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Stephen Venables, mountaineer, writer, broadcaster and public speaker, was the first Briton to climb Everest without supplementary oxygen. He reached the summit alone, after climbing with a small American-Canadian team, by a new route up the gigantic Kangshung Face.
Everest was a thrilling highlight in a career which has taken Stephen right through the Himalaya, from Afghanistan to Tibet, making first ascents of many previously unknown mountains. His adventures have also taken him to the Rockies, the Andes, the Antarctic island South Georgia, East Africa, South Africa and of course the European Alps, where he has climbed and skied for over forty years.
Here Stephen answers some questions for UKClimbing.com about his life, his views on mountaineering and of course, what he thinks about Everest.
Looking back, how do you view the young Stephen Venables?
I was rather shy and awkward on the outside, but consumed inside by big dreams and enthusiasms. From the age of about seventeen, those dreams included climbing.
Would you view yourself as an ambitious climber?
I alternate between extremes of idle indifference and intense ambition. Climbing is ultimately ignoble – it is about self-indulgent pleasure. But pursuing that pleasure can involve moments of discomfort, fear and hard graft; and few things can beat the satisfaction of completing a big epic climb.
When I started in the early seventies I certainly aspired to beautiful hard climbs up big mountain walls. When I first saw a picture of the Walker Spur, I wanted immediately to climb it (and I still haven't!). When I heard about the things people like Dick Renshaw and Joe Tasker were doing, I wanted to do those kinds of climbs too. And when Lindsay Griffin said one day, 'do you want to come to the Hindu Kush?' I didn't even have to think about it.
Can you link any childhood events that had a steering effect on you as a climber?
Nothing specific – just a drip feed of subliminal influences: first misty scramble up Crinkle Crags, finding my own boulder problems in Wales, skiing in the Alps, reading James Ramsay Ullmann's fictional Banner in the Sky.
Perhaps the thing which whetted my appetite most was going with Parisian friends to Fontainebleau when I was sixteen. At the end of that week I watched them packing all their climbing gear to go south to the Alps, and I wished that I was going too.
Do you feel that you are defined by your Everest climb, and if so how does that make you feel?
I sometimes feel like holding up my hand and saying, 'Hey, I have climbed some other mountains, you know.' Everest has the advantage of brand recognition – which is useful when you're trying to flog books and get lecture bookings – and it was very thrilling to climb a new route up the world's highest mountain with a brilliant small team. However, it was my tenth Himalayan expedition and I have done other trips since!
How has climbing changed you?
One smashed knee, a crushed heel, cracked ankle, dislocated shoulder, missing toes ... I've learned a lot about hospitals. Perhaps if I hadn't got involved in climbing I would have found a good job, made lots and lots of money, and now be looking forward to a comfortable, prosperous, non-arthritic retirement. But perhaps I might also regret not having had those great adventures. I don't know how much it's changed me, but it – particularly rock-climbing and ski mountaineering – remains a source of huge pleasure.
How would you compare the world view of Stephen Venables soloing towards the summit of Everest and Stephen Venables climbing towards a virgin Summit on South Georgia?
Even though we fought a very risky expensive war to regain South Georgia (and the Falklands) most people – even British people – don't know where those islands are. Let alone realize that they boast beautiful unclimbed mountains.
As for the Himalaya, Joe Public seems to think it's like a little bit of Snowdonia with one bloody great mountain sticking up in the middle. They have no concept of the infinite richness and variety of mountaineering. I do think it's a shame that the Everest obsession – and puerile 'reality' television – distracts the public's attention from all the brilliant achievements of our best climbers on other, more interesting, rocks and mountains.
How important is climbing literature to both you and all climbers.
I can only speak for myself. Climbing is so much about dreaming and wondering and imagining possibilities, that for me – particularly when I was first getting hooked on this crazy pastime, living far from the hills in Surrey – books helped feed my appetite and informed my ambitions.
Shipton, Gwen Moffat, Winthrop Young, Pilley, Bonington, Diemberger ... they've got a lot to answer for! But I think books are also a great way – infinitely more real than television – for climbers to tell their stories to a wider audience.
I don't think climbing's really a sport, and it's certainly not a spectator sport, so writing is a wonderful way of attempting to tell the stories and share something of our huge experiences. I was very pleased, after my first book Painted Mountains came out, when one of my brothers said, 'Now I know why you go climbing.'
How do you view the huge changes in mountaineering (media, equipment, grades, fitness) since you began?
When we did Zero Gully in 1975 – when it was still considered quite a respectable climb – I used my mother's ice axe with its very marginally angled pick, one of those stubby little knuckle-wrecking Salewa ice hammers and my bendy non-adjustable Grivel crampons, identical to the first front-point crampons of the Thirties. The gear was fine for that and for more intricate mixed climbing. However, I will concede that the stuff they're making now is a bit more user-friendly and confidence-boosting. Ditto rock climbing gear. It's very nice, as you get older and more cowardly, to be able to stick in ever more protection.
Yes – modern gear is fantastic and it is a great enabler, allowing climbers to tackle beautiful, intricate, fiendishly hard routes that would have been unimaginable thirty years ago. And to tackle them at astonishing speeds. Look at House and Prezelj – doing that wonderful dry-tooling repeat of the North Face of North Twin (now there's a route to dream about!): that's what modern gear can do in the hands of bold, talented, imaginative climbers. And I suppose, having never been very single-minded myself, I admire the dedication of the superstars who train every day to achieve astounding levels of virtuoso athleticism.
Venables and Anderson dispensing with oxgygen on Everest in 1988
UKC Articles, Mar 2010
© Joe Blackburn
The elite are still doing amazing things, but I'm not so sure about the rest of us rank-and-file weekenders. I do get a bit depressed by the increasing 'commodification' of climbing – the glib packaging of safe, predictable, polished, topoed, bolted, theme-parked instant gratification. That's why I admire so much all those dedicated watchdogs who have stopped our British mountain crags and sea cliffs being turned over to the Health and Safety Brigade.
STEPHEN VENABLES Lecture Tour March - May 2010
In Spring 2010, mountaineer Stephen Venables will be bringing one of the greatest legends of exploration alive in his lecture show In the Steps of Shackleton, kindly sponsored by outdoor brand Mountain Equipment and leading adventure travel specialists World Expeditions.