“How does a life-changing experience start? With some, it’s a single event; with others it creeps up on them over time.”
Sir Chris Bonington has been a long time supporter of youth hostels. He’s one of those who found adventure through youth hostels and never looked back, and youth hostels were one of the events that changed the young Chris Bonington’s life.
I first came across him at a talk in Keswick in the late 70s. I went to one of his illustrated talks in a packed hall and sat entranced, hearing about his adventures and watching as image after image of places I had never imagined appeared. His talks and his use of slides were revolutionary at the time and, though he’s known for his mountaineering exploits, he also deserves to be known for his photography, his journalism and his writing.
In his teens, interested in history and castles, he joined the Youth Hostels Association and “spent weekends looking at castles as far afield as Dover”. He became a bit of a wanderer until the climbing bug bit him at the end of 1951 when he was 17. He and a friend hitch hiked up the A5 to Llangollen where they spent the night in the hostel. They spent the next day getting to Capel Curig hostel.
The next day Bonington and his friend set out for Snowdon. From Pen y Pass took the Pyg track for the summit in snow and low cloud, Bonington in his hob nailed boots and his friend in his school shoes. Both wore their school macs.
They were totally unprepared. Neither had a clue. Soon they were lost, their feet numb. They floundered through snow up to their waists until they fell in an avalanche, tumbling down, laughing and hooping just above a tarn.
That night, he was back at the hostel, “soaked, exhausted but deliriously happy”. Bonington had “tasted the addictive elation of a brush with danger”. His friend went home, never to go to into the hills again but the day had fired Bonington’s enthusiasm for the hills. He hitched up with older climbers, learned the ways of the hills and never looked back.
Like other climbers he abandoned youth hostels. Rules and strict opening times never suited climbers who came and went early or late to be out on the crags when the weather was best, not to suit a hostel timetable. Often hard drinking and hard talking, they were uneasy companions for more modest and moderate cyclists and walkers.
In 1980, YHA’s Golden Jubilee year, Bonington became a YHA vice president. Everyone taking part in a programme of walks for the celebrations received a certificate signed by the mountaineer.
In June 1996 he took a group of MPs climbing on Pillar Rock during a stay at YHA Black Sail, a hostel that Bonington loves because it reminds him of Alpine huts and shelters. Staying there you experience the isolation of the hills and breathe their air.
In 2013 he officially re-opened YHA Ambleside after a major refurbishment. He maintains his links with youth hostels, particularly those in Cumbria and with Black Sail where he has stayed with his children and grandchildren.
If you’re looking for inspiration about how youth hostels can lead to adventure, Sir Chris Bonington’s story is the best. He writes well. He has a flair for picking key moments, maintaining a drama and pace to keep the reader engaged. His book is full of candour, anecdote and insight into the events of his long life in the mountains, which make reading his book a privilege.
His book will remind us that when he was growing up sixteen and seventeen year olds were free to hitch hike and to climb Snowdon in winter in shoes and macs, that adventures like that were part of the way youth hostels changed lives and it may inspire parents to loosen the reins on growing youngsters and to let them open their escape into life-changing experiences.
Chris Bonington’s story is full of those experiences, culminating with the loss of his wife, Wendy, who had shared his life for so many years, and his meeting and marriage with Loreto Herman. He shows that those experiences are important but even more important is being open to those experiences throughout your life, remaining willing to climb the Old Man of Hoy at 80 and to fall in love again, after the death of the woman he loved.
Quotes from Ascent, Chris Bonington, Simon and Schuster, London 2017.