Chris Bonington’s Expedition

In 1970 Chris Bonington led the third expedition to climb Annapurna I and the first expedition to climb the mountain by the very challenging south face.  On his return he wrote a book, Annapurna South Face, from which the following points are taken.
 
The Team 
The team was composed of 7 British climbers, 1 American climber, various British support staff at the base camp (including a doctor), some high-altitude Sherpas plus other local kitchen staff and porters.  There was also a TV production crew from Thames TV/ ITN and some other Europeans who just happened to wander up to the base camp and were roped in to help!  By the end of the expedition almost everyone had helped carry supplies up to some of the lower camps dotted up the mountain which allowed the mountaineers to push ahead.
 
The Supplies
A huge amount of supplies were sent by ship to India and then transported overland to Pokhara in Nepal.  These supplies included 27,000 feet (8,229 metres or 5.1 miles!) of rope, 170 ice pitons, 200 rock pitons, 400 karabiners, 40 bottles of oxygen, 20 bars of soap, 14,000 cigarettes, 72 bottles of whisky, 1 typewriter and 1 flag!  The supplies left Britain on 23rd January 1970 but there were delays in the ship reaching Bombay due to mechanical problems which very nearly caused the expedition to be cancelled.  The main party of climbers left Britain on 17th March.
 
The Hike to Base Camp
Some climbers had gone on ahead to find a good site for the base camp and start surveying the mountain but most of the party left Pokhara on the 22nd March 1970.  Through local contacts, Bonington had engaged 140 porters to carry the equipment to the base camp.  In those days, expeditions had to start walking from Pokhara whereas Julian and I will catch a bus to a place called Phedi.  We will then follow the same route which Bonington’s column walked to get near the mountain.  This they did on March 28th but in 1970 the late winter snow had been particularly heavy and the area was covered in snow.  On their arrival there was a blizzard and the lightly clothed porters were in danger of dying of exposure.  The porters had been provided with gym-shoes (300 pairs had been taken) but there were only enough warm trousers and jackets for the 20 or so who would remain for the duration of the climb.  Emergency shelters were erected and by nightfall everyone was under some sort of canvas.  The next day most of the porters collected their wages and then clutching their gym-shoes disappeared back down the valley.
 
The Camps
The team established six camps up the mountain and ferried goods up though these camps.  The climbers took turns to be in the lead to push the route ahead while other climbers continued to re-stock the camps.  It must have been a tremendous effort;
  • 1,430kg (3,160lb) were taken to Camp III at 6,120m/ 20,100ft,
  • 1,000kg (2,220lb) to Camp IV at 6,500m/ 21,300ft,
  • 360kg (800lb) to Camp V at 6,930/ 22,750ft, and
  • 102kg (225lb) to Camp VI at 7,315m/ 24,000ft         
 
The Climb
The south face of Annapurna is technically very challenging but the climbers slowly found a route up the vertical rock.  The two climbers in the advance party would spend two or three days pushing ahead fixing permanent ropes for others to follow and set up the next camp.  After just a few days at that high altitude, the men would be completely spent and would then descend to base camp to recover.  By the middle of spring, most of the snow had all disappeared from the base camp area leaving a grass and flower covered  scene.  The men relaxed by reading, playing volleyball and getting through the 72 bottles of whisky they had brought with them.  In November when Julian and I get to the base camp, I’m therefore not expecting there to be too much snow.  The whisky situation at the time of writing is unknown.
 
The rotation of the team meant that the lead would be taken by the second pair of climbers and the attempt would continue.  The climbers had to contend with freezing temperatures, high winds, snow storms, blizzards, low oxygen levels and the constant danger of avalanches.  The climbers also suffered from altitude sickness to some degree and the symptoms included headaches and an inability to sleep.  To counter these effects, the men regularly took pain killers and sleeping tablets and used the bottled oxygen.  Bonington’s writing style perhaps understates the terrible conditions the men had to get through but there are passages where he describes taking a single step and then having to rest before willing his body on to take another single step and in this way very slowly carry a load of food, fuel or equipment to the next camp.  What must have been quite soul-destroying was that once supplies had been delivered to the high altitude camp, the climber then had a short rest before having to descend back  down to a lower camp.  All the camps had a walkie-talkie radio and each evening Bonington would have a conference call with all the climbers and assess their fitness, the progress during the day, the weather for the next day and hence what the plan would be for the next day. 
 
