Interview with Stephen Venables

Friday 17 January 2014 04.22 PM

In 1988 Stephen Venables became the first British mountaineer to ascend Everest without supplementary oxygen. He has climbed some of the world’s most challenging peaks from the Andes to East Africa and the Antarctic Peninsula.

In 1988 Stephen Venables became the first British mountaineer to ascend Everest without supplementary oxygen. He has climbed some of the world’s most challenging peaks from the Andes to East Africa and the Antarctic Peninsula. Stephen has a particular fascination with the island of South Georgia: he has now visited this fabulously remote South Atlantic outpost no fewer than five times, and on three of those occasions he has repeated Shackleton’s famous 1916 traverse of its treacherous, storm-lashed mountains.

Stephen Venables is speaking at the Adventure Travel Show, which takes place at London Olympia on January 25th and 26th 2014.

I asked Stephen about his motivations and most hair-raising experiences – and new frontiers of his sport.

TLB: how did you get into mountaineering in the first place?

SV: Family holidays in Wales and Scotland. Playing on seaside cliffs and boulders. Skiing in the Alps from the age of nine. The first time I actually tied on a rope was on a one-day introductory course in Switzerland, when I was thirteen. But I didn’t really start climbing regularly until I was seventeen.

TLB: what motivates you to climb? - and was it a major motivation to become the first Brit to reach the top of Everest without oxygen?

SV: Quite simple: the self-indulgent pursuit of pleasure. And occasional pain. As for Everest, that was my tenth Himalayan expedition, so I thought that it was time to push the boat out a bit. We climbed a fantastic new route up the East Face, without any help from high-altitude porters or oxygen; and, yes, I was aware that if I made it
to the top, I would be the first Briton to do it without gas.

Leading an expedition across South Georgia
Stephen Venables TLB: what have been your most rewarding / enjoyable adventure experiences?

SV: Impossible to answer. But the Everest climb was certainly my most all-consuming and happy adventure. The first ascent of Kishtwar-Shivling [in the Indian Himalayas] with Dick Renshaw in 1983 was the most beautiful climb – and one of the hardest – I have done. For sheer pleasure, it would be hard to beat last year’s Antarctic Peninsula ski-mountaineering trip aboard Skip Novak’s Pelagic Australis.

TLB: does doubt ever set in, for example when you're halfway up a mountain and there's a blizzard approaching, you're freezing cold etc – do you ever think "what am I doing here?!"

SV: Of course. Every bloody time. But human beings have short memories!

TLB: what has been your most perilous expedition?

SV: The most risky expedition I have ever taken part in was the 1988 Everest climb. There is significant avalanche risk on the East Face. And climbing to nearly 9,000 metres without supplementary oxygen is inherently risky, by whatever route you take. However, the only time I have been injured in a serious accident was on a much lower peak – Panch Chuli V in the Garwhal Himalaya. I broke both my legs when an abseil anchor failed.

TLB: what are your thoughts about the current moves to open up more Nepali peaks to mountaineers? [165 'virgin' peaks to be opened by spring 2014 - including 5 more that are over 8000m, which means 13 of these will be open instead of the current 8]. Does the economic benefit outweigh the environmental impact?

SV: I am not very well informed on all this cartographical hair-splitting. But it would seem much better to me if Nepal adopted the same system as Pakistan, making ALL peaks available, and cutting away current draconian regulations. If you want people to come to your country, don’t throw pointless bureaucratic restrictions in their path.

TLB: which parts of the world are likely to develop as mountaineering destinations over the next few years?

SV: I should imagine that the current obsession with the ‘Seven Summits’ [the highest mountains in each of the seven continents] will continue to burgeon, with every more people going to those particular honeypots. However, in terms of serious mountaineering adventure it is hard to say. So much depends on political and market forces, as most mountaineers seek affordable, hassle-free expeditions. So, although there is a vast wealth of unclimbed potential in, say, eastern Tibet, very few people can face the bureaucratic hurdles put in place by the Chinese authorities.

TLB: what is your favourite place on Earth and why?

SV: I have some very special favourite places in Britain, but I have no intention of talking about them here and encouraging other people to go there!

TLB: where are you off to next?

SV: Skip Novak and I are leading a trip to the Salvesen Range in South Georgia at the end of the austral winter – August 2014.

TLB: what do you think is the best way to encourage people to get into activity sports like mountaineering?

SV: I am not sure that we should be encouraging anyone to get into mountaineering as it is inherently dangerous. And the whole point about true adventure is that it is all about self-motivation. People have to decide for themselves if they want to do these things. All we can do is tell our stories and feel grateful if someone is inspired by them.

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