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Last Updated: Thursday, 29 May, 2003, 12:31 GMT 13:31 UK
Everest: Ask Sir Chris Bonington
Sir Chris Bonington

Mountaineer Sir Chris Bonington answered your questions in a special edition of Talking Point.


29 May marks the 50th anniversary of the first successful ascent of Mount Everest by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay.

To celebrate the anniversary, one of the world's best known mountaineers and explorers, Sir Chris Bonington, took your questions in a special phone-in programme broadcast on BBC News Online and BBC World Service.

In 1975 Sir Chris Bonington led a successful British Expedition to climb the south-west face of Everest.

Thirteen years later at the age of 50 and on his fourth Everest expedition, he finally reached the summit of the world's highest mountain himself.

As well as Mount Everest, Sir Chris has successfully conquered some of the most notorious and formidable mountains across the globe, and is still mountaineering at the age of 68.


Transcript highlights:


Robin Lustig:

Welcome to this special edition of Talking Point. I'm Robin Lustig broadcasting on the BBC World Service on radio, on the internet on BBC News Online and in the UK on digital television. With me today is one of the world's most accomplished mountaineers and explorers, Chris Bonington, who's here to help us mark the 50th anniversary of the first successful ascent of Mount Everest. He knows what it's like to stand on the top of the world's highest mountain. He got there in 1985 on his fourth attempt.

More than a thousand people, from all over the world, have now climbed Everest. The oldest was Yuichiro Miura of Japan who made it last week at the age of 70 years old. And just within the past few days more records have been broken. The fastest ascent by Lhakpa Gelu Sherpa on Monday who got from base camp to the summit in just under 11 hours. And the first black climber to stand on the summit - Sibusiso Vilane of South Africa. When Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay did it back in 1953, one British newspaper forecast that no one would ever be able to repeat their feat - they couldn't have been more wrong.

Chris Bonington welcome to Talking Point. Do you still remember what it feels like to stand on that summit?


Sir Chris Bonington:

Oh yes - partly though because I've talked about it a lot and lectured about it and therefore maybe with all that talking I've got away from what it was actually like. When I got there it was very confusing. I was absolutely exhausted. It was very emotional. I'd been there four times before. I'd lost a lot of friends, some of them actually on the expeditions trying to do it. So I couldn't help thinking of them - so there was a mixture of sorry and excitement and pleasure.


Robin Lustig:

Was it something that you felt you had to do? You had tried it so often, you had been on that mountain so many times. Was it almost like a demon that you had to exorcise?


Sir Chris Bonington:

Not really no. I think it was a demon but I wasn't aware of it in the sense that after 1982, when we'd attempted the north east ridge, and two friends were killed on the climb - I didn't think I'd go back to Everest. And then I was invited, in fact by a Norwegian friend of mine to join the Norwegian Everest expedition and initially I said no, I wouldn't go back and then I realised I really wanted to go and so I said yes. But I don't think I'd have actually organised an expedition to go there. So it was fortuitous that I got there. But when I got there, yes, I was really pleased I did it.


Robin Lustig:

A lot of people want to ask you a lot of questions both about Everest and indeed about mountaineering in general. Let's move on to our first caller. Alexander Dunn, who is in Madrid in Spain. Alexander hello, what's you interest in all this.


Alexander Dunn:

Basically I have always been quite curious about the area at the summit of Mount Everest? I'd like to know how large an area is it at the summit? And what does it look like? Is it flat? Is it steep? How many people could you fit on there more or less?


Sir Chris Bonington:

Well it's a really nice summit actually. Some summits are big round dome things and you can't really tell what the summit is - Everest isn't like that. The actual top is about the size of I'd say a pool table. There were six of us that went to the top in 1985 and there was just room for all six of us to be on top and mill around a tiny bit but not very much.

The view from it is absolutely incredible - we got up on a fine day. To the north, you're looking across the Tibetan plateau and I reckon you can see 250 - 300 miles at least to the north. You can see the full curvature of the earth and the Tibetan plateau is not flat, it's rounded rolling hills with the occasional snow-capped mountain, and then to the east and west you've got the chain of the Himalayas - these wonderful jagged peaks. And then to the south, you've got India and there you have cloud but you also have pollution so you can't see a thing, there's just a haze. It's a wonderful place to be.


Robin Lustig:

Alexander, have you sometimes dreamt of being there? Have you wondered what it would be like to stand there?


Alexander Dunn:

I sure have. I'm very interested in mountaineering. I've begun to climb some mountains here in Spain. The highest I've been so far is 2,500 metres which is not that much. But I'd love to continue doing some and hopefully in the future climb a higher mountain.


Robin Lustig:

Thanks very much for your call Alexander. Let's move on now to Graham Moores, who is in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. Graham what's your question?


Graham Moores:

My question is: Do you feel that somehow your accomplishments at Everest are being diminished over time as these days we see unskilled adventure tourists who are being successfully guided up to the top?


