Late in 1996 I went to the Royal Geographical Society, by the Albert Hall, to meet a mountaineer named Stephen Venables. These occasional forays outside of music journalism have always appealed to me and I wish I had done more. Venables, it turned out, was a brave man with an extraordinary tale. Despite my ignorance of the subject he gave a marvellously vivid account of his terrible adventure on Mount Everest. I am only glad he did not show me his frost-bitten foot.
Venables offers a full account of the expedition in his own book, ‘Everest: Alone At The Summit’, which I thoroughly recommend.
My piece appeared in FHM, January 1997.
In the mid-afternoon of May 12 1988, Stephen Venables achieved every climber’s dream, hauling his exhausted body to the very summit of Mount Everest. The ascent had been hellish enough. But now, making the long trek down, he realised his nightmare had barely begun. As an icy darkness closed in around one of the most inhospitable spots on earth, Venables’ only source of comfort and support were the phantoms in his delirious mind – the ghosts of long-gone mountaineers.
Night was falling fast, and the top of the world turned out to be a bitter wilderness. Venables had been separated from his real-life colleagues just before the final assault on Everest’s peak. Most of their vital survival equipment had been ditched to win them extra speed. Now, utterly alone and without oxygen suplies, he staggered and slid from the mountain’s 29,000 foot summit in a haze induced by sheer fatigue, lack of food, dehydration and the punishing effects of high altitude. He was already losing feeling in his left foot, and his brain slipped back and forth between grim reality and the hallucinatory state of acute oxygen deprivation.
Suddenly his sole companion was a mysterious ‘old man’, who was giving him some advice. What he had to do, apparently, was to pee in his pants.
‘I’d practically lost it at that stage,’ Venables admits. ‘I was sliding down these big snow slopes in a mini-avalanche. I was in danger of getting out of control and I suddenly dug my heels in and stopped. I’d forgotten to have a pee all day. But now with shock, or fear, I was just desperate. I was sufficiently far gone to convince myself that I could just pee in my pants to keep warm. Then I realised what I’d done and thought, What nonsense, how did I let myself do that?’ Thanks to the atrocious cold he was destined to lose some toes to frostbite. Was he about to lose his marbles into the bargain? Clearly it was time to bed down for the night – with only the ghostly old man to cuddle up to.
In a remote region of the Himalayas, on the border of Nepal and Tibet, Mount Everest is not only the world’s highest mountain, it’s also one of the most inaccessible. Early expeditions were hard pressed just to find it, and explorers gazed up in dismay: ‘One of the most awful and utterly forbidding scenes ever observed by man,’ reported one. ‘A prodigious white fang excrescent from the jaw of the earth,’ declared another. Like any British schoolboy of his generation, Stephen Venables thrilled to the tale of Edmund Hilary and Sherpa Tensing, members of the British expedition which conquered Everest in the Coronation year of 1953.
His own chance came in 1988, at the age of 34. Many others had reached the top by then, but nobody had tried it with as many handicaps as Venables’ team. They were climbing via the fearsome East Face, from Tibet, as opposed to the more conventional Nepalese route. Their team was small, just four men with four more in support at base camp (a normal Everest attempt involves up to 250 people). Hardest of all, Venables and his three American colleagues took the ‘purist’ option: they’d climb without the aid of oxygen cylinders. ‘I always felt that if I did climb Everest, it would be most satisfying to manage it without oxygen. If not, I would always have a niggling regret afterwards.’ No Briton had ever succeeded without oxygen before.
On April 3, almost two months after kissing his girlfriend goodbye at Heathrow Airport, Venables and his friends set off from their advance base camp below the Kangshung Glacier. Bad weather kicked in immediately, and they’d often take one step forward followed by two steps back. ‘At times it felt like a game of snakes and ladders, and there was a stage where the snakes were winning.’ At 21,500 feet they established Camp One. They made Camp Two at 24,500 feet, fixing ropes along the way. But they were driven back, and it was another month before they left their base camp for the last time.
One of the hazards, surprisingly, was the fierce heat of the Himalayan day: ‘Even up at 24,000 feet you can be crippled by it. Radiation is burning down and gets reflected off the snow, which is why you do a lot of climbing at night or in the early morning.’ By 8 May they were ready for their next challenge, ‘a huge windswept saddle of rock’ called the South Col. At 26,000 feet, they’d reached the point where oxygen is perilously scarce. Feeling the classic warning signs of nausea and dizziness, one man had to pull out: ‘A bit like Captain Oates going out into the storm, he very generously said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll be all right’ and got himself back down to base. So three of us were poised at the South Col, the bleakest place imaginable, poised there to make our attempt on the summit.’
