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The mountains are calling and I must go, and I will work on while I can, studying incessantly.

- John Muir


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Adventure Travel

Sep 12, 2017

Interview with Vanessa O’Brien, First American Woman to Climb K2

A 52-year old former banker summited the world’s second highest peak in late July, with a commercial Nepalese expedition to the Savage Mountain.

WRITTEN BY

Michael Levy

Over 295 days in 2012 and 2013, Vanessa O’Brien climbed the highest peak on each continent, completing the feat known as the Seven Summits faster than any woman before or since. She is also one of the few people to have completed the Explorer’s Grand Slam, which requires an individual to have climbed the Seven Summits and reached the North and South Poles. This feat took her just 11 months in total.

But her recent summit of K2, the “Savage Mountain,” on July 28, 2017, means more to her than any her other adventures. She was the first American and British woman (she has dual citizenship) to successfully summit and descend K2, and the expedition represented a culmination of her career thus far–in the climbing world, the business world and beyond.

The Outdoor Journal conducted an email interview with O’Brien last week.

You’ve accomplished a lot in your climbing career, for example being the fastest woman to climb the Seven Summits. Where does your K2 summit rank amongst your accomplishments? Is it particularly special in any way?

The summit of K2 is by far the most important accomplishment I have achieved.  Being fastest is great, except someone can always achieve a faster time later on.  But no one can take a first away from you – whether you are the first women to represent a nation (or two!), or the first to climb an unclimbed peak, or even the first to establish a new route on an existing peak.  That is yours to keep.

When you accomplish something like this it gives one a sense of pride, especially when the numbers are so low. For example, I am the 20th woman to summit K2 in the world.  Also, when the task is so hard. For me, it took three years to achieve the summit of K2, and there were no summits on K2 at all in 2015 and 2016.  Add to that what I had to endure to get to the summit seems like the ultimate endurance test – 50 km winds, 40 below temperatures, and increasing precipitation with threats of avalanche and crevasse danger for 23 hours.

Heading to Camp 2 on K2. Photo: Courtesy of Vanessa O’Brien.

You’re the first American and British woman to summit K2 and make it down alive. What is it about being the first, and breaking down barriers, that is so appealing?

What is appealing for me is first to prove that I can.  That I can take all of the training, experience, hard work and determination and turn it into results.  But then extrapolate it.  If I can, then that means others (especially women) can, too.

High altitude mountaineering is quite unique.  Where oxygen is a limited resource, cardiovascular strength becomes much more important than muscular strength.  Because expeditions take 6 to 8 weeks, muscular strength will weaken during that time, but mental strength must remain strong.  So a durable cerebral focus combined with a solid cardio base makes this a great sport for women as well as men.

What was the lead-up to this expedition like? Different from the Seven Summits? K2 is serious in a different way.

K2 is very different than the Seven Summits and other 8,000m peaks because if you want to book any of those there are a number of expedition leaders offering pre-planned trips to these peaks.

K2 does not have that kind of consistency.  One reason is because there is a 40% chance in any one year of no summits (based on 13 years of no summits since 1986).  So no tour operator is going to be commercially successful going every year reporting “no summits.”  And no climber is going to want to follow an expedition leader who isn’t successful more than two years in a row.

Furthermore, local logistics are not easy from the start.  It is not easy getting visas to/from some countries to Pakistan, getting tickets or even PIA [Pakistan International Airlines] flights which may or may not fly because of bad weather in Skardu, leaving many expeditions to travel by road from Islamabad.  Hiring the right number of qualified high and low altitude porters can also be tricky with supply and demand.  So you need a really good local logistics operator.

There is a lot of pre-planning that needs to take place 9 months ahead of an expedition to K2 because of its location. Knowing your expected team, the number of Sherpa, how much oxygen you plan to import, and finding the right local operator like Nazir Sabir Expeditions (who I used) is crucial to getting your climbing permits and sorting out local logistics including sourcing local staff and arranging low altitude tents, food, supplies and equipment (like solar panels and generators).

