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INTERVIEW: Climber Vanessa O’Brien On Being The First American Woman To Summit K2, Her Quest For Adventure, And More

T.J. Clemente

Vanessa O'Brien was the first American woman to summit K2 (28,261 feet) and also summited Mt. Everest (29,029 feet). (Courtesy Photo)

With all the high mountain news coming from Mt. Everest, I interviewed Vanessa O'Brien who is no stranger to adventure - being the first American woman to summit K2 (28,261 feet), as well as also summiting Mt. Everest (29,029 feet), the world's two tallest mountains. She has also done what is called the "Seven Summits" - the feat of climbing to the highest mountains in each of the seven continents. In this fascinating interview I believe Ms. O'Brien brings to light the answers to questions so many are asking.

When and where did your "quest for adventure" start/originate?

VO'B: I was born to really young parents, 20 and 22, so we were an active family when I was young. I was probably the last generation not to grow up with computers, so nature was where I found adventure. I discovered and tried to name plants, trees, bugs and animals and played games like hide and seek. And yes, I was bit, stung, caught poison ivy and stayed too long in a tornado - but that was how we learned to test the limits. I had no intention of becoming a mountaineer or explorer later in life. It was just that the Great Recession seemed to pull the whole Financial Services Industry down and what better time to do something else. But what else? Well, this was my list of criteria for Whatever Comes Next: 1. Have a goal. 2. Measure success. 3. Take 2-3 years. 4. Not be in finance. 5. Be audacious. I guess I was looking for a project, thinking I might go back to work and had never really appreciated that something might become my new work.

But then the proverbial penny dropped. Someone said to me, "Why don't you climb Everest?" I believed that climbing was something that could be taught and therefore learned. Here is what I didn't know. Whether I would like it or be any good at it. In the back of my mind I remembered the infamous words of the former First Lady Roosevelt, "What would you do if you weren't afraid?"

Is it more of a challenge for a woman to pursue mountaineering or is that a misnomer?

VO'B: It is and it is not. Mountaineering is a broad general topic that includes pure rock climbing, ice climbing, and high-altitude mountaineering. I would never do what Alex Honnold does and I doubt he would have an interest in doing what I do. Alex climbs very tall rock, unassisted by ropes, over short periods of time. I climb very tall mountains with mixed ice, rock and snow just beneath the troposphere, where there is a third of the oxygen at sea level and it takes six to eight weeks to acclimatize. Just to get to the base of any mountain I climb is a 70-mile trek and then I have to climb five miles high.

The reason I say it is a challenge for woman is sponsorship. A sponsor has one chance to showcase something at the top of the world's fourteen peaks over 26,000 feet (or 8,000 meters as mountains are usually in meters), and all of these peaks involve risk. Saying What If She Dies? is not the right answer. Mitigating risk is the right answer. If a sponsor is very risk averse, cameras should still capture everything, and production takes place when teams return home - print, magazines, TV. If the sponsor is moderately risk averse, social media should start rolling out when she is down from the mountain but still at base camp. If the sponsor is an insurance company or a hedge fund and risk is their game - then by all means go all out from day one and show the world what it takes to reach the top of the world - the dedication, discipline and focus necessary to achieve your goals.

The reason I say it is not a challenge is because high altitude mountaineering is an endurance game. I believe women are better at endurance although they statistically count for only 25 percent of climbers. The reason I say this is because there is a lot of down time, the weather is terrible - think minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit, 60 mph winds, and high levels of snowfall. Women are really good at Zen - calming the mind. Men get easily discouraged when there is no action and trust me, over six to eight weeks there is a lot of no action. I see a lot of men drop out while woman remain, plotting, doing laundry, reading ebooks, waiting out weather windows. Women have a higher mental pain threshold and men get bored easily. It's just the way the sexes are wired. The misnomer in mountaineering is that a lot of upper body is required and that is not true. In alpine mountaineering where the terrain is mixed and harnesses are worn, both sexes are equal.