Sir Chris Bonington:

No I think it's just a natural evolution and it has happened with all mountains. For instance, take Mt. Blanc, the highest mountain in western Europe, when it was originally climbed back at the end of the 18th century, Mt. Blanc, they thought was probably was the highest mountain on earth and it was just as mysterious as Mt. Everest was in 1953 when Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing climbed it and then within 50 - 60 years, crowds were going up it in the same way as crowds are going up Mt. Everest now.

But serious climbers are not going to Mt. Everest on the whole. They're going off and climbing unclimbed peaks and there are still hundreds of exciting, steep, unclimbed peaks in the Himalayas. Ok not as high as Mt. Everest but technically much, much more demanding. So the adventurers go and do that and yes, Mt. Everest has become, if you like, a tourist peak. It still needs to be treated with respect but the individual who fights his way to the top of Mt. Everest gains a huge amount of personal satisfaction. Our previous caller, for instance, said that he'd started climbing and he'd like to take it further - well there's nothing to stop him in a few years time joining a guided expedition and struggling to the top of Everest, if he so wants.


Robin Lustig:

Let me just read you an e-mail that's come from Man Bahadur Karki in Nepal: Why do people opt to take a high risk in order to ascend the highest mountain of the world?


Sir Chris Bonington:

It's the drive to adventure and it's not just climbing Mt. Everest of course. People are attracted by risk and it might be to go climbing, it might be to go caving, it might be driving fast cars. It's the adrenalin of risk, it's the challenge of the unknown. To give it a wider connotation, if human kind did not get challenged by risk, we'd probably still be in the caves or probably would have never have got where we were. So I think an intrinsic important part of the human psyche is this desire to stretch themselves to go into the unknown.


Robin Lustig:

And you do all that in the knowledge that your own life is at risk - you've already mentioned the friends and colleagues of yours who lost their lives - that you might leave your family without a husband and father. Nevertheless that desire to meet the challenge overcomes all that.


Sir Chris Bonington:

It's immensely strong. It's rather like reading about Pen Hadow, this wonderful Arctic adventurer who has managed to get to the geographical North Pole - by the sound of it, miles too late - but he did it. And yes, he's got a wife and two young children, just the same way as I had a wife and two young children when I was doing my hard stuff. And you could say, the adventurer is being selfish in doing this, but that drive is so strong. And I think - certainly with my wife -she feels that it's so important to me. She married the kind of person that I am and she wouldn't want me to change.


Robin Lustig:

Let me read this question that comes from Patrick Conneely in Belgium who asks: How do you prove if a climber has got to the top? What evidence is needed?


Sir Chris Bonington:

That's a very good question and there's been quite a few disputed ascents.


Robin Lustig:

What people come down and say I did it?


Sir Chris Bonington:

Yes, loads of people have done that and quite a few of them, I'm afraid it's most unlikely that they actually did it and they haven't had the proof. But ideally to prove it when you get to the top you take a picture of north, south, east and west and at least one picture with you in it to establish you were there and then you've proven it. But of course you can't always do that. For instance, one peak I climbed, we climbed it in the middle of a storm and quite honestly the picture I took could have been on any bump anywhere on that mountain and at that point it's really your credibility that comes in but you can't prove that you got there.


Robin Lustig:

Let's take another call. Charles Lambert is on the line from New Zealand.


Charles Lambert:

Good afternoon. My question is - I've just come back from Nepal myself, I've been trekking with my son. Do you agree with Sir Edmund Hillary that Mt. Everest should be off limits for, say, five years to help the area recover?


Sir Chris Bonington:

No - firstly if you put it off limits for five years certainly the sherpa economy would suffer grievously. All those crowds on Everest - I believe there's at least a thousand people around the mountain - represent actually a huge amount of money coming into the economy in employment and everything else.

Secondly, the number of people on Everest don't impose an environmental risk - it's rather like having a large number of tiny fleas on the back of a huge elephant. The people are not going to affect Everest environmentally in any way whatsoever.


Robin Lustig:

They leave a lot of litter though don't they?


Sir Chris Bonington:

Yes but the litter is cosmetic. In fact the litter isn't too bad. The Nepalese authorities and the climbing expeditions have now got a really good system for clearing base camp. Base camp I believe - because I haven't been recently - is pretty clean and clear. Higher up the mountain, yes, has a lot of litter on it and has quite a few corpses and bodies as well. It's very difficult to get them off.


Robin Lustig:

Charles, what do you think?


Charles Lambert:

I think really it should off limits except to climbers - I think the tourists should be able to go to base camp. But I think all the fixed ropes should really be removed from the mountain and it should be returned to the climbers rather than the trekkers and the tourists. I don't know how Sir Chris feels about it but I think it should be returned to its pristine state.


Robin Lustig:

You just don't like the idea of there being so many people clambering all over it?


Charles Lambert:

No. I think it just becomes more like a theme park than a mountain.


