How We met: 54. Robin Knox-Johnston and Chris Bonington

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The Independent Culture
Mountaineer Chris Bonington (58) is best know for scaling the summit of Everest in 1985. He has also pioneered routes in Britain and the Alps and written many books, including Quest for Adventure and Everest the Hard Way. Robin Knox-Johnston (53) began his sea career in the Merchant Navy. In 1968-9 he was the first to circumnavigate the world single-handed, in his yacht Suhaili. He broke the transatlantic record, taking 10 days to reach the Lizard from New York. The two teamed up to sail and climb in Greenland, recording the trip in their new book: Sea, Ice and Rock.

CHRIS BONINGTON: We met on the television programme, The Krypton Factor. I wasn't that fit - I'd just had two ribs out, and I remember looking at the line-up for the assault course and thinking, well, I can see Sir Ranulph Fiennes, the polar adventurer, will beat me. But never mind, I'll come second - after all, that tubby sailor Robin Knox-Johnston will be no trouble] My ego took a dent when Robin shot off like a rocket and came second. I ended up coming third.

In 1979 I was working on Quest for Adventure, a study of post-war adventure. I called Robin to ask for an interview and he said would I like to join him for a sail. I could show him some climbing techniques and he could show me the rudiments of sailing.

It was the first time I'd been on a yacht. We sailed for a while and then anchored. Robin's wife and daughter stayed on the boat and we paddled to the shore to exercise Robin's skills at climbing. The route was quite difficult, and I was impressed at how steady Robin was in tricky conditions. He just padded quietly along. After a bit we arrived at this huge drop. I asked Robin if he had ever climbed before. He hadn't, so I showed him. When I had finished, Robin very politely asked if he could go down the way he was used to climbing down ropes on his boat. He was used to using his arms. I wanted him to use his legs. I wasn't too happy about it, but he lowered himself down quite safely.

That afternoon we were sailing along when we happened to bump into the royal yacht. I would have sailed past, but Robin had to get the flag up so we could drop it. We had both been introduced to the Royal Family at different times, and although they were all lined up waving to us quite happily we did feel like local yokels touching our forelocks.

It was during that sail in Skye that Robin and I built the foundation of a very real friendship. His proposal that we should combine our skills on a joint trip to Greenland was just an extension, on a rather grand scale, of our voyage to Skye.

Robin impressed me immensely as a leader. Traditionally, the skipper makes all the decisions. But Robin made a point of consulting everyone before a decision was made. Most of the time, nobody dared to advise him, but it was nice to feel you were part of the decision-making process.

To be frank, I found the sailing trying and very boring. The moments of crisis which we had on the way back were easy to deal with: the adrenalin pumps and you get all worked up. The bit I found difficult was spending day after day in the middle of the sea.

I am a land-lover and not really a do-it-yourself type of person. Robin, in contrast, is a natural sailor and seemed to enjoy monkeying around the engine or mending the lavatory. I was aware that Robin didn't really need me. To be honest, I felt a bit useless at times. I found that very trying. The crew was also packed very close together: six people on a 32 ft yacht, designed to sleep four. At least when you're on a mountain expedition you have a chance to get away from each other.

When we reached Greenland and it was my turn to 'lead' the expedition, I found it difficult taking on the responsibility for Robin's life. There were many instances climbing together when, if Robin had fallen, he could have pulled me off with him. I had to watch for that constantly.

I underestimated how difficult the Cathedral - Greenland's highest mountain - would be. Robin isn't a natural climber, which made his efforts even more impressive. The first time we tried to reach the pinnacle, we were on the go for 24 hours. On the way down we were dropping asleep on 50 degree slopes, 1,500 feet above the ground.

Robin went to hell and back, but he totally put his confidence in me. He just followed. When it got too difficult and I realised we'd have to turn back, he accepted it. I also knew that Robin was worried about the boat: whether we'd be able to get it through the ice, whether it was in one piece. Yet he was behind us having another go at climbing the mountain.

The only time there was a near-crisis was on the yacht on the way home. We were taking it in turns to be on watch. I was supposed to get up at 4am for my shift, but Robin decided not to wake me. He felt he could do it himself. On my previous shift the night before I'd almost dropped asleep. I felt that he didn't trust me - I felt insecure, and I said so. Robin immediately reassured me that I'd jumped to the wrong conclusion.

The very next day we were sailing through an extremely difficult passage. The winds were tricky and once again it was my turn to be on watch. I was aware that if I made a mistake I could take the mast out, which is horribly expensive and a real nuisance. It was difficult sailing but I got through. I felt terrific but I also appreciated Robin's faith in me. He'd trusted me with his most precious possession - his yacht.

While we enjoyed the Skye trip, we didn't really know each other until the end of the Greenland expedition. I found that underneath his bluff exterior, Robin was a kind-hearted, sensitive person. While he enjoys company, he is also capable of the most extraordinary solo voyages.

ROBIN KNOX-JOHNSTON: When you're at sea or halfway up a mountain there'll be a point at which you realise that your life is in someone else's hands. An awful lot of Chris's friends have died mountain-climbing, and yet he's still alive. Knowing that I was about to embark on something strange, for which I had no expertise, I needed someone concerned with safety, someone I knew I could trust. When I was with Chris I felt comfortable when he took charge. He didn't expect me to be an expert. He just wanted me to do the best I could. If Chris said I could climb a surface, I believed him. I knew he was the right person to go to Greenland with.

On board the ship Chris always pulled his weight. I made a point of teaming him up with a very reliable seaman so that he could ask as many questions as he wanted without feeling intimidated. But when we got on land and Chris took over, there wasn't a noticeable difference. He didn't say: 'Right, I'm in charge.'

The time I got nearest to challenging his authority, I was 3,000 feet above ground. I was stretched across a rock, my clumsy great boots on a ledge as wide as your finger. Chris kept saying: 'I've got you] I've got you]' I was on the end of his safety rope but I could see an awful lot of his feet on the ledge above me, so I thought: 'I'm not so sure he's got me all that well]' I was feeling around for a handhold and suddenly Chris said: 'What are you doing?' I said, 'I'm looking for a handhold.' He said: 'You don't need to - use your legs.' I thought, you may rely on your legs, but as a sailor all I'm able to rely on are my arms.

The views from the Cathedral were like scenes from fairyland: brown mountain tops coated with splodges of snow. Clean, crisp - just beautiful. Knowing that nobody else had been there before gave it a mystical appeal. We were explorers] The only sounds we could hear would be the shatter of a falling rock every 10 minutes or so.

There were difficulties. I was very conscious that, while I could manage if Chris was unable to do his part sailing, he wouldn't be able to get up the mountain if I didn't keep up with him.

At one point I suggested that Chris should go on. He was getting worried about whether we'd be able to reach the top. I felt I was holding him back. 'You go on,' I said. 'I'll stay behind and admire the scenery.' Chris refused: 'You don't split a party up' was all he said.

So I concentrated on watching Chris, trying to memorise where he put his hands and his feet so I could keep up with him. The only thing I can remember thinking was: 'There are 3,000 feet below me. What am I doing here?'

There's a greater warmth in our friendship for having survived the trip to Greenland together. Trust and respect have been tested. We have very different approaches to handling things but we can slot into each others' company easily. Our age makes it easier. We're not young people who are perhaps more awkward with each other. We have nothing to prove.-

(Photograph omitted)

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