Camp 2. Photo: Courtesy of Vanessa O’Brien.

No other teams reached the summit this season. Did you and your expedition members simply push harder? Risk more? Climb smarter? What allowed your team to succeed where others didn’t?

First, not all teams were on the same route. Some teams were climbing the Cesen Route and others were climbing the Abruzzi Route. Conveniently both routes converge at Camp 4 where teams can proceed climbing (and fixing) to the summit together.

However, as the summit window approached this year, the Cesen teams were not quite as high on their route as they needed to be to capture the summit window, so they turned around.  The Abruzzi teams also faced terrible weather around Camp 2 that split the climbing teams – some stayed an extra night and waited it out, some went down (never to come back up), and others just ploughed ahead to Camp 3.

I stayed an extra night and still met terrible weather the next day climbing up to Camp 3, but even then, that next day – the rest of the climbing teams turned around because the weather was still that bad. If anyone has seen any of the video you can understand why and I applaud them for choosing safety first. The answer is that we risked more.

The weather continued to be unpredictable and gave us surprises on our summit day.  Unbelievably despite going through the worst weather up to the summit – it was a pure bluebird day on top.  That is why I always referred to the summit bid as going through Dante’s Inferno.  It was as if every 100 meters of those final 1,000 meters on summit day represented a ring of hell that one had to pass to get to heaven.

But this year our team was exceptionally experienced – experienced with cold, crap weather and 8,000m peaks (each had climbed five to thirteen 8,000m peaks) – and each was willing to take on the additional risk.  We had to fix safety lines simultaneously while climbing to the summit and that took time.  We made a conscious decision to continue knowing the consequences of increased avalanche risk with increased precipitation and having to descend in the dark.

This was your third attempt on K2. What kept drawing you back? Were you determined to get to the top no matter what? If you hadn’t made it this time do you think you would have come back for a fourth try?

El Niño was the reason our climb was not successful in 2015 – it was simply too unseasonably warm and we could only progress to Camp 2. Rock that should have been frozen to the Earth became unfrozen and added to the complexity of climbing that year, unleashing large boulders down the mountain and creating objective hazards. We had two climbing accidents due to rock fall that year.

An unexpected avalanche at Camp 3 stopped our climb in 2016, as it swept away all tents, oxygen, equipment and supplies for all teams. While there was no injury or loss of life, it left expeditions low on supplies and morale too low to continue on.

However, progressing from Camp 2 to Camp 3 year over year gave one hope that progress could be made. However, to answer your question, this year I would not seek the summit no matter what. I know summit fever is a real disease, and of course how is one ever sure if one has it? But even on our summit bid this year as I watched the snow accumulate, I was busy calculating at what frequency the snow was building up versus the pace we were climbing at and the distance we were covering to determine if and when to pull the plug (and turn around) – as were others.

Our website was called K2-The Final Conquest so I am not sure I would have come back a fourth time. There is something about three strikes you’re out in sports that is metaphorically a nice place to stop and, financially, it just wouldn’t have been feasible.

Vanessa O’Brien on the summit of K2. Photo: Courtesy of Vanessa O’Brien.

You were dealing with multiple nagging injuries before the climb. Did they affect you at all during the ascent? 

Good point. Injuries are real.  The reality is when there are bigger things to worry about like overall survival, they tend to take a back seat.  I only felt existing injuries on the way in during the 100 kilometer trek from Askole to K2 Base Camp, and on the way out during a fast track route over the Gondogoro Pass, a 5,585-meter high mountain pass.

Were there any particularly scary or worrisome moments in the climb? Any moments of doubt where you thought you should turn back?

Lots of them! I really don’t like crampons on rock, but unfortunately K2 is a mixed climb.  Going up House’s Chimney or the Black Pyramid is never fun for me.  Down is fine – that’s a simple rappel.  But up is a matter of finding foot placement, squeezing through places or small ledges with a big backpack that throws you off balance – all things I would happily do with rock climbing shoes on, but with crampons it is another story, very much like fingernails on a chalkboard.  These were fast, heart-beating scary moments.

