The Climb of Their Lives

By Bill Gifford,
whose biography of early American explorer John Ledyard will be published next month
Thursday, December 21, 2006


Chris Bonington and the Tragedy of Climbing's Greatest Generation

By Clint Willis

Carroll & Graf. 535 pp. $27.95

One of the drawbacks to being a big-mountain climber is that you end up with a lot of dead friends. Mountaineering is an imperfect art practiced in an unforgiving realm, where the smallest mistake can have disastrous consequences. And as Clint Willis tromps through his fascinating history of "climbing's greatest generation," the group of mostly English climbers around Sir Chris Bonington, who basically pioneered modern mountaineering in the 1960s and '70s, the body count rises inexorably.

One of the first to go is a glamorous American named John Harlin -- his name is still spoken in hushed tones in climbing circles -- who died in a 1966 fall off the North Face of the dreaded Eiger, in the Swiss Alps, at age 21.

"He tumbled breathless, his mouth open," writes Willis, in one of this book's more arresting passages. "There was briefly a muffled wild joy at the speed, no surprise but rather a dazed acceptance, a new way to move through the world. The face came up to brush him and the first contact was fantastically odd -- an explosion that drove any vestige of thought from his body so that only his naked awareness remained and that only for the instant before it collapsed to a point that winked and disappeared. The body continued to fall. It careened and slid from feature to feature of the Eiger's North Face, shedding gear and then clothing and finally flesh."

It's enough to make non-climbers ask again the age-old question: Why do men climb mountains? It's not an easy one to answer, and unfortunately we don't quite get it here, though not for lack of trying.

"Bonington's Boys," as the loose group of climbers was known, all came of age after Sir Edmund Hillary's 1953 ascent of Mount Everest, and they approached the mountains in a wholly different way. They climbed a mountain not merely "because it was there," in the famous and pompous phrase, but to prove they could do it by the most difficult possible route. "They were in some ways no different than soldiers," Willis writes, "believing that they were willing to die in pursuit of some purpose they could not properly define."

These were mainly working-class tough guys, unlike the Oxbridge toffs who dominated the mountaineering establishment before them. Born too late to serve in World War II, the newcomers waged their war in the Alps and the Himalayas, often subsisting on surplus military rations. It was more like guerrilla warfare than the Hillary generation's siege climbing: They'd advance up the slopes in small parties, establishing small camps and sometimes sleeping in caves hollowed out of the snow. Falling rocks whistled past like artillery, men slid off and died horribly, but still they kept climbing. They were so possessed that one climber suffered a fractured skull and kept going. Another found himself stranded by a storm, "living on cigars and melted snow up at Camp Six."

Willis's meticulous, pitch-by-pitch accounts of climbs on the savage Eiger, the killer Annapurna, the intensely difficult Northeast Ridge of Everest and other major routes will make gripping reading for climbing buffs, but armchair adventurers might find it slow going in places. The detailed narrative brings out the complicated strategies and breathtaking risk involved in pioneering new routes -- not to mention the strength and courage of men pushed to their limits. Willis might have done well to spend a little more time exploring his characters' inner lives, which he rarely more than hints at.

"It wasn't the mountains she feared," he writes of one climber's wife; "she feared people who didn't know an easier way to be happy." As Bonington and his rotating cast of climbers conquer the Eiger, then Annapurna and Everest, the casualties continue to mount: Harlin, Dougal Haston, Ian Clough, Tony Tighe, Nick Estcourt, Mick Burke, Joe Tasker, Peter Boardman. Most were in their 20s and 30s, and several left behind wives and young children. Bonington, who masterminded most of the climbs recounted here, survived and earned a knighthood in 1996, which seems small consolation for the loss of so many friends in their prime.

One might be forgiven for asking if maybe dying was part of the point, part of what brought these men, again and again, into the remorseless perfect beauty of snow and rock and ice. Far from the crowded, noisy world, maybe it became possible for them to feel their own humanity that much more intensely. Perhaps, after reaching the summit, the real world seemed less meaningful and almost not worth returning to. But the ultimate question -- the "why?" -- is never fully answered here, and perhaps cannot be.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company