Why the mountaineer's first book is the best book on life, Annapurna and everything that you'll ever read
YOLO. You see that everywhere at the moment; emblazoned on T-shirts and baseball caps and the rest. YOLO. You Only Live Once. It's the carpe diem of its diem. And yet there's a depressingly cynical, individualistic, 'Get Rich Or Die Trying' element to the way people use the phrase today.
Chris Bonington's brilliant first autobiography, 1966's I Chose to Climb, starts with a fantastic, old-school YOLO moment. The opening two paragraphs consist of a letter from his employers, explaining that they are unable to release him for a six-month mountaineering expedition. It's written in fantastically stilted bureaucrat-speak ("It was very much in our minds when you joined us after returning from an expedition to the Himalaya that it was your intention to settle down uninterruptedly to a business career..."). Bonington is left having to make a stark choice: in his words, ‘between a career with an assured future, or a life based on mountaineering.’ You could put it another way: ‘Get rich or die climbing’.
The title of the book is Bonington's answer to that ultimatum from his bosses. Not for the first time in his life, he opted for the more difficult path. Anyone who's ever experienced that dilemma of whether or not quit their job and follow their heart should read it. In other words, everybody should read it. What follows is a thrilling description of Bonington's early climbing career. But that's not to say it's a book merely for mountaineering enthusiasts. His strength is in the sense of doubt he brings to every anecdote – so, from his first faltering attempts at climbing High Rocks in Tunbridge Wells to the North Face of the Eiger, you're with him every step of the way.
It's perhaps no surprise that so many climbers turn out to be great writers. They are, after all, a contemplative lot, and get to spend a lot of time huddled in tents and on rock ledges, contemplating. Bonington is arguably one of the very best – his honesty, his humility and his empathy make him hugely readable. Like him, you're left wondering how a nervous but stubborn kid ended up being in the first British ascent of the North Face of the Eiger and the first man ever to conquer the Himalayan peak Annapurna II. He is a master in building tension, even when describing the monotonous drudgery and endless waiting that comes with his art.
When there is a genuine cliffhanger, it doesn't get any better. His description of a climber plummeting from the Cima Grande in the Italian Dolomites, dangling from his line, then finally cracking the impasse, is only surpassed by the deadpan commentary from a German mountaineer that precedes it: ‘That's where they usually come off.’
You get knocked down, but you get up again. YOLO. Chris Bonington knows what it really means.