However, on summit day my scary moments were slow and building, like watching suspense build in a film. I was simply watching the snow pile up knowing we were moving at a snail’s pace and wondering what this was going to be like coming down. That anxiety was pumping through my veins all the way to the summit.  I was constantly wondering whether we should turn back.  This is the first summit I spent the entire summit bid questioning whether to turn back, and of course, even the summit itself is only halfway.

You used to work in the financial services industry. What ways did the skills you learned transfer to the world of climbing mountains? Leading expeditions?

Almost everything I learned in business transferred nicely to leading or being part of an expedition. You need leadership skills to make decisions and provide direction or even cast a vote, and you need to be a team player because climbing as a solo pursuit really exists for only a few. Morale gets low pretty quick when bad weather sets in and changes your plans, so you need to chip in with a few films, games and jokes. Operational efficiency and risk management are key. Obviously you don’t want the slower folks climbing first as that will slow down the whole team, and having two teams putting in fixed lines and “leap frogging,” gets things done faster. That kind of thing.

I have, however, come across situations that I could not lead or manage myself out of.  One is superstition. If a climber believes the mountain is a God or a God lives at the top of the Mountain and has “spoken” (meaning that there shall be no more climbing), then there is no rational argument I can deploy that will reverse this school of thought or money that I can throw at the problem.

Descending House’s Chimney. Photo: Courtesy of Vanessa O’Brien.

I have also come across short-term solutions that are bad in the long term. For example, I have been held by villages wanting employment, i.e., a villager wants a job on the expedition and refuses to let us go until he is given one.  So I create a job carrying my backpack, he is employed, and we go on our way.  This is a great short-term solution that is bad in the long term (i.e., locals should not be encouraged to continue this type of behaviour).

Climbing K2 is an expensive proposition. The Everest industry gets a good deal of criticism these days for taking inexperienced climbers up the mountain simply because they can afford it. Do you worry about K2 and other big mountains following that path? If not, why do you think it’s different?

Russell Brice and Himalayan Experience was the first to set a standard saying he would not take anyone who hadn’t summited Everest plus at least one other 8,000m peak to K2. I suggest doubling that or someone will just waste their money.

K2 does get a lot of independent experienced climbers, who often show up under-resourced waiting for the larger expeditions to put in the fixed lines and share weather reports.  If these smaller teams contribute (and many do) with money and rope carry, everything is fine. But one day the large expeditions won’t be there and then what?

To some extent high altitude mountaineering is a game of numbers as fixed costs are lowered by more people. So you need a certain amount of people to make an expedition economical. If there are too many expeditions overall then it can become dangerous because every mountain has bottlenecks. The more expeditions there are on the mountain, the more likely they will converge to “Group think.”  Deep down inside, sometimes a climber is looking for an excuse to go home and “Group think” will provide this, because it will suddenly become all too difficult. If inexperienced people come to K2, they will either end up at the Gilkey Memorial or have such a terrible time they will never come again.

Now that K2 is checked off the list, what’s next?

I have always wanted to go to the Mariana Trench – deeper than Everest is tall, at 36,000 feet; or be part of a team to find the ship’s bell on Shackleton’s ship, Endurance, located in Antarctica.

O’Brien was honored by the Alpine Club of Pakistan for her ascent. Photo: Courtesy of Vanessa O’brien

Want to have a climbing adventure of your own? Check out The Outdoor Voyage and book your next trip.

Feature Image: One of the camps pitched by O’Brien’s expedition team on K2. Photo: Courtesy of Vanessa O’Brien.

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Athletes & Explorers

Oct 19, 2018

Outdoor Moms: Hilaree Nelson – Mother of Two, Mountaineering Hero to All

2018 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, ski descent of the Lhotse Couloir, ski descent of Papsura, first woman to summit two 8,000m peaks in 24 hours… mother of two.

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WRITTEN BY

Brooke Hess

‘Outdoor Moms’ is a new series, profiling mothers pursuing their sport, all while taking care of family. You can read the first article on world-famous kayaker, Emily Lussin, here.