Sir Chris Bonington:

Can you put yourself into the mindset and into the body of one of these so-called tourists, who maybe isn't an experienced climber, has scratched up the money - say $25,000 to go on a guided expedition and then goes up Everest. Ok, there's the fixed ropes there - we used fixed ropes when we climbed in 1985 and Edmund Hillary used fixed ropes back in 1953. And that individual though gets to the top of that mountain and to him it's a huge and wonderful experience and I would not want to deny that person that experience and therefore I don't want to be elitist as a climber. I don't want to say, you can't go on Everest unless you do it without using bottled oxygen, which some climbers have proposed. I believe there's no harm in letting people enjoy themselves on Everest. If you don't like the crowds - I don't like the crowds - there are thousands of other mountains scattered all over the Himalayas and all over the world where you won't see a soul.


Robin Lustig:

Charles thanks for the call. There's a similar point made in an e-mail from John Moody here in England: Is the so-called trekking culture putting lives at risk and showing a lack of respect towards Everest by allowing inexperienced climbers to be guided up the mountain?


Sir Chris Bonington:

I'd say once again that most of the individuals who go on these guided expeditions have a very real respect for the mountain. They've probably made quite big sacrifices to actually get there. So once again, I don't believe in elitism.


Robin Lustig:

You're happy to share it in other words.


Sir Chris Bonington:

I'm happy to share the mountain. If you don't like it - great don't go there because, as I've said, there are loads of other mountains where you can have the mountains to yourself.


Robin Lustig:

We're going to go now to our correspondent Jane Hughes from the BBC who is actually at base camp at the moment. Jane what is like at base camp at the moment? I know that there's been this recent tragedy with the helicopter but are there a lot of people there?


Jane Hughes:

There have been a lot of people here. I have to say that people are beginning to describe base camp as bit of a ghost town now because so many people have been up the mountain and have come back down again and have wanted to leave very quickly - that they've packed up, put away their tents and gone. So it doesn't look half as busy as it did.

In terms of the rubbish - the rules here are really very strict now so people have to take away everything that they bring up with them and there are fairly hefty fines that they must pay if they don't. So it doesn't actually seem too bad. But it's quite a bizarre place - I've never really been anywhere like this before - all these tents perched on this rocky glacier - it's the most inhospitable place I've ever been and it becomes in some ways more and more bizarre as we see tents packed up and people going home and the place gets emptier and emptier.


Robin Lustig:

Jane I remember talking to you just before you left London. I think it's fair to say you were somewhat apprehensive about what lay in store. You've been there now for some time. Have you been enjoying yourself?


Jane Hughes:

It's certainly been proving an experience, yes. It's been very enjoyable at times and very tough at other times. I must say I was worried about the altitude but I really didn't have any idea of how difficult it was going to be to operate 5,000 metres above sea level. And what it does is to slow you down physically and also slow you down mentally. So everything seems to take a lot longer and it's not helped by the fact that it's also freezing cold some of the time and that slows you down as well.

But on the other hand, we're in the most extraordinary place I've ever been in - further from civilisation and normal human habitation than anywhere I've been before and the most breathtaking scenery and it does feel like a real privilege to be here.


Robin Lustig:

Chris what do you think when you hear Jane talking about base camp?


Sir Chris Bonington:

What I'd like to ask Jane is what's the experience of being with so many people there? Is there a sense of camaraderie between all these climbers presumably from different nations from all around the world?


Jane Hughes:

I think there's a sense of camaraderie among some of the groups and then others keep themselves quite a lot to themselves. Being a nosey journalist, I just go from one camp to the next and ask them all questions and they all seem very friendly. But I do get the impression that some camps at least are keeping themselves quite to themselves. But on the other hand, some of the smaller groups for example do seem to have been getting together and having beers in the evening. In fact I went to one of those parties last night. So there's a certain amount of camaraderie.

However, I don't have anything to compare it with because I've never been here before and I've never really been anywhere like this before. I think I'd have a better idea of what it was like if I'd been here earlier when all the teams were here because by the time we arrived of them were up the mountain and then of course as soon as they made their successful summit bids they come back down and head off back to Katmandu fairly quickly.


Robin Lustig:

Jane, you're there at base camp - do you find yourself staring up at Everest, looking up at the summit and asking yourself if perhaps you should ever go?


Jane Hughes:

One of the strange things about being at base camp where it is this year is that you can't actually see the summit of Everest from here. You can see the first bit of the route which is the Khumbu Icefall which some people say is one of the most treacherous bits. But in answer to your question - I wouldn't want climb Mt. Everest. It's really been driven home to us how very dangerous it can be up there and how tough it is and I just think I'm tough enough and I don't think I'm brave enough.


Robin Lustig:

Jane thanks very much for joining us. There's an e-mail that's come from Switzerland, Mike Abson asks: : I would like to know how Everest climbers can justify leaving their discarded material, oxygen bottles etc, on the mountain. "Leave only tracks" is the way responsible people hike, are Everest climbers above all this?


Sir Chris Bonington:

I'd agree with him. These days, people are getting better and better at taking their stuff down with them. But there are times - I've left some stuff on Everest - certainly when we climbed the south west face of Everest in 1975, we'd had a huge store. We'd lost one member of the team, Mike Burke - if we had cleared the mountain thoroughly, we'd have probably lost three or four more people.