Which of your achievements in mountaineering are you most proud of?

VO'B: Lady Macdonald in Canmore, Canada, a 5.4-mile trail with 3,330 feet of elevation gain. I had no water, poles, microspikes, nothing. And it kicked my a**. I had read about it and figured I could scramble up it pretty fast, but it was challenging because of the season (spring) and the snow and ice on the summit ridge. By the time I saw the knife's edge ridge that leads to the top of the mountain I realized there was no way I was going to be able to walk on that ridge - it would be too slippery. I had to drop down and use my hands and gloves to balance my center of gravity, despite the sheer drop on one side and the very steep incline on the other side.

I had no harness, so any slip was a permanent one. I was also racing the afternoon clock to return. I knew the true summit contained something to sign, which is what I was after, but I couldn't be sure there was a pen or even paper. The whole episode was a huge risk, and that was the time a thought came into my head, "Who are you when no one is looking?" By signing that book, I realized I stepped up to the plate then, and many other times. That phrase reminds me that I am the ultimate judge and jury of my actions as well as who I really do this for - me, only me.

Other people like my Guinness World Record for being the fastest woman to complete the Seven Summits, the tallest peak on every continent including Everest in 295 days, or being the first American or British Woman (as I'm a dual national) to successfully summit K2, the second highest mountain in the world.

How have you adjusted to the rigors of mountaineering as you have aged?

VO'B: I began climbing on the wrong side of 40, so I am not sure how to answer that! What I would say is that one must show up in the best shape one can possibly be on an expedition. However, I have learned that high altitude mountaineering requires a specific kind of training that focuses more on cardiovascular health. Over six to eight weeks one needs endurance, not speed, so I am never really going over a ten-minute mile for peak performance. As oxygen becomes a limited resource the higher, I climb, my brain, lungs and heart must have oxygen and too much muscle will compete for that limited resource. I spend a lot of time doing Pilates for core strength, and when training for an expedition I increase my cardio in any way I can - trails, bikes, aerobics, etc. I probably don't run fast as my knees don't like it, but I do want my heart rate to increase just the same.

For K-2, I was fortunate to have use of the staircase to train at One Penn Plaza, which consisted of 55 floors or 1,210 stairs up and down, to train at with the help of Vornado Office Management as a summit partner. That really helped for the days I was stuck in the city because there is nothing like simulating what you are actually doing. When in London, I used to climb the 320 steps up and down at Hampstead Tube Station, and being the deepest, the station manager will clock you straightaway for a climber and tell you if you do it 151 times you will reach Everest.

Your favorite gear, for casual hiking and climbing up trails?

VO'B: Hydration is important, so anything that makes it easier for you to drink is important. Camelbaks are great as they contain a bladder up to 3 liters that hold water along with a tube you can sip from - perfect to store in backpacks and easy enough to sip and travel without stopping to drink. If you are going for a day hike, I would encourage you to take a small backpack - 28 liters, just enough for water and snacks, a rain or wind jacket, some sunscreen, medicine and your phone which these days should provide both music (on low with headphones, please!) and pictures. I'm not advocating brands as much as fit - the backpack should fit your torso, not pull on your shoulders and most of the weight should sit on your hips via hopefully wide waist straps. Make sure your shoes are appropriate for the hiking conditions - you won't want sneakers if there are lots of mud and puddles or lots of rocks - you'll need more support. I generally like a Vibram soul to prevent slipping which most hiking boots provide, but if I'm just on a dry trail I'm quite happy in sneakers, too.

If I had to identify one piece of kit it would probably be the Arc'Teryx Alpha SV Shell Jacket. This jacket comes in men's and women's sizes, is expensive, but lasts a lifetime. It is GORE-TEX, breathable, the SV is for severe weather, it is also waterproof and windproof. I was able to use this as my outer layer all the way to Camp 3 on K2 (23,700 feet). By Shell or Outer Layer, this is mountaineering speak for rain gear - Arc'Teryx is the only brand I use for rain gear, top and bottom - and at a minimum, I keep the jacket at the bottom of my backpack, just in case, our wacky world of climate change strikes.

