'Boys of Everest' follows hard-core climbers for almost three decades
The Boys of Everest: Chris Bonington and the Tragedy of Climbings Greatest Generation, By Clint Willis, Carroll & Graf, 536 pp., illustrated, $27.95
Jon Krakauer's 1997 runaway bestseller "Into Thin Air" told the story of his arduous ascent of Mount Everest, the world's highest peak. Four members of Krakauer's team died climbing the 29,028-foot mountain, leading him to describe the deadly adventure as "a triumph of desire over sensibility." For British climber Chris Bonington and the tight-knit group of climbers associated with him, scaling the world's highest peaks would prove an equally tragic adventure.
Maine resident Clint Willis, who has written for Outside magazine (as has Krakauer), opens his lengthy tale with the famous first ascent of Everest's summit, by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay . That 1953 landmark event would inspire generations of climbers across the globe, especially in Great Britain. Willis focuses his detailed, adventure-filled narrative on England's Bonington and the dozen or so fellow British climbers who became known as "Bonington's Boys." Willis calls them "climbing's greatest generation," and he details their climbing expeditions over the course of almost three decades, 1958 to 1985.
Willis was not himself a participant in these climbs, but he exhaustively re-creates them through reliance on interviews, letters, journals, and memoirs. Bonington's Boys were unconventional men, highly intelligent, adventure-seeking, and anything but aristocratic. Bonington had never known his father and served in the British Army. Fellow climber Al Rouse had studied mathematics at Cambridge and lived a nomadic lifestyle after college: Rouse "and his climbing friends shared cheap flats that deteriorated into crash pads; they traded girlfriends; they scrounged for cash and spent it on booze and hash and cigarettes."
There was danger right from Bonington's first major climb, a 1958 foray into the French Alps. Bonington's friend Hamish MacInnes fractured his skull after being struck by a falling rock and barely survived. In 1972, after three of his climbing mates had died , Bonington made his first attempt to summit Everest, and failed. During his ascent, Bonington fell and "dangled over a chasm in the glacier" before Sherpas rescued him. Teammate Tony Tighe was not so fortunate, becoming one of a growing number of fatalities among Bonington's Boys.
In the 1970s, Bonington became the poster boy for British mountaineering, and his exploits were followed closely by the BBC and British newspapers. In 1975, he convinced Barclays Bank to finance a second Everest expedition. And while members of Bonington's team eventually reached the summit of Everest, Bonington did not. Another climber, Mick Burke , died on the mountain. Willis's narrative is filled with harsh weather conditions and merciless topography, beautiful descriptions of scenery, countless falls, and numerous accidental deaths.
In 1978, Bonington made a third attempt to summit Everest but was forced to turn back after the death of yet another climber, the eighth death he'd witnessed in his two decades of climbing. Finally, in 1985, at age 50, he reached the top of the mountain. But the culminating moment was hardly triumphant. Willis describes a man haunted by the ghosts of his many dead comrades. When he set foot on the top of the world, says Willis, a weary Bonington "crouched sobbing in the snow ."
The men and many adventures described by Willis are hardcore, and "The Boys of Everest" will appeal strongly to adventure aficionados. But for those whose notions of climbing are centered on the nearby Blue Hills rather than the fearsome, far-off Himalayas, those who don't know a piton from a crampon , Willis's exhaustively detailed account may prove a daunting uphill climb.