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My life: Stephen Venables

The mountaineer and author tells Kate Whitehead about some of his breathtaking experiences

 

OFF STAGE I was born in London in 1954, the eldest of five. Growing up in Surrey, I always enjoyed being outdoors and didn't live in a city until I went to Oxford University, where I studied English literature. The first job I had was working in the opera house at Glyndebourne (country house) as stage crew. I was 22 and very tempted by the theatre, still am. I can't act to save my life but, in a way, I've ended up making a living going around giving talks in theatres. I often wish I'd gone back to Glyndebourne and tried to get enmeshed in the company and make it a career; but one day, while we were setting up for a rehearsal of Figaro, a letter arrived from a friend saying, "How about an expedition to the Hindu Kush, in Afghanistan, next summer?" I had to go.

MOVING MOUNTAINS The expedition was on the edge of the Himalayas, a taste of central Asia, and the first time I'd gone somewhere that remote and exotic. It was also the first time I'd climbed new routes, which is always thrilling. We had a permit to go up a particular valley. The layout of mountains is usually quite obvious. It's much easier to find your way around a mountain than it is around a city. There was one particularly memorable climb three of us did there, traversing a mountain that had only been climbed once before; just moving from day to day. Settling down for the night and watching the sun set over these endless mountain ranges in Afghanistan and Pakistan was very moving. We tried one big peak and got to about 7,000 metres and I felt like death. I thought, "I can't do this." The highest that humans can live at is a bit below 5,000 metres. With experience, you get better at gauging what your body is doing and acclimatising.

CHANGE OF SCENERY From the late 1970s I was going on expeditions every year, usually a big one in the Himalayas in the summer. One year we went to the Andes instead - to Peru and Bolivia - and that was a lovely experience because, compared to Asia, it was slightly more relaxed and there were no bureaucratic requirements. The Latin American temperament was more laid back, the mountains weren't so high, the weather was more forgiving. And it was lovely to camp with the alpacas and lamas walking past.

MAKING AN IMPRINT For a while I had a salaried job as a teacher but my heart wasn't in it so, rather nervously, I said: "I'm going to go it alone and live off my wanderings." I naively imagined that the sponsorship money and opportunities would flow. Actually I ended up earning my living as a carpenter and decorator, but I gradually started selling the odd article and giving the odd talk. When I was 31, before we went on an expedition to northern India, I wrote a synopsis and sent it to (publisher) Hodder & Stoughton. They said yes. It was a memorable expedition and, afterwards, thrilling to get immersed in writing something reasonably cerebral. Painted Mountains came out in 1986. I've done 12 books now - it's probably time I did some more.

TOP PEAK One of the most satisfying adventures for me was an expedition to Kashmir in 1983 to climb a particularly beautiful mountain. I thought, "Sooner or later someone is going to climb that mountain, so why shouldn't it be me?" I persuaded a great climber, Dick Renshaw, to come with me. It was in one of the most beautiful valleys I've ever been to, in Kashmir, camping among these glorious birchwoods with a flowery meadow and stream bubbling past. We shared it with some nomadic shepherds. A good climb is like a great piece of architecture - it has form and structure and theme. It was a very hard climb over seven days. We had a few mishaps on the way and a storm on the summit day to add some spice, so the whole thing was a grand adventure.

CONQUERING EVEREST In 1988 we went for Everest, three of us. If you want to climb to nearly 9,000 metres without oxygen, you have to accept a certain level of risk. I was very determined - I really wanted to find out if I could do it. Everest is a three-sided pyramid and the three ridges meet right on the summit, and that's what's so exciting, because you're going over a series of false summits, which is tantalising, but then you see the west ridge coming up. I got to the summit very late in the day and ended up spending the night in the open at 8,600 metres, which other people had done before, but not alone. The other two had turned back. My left foot went dead and I lost three toes to frostbite. I was the 203rd person to reach the summit - and now there are almost that many people getting to the summit on a single day! What is difficult about Everest is not that it's a particularly steep or difficult mountain; it's that the summit is at the point where human beings can only just exist. If you take supplementary oxygen, you are basically lowering the summit to human capabilities and, for me, there would be less sense of fulfilment.

OVERCOMING TRAGEDY Our eldest son died when he was 12. I wrote a book about him - Ollie. It seemed ironic that I should have pursued this self-indulgent journey involving considerable risk and not died and he, through no fault of his own, should have died so young. Climbing is a great way of coming to terms with something - it's a great cure for depression. That very physical business of taking hard exercise in a beautiful, wild land - it's bound to make you feel better.

 

Stephen Venables was in Hong Kong to speak at the Royal Geographical Society's Everest Diamond Jubilee Gala Dinner.

 

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