First American Woman Up 28,251-Foot Killer K2

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From Forbes
"Exclusive Interview With Vanessa O’Brien, First American Woman Up 28,251-Foot Killer K2

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Vanessa O’Brien, a 52-year-old former banker, took up climbing late in life. She didn’t waste time making her mark on history. After two previous tries, on July 28, 2017, she topped out on one of the world’s most dangerous and difficult mountains, Pakistan’s K2. By doing so, she became the first American woman to claim the 28,251-foot peak, the second highest in the world. In 2012, O’Brien had climbed Everest, the world’s highest peak at 29,035 feet. We caught up this week with Vanessa, still in Pakistan after her climb, to discuss her K2 ascent. The New York University MBA and member of The Explorers Club resides in New York with her husband, Jonathan. Here is Part 1 of our interview.

View from the top of Pakistan’s K2, the world’s second-highest peak, 28,251 feet.

Jim Clash: Tell us about summit day, and what is the top of K2 like?

Vanessa O’Brien: Our summit bid started with an ascent up the Bottleneck couloir, which in our case consisted of really deep snow. That meant the team had to break trail while putting in fixed lines. Hard enough work, but add winds gusting up to 30 mph and that placed temperatures close to – 40 F. As we moved up this section, we were facing, and exposed to, a massive serac. By the time we got up the dangerous couloir and started the traverse, conditions had changed. In fact, this section was completely ice – blue, slippery ice. For novices, pretend to walk sideways across a giant ice cube with another giant ice cube balancing above your head – and imagine the terror of slipping, even with ropes and crampons!

Credit: Photos courtesy of Vanessa O’Brien, Mingma & Dawa Gyalje Sherpa
Vanessa O’Brien, the first American woman to summit K2.

When we started the ascent up towards the summit ridge, conditions gradually returned to deep snow. One has to be careful in this glaciated environment because there are blind crevasses that temporary snow can cover, and, with the heavy precipitation, I was also very conscious of potential avalanches building. Every 8,000-meter peak summit bid involves a race against time. As one approaches K2’s final summit, the ridge eventually stops and one can walk no more. Miraculously at the top the snowfall stopped, and for a brief period the sun came out and we were rewarded with blue skies. Our team of 12 arrived about 4:30 p.m. local time, made the summit call to Base Camp, took a series of photos and then proceeded down. This was a late summit and we would be descending in the dark, which is risky – not ideal after a 16-hour summit bid.

Clash: Was there a time on the way up when you thought about turning around?

O’Brien: From the moment I left at 11 p.m. until I returned at 10 p.m. the next day, I was preoccupied – worried about conditions versus progress, when and whether to ‘pull the plug’. I guess I worried so much that before I knew it we were 200 meters from the summit and I still hadn’t suggested turning around.

Credit: Photos courtesy of Vanessa O’Brien, Mingma & Dawa Gyalje Sherpa
Approaching K2’s Bottleneck serac, 2017.

Clash: They say that 85% of all accidents on mountains happen on the way down. With your late summit, you must have had concerns about the descent.

O’Brien: Yes, and that is a frightening statistic. But here is why. You leave full of energy and enthusiasm and, regardless of what conditions are like, attempt the summit. Normal times average eight to 10 hours to hit the top of an 8,000-meter peak. That’s still a LONG time. You are full-on concentrating and physically exerting yourself. Chances are you are ascending in the cold, your hands are wrapped, and whether or not you use oxygen, you are on the move. More likely than not, there are no breaks in those eight to 10 hours up. No food, no water. So you arrive dehydrated and fatigued at the summit, now in the ‘death zone’, so let’s face it – you’re not at your best cognitive you. You’ve just burnt what, 15,000-20,000 calories, your digestion is shutting down, you are probably experiencing adrenal failure, etc.

But you are only halfway. Time to wake up. Maybe walking up takes some effort, but unfortunately going down takes no effort at all – to fall, that is, a very long way. Miss clipping your safety in, rig your rappel device incorrectly, arm rappel off an old rope, take your concentration off what you are doing for a tiny second, and…. By the way, it’s nighttime, too. How are those batteries in the headlamp? You didn’t use all the power on the ascent did you? All told, I was very worried about our descent, especially for those without supplemental oxygen.

Clash: All of the other teams on K2 this year turned back. What allowed yours to keep going?

O’Brien: We had a very strong team of five experienced mountaineers, six Sherpa and one High Altitude Porter who were used to pretty rough weather conditions. I had been to both the North and South Poles. John [Snorri Sigurjonsson] lived in Iceland, which speaks for itself, and the three Chinese climbers were not only used to cold winters but each had climbed five to 12 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks. There was no client that was going to give up without a fight. The Sherpa and High Altitude Porters do this for a living. That left “acts of God” – avalanches, earthquakes, etc., that could easily change our destiny. So ultimately it was the determination of this team and its willingness to take calculated risks, knowingly supporting each other each step of the way.

The larger companies like Himalayan Experience and Furtenbach Adventures should also be commended for their decision NOT to pursue the summit under those extreme conditions. They chose safety first. Since when is choosing safety a bad idea?

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