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The Venerable Venables on his debut title Painted Mountains

Thursday, 14 June 2018

Stephen Venables

As we begin work on digitising two classic narratives from well-known mountaineer Stephen Venables, we thought we’d quiz him while we had his attention and find out a little bit more of the ‘behind the scenes’ of his first book, Painted Mountains. As the first Brit to summit Everest without supplementary oxygen, we’re pretty intrigued to delve below the surface and see what goes on in such a man’s head …


Painted Mountains details two very different expeditions. What was the transition like going from a two-man team to a larger group of climbers with an official leader?

It was enormous fun. Renshaw and I had a wonderful climb in 1983, but with just two people it can feel quite intense. By contrast, the 1985 Indo-British expedition was boisterous and gregarious. And the official leader was the ebullient, hedonistic Harish Kapadia, who has remained a great friend.


Generally, do you prefer climbing alone, in a pair, or in a team?

In the right mood, totally confident, I love the freedom of solo climbing, but I wouldn’t like to make a habit out of it; it’s a lonely business with no margin for error. For speed and efficiency a twosome is often the best way to climb, but I also love the sociability of a larger team. And, of course, if you have three or four people around you do have a greater margin of safety.


Painted Mountains was your first climbing book. Your writing is very detailed and thorough, making for an immersive narrative. Do you find that writing comes naturally to you?

Reading it again after thirty-two years, some of it seems a bit too thorough, verging on the pedantic. But I think at the time I wanted to convey to non-climbers the actual process of a Himalayan climb – all the intricate detail that makes a great climb so totally compelling. I don’t think writing comes naturally to anyone. It is hard, hard work. But for me, at any rate, it was a huge thrill to have the chance to write my first book.


Throughout Painted Mountains, you quote extracts from a diary that you wrote at the time. Did you find your opinions and feelings about certain elements of the expeditions changed when you wrote reflectively for this biography, compared to your earlier diary entries?

Occasionally a brief diary entry can illuminate exactly how you felt – or what was happening – at a particular moment. But for the most part diaries – or my diaries at any rate – make for pretty dull reading. They are just useful reference material – aides memoires – as you try to relive the experience and create a narrative that keeps people turning pages. But of course there is always an element of artifice, even in non-fiction writing. A travel book like this is just one person’s version of events – a reconstruction of selected memories.


Speaking of reflecting, if you could experience these two expeditions again, what would you do differently for each one?

That’s an impossible one to answer! But if I were able to turn back the clock I would avoid my blunder on Rimo I. We nearly succeeded in making the first ascent of one of the highest unclimbed summits in the world. Unfortunately I screwed up and that momentary mistake caused one of the biggest disappointments of my life.


Undoubtedly, and as illustrated in your writing, climbing is not without its mental and physical challenges: extreme weather conditions, human errors, fear, the physical strain on the body … how do you keep going through such challenges?

Human errors. You’ve said it! But wouldn’t it be boring if everything went like clockwork, according to plan? As for the challenges, sometimes you don’t keep going: you turn back, because that is the sensible course of action. But if the occasion is right and you push on through difficulties, you keep going because you have invested so much money and hope and experience in fulfilling a dream, and you don’t want to suffer the tyranny of disappointment. And it is a basic human instinct to want to overcome difficulties and succeed, however pointless the objective might seem.


What advice would you give to a prospective first-time climber who may be feeling deterred by such challenges?

Take the first step. The hardest decision is the decision to go. After that everything falls into place.


You often display a sense of eagerness – a ‘get up and go’ attitude – while your companions are often more cautious. In Painted Mountains you quote Dick Renshaw saying this is often perhaps due to youthful ignorance. As you have become a more experienced climber, do you find yourself becoming more hesitant concerning issues of safety? Or, conversely, do you find yourself taking more risks?

It’s a strange paradox that the older we get, and the less time we have, the harder we cling on! I think all climbers tend to become more cautious as they get older. In the case of Renshaw, he – like many of my companions over the years – was a good check on my more impulsive tendencies. Checks and balances – that’s the great thing about a good team!


Painted Mountains opens with your dream of climbing the unclimbed: Kitshtwar-Shivling. What is your next dream mountain of this kind, that you hope to one day tackle?

I used to have lots of dreams! For instance, I used to fantasise about climbing the Ogre, in the Karakoram – one of the most compelling mountains in the world. Now that is unlikely to happen. However, I am still hoping that I might get my act together enough to lead my first E4. And I have some specific unfinished business on the Antarctic island of South Georgia – unclimbed summits I’m hoping to have a look at later this year …


Finally, can you describe, in a single word or phrase, what it feels like to reach the summit of a mountain?

Read my book.


Painted Mountains: Coming soon!


Painted Mountains by Stephen Venables



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