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An Interview: Growing up the Son of Sir Chris Bonington

Sir Chris Bonington

Ahead of a special evening with Sir Chris Bonington live in Sydney at the Cremorne Orpheum, we chat to his son and adventurer Joe Bonington about his life growing up with an eminent mountaineer for a father, and how it has influenced his life and his family today. 

Joe Bonington is the founder of Joe’s Basecamp. He has been helping people smash their goals and put ticks next to their bucket list items for over fifteen years. Joes Basecamp has become a lively community made up of passionate people training for their greatest outdoor pursuits. 

Similarly to his father, Joe is also a man of the mountains. As a trek leader, he has taken groups to the Annapurna region, Everest, Kokoda, Kilimanjaro and Bhutan. While his father holds much acclaim, Joe has broken new ground himself, being part of the first ascent of Danga 2 (6200m) in Nepal.

Joes Basecamp and The North Face are hosting a special evening with Sir Chris Bonington at the Cremorne Orpheum. Ahead of that, we chat to Joe about his life growing up with an esteemed mountaineer for a father, and how it has influenced his life and his family today. 

Joe, Henry and Sir Chris Bonington

Sir Chris Bonington, your dad, said in an interview that as a mountaineer you have to be selfish. How was it growing up with a father who had this passion for the mountains?

Growing up with it I had mixed feelings. I loved getting out into the hills with Dad and going climbing and having epic adventures but when he went away on big trips, we missed him and we worried. At times we would almost assume someone would die and that could be our dad or a friend's dad - that was tough.

When was it that you first realised your dad was different to most of your friends' parents?

When we realised we ate more curry than our friends? Nah, I’m not sure. I have memories of us being stopped in the street as small kids and having our cheeks tweaked by some stranger who’d recognised Dad. They'd say things like “Are you going to grow up to be like your Dad then?” - which is probably why both my brother and I rebelled in a big way as teenagers.

How would you describe your upbringing?

I was a child of the seventies and eighties, which meant as a young kid I was dressed like many of the era - in paisley pattern shirts and flares. But being a Bonington, this look was topped off with Nepalese hats and yak-hair waistcoats. We were given a lot of freedom, some may think too much - my teachers definitely thought that. We were loved, supported and allowed to make mistakes. We lived in the Lake District on the edge of the Northern fells. We could walk out of the back of our house, down the “Lonning” (lane) and be on open heathland. Further beyond, up into the fells, they were covered with boulders, crags, Iron Age forts, old Victorian mine workings and the like. It was like being in Huckleberry Finn or Swallows and Amazons, our imaginations could run riot as we stayed out on the fells from morning until night.

At home Mum and Dad were a very loving couple, and very demonstrative of that fact. Even into their seventies you’d catch them pashing in the kitchen. Mum was also very creative - a folk singer and an artist. So we were surrounded by wild, shaggy-bearded adventurers and climbers from Dads social group, and equally shaggy (but not as fit) folk singers and artists from Mum's side. 

We grew up with a couple who were role models, and who followed their passions relentlessly. Growing up with a famous Dad was the difficult bit. Kids are merciless and the north of England in the seventies and eighties was an economically grim and also insular place. We were, as the Aussies put it “tall poppies.” Kids would make comments like “Your Dad's going to fall off a mountain.” Even teachers chimed in. I can remember when I first started high school, one teacher only referred to me as Bovril Boy (Dad had done a national advertising campaign for the drink Bovril). So as teenagers both my brother and I rebelled, our respective schooling careers cut short by “incidents” at the age of sixteen. But experience maketh the man, and it's our upbringing that has formed both my brother and I.

What would you take from your own childhood that you would like to give to your children?

The biggest lesson I've learnt is definitely to follow your dreams and learn your craft. What I mean is - love what you do. If you don’t love it, change it. And once you’ve found it, find out everything you can about your craft and master it. There are no shortcuts, but if you love it, you will love the journey.

Too many people take short cuts. There is nothing wrong with setting the summit of Everest as a target, but what lessons in life are you missing out on if you don’t spend time in the mountains. Time on rock and on ice first, time to progress from one level to another, as you learn more about the environments you are throwing yourself into, and about your own abilities.

Dad started at Harrisons Rocks and Snowdonia, then became a prolific rock climber before becoming an alpinist and then a Himalayan mountaineer. It was a journey.

We started as kids camping on the fells behind us, climbing in borrow dale and other parts of the lakes, ice climbing on Carrock fell and in Scotland. My kids are just starting out on that journey, they are part of the local climbing squad, and we are looking at doing some dad and daughter overnight bush walks along the Great North Walk. 

You’ve spoken passionately about the topic of women’s body images, and started the body-positive movement and campaign, ‘My Body Moves.’ How can communities like Joes Basecamp help to shape the greater view of women’s body issues in our society?

That's easy, my industry. The fitness industry just needs to take a long, hard look at itself. I think it's because I am at the adventure, wilderness sport and performance end of the industry that our values are a little different. People who are training for potentially hazardous and life-threatening situations don’t worry quite so much as to whether they have thigh gap or not.

As a community, just don’t buy into the crap that is being sent to people through social media. Gyms are using people's insecurities to sell gym memberships. Fitness is no longer about fitness but about aesthetics.

A great pisstake of the 'before and after' shot is to post one of you training and one of you doing the activity that you love and hashtag #MyBodyMoves. This far exceeds the sad shots in undies we see all over gym websites.

Open up conversations with the women, girls, daughters, and sisters in your lives. Find out how they feel and how the emphasis on body image might effect them. 

What is it that makes you most proud of your father, Sir Chris Bonington. And what do you think he would be most proud of about your life Joe?

Seeing Dad now in his eighties, still as enthusiastic about life as ever - the hills have gotten smaller but he has never lost his love for them. His determination to live a life well-lived, his endless passion for life - that is what I admire most. 

I'd say he would be most proud of how far I've travelled. As I mentioned before, there were aspects of being the son of a famous mountaineer that I didn’t handle well as a youth. I was lost for a while, rebelled and ended up in a lot of trouble.

I've dedicated the last twenty years to helping people grow. It's not just about knocking off peaks, but about growing as people, using both fitness and adventure as a channel for this. I love what I do with a passion - I’ve found my passion and live it and love it everyday. I’d say Dad is probably most proud of that.

Now in his later years, Chris says he’ll only be climbing for pleasure. Have you got any plans to head out into the mountains together?

Dad and I have been really lucky - as well as training people for adventures, I lead treks in the Himalayas, both in Nepal and Bhutan. Dad has come with me on some of these. We get to spend a month together in an environment that we absolutely love, a place where we are both at our best. These trips together have been very special. We don’t have anything planned at the moment. Dad came and joined me for my 50th in Nepal last year and at the age of 82, still managed a great six-day trek through the Langtang. He was also back on a climbing wall six weeks after having his hips replaced.

Anyway I hope to be able to get to Nepal with him again and do a short low-level trek. This trip while he's here in Sydney, we will do some local bush walks and get to the climbing wall with his grand daughters Edie (13) and Honor (11).

Sir Chris Bonington will be speaking at a special evening at the Cremorne Orpheum hosted by Joes Basecamp and The North Face. Learn more about Joes Basecamp online, or on their Facebook page and Instagram


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