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Author Interview: Stephen Venables, Everest: Alone at the Summit

Tuesday, 18 December 2018

Vertebrate is very excited to be releasing Everest: Alone at the Summit in ebook format. Everest: Alone at the Summit is the story of Stephen's thrilling journey to the summit without oxygen. Near-impossible challenges are conquered with determination and strength, and the experience of an expedition on the world’s highest mountain is recounted in a refreshingly honest light.

Our Digital Assets Editor, Sarah, talks to Stephen about his adventures on Everest, the bonds made on the mountain and his approach to climbing.

It has been thirty years since you reached the summit of Everest without oxygen. Everest: Alone at the Summit captures how you felt at that very moment: ‘at the time there was only a rather dazed feeling of – ‘Isn’t this strange? You really have done it …’ Looking back, what is your main emotion now? Is that feeling of awe just as raw? 

I still feel a slight sense of disbelief. Did we really do it? I say ‘we’ because there were four of us on this climb. I just happen to be the one who got all the way to the top. Anderson and Webster reached the South Summit – higher than the summit of K2 – and Teare reached the South Col. My main emotion is one of huge nostalgia, remembering an amazing climb with wonderful companions. As for my ‘alone on the summit’ bit and the night on a bare mountain which followed, that was the most extraordinary surreal experience. I have to close my eyes and concentrate hard to recreate the sensations. 

Climbing Everest without oxygen is no doubt your most high-profile climb. Would you say, overall, that Everest 88 is your most memorable climb to date? If not, which is the most memorable, and why?

Every climb is memorable. That’s why we keep doing it – periodically adding to the treasure store of memories. However, yes … perhaps the Everest climb has provided the richest memories, because it was such an all consuming project. I spent a total of four months away on that trip and right from the start, when I met the rest of the team in Tibet, I knew that it was going to be brilliant. There was the long, difficult approach into a magically beautiful remote valley, walled in by three of the world’s five highest mountains. Then the climb – a fantastically varied journey through a stupendous vertical landscape.  And then the final push to the summit and back, which was supposed to take four or five days and actually took nine.    

Your first book, Painted Mountains, details your first ascent of Kishtwar-Shivling in the Indian Himalaya in the early eighties. Just five years pass between this achievement and Everest 88. Can you see a lot of differences in yourself between the two climbs? Did your approach or mindset change? How did the 1983 experience aid or prepare you for Everest 88?

I don’t think there was a particular change of mindset. It was really just more of the same, but with the big added unknown of hoping to go to nearly 9,000 metres. Everest was my tenth trip to the Himalaya, so I had some good experience to draw on. There had been some nice summits, like Kishtwar-Shivling and other first ascents, but also some big disappointments, such as not getting up Rimo I in 1985 (the second part of Painted Mountains). I had also had a big disappointment in 1987 when we failed to get up Shishapangma. However – and this is a bit of a cliché – it is from your failures that you learn. The fact that on Shishapangma we had survived a very cold unplanned bivouac, without sleeping bags, at 7,700 metres – and that I had still felt capable of continuing – gave me huge confidence six months later on Everest. I think that the long catalogue of disappointments also made me extremely determined to get to the top this time.  

Throughout the book, you do not shy away from sharing the psychological (hallucinations, disagreements within the team) and physical (surviving extreme conditions and the threat of deadly high-altitude illness) challenges that come naturally with a climb such as this. However, your drive to keep going and succeed is commendable. Is this drive something you have always had within you? Or is it something you have been forced to learn whilst battling the extreme?

I am not sure that it is necessarily commendable. After all, it is a fairly selfish drive – the quest for personal fulfilment, in a game that has little benefit for humanity as a whole. Over the years I had occasionally had to be single-minded. At school when I was fourteen I got so fed up with teachers nagging and hassling me over poor academic results, I decided, ‘Right I’ll show the bastards’ and ended up coming nearly top in every subject. I even managed to pass Maths ‘O’ Level, which I consider one of the greatest achievements of my life. As with most people, my default mode is idleness, but I can be extremely determined when the occasion demands. In the case of big dangerous mountains, it’s that accumulation thing again – you develop a sense of how far you can push yourself. It just so happened that on our particular Everest climb I pushed myself further than I had ever been before.

In the book, you express feelings of apprehension about climbing Everest with an unknown team. You also discuss the bonds you made with this team – the highs and the lows of a friendship forged on the mountain. Are the bonds made between climbing-team members lifelong, and does the bond often come naturally when sharing such unique experiences in hostile environments? 

And I bet they felt quite apprehensive about the bolshy Brit thrust into their midst! But right from the start, I knew that this team was going to work. A lot of that is attributable to our leader, Robert Anderson, who had just the right kind of laconic, low-key approach, combined with infectious optimism. We had a lot of fun, we did some brilliant climbing together and we nearly died. Of course an experience like that creates a special bond. Yes, we have remained friends for thirty years. And, yes, we still find each other’s individual foibles just as annoying as they were thirty years ago.

Finally, what is your fondest memory of the expedition? 

A hundred fond memories. But one of the best was the final evening of the walk-in from Kharta. We had had many problems and delays, but now we had almost made it to base camp. It was a beautiful starlit night. There was a contented murmur from the hundred or so Tibetan porters spread around the meadow at Pethang Ringmo, tending their fires. The four of us, plus Mimi and Joe, were sitting on duffle bags in an impromptu kitchen, sharing a bottle of whisky while Pasang and Kasang prepared supper, happy in the knowledge that tomorrow we really were going to make it to base camp. And in two or three days we would be having our first close-up look at the 3,500 metres face above. There was a fantastic sense of anticipation – a deep, instinctive feeling that this was going to be a great adventure.

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