Now you could argue, well you shouldn't go on the mountain at all if you've going to leave that stuff there. But that stuff that we left on the south west face of Everest, it's all covered in snow now - you can't see it and I don't think its doing any harm. So I think the people who get very wrought up about the rubbish on Everest - the only people who see it are the climbers who actually go there. I agree it should be taken down but there are times when it's very difficult to do so.


Robin Lustig:

Perhaps one of the problems is that people who go to places like that - one of the reasons they go is that they enjoy the idea of pristine nature, they enjoy the idea of nature in all of its purity. If there are discarded bottles and oxygen tanks etc., they know that it's not pure nature.


Sir Chris Bonington:

But to a degree Everest has ceased to be pure nature. It's no longer the pristine unexplored place that it was 50 years ago. If you want pristine nature there are, as I've said, hundreds of other mountains where nobody's ever been before and I think when you go to those mountains you've got to be really, really careful to take everything away, to leave no trace so that there is no trace of people being there.


Robin Lustig:

Our next caller is Tom Javis who is on the line from London. What's your question Tom?


Tom Jarvis:

Basically its quite a topical question and I think we've covered most of this already. Does Sir Chris believe there is any way that the authorities can restrict numbers of climbers on Everest at any one time? I have no objection to commercial operators running trips to Everest - I think it's a good thing, it brings money into Nepal, into a very, very poor country and I've been up to base camp twice and I think it's a good thing. However, commercial operators surely must be held accountable for safety on the mountain and everything that goes with it.


Robin Lustig:

There was a time back in the 1950s when the first ascent was made, it was one expedition a year.


Sir Chris Bonington:

Well up to quite recently actually even in 1985 when I was part of a Norwegian expedition that climbed Everest and that's one of the last times that the Nepalese authorities had a rule then that it had to be one expedition per route per season. So we had the whole of the Western Coomb and the South Col to ourselves. Well that was very, very nice and it meant that in fact 18 of us - nine Europeans and nine sherpas actually got to the top that year.

Now if you actually reintroduce that kind of rule, you'd have a tiny number of people being able to climb the mountain for the thousands that would love to be able to do it. The other factor as far as the Nepalese authorities go is that climbing Everest is a good earner for them. They charge, in effect, it's about $10,000 per person in the peak fee. And that's money coming into the Nepalese economy.


Robin Lustig:

But what about the safety issue? Is there not a risk that with more and more people going up the mountain certainly during the climbing season, there is more and more risk of serious accidents happening?


Sir Chris Bonington:

I think there's always that risk. But there is a potential danger in climbing. Provided people actually understand what the risks are, that's fair enough. I don't think the sherpas would thank you and I don't the local people would thank you if you said, well we're going to limit to one expedition a year because climbing Everest now is becoming an important part of their economy. I'm a great believer here of free market if you like and saying, as many people go as want to go, they understand the risks, and if you don't like it go somewhere else.


Robin Lustig:

We have an e-mail from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, John Gunlecka: Given that climbing Everest is not a realistic option for most travellers due to risk and cost, is the next best thing a trek up to base camp or would you recommend another route to take in the awe of the mighty Chomolungma?


Sir Chris Bonington:

The trek to base camp actually is a wonderful trek but it's very, very crowded and there's an awful lot of people. But I think there are an awful lot of people who maybe have no aspirations to stand on top of Everest but would love to see it.

But there are though other ways of seeing Everest which are less crowded and without going to base camp. I believe there's a wonderful trek you can do from the eastern side of Everest where you go across towards Makalu from the Kachenjunga area. I've trekked to Kachenjunga where we saw about eight other tourists on the entire trek. So there are parts of Nepal where you can go to a less popular area and you'll have it to yourself. So take your choice - if Everest is really important to you, take either the Everest base camp trek. There are other treks though where you can actually see slightly less people or you can get away from Everest altogether. But there is an immense amount to be done.


Robin Lustig:

I mentioned the first black climber who has just reached the summit, Sibusiso Vilane, we have a caller now on the line from Africa Peter Wanyonyi who is in Nairobi in Kenya.

Hello Peter. Were you pleased to hear that Sibusiso Vilane had made it to the top?


Peter Wanyonyi:

Yes, I was happy about that. However, I have a different question for Sir Chris which is: however hard the climbers try to take their rubbish with them, they will always leave some garbage behind and it is going to get worse and worse as climbing Everest gets easier and easier. So is anything being done to prevent the situation from getting worse as far as pollution goes?


Sir Chris Bonington:

People are getting more and more aware of this and there's greater efforts being made to both ensure and persuade people to take their rubbish down with them and as in fact our correspondent at base camp said, you get fined quite heavily if you leave any rubbish at base camp at all.


Robin Lustig:

Peter are you concerned about litter? Have you been in the Himalayas?


Peter Wanyonyi:

I've been to the mountains in Kenya and they're pretty dirty as things are. They are pretty small mountains compared to Everest but even then people are finding it easier and easier to climb those mountains and the rubbish situation is getting worse. So I am pretty sure it must be very bad on Everest?


