Build Your Own Library 3: Stephen Venables On Mountaineering: `After all, big hills are the real heroes'

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THE LITERATURE of mountaineering is a Himalaya of its own. Many of the finest pioneer climbers were as addicted to book-writing as they were to the undertaking of memorable exploits on rock and snow.

As their stirring narratives of first ascents and fearful falls were devoured by younger readers, future generations of author-mountaineers were stirred and emboldened to emulate their heroes. So, more climbers and more books. And the shelves are still growing, ever longer and higher, like the ramparts of Everest.

Stephen Venables remembers Kurt Diemberger's Summits and Secrets (Hodder & Stoughton, out of print) as the book that sparked his climbing ambitions, when he was just 17. "It is an account of Diemberger's early career, and the writing has a wonderfully youthful and exuberant quality. He rushes on from one climb to the next, full of energy and optimism.

"But it was his ascent of the North Face of the Eiger that fired me up. He made a wrong turning up the Exit Cracks, and had to retreat again to find the right route.

"This was the first book that made me fully aware of the Eiger, although I didn't set foot on it myself for another 15 years. It has that sense of menace and the unknown, the fear and the exhilaration of meeting fear head on, and winning."

Venables found more early inspiration in the older classics of the genre, such as Winthrop Young's On High Hills: Memories of the Alps (Methuen, out of print). "He was the last of the Victorian pioneers, and his prose is very stylish and high-faluting. But he makes you laugh all the same."

In Bill Tilman he found another writer who knew how to salt his narrative with wit. "He has a dry-as-dust sense of humour. His first ascent of Nanda Devi, without fixed ropes, was one of the great climbing achievements (H.W Tilman, The Seven Mountain Travel Books, Diadem pounds 18.99) but he pokes gentle fun at his companion Neil Odell all the way up, and then at the summit he writes: `I believe we so far forgot ourselves as to shake hands."

The life of Tilman's famous contemporary Eric Shipton also intrigues Venables. "He is very lucid and likeable on the page - although never as funny as Tilman. But in life he was a bit of misfit, a very single- minded man who followed his own path. He wrote two fine autobiographies; the second, quoting Tennyson in the title, is That Untravelled World (Hodder & Stoughton, out of print). His books, like Tilman's, are not just about climbing "

Many climbers' lives, alas, are too short for the remembrance of things past. Venables regrets the loss of three such men, as writers, and as mountaineers. One is the Scottish doctor Tom Patey, survived by his collected articles in One Man's Mountains (pounds 8.99 Canongate).

There's a particularly hilarious account of his climbing the Eiger with Don Whillans. He is taken aback to find an old boot sitting high up on a ledge. Whillands, deadpan, just tells him to have a look inside it.

Patey died in a fall from a sea-stack in 1970. Peter Boardman and Joe Tasker disappeared together in 1982, high on the pinnacles of Everest's North-East Ridge. Tasker was already well-known to his readers, particularly for Savage Arena (Methuen pounds 4.95). Boardman's Sacred Summits (in the Boardman-Tasker Omnibus, The Mountaineers Books, USA, US$35) was published posthumously.

In a single year, Boardman climbed on Carstenz Pyramid in New Guinea, did the third ascent of Kanchenjunga, and then the first ascent of the South Summit of Gauri Shankar. But somewhere in all the thrill and action and onward movement, there is a fine and contemplative writer.

Venables makes no claims to literature for his last selection - Chris Bonington's I Chose To Climb (Gollancz pounds 5.99). If not very profound, it is a very readable and fluent account of the author's early climbs, and of his first visit to the Alps.

He talks a lot about himself, but is honest about his young self - an ambitious, pushy climber. And he has a great feeling for the tactile qualities of the mountains he meets. "Big hills are, after all, the real heroes of climbing books. Mountaineers write books because they have experienced something special and cathartic. High mountains touch them deeply, and they are always struggling to put some of this across. What all these books bring is a sense of epic scale, of immense distances, and secrets lying over the horizon."

Stephen Venables' account of his own Everest ascent in 1988 has recently been republished as Everest - Alone At The Summit (Odyssey Books pounds 12.99). Venables will be returning to the mountain this autumn, leading an anniversary trek to the Kangshun Face base camp. Many of these titles can be found at the Internet bookshop, Mountain Books at www. /Mountain-books/

Interview by

William Green