For the final push they jettisoned what little equipment they were still carrying. ‘Once you get above 26,000 feet you’re really at the limit of what a human being can do, and any extra weight will seriously hinder you. We basically took what we could carry in our pockets: water bottle, bar of chocolate, spare gloves, camera, that was it.’ Gambling that they’d get to the summit and back within 16 hours, they left their tents and stove on the spot. Struggling up the slopes, Venables pulled ahead of the others. ‘It’s a strange, lonely business,’ he says. ‘We worked well as a team, but at that point it was a case of each man for himself, just to see how much he could push himself… I was well aware that I was pushing my body way beyond normal parameters.’
After a brief sleep he saw the next man, Ed Webster, labouring up behind him, distantly followed by the third climber, Bob Anderson. Webster called that he could go no further. All that Venables knows for sure is that he called his friend ‘a bloody nuisance’ and decided to press on alone. ‘There are moments when you make crucial decisions, either I’m going to pack in or I’m going to see if I can squeeze an extra bit of energy. I stood up rather shakily and continued, and I seemed to get a new lease of life, I could climb three, maybe five, steps before stopping for a rest. I felt a new determination.’
He reached Everest’s lower peak, the South Summit, in another hour. The actual top was just a quarter of a mile away, and only 250 feet higher, but separated by a lethal ridge known as the Hilary Step, which had proved especially dangerous to climbers without oxygen. ‘From the South Summit you have to descend a little bit and, for a moment, I started to see red and green spots. I thought, Oh my God, something’s going wrong. I was terrified by the potential for some serious physiological problem. But then I blinked, they went away, and there was this thrill of thinking, My God, I can actually do this!
‘Above the Hilary Step, the snow was windblasted firm, which meant I could walk on the surface and that was when I knew I was going to make the summit. It was a wonderful surge of knowledge. It was a question of putting one foot in front of the other and stopping almost every step to get my breath back. When I arrived on the summit it was a wonderful feeling of disbelief.’
A modest, thoughtful sort of man, Venables points out that there are tougher mountains than Everest. All the same, he recognises the symbolic place it holds in our imagination. ‘Mountains are just lumps of rock. But there are certain mountains, like Everest, the Eiger or the Matterhorn, which have an extra dimension, a superimposed myth built up around human attempts on them. You feel you’re making your own little chapter in that history.’
On the summit, he says, ‘there’s a very strong feeling of all the people that have been there before.’ In fact there was a litter of empty oxygen bottles left by a Japanese team a week earlier. But there is no permanent marker: ‘The thing about the summit is it’s constantly changing, because it’s quite deep snow, and the prevailing westerly winds are blowing it out over the east side. What was on the summit 15 years ago is now several feet down the East Face.’ Venables himself left some dried flowers, given to him during a blessing ceremony in India. (‘Someone in my brother’s office read about this in the papers and said to him, ‘Typical of a Venables, flower arranging on top of Everest.’) His only regret is that his camera jammed, and he didn’t get a self-portrait.
Having reached the summit at 3.40pm, he prepared to descend at 3.50. Surrounding clouds meant there was no view to admire, but it seems odd that a man should climb Everest and only stay there for ten minutes. Venables disagrees: ‘People imagine the sole point of mountaineering is to get to the summit. But the point of doing it is the process itself. In that sense the summit isn’t important, although it was a marvellous dream to reach it. But having reached it, you know damn well that every minute you linger there reduces your chances of getting down alive. It’s a very dangerous place to be late in the afternoon, particularly when it’s blowing up into a bit of a blizzard.’
Poor visibility increased the creepy isolation of the scene. ‘I was very conscious of the temptation to enjoy the moment longer, but I knew that it would be very dangerous because I only had three hours of daylight left. So the pressure was on to get myself down. My nightmare had always been, suppose I’m capable of getting to the top of the world without supplementary oxygen, what happens if I get there and discover I’ve got nothing left to get me down again? That was the most likely cause of disaster. There were times soon after I set down from the summit when I thought, My God, you’ve blown this, you’re not good enough.’
There was a moment of horror when he tried to unclip himself from a length of climbing rope. The brewing storm had iced over his prescription sunglasses. He tried to fish out his ordinary spectacles, but that meant taking his gloves off and freezing his hands. Half-blind and hyperventilating, he collapsed to the ground. ‘And then I thought, Get a grip on yourself, it’s damn silly climbing Everest and then lying down to die.’
Lack of oxygen is notorious for fogging mountaineers’ judgement. But this was no place to become careless: ‘You have these cornices, great snow overhangs blowing out over the East Face, and if you stray over one of those you’ve got a 12,000 foot drop back into Tibet.’ At the limits of his physical endurance, Venables had been at high altitude long enough to jeopardise his mental performance. He remembers that he did not feel afraid: ‘I never had any doubt that I would survive. But, perhaps at a lower altitude, one’s faculties would be more acute, and you’d have more doubt.’ Besides, it was now the night time, and he had company…
In such a desolate place, your spiritual companions are the climbers who have been there before you. Soon the imaginary old man, who told Venables to pee in his pants, was joined by other phantom characters – including Eric Shipton, a famous veteran of British expeditions before the days of Hilary and Tensing. ‘It was as if there was a conversation going on in my mind with good old Eric, and I asked him to warm my hands up.