Sir Chris Bonington:

Everest down at base camp is not too bad at all. On the mountain, it is getting better and more and more expeditions - the commercial expeditions for instance have a vested interest in keeping the mountain attractive because they want more people to go on their expeditions and are actually paying extra sherpas to clear the rubbish from the South Col for instance and places like that. So I think there's no reason at all why more people shouldn't go on Everest and yet you can control the rubbish there.

For instance, I come from English Lake District. Something like 24 million visitors come into the English Lake District National Park each year and there's practically no rubbish at all because people have been, if you like, well educated not to leave their rubbish around. So really what we've got to do is to educate people into caring for the mountains - be they in Kenya or be they in Everest or whatever country you live in.


Robin Lustig:

You were talking about the effect on the Nepalese economy of having substantial numbers of people now coming to Everest. We've got an e-mail from India, Subbu Balakrishnan, who asks: Do you feel uncomfortable with sherpas getting only $2 or $3 a day when they are prepared to give their life for the climbers? Do the expeditions afford these sherpas the same protection they themselves take?


Sir Chris Bonington:

Well first they get a lot more than $2 - $3 a day. I'm not quite sure what the current pay rates are so I can't pontificate about that. Secondly, any good expedition will be like any good employer, and that is I should say will not take the same care as their sherpas but will take more care.

Certainly when I was leading expeditions to the south west face of Everest, my attitude was that the most important thing of the lot was the safety of the sherpas because they were a wage force. They weren't going there for sport, they were going there to make a living and therefore it was our duty to keep them as safe as one possibly could at all times. The climbers were different in that they had chosen to come here and they were taking the risks they wanted to take.


Robin Lustig:

Let's take another call. Nick Mason is on the line from Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia.


Nick Mason:

Good evening. I have a question regarding 50 years ago when the two men managed to get to the top of Everest but on their return only one of them received a knighthood. Do you feel that was rather unfair at the time? What's your feeling on that?


Sir Chris Bonington:

I think there are two factors here. Things in 1953 were very different to what they are today. As far as the knighthoods go, I think we've still got the rule that you can only get a formal knighthood if you're either a British or a Commonwealth citizen. Now equally you can get these, say, unofficial knighthoods which we give to foreign nationals - like Bob Geldof, who of course is Irish.

I would say that today certainly Tenzing Norgay would have got exactly the same award as Edmund Hillary had got. Back in 1953 things were different and therefore they did them in a different way. I rather agree with you, that yes if Edmund Hillary got a knighthood so an equal kind of award and equal recognition should have gone to Tenzing Norgay. But times do change.


Robin Lustig:

Nick, do you think that Tenzing Norgay was badly treated?


Nick Mason:

I agree with Chris, I think at that time things were different and nowadays they would have probably given an equal award. I'll like to pick up on something Chris said a few minutes ago about how much money trekking and climbing brings into the Himalayas or particularly to Nepal. Nepal is such a poor country and actually its poor in total but when you visit the areas which are off the main trekking routes or main climbing routes - especially the Everest trek - then you really do see the contrast as to how poor the people are and how comparatively better off the ones are who survive on tourism and trekking. Then I think people will realise how much of a benefit it is to that very poor country.


Robin Lustig:

Thanks for that Nick. Just on the question of Tenzing Norgay himself, Steve Cattell sends an e-mail from South Africa: Do you think it's right that Tenzing Norgay was treated so shabbily for 50 years? I was brought up believing that his first name was Sherpa, as he was always called Sherpa Tenzing, and still is in many reports.


Sir Chris Bonington:

I think that's out of respect actually - it's almost a statement of pride. The sherpas are immensely proud - they're a wonderful group of people and they're immensely proud to be sherpas. I don't think Tenzing was treated shabbily. He went on after Everest to have a very full and very worthwhile career. He spent most of his working life at the Himalayan Institute in Darjeeling. He was of course an Indian citizen.


Robin Lustig:

We have a call now from Professor Harcharan Singh Ranu in Atlanta, USA: Professor, what is your question?


Professor Harcharan Singh Ranu:

Hello, my question is, I worked many years ago for the Medical Research Council in London where all the original team including Sir Edmund Hilary were trained by Dr. Pugh and his colleagues. I would like to know how much of the scientific part of getting to acclimatise the body - clothing and other associated gear etc. - has changed since then? And what are the new challenges the mountaineers are facing to climb the highest peaks around the world?


Sir Chris Bonington:

I think we obviously know a lot, lot more now about the processes of our acclimatisation. There has a lot of very useful scientific work done to study on how the body acclimatises to altitude and the lesson really one learns from this is that there are two graphs. There's a graph of slowly, steadily increasing acclimatisation and there's a lot of adjustments your body makes - it creates more red blood cells. It makes a whole series of chemical - very subtle changes to compensate for the lack of oxygen and that requires enough time.

But there's another graph which is a downward curve which is deterioration. And above about 18,500 feet your body is deteriorating as long as you are above that altitude and that deterioration gets steeper and steeper as you get higher up the mountain, until to you get to what's called the "death zone" - very dramatic and that's at 8,000 metres. But it is a genuine "death zone" in the sense that if you spend too long at above 8,000 metres without supplementary oxygen, you're going to get so weak that you're not going to be able move again and die.


