Don’t cheat, don’t scroll down the page in advance to see whom I met. You have to hear out my tale first.
I read about him and heard of him much before I met him. I gobbled up a fascinating book by him on Everest with record speed. In a world full of things that are ‘young’ or trying to be young (don’t you watch all those anti-aging cream ads?) I was surprised to discover that he got on to the top of that mountain at the age of 50. Come on, admit it if we were to believe those ads, by 50 a lot of us would stop living, forget about climbing Mount Everest!
Last year when he came to New Delhi to give a talk, I was unfortunately trekking in Uttarakhand. I got to hear from others about the event and I simmered for almost a year before I got my chance. Fast forward it to February 7, 2012. I was in a room full of people, listening in rapt attention to his Everest account. The narration came to the point where their group was making the summit push. What do you think he would tell the audience? Let me add that he is considered to be the ‘all time great expedition leader’ by the likes of Reinhold Messner. So take another guess?
How about telling that he was the slowest climber on that day? That many times he thought he would not make it. That Dough Scott (one of his climbing friends not on this expedition) appeared as a vision and was goading him on. That later a fellow climber stopped for him so that he could catch up. He then mentioned by name his friends who died in various expeditions as if paying a tribute. He still choked up a bit when he finally let it out. Only to add that he forgot to take out his oxygen mask at the top and that is how he appears in all the pictures!
In a world full of people claming to have done this, that and what not and screaming themselves hoarse over it, this account for me was like a breath of fresh air. I have to admit my jaws also dropped. He made it sound like it was everyone else but him who got him up there! Maybe he can afford that style as his achievements are truly great.
I know now you will say that this was a talk he gave and I was a tiny miny bit of audience, so why do I claim I met him? Well I asked a few questions, like what he thought about the Krakauer/Boukreev controversy? He said I was asking difficult questions but didn’t shy away from giving a reply.
I also talked to him after the session was over. Do I hear you say, it still doesn’t count? There would be countless other fans hanging out? OK, there was a dinner the next day at one of the big hotels in Delhi and I was invited. See I did not even travel very far to meet such an eminent personality!
It was a long evening and I did not get anywhere near him for most of the time. But my luck changed when we sat for dinner. I was next to him. Yes, of course, there was another lady on the other side but she got up due to some reason after talking for 15 minutes in which I managed to get 10 words edge wise.
After that for good 45 minutes I had the legend all to myself and my questions were countless. Why is K2 more difficult, what about Messner’s solo assent to Everest? Does he have any other interests? I must admit I had him there. He tried to talk about military history as his interest but failed miserably. He is a different man when he talks about the mountains.
Then he asked if saree had gone out of fashion in India and I had to sheepishly admit that I myself did not know how to tie one. He inquired about my treks next. And we compared a few notes about Spiti and Ladakh. By now, you rightly guessed it, I was on cloud nine!
Gradually the conversation drifted to social media, as I had been following him on Twitter and Facebook. He mentioned that some of the charities and other organizations he was involved with wanted him to use social media, so he joined. He added, “I anyway like to learn new things.” Here he was at the age of 77 when his personal documents from the expeditions have been declared of heritage value, (and NO you can’t click on that link now, you can click only after having read the remaining lines) he is learning Twitter and Facebook!
It was then that I dared. I said, “Why don’t you mention your Facebook page on twitter and Twitter id on Facebook ”? He took out his visiting card and told me, “write me step by step instructions and I would follow them”. If you now go and check his accounts you would see he has gone ahead and actually done that. And then he emailed a note of thanks to me!
They don’t make people like him anymore. People who reached the heights and yet somehow manage to retain their touch with small things in life. He is the mountain of inspiration for me. It has, indeed, been an honour and privilege for me to meet Sir Chris Bonington. And lest you disbelieve me, I will do as he would say, “show a picture that you were there”!
After the dinner, the pro vice chancellor of the British University we were affiliated with told me, “you are in love with him!” When I don’t know what to say I just laugh. The next day I told this incident to one of my British colleagues and he said, “boy he (the pro vice chancellor) sure must have been drunk to say that!
So today was the last day of Sir Bonington’s visit to our campus and the agenda was the most special for me. He was giving away professional development certificates to faculty members and I was one of the recipients.
So here I am grinning from ear to ear with Sir Chris Bonington while receiving my certificate. And there was still to come.
I was giving a short speech on our experiences during the course and as soon as I said, “Chancellor Sir Chris Bonington”, he turned my way and I think remained that way till the end of the 4-5 minutes! It has been after ages that while giving a speech my hands were shaking but my colleagues say I did fine, probably a bit nervous in the beginning but then all OK.
And finally during the photo shoot I got an opportunity to talk to the Chancellor. And guess what did he mention? The gentleman that he is, he said, “It was a good speech.” And I think this picture is clicked at the time I am telling him that I actually got nervous because he was in the audience!
What an incredible day it has been and I still can’t wipe that grin off my face!
Here is a short clip with Sir Chris Bonington gave at our institute. Sorry for the poor audio quality but I recorded it on my cell phone. This is that part in his talk when he is on the final stretch of Everest. And just before he climbs notice how he mentions all his dead climbing partners as a tribute.
But let us move to the fun part. When he as climbing with the 1985 Norwegian expedition he learned just two words of Norwegian and that meant “I am hungry.” He told us (not in this clip) that there was a gala dinner later hosted in their honor at Oslo after the success of the expedition. There they all were greeted by the king of Norway and he saked Sir Chris, so did you learn any Norwegian? Sir Chris replied standing to attention, “Yes Sir” and repeated what he thought was ‘I am hungry’ in Norwegian. The king took a step back and look shocked and confused, his body guards even more alarmed and it then dawned on Sir Chris that those words did not mean I am hungry. His climbing mates had actually taught him some foul words that he repeated to the king!
And guess what? We have one more day with him at the campus tomorrow.
I read his book Bonington’s Everest a few months back and knew about the failed 1972 South West face attempt, the successful 1975 South West face attempt where he didn’t climb the peak himself as the leader of the expedition and then the successful climb of Everest in 1985. In between there was a disaster when two members of his climbing teams vanished in the mountain in an attempt from the Tibet side. But meeting Sir Chris Bonington in life has been a memorable event!
It was an entirely different experience to hear the story from Sir Chris Bonington himself. He comes across as a person who goes softly about his achievements. In an era where everyone seems to be shouting themselves hoarse as to how great their achievements are, he is such a breath of fresh air.
When he talks about just being below the Everest summit he remembers so many of his dead climbing partners as if paying a tribute to them. He still seems to be very emotional when he talks about reaching the summit of Mount Everest.
And lest you disbelieve me that I am making all this up and I never met Sir Bonington, here is a picture of mine with him.
The best part was to get to talk to him and hang around him with for a while after the question and answer sessions. During the Q&A sessions I asked him about his view of the Into Thin Air and The Climb: Tragic Ambitions on Everest controversy. He said I was asking him tricky questions but he thought that Krakauer was too harsh in his criticism of Boukreev. He said he thought Krakauer was right in remaining in his tent and Boukreev’s role as guide was maybe not too clear to him but Boukreev did went out for rescue. I asked him what he thinks of commercial expeditions to Everest and he said he thought they were inevitable. But then he went on to talk about French mountains and how serious their regulations are. He said if you disobeyed a mountain guide on the French mountains you would go to jail and something like that should be done for Nepal too.
During his talk he asked if anyone of us have done the Everest Base Camp Trek? And no hands went up. I think I am going to make that change before the next year.
PS. There is a good transcript of the talk at London Business Forum.