Vanessa O’Brien is a British-American mountaineer, explorer, public speaker and former business executive. She’s the fastest woman in the world to have climbed the Seven Summits—the highest mountain on each continent—and has also skied the last degree (60 nautical miles) to both the North and South Poles. We caught up with the ever-enthusiastic ex-banker to hear more about her amazing adventures.
Hi Vanessa, thanks for chatting with us. Firstly could you please give us a bit of background on where you think your love for the outdoors came from?
My parents really encouraged my brother and I to play outdoors and take place in team sports when we were kids. However, when I grew up, we didn’t have video games, computers, cable TV or i-anything (pads, pods, etc.). So when we ‘played’, we played outside—in the driveway, yard or around the neighbourhood. We caught insects, tried gardening, and took care of household pets. We visited zoos, farms, and orchards where we picked our own apples. Every year our parents would take us on holiday where we would see some astonishing places.
What would you say your first brush with adventure was?
Probably trying to ‘show off’ climbing a tree while on a holiday trip. I was about seven and climbed to the top of the tree where I found a nice, wide branch. It was then that I proceeded to lean back to demonstrate ‘no hands’. Needless to say, the branch didn’t hold my weight. That’s about all I remember.
Next thing I knew I was on a boat with a sling around my arm. The fall had knocked the wind out of me and I don’t remember who or how that sling was put on—luckily just a sprain! But a clear lesson– no showing off to boys!
What made you want to attempt the fastest ascent of Seven Summits?
Well, I must say fastest wasn’t my goal. My goal was only to climb Everest. However, when I finished Everest successfully (in May 2012), I decided to continue climbing because the global recession of 2009-10 was still progressing, and in a joking manner—the rest of the mountains were literally ‘downhill’ from Everest.
I wasn’t aware of a record for the Seven Summits until December 2012 when a friend Googled the Seven Summits and found no one had completed the challenge in less than one year. However, in order for me to accomplish this without having planned it, I would need to repeat Kilimanjaro, which I had climbed in 2005. So, I climbed Kilimanjaro again, this time choosing a harder route and taking a friend so that I could share the experience.
That challenge must have taken you through your fair share of environments: which would you say was your favourite?
Nepal, because of the beauty of the Himalayas and the spirituality of the people. Until you have seen the mountains in person you cannot imagine the size and complexity. There are 14 peaks over 8,000m in the world—eight of them are in Nepal, five of them in Pakistan, and one in Tibet. All of them are very special and worth a visit to see.
And the most challenging?
Carstensz Pyramid, which is the only rock climbing of the seven summits, because of the terrain and the local tribes that are hired as low altitude porters. This mountain is located in Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and the challenges here are climate (extreme torrential rain and mud), navigating through the jungle, working with two competing tribes, and negotiating one’s way out of various incidents of ransom!
Extreme humidity and heat to snow on the summit is the weather coupled with fire, axes and machetes as weapons of choice to hold expeditions ransom. Not for the faint of heart. This by the way is very close to where Michael Rockefeller, son of then New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, was allegedly eaten by cannibals in in 1961.
You’ve climbed four of the world’s 8,000m peaks: which one was the most special for you?
Everest. Not only because it is the tallest, but also because I had to work the hardest. I failed on my first attempt (to climb to Camp 2 in 2010), surviving pulmonary oedema and an avalanche in the Khumbu Icefall.
I was only ready to return to Everest two years later and after summiting two other 8,000m peaks back-to-back eight days apart (Shishapangma, the world’s 14th highest) and Cho Oyu (the world’s sixth highest).
You’re also a certified Dive Master; what do you prefer: sea or summit?
Well they both offer different things. To climb to the top of an 8,000m peak is challenging, exciting and offers breathtaking views. It is different than a two-tank dive to thoroughly examine a wreck dive or leaning back to relax and take in the beauty of a drift dive.
I haven’t had the mountain raise my heart rate the way diving with sharks can, or cave diving at night when you have a roof over your head preventing ascent (unless, of course, there is an avalanche or an earthquake on the mountain).
So I’m not sure I can choose between sea or summit. What they both have in common is that one must equalise or acclimatisation to both environments, because we cannot breathe underwater nor can we survive long in the rarified air of 8,000m. And, if one climbs with oxygen, both require a tank on your back!
