British mountaineer and author Stephen Venables has been on top of the world. He has also suffered a parentaEU(tm)s worst nightmare.
Venables, who was the first Briton to climb Mt. Everest without bottled oxygen, will be the guest speaker Thursday at the Ogden School FoundationaEU(tm)s Fall Author Event. Members of the community who attend can expect to hear his account of conquering Everest by way of a difficult route on the largest face of the highest mountain in the world.
aEUoeTo reach the summit at the end of the great journey was utterly thrilling,aEU Venables said during a telephone interview from his home in Bath, England.
Although he was with three other climbers on the 1988 expedition, Venables reached the summit alone aEU" and he only stayed at the top for about 10 minutes. Circumstances prevented his companions from making it to the summit. Venables later wrote about the expedition in his book aEUoeEverest aEU" Alone at the SummitaEU (Hodder & Stoughton, 1989).
aEUoeIn an ideal world, we would have reached the top at 11 oaEU(tm)clock in the morning in bright light, good visibility and had an hour on the summit and then made our way back down,aEU Venables said. aEUoeBut you donaEU(tm)t always achieve your aims. I didnaEU(tm)t get to the summit until 20 to four in the afternoon, so it was dangerously late and I really couldnaEU(tm)t afford to dally.aEU
But getting to the top is not necessarily the prime objective for this mountaineer who was raised in Surrey, England, and educated at Oxford. A Renaissance man, he also excels at photography, enjoys gardening, loves the arts and plays the piano. His passion for mountaineering has taken him all over the world aEU" from the Andes, to the Rockies, to the Antarctic island of South Georgia.
aEUoeI love climbing,aEU he said. aEUoeItaEU(tm)s the search for pleasure, and itaEU(tm)s one of the most pleasurable activities that man has ever devised. ItaEU(tm)s everything. ItaEU(tm)s being in incredibly beautiful places. ItaEU(tm)s being in touch with wilderness. ItaEU(tm)s the sheer, tactile pleasure of climbing a beautiful piece of rock or a beautiful sheet of ice. ItaEU(tm)s the thrill of finding a route. ItaEU(tm)s the thrill of the unknown and the uncertainly of the outcome aEU" and occasionally the thrill of being slightly frightened.aEU
Venables was more than slightly frightened during an expedition in the remote Himalayas near the border of India, Nepal and Tibet. In fact, he thought he was a dead man.
It was the summer of 1992, and Venables and three other climbers were returning from their ascent of a previously unclimbed 21,400-foot peak called Panch Chuli V.
aEUoeWe were descending in difficult conditions aEU" snow, wind, hail and lightning aEU" and we were descending during the night and desperate to get back to our camp where our fifth companion was waiting,aEU Venables said.
aEUoeI reckon we had about one more rappel to make when I experienced the climberaEU(tm)s ultimate nightmare, which is the horrible sound of the ping of a steel peg ripping from the rocks above. That was the anchor holding the ropes and I ended up hurtling backwards down the mountain because I was on the ropes at the time.aEU
He tumbled past his fellow climbers who actually saw sparks fly as metal from his mountain climbing gear clashed angrily against the rocks. Before losing consciousness, Venables remembers his body smashing down the mountain as he fell to what he believed was his death.
aEUoeIt was a hideous cacophony of banging and crashing and grinding and thumping and walloping,aEU Venables said.
But he didnaEU(tm)t die from the 300-foot fall. When he awoke some time later, as the glimmer of dawn broke across the mountain, Venables was overcome by two overwhelming emotions.
aEUoeI was amazed to be alive, and that was wonderful gratitude, but depressed to discover that I had broken both my legs,aEU he said. aEUoeI was badly bruised all over and I couldnaEU(tm)t see them (his companions) anywhere. It was this awful feeling of being forsaken. I couldnaEU(tm)t see them and I couldnaEU(tm)t work out where I was or why I was alive.aEU
He was alive because his companions, who were all experienced mountaineers, had the presence of mind to grab onto the ropes, preventing Venables from tumbling another 1,000 feet.