‘It’s very common,’ he now reflects. ‘There are famous examples of people dividing up their chocolate bar and handing it to another person, then remembering there’s no-one there. I didn’t actually see anyone, but I had the strong sensation of people being there. ‘
In retrospect, Venables looks for scientific, not supernatural explanations. ‘I think it’s an alter ego, it seems to be a safety mechanism. I tend to be impetuous, and it’s as if I needed the more cautious side to hold me back. At times it was the sense of somebody older and wiser watching me, at other times it was the sense of someone actually rather weak, who was finding it all a bit too much and I was having to help him. I was getting seriously schizophrenic. It is an extraordinary sensation, you almost get the feeling that your foot has become another personality.
‘People who were associated with Everest were obviously present in my subconscious. Again it was as if they were trying to look after me and warm my feet up. When it came to spending the night, I cut out a ledge in the snow, but I was so tired I didn’t really cut one long enough. It was a bewildering night and I kept getting annoyed because I felt that I was getting crowded off this ledge by all these other people. I was continually switching in and out of reality.
‘It became absurd. The people said, ‘Hey, we’re going around the corner, we’ve seen some yak-herders around there and they’ve got a fire.’ So they all went away and maybe an hour later they came back and said, ‘Oh, we had this lovely fire, a hot meal and hot baths.’ Then I switched back to reality mode and thought, Hang on, Tibetans don’t come up to 28,000 feet with their yaks and light fires, and they certainly never have baths. I was staring out across the mountains and seeing stars in the sky, remembering where I was and getting a grip on reality again. But very quickly I’d slide back into this state of unreality.’
Sadly, his spectral protectors could not save him from frostbite: ‘I was fairly certain that I was getting frostbite and there was nothing I could do about it. At the time it didn’t worry me unduly, it’s happened to a lot of people at altitude, and it’s a risk you take. At first, you don’t know because things just go numb. You can only be sure that it’s frostbite when you look. The skin initially goes a pale, yellowy-white colour, and develops a slightly waxy texture. Then it gradually goes rather delicate shades of mauve. Delightful, isn’t it? You could see an exact demarcation between what had frozen and what had not. In my case it was both my heels and most of the toes on my left foot.’
Still, Venables survived the night and recollects the next morning with glee. ‘As soon as it was light, I was on Cloud Nine. I was alive, another day had come, there was no storm. I’d climbed Everest and I was going down to join the others. It was a glorious moment.’ He resumed his descent to Camp Two and was soon reunited with Anderson and Webster: ‘It was wonderful. They said they just heard this croak and saw me, sliding down towards them, covered in snow, looking like some kind of drunken tramp. Ed, bless him, gave me the half-frozen trickle of fruit juice left in his water bottle.’
And yet, the men’s ordeal was far from over. An often fatal effect of high altitude exhaustion is extreme lethargy, coupled with apathy or even the illusion that everything is fine. ‘You know it’s wrong and you know it’s dangerous. You know you’re breaking the rules but you find excuses. We got down to the South Col and we were so desperate to be horizontal and to sleep, that we just persuaded ourselves to stay here until morning. I knew I was very weak. But there was a feeling in the back of my mind of, Well, I’ll get down eventually. It took me about an hour to pack away my sleeping bag. The simplest actions seemed to require terrible effort. Things like putting on your boots seemed to take forever. Everything is just too much.’
Planning to leave at dawn, they could not rouse themselves till late afternoon. Then bad weather forced them back again. Out of food, drink and fuel, they were now in a pitiful state. Turning to Venables next morning, Ed Webster rasped: ‘You gotta get down today, or you’re gonna die! And you won’t be able to enjoy being famous.’ In an agony of weariness, they left the camp. Venables found it the hardest: ‘I packed my rucksack and the others set off. I thought, I’ll just sit here, I’ll come eventually. In fact it took me another hour before I pulled myself together. Then I had an awful moment of panic because I was just crouched in the snow with my rucksack on my back. All I had to do was stand up and start down. I tried to stand up and nothing happened. I tried again. Nothing happened. But I finally made ten paces before I sat down again, then another ten paces, and I thought, Thank God, I am going to make it.’
On May 17, Venables, Webster and Anderson finally reached their advance base camp, joyfully welcomed by a support team who’d feared they were dead. An unpleasant smell from Venables’ boot ‘was making it obvious there was a lot of rotten flesh in there.’ Back in England, he had three toes amputated in Bath Hospital on August 2. Before the operation, however, there was a reunion with the girlfriend he’d not seen for four months. Her first sight was of Venables with his foot up on a kitchen table, safely away from the sniffing dogs: ‘There was this black, rotting stump,’ he grins. ‘She was nearly sick on the spot. It had never occurred to me that this could be in any way upsetting.’