The Summit Attempt
Camp I was established on 2nd April and camp VI was established on 19th May.  Much of the early trail breaking was carried out by Don Whillans and Dougal Haston before they returned to base camp for a rest to allow other team members to take their turn.  In mid-May, Whillans and Haston returned to the front and established camp VI.  Throughout the climb it appears from the book that these two were the least affected by altitude sickness and made the fastest progress up the mountain.  What is not made clear is whether Bonington had kept these men resting at base camp in early May so that they would be fresh for the summit attempt.  However, these two returned up the mountain and to the front from around the 18th May. 
All the climbers knew that the Monsoon season was imminent and that the summit would have to be reached in the next 2 or 3 weeks or else the summit would be lost.  At the radio call on the evening of 26th May, it was decided that Whillans and Haston would try to establish a camp VII while other climbers brought supplies up to camp VI which had run out of food.  Bonington writes that on the 27th May the climbers at camps IV and V were cut off from the others by heavy snow caused by the arrival of the monsoon.  There was a feeling of deep gloom but Bonington was determined to wait out the weather despite having less than a week’s supply of food at those high altitude camps.  He did not hold out much hope that Whillans and Haston had been able to progress far from Camp VI that day but he made the scheduled radio call at 5 o’clock;
“Hello, Dougal, this is Chris at Camp IV.  Did you manage to get out today?”
“Aye, we’ve just climbed Annapurna.” 
It was 27 May 1970.  Dougal Haston’s notes state that he and Don Whillans took the equipment to establish camp VII but without a word being spoken they both knew that the summit was possible.  They must have been a formidable climbing team being able to rely on each other instinctively.  Dougal Haston describes reaching the summit as follows:
 
“The final fifty feet needed care.  Big flat unsolid snowy rocks which had to be scrapped clean.  Over the ridge and suddenly it was calm.  There was no wind on the north side.  Long, relatively flat spaces led down into the cloud.  Don was already fixing a rappel peg.  We didn’t speak.  There was no elation.  The mind was still too wound up to allow such feelings to enter.  Besides the supreme concentration was needed to get down.  The real problem was the actual summit.  We were on a ridge.  The snow peak on the left looked highest so Don plodded up the thirty feet or so to its top while I filmed the historic moment.  Vague traces of what must have been the army footprints [from the British Army Expedition which had reached the summit the via the north face a few days before] showed beneath the snow.  I, in turn, stood on the peak.  The view was disappointing.  Only the east summit was clear.  I had looked forward to seeing Dhaulagiri on one side and right down to Base on the other but there was only a vast sea of grey cloud about a thousand feet beneath us.  The greatest moment of our climbing careers and there was only a kind of numbness.  But we knew the elation would come when we unwound.  Meanwhile there was still the face to climb down.”
 
That night Mick Burke and Tom Frost (the only American in the team) asked if they could move up from camp V to camp VI and then have an attempt at the summit.  The monsoon had reached Annapurna, the weather was appalling and the food situation was not good at the higher camps.  But Bonington agreed to give those two climbers two days to reach the top on agreement that after the two day window, they had to come down whether they had been successful or not.  Don Whillans mirrored Bonington’s apprehension at their meeting at camp V when he said “You want to get everyone off the mountain as quickly as possible.  It’s falling apart.  The whole place feels hostile somehow.”  Burke and Frost reached camp VI and on 29th May they set out for the summit.  Burke’s feet began to freeze and he reluctantly but wisely decided to turn back.  It should be remembered that Maurice Herzog lost all his toes and most of his fingers to frostbite when he climbed Annapurna in 1950.  Tom Frost continued alone but he too was driven back by the wind, cold, deep snow and fatigue.  He rejoined Mick Burke at camp VI at around noon and radio-ed that they were safe.  The rest of the climbers were obviously very relieved to hear this news.  The job now was to get everyone off the mountain as quickly as possible and all the climbers at the high altitude camps began to descend.
 
 Tragedy
Bonington and the two summit climbers had already arrived back at base camp.  This left just 5 climbers who were coming down and 5 Sherpas who were heading up to help disassemble the lower camps.  It was mid morning on the 30th May and Ian Clough, Mike Thompson and Dave Lambert were between camps I and II walking through an area that was known to have a danger of avalanches.  A few minutes separated the three men as they hurried across this dangerous zone.  Without any warning an avalanche swept down the mountain and hit Ian Clough.  He stood no chance and was killed instantly.  Separated by just a few minutes, the two other climbers had been able to dive out of the way and were unhurt.  Ian Clough’s body was carried down the mountain by his comrades and buried about 100 feet above Annapurna Base Camp.  Some years later a memorial was placed there which Julian and I will try to find.
 
Of course everyone was stunned by the death of Ian Clough.  It had happened on the last day of climbing as everyone was coming down the mountain.  Chris Bonington admits to having some feelings of guilt but points out that had the avalanche occurred just a few minutes later, all 3 climbers  and the 5 Sherpas who were heading up to that area could have been killed.  In Bonington’s words, “It was a risk that we all knew and had accepted – you must accept this type of risk if you go climbing on any Himalayan peak – but the knowledge of this did not make the tragedy, when it occurred, any easier to understand or accept.”      
 
Chris Bonington went on to lead expeditions to Mount Everest in 1972, 1975 and 1982.  In 1985 he reached the summit himself as part of a Norwegian expedition.  Now in his late 70s, Chris Bonington continues to climb mountains in the Himalaya.  He was knighted in 1996 for services to the sport.
http://bonington.com/
 
Don Whillans took part in Bonington’s Everest expedition of 1972.  He died of a heart attack in 1985 at the age of 52.  
 
Dougal Haston reached the summit of Mount Everest as part of Chris Bonington’s team of 1975.  He was killed in an avalanche while skiing in Leysin, Switzerland in 1977.  
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