Please comment on the Everest photos with the crowded lines - did you experience that on your summit climb?

VO'B: 2012, the year I summited Everest, was the first year of the queue - and my pictures resemble exactly those you see today. In addition, we had ten deaths that year. 2019 was an absolutely NORMAL YEAR on Everest, but what attracted the U.S. press was that two Americans died. Everest always has bottlenecks, short weather windows, queues, and for years was plagued by a combination of unskilled tour operators, skilled tour operators, skilled climbers, and unskilled climbers. You can imagine the deadly combination. But let me put two other things in perspective for your readers. First, there is an assumption that a really good climber can somehow escape massive queues and bottlenecks. That is simply not true and has no correlation to climbing ability. If you are Mario Andretti and you're stuck in traffic, you're still stuck in traffic. Second, there is an assumption that those completing Everest as their final seventh summit were extremely experienced. But high altitude is a different ballgame. There is an entire 20,000-foot mountain height difference on top of the highest peak in the Western Hemisphere, Aconcagua, and Everest! Can you imagine? In fact, I could count the world's top 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 mountains all the way to 110 of the top mountains in the world and all 8,000-meter peaks (26,000 foot) and all 7,000-meter (22,966 foot) peaks are still in Asia and yes, still in the Himalayas! So, climbing the Seven Summits does not give one experience for Everest. By the time I summited Everest, I had already climbed two 8,000 meters peaks back-to-back, eight days apart (Cho Oyu and Shishapangma, the world's 6th highest and 14th highest). That is why I knew I was ready for Everest.

Would it help if the Nepalese government restricted permits to experienced mountaineers and asked for proof of one 8,000-meter peak summit before climbing Everest? Maybe. At least a climber would know what he or she felt like at high altitude, which is really the differentiator here. However, Nepal is still a poor country, with a GDP of just over $1,000. And the Sherpa will earn five times that for one trip up Everest. Between climbing permits, hotels, flights, and restaurants, Nepal might see as much as $10 million in hard currency or more. I am not convinced they will see climbing restrictions as being in their financial interest.

What was it like to be the first American or British woman to summit K-2?

VO'B: Well I'm still struggling with the word 'stubborn' and there is a story behind that for another time. The fact is it took me three years, so unlike other mountains, K-2 really made me work for it. Every year I advanced one camp higher, which gave me hope. I think it is interesting to look at one's support network, too. When you don't succeed initially, a lot of the same people are still with you for round two. There's always that bit of bad luck kind of thing, but by year three they start wondering if it's just you that can't summit. The funny thing is - people completely forget what we're talking about. For every four that summit K-2, one dies. And there is a 40 percent chance of no summit in any one year. The year I summited, my team was the only team that made it - all other teams turned around.

So, I am very proud of that summit, for my unwavering perseverance and for my team's strength and commitment to the summit. Over those three years traveling to Pakistan I had really come to love the country - that was the biggest surprise - and the average Pakistani really cheered me on to the summit. I felt so much love from the people of Pakistan - both officials and man/woman on the street - that I borrowed an idea from the 1953 American K-2 Expedition and carried the flag of each country that represented my K-2 expedition to the summit - the American flag, the British flag, the Pakistan flag and UN Woman. To me this represented peace, solidarity and friendship. In 1953, Dee Molenaar painted quadrants for the American flag, the British flag (for one British member), the UN flag (more appropriate UN Woman, these days, in my opinion), and Pakistan, its host country.

Would you come give a talk in the Hamptons if asked?

VO'B: Yes, definitely - especially once my book is published! Target date: summer 2020.

Thank you on behalf of myself, Hamptons.com and all our readers.

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