Thursday, June 23, 2011

Everest: Alone at the Summit, by Stephen Venables

Everest: Alone at the Summit (AKA Everest: Kangshung Face) tells the story of Stephen Venables' participation in the 35th Anniversary Everest Expedition of four members that ascended the Kangshung Face up to the South Col and on to the summit without supplementary oxygen. It is a grand adventure and a showcase for how far Everest climbing has come in a generation. Originally the climb was to be a generational exhibition as well, with Peter Hillary and Norbu Tenzing Norgay participating, but Hillary drops out of the climb and Norbu travels to Tibet with the crew but does not climb. Lord Hunt is their honorary expedition leader, however, and Venables was invited at Hunt's recommendation.

The climbers work well together, and push the route with bravado and determination. Besides Venables, who has authored several additional books on Everest, the crew includes Robert Mads Anderson (author of Summits: Climbing the Seven Summits Solo), Paul Teare, and Ed Webster (author of Snow In the Kingdom: My Storm Years on Everest). They climb a buttress to the east of the one the Americans scaled in 1981 and 1983, which the name the Neverest Buttress, that is slightly shorter, but still quite challenging. They face a variety of difficulties on the buttress, including overhanging rock and ice and a gaping crevasse for which they must rig a Tyrolean traverse. Above the buttress, they must wade through thousands of feet of snow in a modestly protected route that has them at times questioning their sanity. They work in both good and marginal weather, but overall are blessed with good enough weather to work their way up the route. The story at the South Col and above is disturbing at times, but very well written. Their descent is harrowing.

Alone at the Summit is one of two books that covers this expedition in detail, Webster's volume being the other. Though the authors got along and agree on all the important details, I found their differences interesting. Venables makes little thought of his early starts and is often frustrated by the others' sluggishness, while Webster remarks about Venables' obsession with the alpine start, though he begrudgingly admits that they were helpful. Venables' resume mostly includes other large expeditionary mountains, and he covers most parts of the climb about equally, whereas Webster is more of a specialist big-wall climber and therefore spends considerably more time writing about the technically interesting parts of the climb, such as work on the Tyrolean traverse and the overhanging ice wall ("Webster's Wall"). Also Webster spends more time writing about the personal interchanges between the climbers and a bit more time analyzing their characters. Both books are quite entertaining and thoughtfully written accounts; I'd recommend either. Venables' is written specifically about the 1988 expedition, whereas Webster's covers several trips to the mountain and is quite a bit longer.


  1. Great book! Too bad that there seem to be no lengthy accounts of the 1983 Kangshung Face expedition.

    1. 1984 American Alpine Journal is about as good as you'll find. There's also a couple pages on the two American Kangshung climbs in Audrey Salkeld's kids' book "Climbing Everest." I agree, too bad!

    2. Thanks for those references. I don't know if you've already checked it out, but there's also an interesting report in Natl. Geographic's July 1984 edition ("The Forgotten Face of Everest" - includes an article on the 1980 route survey and a photo essay on the 1983 climb).