Robin Lustig:

Did they know that in 1953?


Sir Chris Bonington:

They were beginning to become aware of that because they'd learned quite a lot in the pre-war expeditions. So what you've got to do - to climb a mountain effectively, you have a series of forays up the mountain and you go up the mountain say firstly from Everest base camp up to the top of the ice fall, come back down, have two or three days rest then go up higher, come back down and then go to the summit. And you have these then short periods of time at altitude, your body begins to adjust, you then come back down, you have a few days rest at a lower altitude to build up your strength and then up you go. So we are constantly learning about how you can perform better at altitude.


Robin Lustig:

Chris Hunter in England sent us an e-mail asking: What is the single greatest technical advance or development to assist so many climbers to scale Everest since 1953?


Sir Chris Bonington:

One of the least obvious ones is the design of the ice axe. Now in 1953 they had an ice axe which was similar to the one used on the Matterhorn - a straight pick. Now that meant that if you were on ice you had to cut steps. Now in about 1970 a development was made to the ice axe which gave it a slightly curved pick - like a hook - so instead of cutting steps, you just go click and flick your ice axe and it bites into the ice and it holds you. And that simple little change has made a huge, huge difference.


Robin Lustig:

What about clothing - so many developments in artificial fibres and so on to keep damp out, to keep warmth in?


Sir Chris Bonington:

But actually those are less important. For instance, the 1953 had grenfell cloth, an incredibly closely woven cotton. It was completely windproof and it was very, very effective. Now you've got things like gortex etc. which are waterproof materials that breathe but they're less important on Everest which is dry - you don't have a water problem. And still in spite of all the wonderful man-made fibres that have been introduced, they best insulator is good old-fashioned down and they had that in 1921.


Robin Lustig:

An e-mail now from Frank Crab in Belgium who asks: There is much talk about this "famous" window of opportunity. But how does one go about determining this window? Do you rely on Sherpa knowledge of the climate? Do you use advanced meteorological methods to predict the weather?


Sir Chris Bonington:

A whole combination really. Now you can get up-to-date weather forecasts. In fact, we were climbing in Tibet about three years ago and we were trying to find this unclimbed peak and we had a satellite phone with us and we were getting weather forecasts from Bracknell. And of course they can look at global maps and they could give us accounts. But quite honestly though they weren't terribly accurate and mountains have their own weather. So that the long distance forecast can give you a general indication but no more than that.


Robin Lustig:

So if a sherpa gives you one piece of advice and the global computerised forecast gives you another, who do you believe?


Sir Chris Bonington:

I would say at the end of the day, you'd probably want to listen to your own experience. These days the sherpas are good with local knowledge but the average climber - we're going to the Himalayas every year, sometimes two or three times a year - so that your experienced western or Japanese or Korean climber who is spending a lot of time in the mountains, knows as much about it as anyone.


Robin Lustig:

Let's take a call now - we have David Lawrie in Chicago, USA.


David Lawrie:

Good morning. My question is: over the last half century since the ascent of Everest, we've progressed with mountaineering and now we're in a period where there's a lot of commercial expeditions with fee paying clients and it's a totally different set up. Where do you see, mountaineering going maybe in the next 25 - 50 years with intrepid exploration?


Robin Lustig:

Before you answer that we have a similar question via e-mail from Jamie Turnbull, Taunton, UK: Have all the great mountaineering challenges been accomplished? What challenges remain for the younger mountaineering generation to aspire to?


Sir Chris Bonington:

It's become very much the climbers' climbing game which I think the media and the general public find less easy to follow and understand. Essentially, technical climbing - hard climbing on the peaks of the Himalayas and the greater ranges, not going necessary for the biggest mountain but going for steep faces, steep ridges, steep unclimbed peaks - climbing them in very adventurous ways. Climbing in Alpine style, which means that you pack a rucksack at the bottom of the climb and you keep going until you get to the top however many bivouacs it takes. Climbing as hard as possible, climbing very fast, which means you can travel light and move quickly. So that in fact the challenge for climbers is almost limitless. There are still thousands of wonderful challenges for young climbers of the future.


Robin Lustig:

That simplicity of the goal - to reach the highest point in the world - that's gone?


Sir Chris Bonington:

That's gone but that's quite a good thing because that meant there was a huge focus just to get there. In a way that went, say, when all fourteen 8,000 metre peaks had been climbed which was in 1962. Everest since then has gone through the full evolution, for instance, of a mountain. You firstly climb it by the easiest possible route, the South Col route, it's then climbed by the North Ridge route by the Chinese, then the other ridges were climbed - we climbed the south west face of Everest.

Now there's something like 23 routes, different ways to climb Everest. There's still one or two challenges left on Everest that haven't been climbed. There's the famous Fantasy Ridge which is on the east side of Everest and there's the direct route straight up the south west of Everest that we climbed in 1975. So there's still something to be done on Everest as well.