Last year, your attempt to climb K2 was cut short due to avalanche risks. What was going through your mind when you were up there, on one of the most deadly mountains in the world?
Well, I arrived in Pakistan prepared so I was not anxious about the things I could control. However, last year was an El Niño year and it was unseasonably warm. One could see the glaciers melting during the 100 km trek to K2 Base Camp. Snow conditions on K2 itself were such that a layer of ‘snow cone’, sugary snow lay on top of hard, blue ice that prohibited our crampons from gaining purchase.
Furthermore, normally frozen rocks on the Abruzzi Ridge avalanched down injuring two climbers. So what really went through my mind was climate change—why was K2 so warm and the conditions so poor to climb? That is probably why having left Pakistan, I agreed to ‘climb for climate change’ as part of www.25zero.com.
My role was to go to Ecuador and capture footage of the receding glaciers to submit to COP21 while the climate change conference in Paris was in session. Ecuador was one of the countries at zero degrees latitude that represented the 25 glaciers most at risk to disappear completely within the next 15 years.
Such expeditions across the globe must be expensive: how do you fund your endeavours?
I can’t say how important sponsorship is and how much sponsors can benefit from building messaging around climbs and using mountaineering as a metaphor. Lessons from climbing—pre and post—include leadership, teamwork, risk management, setting and achieving goals, focusing on what is within your control, the importance of discipline and positioning setbacks and failures. Sponsoring an expedition is one of the best returns on investment and falls into the ‘money can’t buy’ categories of availability.
However, for brands one has to get beyond the worry about ‘brand risk’. What’s the worst thing that can happen? A brand falls down the mountain, through the ice? So, think this one through. Don’t use social media real time. Hold those summit pictures for until one gets back from the expedition. There are always ways to mitigate risk, but doing nothing in the case of sponsorship is not one of them! Without sponsors, I have had to self-fund my expeditions by working and forgoing other luxuries like family holidays.
If you had just one piece of advice for an outdoor enthusiast looking to make the most out of their time away from home, what would you recommend?
Research. Don’t wing it. There is so much information available and lots of options for places to stay with Airbnb, etc. Gather as much information to maximise your visit, preferences on hotel, and what you want to do while you are there. Online you will find everything from the best deals to that fun, interesting local place no one knows about. This happened to me recently while planning a rock-and ice-climbing trip to Canmore, Canada. I found a reseller of hotels called hotwire.com. The website won’t tell you which hotel is offering the best price until you buy, however, they guarantee the hotel will be amongst a ‘class’ of hotels. I found the steal of the century, impressing my local Canadian rock climbing coach.
I also found out about an amazing trek/challenge called the Canmore Triple Crown that involved trekking to three peaks. I figured being marked ‘easy’ this was one I could do on a rest day—ha! So this also comes with a warning—Don’t believe everything you read—one of the three ‘treks’ had me hanging on for dear life as I crossed two knife-like ridges in high winds following heavy snowfall to sign a summit book. And that really kicked my ****. All good though, because I earned a fabulous margarita I might not have had otherwise at a pre-researched Mexican restaurant.
What’s your most memorable experience of being out in nature?
Animals. An African Safari is an eye opener because it so raw and real to watch animals in their natural habitat. First, you have to find the animals and it is quite hard. This involves a different kind of ‘trekking’. Then you have an opportunity to observe them—possibly at a watering hole, with their young, possibly during a fresh kill, while they are playing, mating or fighting.
Elephants have scared me the most; second to only a lioness protecting her young near a fresh kill. Another interesting experience is The Galápagos Islands, Ecuador, where no natural predators exist and the animals approach you out of curiosity—it is very unusual.
Is there anything else you’d like to add, or say?
Just that curiosity is perhaps the best trait any explorer can have. So whoever you are, whatever you do, as long as you remain curious about the world around you, you have the ‘secret’ for what is needed to learn more about the world. It doesn’t matter whether you are an armchair explorer or whether you are keen to jump into a pair of Wellies and run out the door. What matters most is that you believe in the possibilities of what the future of exploration can teach you and that you keep that curiosity alive.
Thanks very much for your time Vanessa!
You can find out more about Vanessa’s adventures on her website vobonline.com. And if you’d like to know more about some of the world’s mightiest mountains, why not check out our selection of documentaries, now streaming on our app.