Stephen Venables Interview taken in 2008
In 1988 Stephen Venables was the first Briton to climb Mount Everest without supplementary oxygen and the first to ascend the Kangshung Face. He has also climbed in the Rockies, the Andes, the Antarctic island South Georgia, East Africa, South Africa and of course the European Alps.
It is 20 years ago since you stood on the Summit of Mount Everest, is that day still vivid in your mind?
Yes – very.
Before the expedition, which worried you the most, climbing without upplementary oxygen or the route up the Kangshung Face?
I was very worried about potential avalanche danger on the Kangshung Face, particularly on the easier-angled upper section. However, in the event, the undulating nature of the upper section seemed to make the snow more stable than I had expected. However, there were still some huge avalanches crashing down Big Al Gully, lower down, and we were occasionally brushed by the fallout. My biggest fear was that I might make it to the summit without supplementary oxygen, but then find I had no energy reserves to get back down.
On the descent from the summit you ended up having to bivouac out in the open at 28,000ft. During that time did you ever think that you might not make it until morning?
No. I had every intention of staying alive. I knew that others had survived a night out at that altitude. True, some had also died, but I was blessed with a windless night so, although I shivered terribly, I was confident of surviving to the morning.
For some reason you never got a self portrait of yourself on the summit. Have you ever considered going back to take that photograph?
I did take great trouble to take a self-portrait on my Nikon FE and I heard the shutter click. However, neither that, nor the earlier dawn frames taken on that camera every appeared. Either the film was lost in New York, or it was never wound correctly onto its spool, and I was just shooting blanks! The other pictures – on my little Canon Sureshot – did all come out, including several frames showing a distorted reflection of my head and shoulders in an empty oxygen cylinder on the summit.
When Anderson and Webster turned around you still had the energy to keep going, and yet it took you 4 days to get off the mountain, all the push had vanished, can you explain this? Also, if George Mallory was there, would he have turned around or pushed on?
There was a massive motivation to keep going and try to seal our success by reaching the summit. But by the time we were descending we had been longer at extreme altitude, longer without food and sleep, more deprived of liquids etc etc. Our bodies were getting progressively weaker and our minds more susceptible to the terrible lethargy which can cripple you at those heights. As for Mallory, who knows! He might well have been tempted to go all out for it. However, in those days, the thought of an unplanned bivouac above 8,500 meters was almost unthinkable, so I suspect that, like Norton three days before him, he would have turned round.
You arrived at the summit at 3.40pm. Most climbers have a ‘cut off’ time, at about 1pm or 2pm and turn around. Why did you continue at such a late hour knowing that if would be impossible to get back to camp before darkness fell?
My cut-off time was 4.00 pm, giving me three hours daylight to return to the South Col. Ten years earlier Peter Habeler had descended the 950 meters to the South Col in just one hour. So I thought, optimistically, that, with gravity on my side, I ought to be able to get back down in three. However, the combination of driving snow, poor visibility and sheer exhaustion slowed me down. I was no Habeler and I was too slow.
Looking back on your Everest ascent, do you now wish that you had used supplementary oxygen or are you happy with the way things went without its use?
No – definitely not. Supplementary oxygen brings the summit down to human level. If I had used it, I would always have felt a lingering regret at evading the real challenge.
You have been lucky enough to have climbed in the Rockies, the Andes, the Himalayas and Alps. Out of all the mountains you have climbed do you have a favorite?
My most intense happy memories are of the Everest climb, because it was such a unique adventure, with an outstanding team. However, I am perhaps prouder of my first ascent with Dick Renshaw of a 20,000 ft peak called Kishtwar-Shivling, in 1983 – five days up and two days down, on the most absorbing, beautiful climb I have ever done. I also have a special fondness for the mountains of South Georgia, in the Southern Ocean.
Do you have any adventures planned for the near future?
New Zealand, Colorado and Utah in 2009. In 2010 a return to Chile and South Georgia, I hope.
Do you think that George Mallory and Andrew Irvine climbed the Second Step?
Quite conceivable, but I am not an expert on that route.
If you would like to find out more about Stephen Venables then head over to his website at www.stephenvenables.com