My best teacher

21st March 2003 at 00:00
I was 16 when I persuaded a school friend to hitchhike with me to Wales to climb Snowdon

Bunny Lake, the headmaster of University College junior school, London, was a wonderfully theatrical character who taught Latin. He would walk into the classroom carrying a spear, and if he was in a good mood the base of the spear would be directed towards us, that was pax, and if he was in a bad mood, the spear head would be pointed at us, meaning bellum.

My parents split up when I was small and I'd had a fragmented education, my spelling was awful and my handwriting has always been terrible, so there was no way I would have passed an entrance examination. Fortunately I got into the school on interview. I stood up to Mr Lake and wasn't cowed by him, apparently.

When I moved on to the senior school the teacher who had the most influence on me there was Mr Darlaston, master of the history sixth form. He was a good teacher with a great sense of humour who made lessons interesting and held your attention. He was preaching to the converted, because history was my favourite subject. I wanted to read history at university and got a place at London conditional on passing three A-levels, all at the same time, one of them advanced Latin. My plan was to become a librarian.

I passed Latin and did well in history - I'd won the history prize the previous year - but I got nought per cent for one of my English papers. I was pretty good at English and it was surmised that my illegible handwriting was the reason for the disastrous mark. My confidence was completely destroyed. I went off to the RAF to do my national service with the thought of going into mountain rescue and then a physical training instructor course. But I found I had no aptitude for flying, so I transferred to the army, went to Sandhurst, and, after a spell in the Royal Tank Regiment, became an instructor at the army's outward bound school and began climbing in the Alps.

I'd started rock climbing when I was at school. I was 16 when I persuaded a school friend to hitchhike with me to Wales, where we stayed in a youth hostel and set off the next morning to climb Snowdon, completely ill-equipped. I had a pair of hobnailed boots and my friend, Anton, had his army cadet force boots, and we both had on our school gabardine macs. I'd cut mine down to make it look more like an anorak. I tried to persuade the sports master, Mr Lewis, to help me form a school climbing club, but he wisely said "no way".

It was after I made the first British ascent of the north wall of the Eiger in 1962 that Lydia Gollancz asked me to write my first book, I Chose to Climb. Lydia was the daughter of the publisher Victor Gollancz, who had persuaded her to give up being a French horn player to go into the family business. I had a deadline of one year, but I took three. Lydia was immensely patient and taught me everything about how to write a book, and never gave up on me.

My other mentor as an adult was Lord John Hunt. He was chairman of my expedition management committee in 1970 (Annapurna, south face) and 1975 (Everest, south-west face), and gave me tremendous support. I got to know him well and he wrote to me frequently. In a way, my career has followed his. John's Everest expedition in 1953 provided the blueprint for future expeditions, and he didn't actually give me advice; I learned from seeing the way he did things. Running an expedition is like a military operation and my experience as a troop commander in the army was helpful. You have to plan and get the logistics right, but you also have to be flexible. Once you get to the mountain, you can't drive people; the only way to lead is by commanding their respect.

Mountaineer Sir Chris Bonington was talking to Pamela Coleman

Portrait by Neil Turner

The story so far

1934 Born Hampstead, London

1945-52 University College school, London

1955-58 Royal Tank Regiment

1958-61 Instructor at army's outward bound school

1960 First Himalayan climb, ascent of Annapurna 2

1966 First book, I Chose to Climb, published

1975 Leads successful first ascent of Everest's south-west face

1981 Joint leader first ascent of Kongur

1985 Reaches summit of Everest by the south-east ridge

1996 Knighted for services to mountaineering

November 2002 Chris Bonington's Everest published

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