Robin Lustig:

Here's an e-mail from Canberra, Australia. Derek asks: I guess we should remember all those brave people who attempted the task earlier, especially George Mallory and Andy Irvine. Was the latter's fate ever known? How would their equipment have compared with, say, that used by Hillary and Tenzing?


Sir Chris Bonington:

Well firstly how much is known about them. Of course Mallory's body was found and they had a good clue to where to look for it because Andrew Irvine's ice axe was discovered in 1936 and it was lying on the long traverse as you go across below the ridge of Everest towards the actual summit. The body was found below that ice axe. The rope was broken and Irvine's body hasn't been found.

What you can conclude from that is that we know that they disappeared into the clouds way above that - somewhere by the second step. What we'll never know, I think, is whether they got to the top or didn't get to the top. The probability is I think they didn't in the sense that they disappeared into clouds which where boiling clouds and it was very stormy. Maybe Andrew Irvine's body will be found - I personally hope it isn't. I think it's a mystery that I'd rather see left. I think it ghoulish going and hunting for these bodies. I think its horrible taking photographs of them and publishing them to the world's media. And I think its horrible taking things off those bodies.

As far as the gear they had it was surprisingly good actually. They were using oxygen - it was a pretty basic oxygen system compared to what was used in 1953. Immense advances were made in the Second World War on the use of oxygen for the bombing aircraft etc. so that's where Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing had a huge advantage. They had very good wind proofs - they were similar to what they would have had in 1953. They had down gear so they were fairly warm. Their foot gear was pretty basic. It was basically leather boots - they were hobnail boots - which I bet meant their feet were really cold. But otherwise their gear wasn't bad and wasn't that dissimilar from what Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing had.


Robin Lustig:

Let's take another call now. We have John in Alton in Cambridgeshire. Hello John, what's your question?


John:

My question to Chris is: Does he still get frightened when he goes climbing?


Sir Chris Bonington:

I still love climbing. I'm off in about three days time, immediately after we've had our celebration in the Leicester Square Odeon and then flying to Mumbai and going trekking and climbing in Khulu in the central Himalayas.


Robin Lustig:

We have an e-mail on a very similar question. Dave Black, Edinburgh, Scotland asks: Of the many unforeseen circumstances that can happen at extreme altitude, which one frightens you the most?


Sir Chris Bonington:

I most definitely feel fear. Never ever go climbing with anyone who doesn't feel fear. Fear is a very, very important emotion. It says, this is dangerous - should I be here?


Robin Lustig:

But surely the answer to that is no?


Sir Chris Bonington:

Well yes at times it is and then when you get that you question yourself and say should I be here and quite often I think, no, I shouldn't be here. And at that point you turn round and you go back down because there is no point getting to the top of a mountain and dying on the way back down or dying on the way up. You are prepared to take risks but they're calculated risks. I'm here now, not because I'm clever but because I'm lucky. I've had a lot of very, very narrow escapes.


Robin Lustig:

You use the phrase "calculated risk" but surely one of the things about mountains of this kind is that unforeseen things happen - rocks break away, avalanches come, the weather suddenly changes - you can't predict that, you can't calculate that.


Sir Chris Bonington:

You can predict a certain amount of it. For instance, you can look at a face and you can say that face looks very dangerous, there's going to be some big avalanches coming down it, therefore, its best avoided. A lot of accidents that occur are caused by avalanche and they're caused by people actually misjudging or misreading the evidence they can see. So that yes, it is a calculated risk and then different climbers will, if you like, be prepared to take different levels of risk.


Robin Lustig:

We have an e-mail from Bruce Hooker, in France who says: We often see references to Everest, or other mountains, being "conquered": Do you think this is an appropriate word? Are large mountains ever conquered or merely climbed?


Sir Chris Bonington:

Well I couldn't agree more with the writer. I detest the term "conquer" - mountains allow you to climb them.


Robin Lustig:

Here's a caller Julia Sayer in the UK. What's your question.


Julia Sayer:

I've just put down the book "The Next Horizon" and you actually wrote it from a very personal point of view and not many people talk about their families. How did your family prepare and has prepared over the years to cope with what you have done and what you do?


Sir Chris Bonington:

Good question. Wendy, my wife, knew what she was getting into when we started going out together because I was a dedicated climber and I suppose climbing at the cutting edge when we first met. So she accepted the kind of person I was and has never wanted me to change in any way whatsoever.

A more difficult one of course is when you start having children because your children didn't ask to come into the world and your responsibility to them and the loss they're going to have if you go and get yourself killed and that's a very, very difficult one. I suppose what preparations can they take? Well in a way they just get on with life and certainly that's what Wendy tried to do and of course she had the tough job as well when I was going away when my children were very young, when I was trying to do big, potentially very dangerous things and she had to help them through that process as well.


Robin Lustig:

Michael Search, Frankfurt , Germany: How does one set out into the field of exploration as a career? And, how does one make a living in between expeditions?


