Sir Chris Bonnington: “Getting into wild country is incredibly important therapy”

  • Contributor information: CNP

13 May 2019

“Getting into wild country is incredibly important therapy”

Sir Chris Bonington is Britain’s most famous mountaineer. But behind the truly astounding chronology of expeditions, which includes fearsome and ground-breaking expeditions on the Eiger, Everest and peaks all over the world, Sir Chris’s life has been stricken with tragedy and grief.  

In 2014 Chris lost his wife Wendy. “50 years of wonderful marriage,” says Chris. “The grief. It’s really hard times after a loved one dies. There’s the intensity of the funeral, and even though I had a lot of support from family and friends, you still go home to an empty house. I found solace just walking in the Lake District where I live. I got a sustenance. It enabled me to get back a balance.”

Sir Chris Bonnington

Sir Chris Bonnington.

Chris champions the amazing restorative benefits of time spent outdoors on mental health in his role as non-executive chairman of Berghaus. Having scaled back his epic adventures, Chris still immerses himself in the joy of being outside in the hills of France and the Lakes. “I’ve been lucky enough to find love again with Loreto, but getting into wild country is incredibly important therapy,” says Chris. “I walk a tremendous amount. The feeling it gives you. The peace you get from it. I never cease to wonder about the beauty of nature – a scene, a sunset, the hills, the clouds, the pattern in the lichen. It’s not just walking, it’s being aware of the environment around you and being emotionally involved with the landscape around you.”

The mountains are a place that Chris has learnt to rely on not just to quench his thirst for adventure, but also to maintain a healthy mental balance. 

As well as the loss of his first wife in recent years, Chris lost his first child, Conrad, in 1966, aged just two years old. Throughout his mountaineering career, Chris has also sadly lost too many friends in their quest to push the very limits of possibility on their quest to climb in new and risky places. 

“Extreme climbing is a very dangerous game. But mountains and wild places are incredibly important therapy too,” says Chris. “When you’re climbing a mountain all you can focus on is the rock and ice in front of you. There is nothing else. Every adventurer has got to be prepared to accept risk. But there is danger and uncertainty in all our lives to a degree. I believe in making the absolute most of life in all areas – family and job – and the mountains help you do that.”

For Chris some of the strongest bonds have been formed in the mountains, where passions are shared, adversity and problems are faced together and you ultimately put your lives in each other’s hands. Even when some of these friendships have been torn apart, Chris has found that the mountains have been a source of healing. “I remember in 1982 when we attempted the north-east ridge of Everest. There were four of us on that expedition: myself, Pete Boardman, Joe Tasker and Dick Renshaw. Both Pete and Joe lost their lives that day. Both were very close friends. Afterwards, Joe’s partner, Maria, and Pete’s wife, Hilary, came to stay. Maria and I set out together to climb Helvellyn by Striding Edge a little too late and had a mild epic on the way down. That shared experience on the mountain helped them immensely though. Afterwards they trekked to Everest Base Camp together to visit the memorial we put up for Pete and Joe.” 

Now 84, Chris has stepped back from big mountain expeditions, but the hills are still his lifeblood and source of wonder. 

Along with Berghaus’s own campaign ‘Time To Get Out’, which urges people to escape the stresses of modern life by reconnecting with others in the outdoors, Chris is keen to help Berghaus raise awareness. “The importance of Trail’s Mountains for the Mind campaign is that everyone can get into wild country,” he said. “We are incredibly fortunate in the British Isles with the beauty of our hills and National Parks. It’s a vital therapy that enables you to cope with the challenges of life and get much more out of every part of your life. It broadens your mind. And the effect is universal.”

This blog was kindly reproduced with the permission of the Mountains for the Mind Campaign and Sir Chris Bonnington. Please click here to find out more about this important campaign. 

What is Mountains For The Mind?

One in four people in Britain experience mental health problems each year, and one in six of us report them to our GP every single week. BUT it’s been scientifically proven that spending time in the great outdoors is a powerful natural anti-depressant, and regular exercise can reduce the risk of depression by 30%. We are very lucky in the UK that our high and wild places are protected by their National Park status. All are perfect places to escape every day stresses and feel the soothing power of nature on the mind.

In 2019 Trail magazine launched Mountains For the Mind – a campaign to finally get mental health out in the open in partnership with mental health charity Mind. In just a few months, thousands of people have shared their stories of the life-changing impact on the mountains have had in changing their lives for the better and signed up to the campaign to help promote these amazing benefits. Click here to read a few of their stories