Eventually, his companions reached him, bandaged up a deep wound in his leg, put his legs in splints, gave him some Tylenol and proceeded to get their friend down the mountain.
Venables writes about mountaineering for a living. He wrote about his accident and rescue in aEUoeA Slender ThreadaEU (Hutchinson, 2000). But his book aEUoeOllie aEU" The True Story of a Brief and Courageous LifeaEU (Hutchinson, 2006) isnaEU(tm)t about mountaineering. ItaEU(tm)s about his son.
Venables had climbed the highest mountain in the world and survived a horrific accident, but his sonaEU(tm)s short life taught him more than he could learn atop any mountain.
At the time of the accident, Venables said Ollie was a very bright, precocious 1-year-old who was just learning to walk.
aEUoeOllie started walking just before me because I was still on crutches after my accident,aEU Venables said.
However, Venables and his wife began noticing changes in OllieaEU(tm)s health.
aEUoeWhen he was 2 1/2, there were quite radical changes in a very alarming and distressing way,aEU Venables said. aEUoeHe lost all his speech and started behaving in what seemed weird and irrational ways.aEU
By age 3, Ollie had been diagnosed with autism and the family, which by then also included a younger son, found themselves getting to know the new Ollie.
aEUoeIt was like a bereavement,aEU Venables said. aEUoeIt was like losing the Ollie we had known and it was truly distressing. But then, we just had to learn to love the new Ollie. The interesting thing was that through this fog of autism, his old spirit did continue to shine through and he never lost his huge personality.aEU
Incredible life force
But OllieaEU(tm)s challenges were only beginning. At 4, Ollie developed leukemia and nearly died from it. The little boy went through chemotherapy and radiation, and the fact that he was a special needs child only complicated the medical procedures, Venables said. Ollie pulled through, and the boy was about to be given the aEUoeall clearaEU that the cancer was in remission when it returned. Ollie died at age 12.
aEUoeOne of the occasional misperceptions about climbers is that weaEU(tm)re very brave, and of course at times, you do have to be brave. You have to be courageous,aEU Venables said. aEUoeBut watching my son take on the world through the perspective of autism and then watching him cope with pain and illness and frightening medical procedures when he got leukemia; watching him handle that and face a world which was often baffling and incomprehensible, showed me what real courage is. And he really did have real courage. He had a tremendous spirit and was just an incredible life force with a gigantic sense of humor, which was a source of pleasure to all of us.aEU
Ollie had scaled his Everest and in the process, he helped his dad gain a perspective on life that he might not have had otherwise.
aEUoeA common misperception is that climbing is miserable and we only do it because we want to get to the summit,aEU Venables said. aEUoeActually, most people I know who climb, they climb for pleasure aEU" and pleasure doesnaEU(tm)t rule out hard grasps, and moments of discomfort, and even pain. If something is really worth doing, sooner or later it is going to involve some hard work aEU" and even moments of failure ...
aEUoeIf you get to the summit, thataEU(tm)s a bonus aEU" and of course you want to get to the top because thataEU(tm)s the objective you set for yourself. ItaEU(tm)s thrilling when you complete a route all the way to the summit, but whataEU(tm)s most thrilling of all is when you return safely to Earth.aEU
l WHAT: Ogden School FoundationaEU(tm)s Fall Author Event
l WHO: Mountaineer and British author Stephen Venables
l WHEN: Thursday; social and book sale at 5:30 p.m., welcome and dinner at 6:30 p.m., author presentation (followed by book signing) at 7:30 p.m.
l WHERE: Ogden Eccles Conference Center, 2415 Washington Blvd., Ogden
l ADMISSION: $70, $90, $120; or tables for $700, $900, $1,200. Tickets or more information, (801) 737-7305. Reservations due by 4 p.m. Monday.