In 1974, the mountaineer Chris Bonington flew to Ecuador for the Observer Magazine to meet the explorer Sebastian Snow who had spent more than a year walking about 6,000 miles from the far south of South America en route to Alaska (‘The Old Etonian Who is Walking 15,000 miles’) – the longest walk ever attempted.
The pair had known each other for eight years, climbing an active volcano in Ecuador and hunting with Eskimos on Baffin Island. ‘Perhaps we were not quite as cool as Stanley and Livingstone,’ wrote Bonington, ‘but we did manage to be rather British in our slightly self-conscious greeting.’
Snow had already made a remarkable solo descent of the Amazon from one of its main sources all the way to the Atlantic, but according to Bonington it was a wonder he had ever managed to even leave the house. ‘I had been amazed by his complete lack of practicality and his inability to look after himself,’ he wrote. ‘He did not know how to light a Primus, had only the vaguest notion of how to pitch a tent, and was prone to minor accidents.’
They must have been quite eye-catching, with Snow wearing clothes more suited to fell walking in the Lake District – ‘Afrika Korps-style cap, anorak, a couple of thick sweaters, Derby tweed breeches and long stockings’ – and Bonington sporting T-shirt, shorts and an umbrella.
By the time the pair met, Snow had lost a lot of his equipment and most of his body weight, too, but his discipline was as ‘fixed as that of a monk’. ‘It’s the going-for-ever-on-ness that I find the attraction,’ he said. Bonington, however, ‘needed tension and excitement’. ‘I feel a deep sensual enjoyment in climbing and now know that I detest walking along roads.’
Snow never did complete the journey through North America and George Meegan beat him to the record in 1983.