camp and put a plaque up in Clough’s honor.
“You wouldn’t recognize it now,” Kent said. “Everything has receded. There is no glacier at all.”
Through triumph and tragedy — including the death of his toddler son Conrad in 1966, his first wife Wendy in 2014 after 52 years of marriage and more friends in the mountains than he cares to count — Bonington has continued to enjoy one of the most enduring and illustrious careers climbing has ever seen. He has written 17 books about his exploits, has lectured worldwide and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1996 for his services to mountaineering.
In and among all the first ascents and new routes, Bonington’s warmth and humanity have remained disarmingly intact. These days, his objectives lie closer to home. Mostly, they include spending time with his Chilean-born wife of three years, Lady Loreto. (The couple were married in London in 2016.)
“It is a deep, passionate, total love,” Bonington said. “There is love after love. The most important thing in life is to live in the present, and looking to the future, and not to live in the past. What happened in the past is all part of life’s progress. What is important is to be able to go on.”
MEET SIR CHRIS
Mountainfilm in Telluride, Sunday
• 2 p.m., Reading Frenzy, Ah Haa School for the Arts
Sir Chris, the author of 17 books, joins other Mountainfilm authors who will be signing and selling their books at Ah Hah School for the Arts.
• 3:15 p.m., Sheridan Opera House
Sir Chris joins veteran climbing writer Bernadette McDonald for a conversation about a life spent in the mountains, paired with the US premier of the film Bonington: Mountaineer, co-directed by Brian Hall and Keith Partridge. The film chronicles Bonington’s superhuman mountaineering achievements while also providing “ a trenchant sense of Bonington’s eminently human life,” according to Mountainfilm’s summary. No individual tickets available. Visit mountainfilm.org for information about how to purchase a festival pass.
Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the Ouray County 4-H Event Center
Sir Chris presents “Annapurna”, a multimedia presentation celebrating the upcoming 50th anniversary of his successful 1970 expedition to climb of the notorious South Face of Annapurna — a 26,000-foot Himalayan peak. Co-presented by the Ridgway-Ouray Community Council, Western Colorado Friends of the Himalays and the Ouray Climbers Alliance, there is a suggested minimum donation of $15. For more information, contact Kelvin Kent, 970-209-1395.