Sir Chris Bonington:

Firstly I'd recommend you start by not trying to make it a career but just go climbing and enjoy your climbing and once you've really got into climbing and realise how important it is to you, you then might decide you want to make a career of it. These days it is a lot easier than it was say back in 1962 when I broke away from a regular job. There are various things you can make your living at in the climbing arena - you can become a mountain guide of course or a mountain instructor Now the training side of climbing now has become very, very big indeed and that's a matter for getting qualifications and there are a whole series of courses and a whole series of qualifications that you can undertake.

You can do what I've done, which is to get into the communications side of it which is honing up your skills as a writer and as a photographer. You don't need necessarily to be the world's best climber - you need to be a good communicator, a good journalist, a good photo journalist, a good film maker and so on - that's another way of doing it. Or you can go into the commercial side of it and there's a big outdoors industry now of manufacture in climbing.


Robin Lustig:

We have another caller on the line - Azam Jamil in Pakistan.


Azam Jamil:

I am a hotelier and I have played host to many climbers as they come to Pakistan to climb K-2 and Nanga Parbat and one keeps hearing the myth that Nanga Parbat and K-2 are more difficult to climb than Everest. So is loss of life on the mountain directly proportionate to its difficulty?


Sir Chris Bonington:

Well it's a good indication isn't it. I think what you've got to judge if you want statistics - you've got to look at the number of people who go to that mountain and then count the number of people who've died and see what the ratio is. There's no doubt about it that K-2, the second highest mountain in the world, is probably the hardest mountain in the world - technically it is much harder than Everest. One statistic - I'm not absolutely sure of this one but it's one I've heard - is that one in three of the people who leave the top camp for the summit of K-2 die. Now that is a pretty frightening statistic. Naga Parbat is also a difficult, challenging mountain. So I would say yes, technically and as a challenge both Naga Parbat and K-2 are harder than Everest.


Robin Lustig:

An e-mail now from Rabindra Osti in Kusatsu, Japan and asks: Have you ever compared yourself with your successors? What do you think about your success, does it have broader meaning rather than just for your personal satisfaction?


Sir Chris Bonington:

Well I hope so. I've made a living as a writer and as a photographer and a broadcaster and I hope that I've been able to pass on my love of the mountains and my enthusiasm to other people for their enjoyment, hopefully, as inspiration. And so therefore yes, I hope I am doing something more than just indulge myself.


Robin Lustig:

When you wrote about what you felt when you got to the top of Everest, you said it was a gathering of so many ambitions and memories that climaxed in a burst of grief and yet relief. Why relief?


Sir Chris Bonington:

I'd been focused on Everest for something like 12 years. The first time I went to the south west face, it was in 1972 and I finally got to the top in 1985. And I'd lost a lot of friends. I'd worked incredibly hard, been pretty obsessive and in climbing that mountain, I'd got that out of my system. What I've always loved in climbing is actually the exploratory side of climbing - of going with very small groups and just going off and climbing unclimbed peaks or unclimbed routes and that just freed me up to do that. And so there was a sense of relief that I'd finally done it.


Robin Lustig:

You said you hated the use of the word "conquered" when people climb mountains and yet many mountaineers do seem to talk of mountains as if it a battle between the individual and the mountain and one of them will win.


Sir Chris Bonington:

I think that's a very dangerous attitude and one that I certainly haven't got. The mountain is not inanimate because it certainly hasn't got a personality or a will. It can be quite a live moving kind of thing - with its avalanches and the weather and everything else. But the way you climb that mountain, the way you survive on that mountain, is actually to understand it - to actually work with it, to actually become part of it and in doing that there's no point in being angry with the mountain. There's no point in being angry with what its done, or people who've lost their lives or anything else - we've all chosen to be there and therefore it's a matter of - you accept what the mountain is, you understand what the mountain is - maybe it lets you climb it, maybe it doesn't


Robin Lustig:

We'll take one last call - Peter Lawes in the UK.


Peter Lawes:

As Everest needs a rest and is an unrealistic target for most of us, can you recommend some other mountains where a group of active 50 year-olds can capture some mountain magic?


Sir Chris Bonington:

Well just here in the UK - start here. Go up to Snowdonia or go up to the Lake District or even better go up to Scotland and you will get of the some of the most beautiful wild countryside you'll see anywhere in the whole world. You can have wonderful adventures to start off with in our Lakeland hills. You don't need to be a climber, you can go walking and then you might want to climb and you start rock climbing with ropes and things and then you might feel, you want to expand a bit, so you can go abroad and go to Europe. There's masses of wonderful walking and climbing and scrambling in the European Alps, in Spain and then go further afield and go to Nepal, go to the Himalayas. And once again you can start by trekking and then go climbing - there's a lot of trekking peaks. If you don't know much about climbing and you want to be a climber, there's loads of courses you can go on. So, you don't have to get to the highest point on earth to have total fulfilment in climbing. You can find that fulfilment at whatever level you want to take it to.


Robin Lustig:

We have to leave it there, I'm afraid. My thanks to our guest, Sir Chris Bonington. My thanks to everyone who's taken part in today's programme.




EVEREST CONQUEST 50 YEARS ON

FEATURES

1953 file photo of Edmund Hillary Hillary lament
The mountain's first conqueror criticises those who buy their way to the summit

Everest collection
A history in pictures

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