“You know just when you have that skin crawl on the back of your neck. Like, we are not in a good place. We need to move.”

One week ago, Hilaree Nelson was in Nepal completing one of the biggest expeditions of her 20 year ski mountaineering career. Today, she is sitting at home in Telluride, Colorado, just having finished the hectic morning routine of packing lunches and getting her two kids to school on time.

She is telling me the story of when her crew got stuck in a storm between Camp 1 and Camp 2. Instead of pushing on through the whiteout, they decided to set up an interim camp and wait it out. “We were all huddled in this little single-wall, three-person tent. It was storming out pretty good and we started hearing avalanches coming down… One avalanche was a little too loud and a little too close, so we left the tent standing and we got out and started trying to navigate in the whiteout.” Once the weather cleared, the team safely made their way to Camp 2. Two days later, Nelson and her climbing partner, Jim Morrison, returned to the interim camp to gather the gear they had left behind. What they found was the remains of a massive avalanche that had ripped across the camp, scattering gear everywhere and throwing it into crevasses. “It was a little crazy. We were kinda like, ‘oh wow I am really glad we didn’t stay there’.”

Photo by Nick Kalisz Courtesy of The North Face

Less than two weeks later, Nelson and Morrison found themselves atop the summit of Mt. Lhotse, the fourth highest mountain in the world. Four hours after that, they both arrived back at Camp 2, having just completed the first ever ski descent of the Lhotse Couloir.

Skiing a 50 degree slope for 7,000 feet would be an impossible task for some of the most dedicated skiers out there. Add in the fact that they did it at 8,000 meters elevation after spending the previous 14 hours on a summit push, and the feat becomes unimaginable.

Read about Hilaree’s Lhotse Expedition here.

Photo by Nick Kalisz Courtesy of The North Face

For Nelson, who has previously skied both Cho Oyu in Tibet and Papsura in India, this achievement is one of the highlights of her career.
But her career as a ski mountaineer is only half of her life.

Nelson’s two sons, Graydon and Quinn, are the other half.

Summit of Wilson Peak, Telluride, CO. Graydon and Quinn’s second 14’er.

“I got home (from Nepal) Sunday night, and Monday morning I was freaking out making kids’ lunches and trying to get the kids to school on time”

“I have two boys. They are 9 and 11. Graydon is the younger one and Quinn is the older one. They are crazy little boys… They are really into skiing, they are both alpine racing, they are currently in mountain biking camp after school, they go to climbing club after school, and they are really obsessed with lacrosse. And they both really like math too!” Between expeditions, working as The North Face team captain, and being a mother of two, it is a wonder Hilaree is able to juggle it all. And from what it sounds like, both her kids are on a path towards being just as busy as she is!

Instead of letting the busy schedules stress her out, Nelson embraces it.
“I got home (from Nepal) Sunday night, and Monday morning I was freaking out making kids’ lunches and trying to get the kids to school on time. It just doesn’t miss a beat… It’s fun to be a mother.”

As Nelson talks about motherhood, her face lights up with pride. “I like how unpredictable it is. I’ve always been a bit terrified of every day being the same, and kids are a sure-fire way to make every day different and an unknown adventure.” Nelson describes the unpredictability of her children as one of her favorite parts of being a mom. As she recounts the chaos of motherhood, I can’t help but think how this mirrors the other half of life. Weather forecasts, snowpack predictions, snowpack stability, and even personal mental and physical strength are all factors that can be unpredictable during a ski mountaineering expedition, much like children can be unpredictable during motherhood.

Nelson climbs Skyline Arete with younger son, Graydon.

“It is not that I put being a mother away, but I do have to compartmentalize it a little bit”

Taking on two very different roles as both mother and mountain athlete requires a unique mindset that Nelson has adapted over the past 11 years. “The emotional roller coaster I ride is sometimes very difficult on my kids. I am so stressed to leave them before I go on a trip, and then I turn into that climber person. It is not that I put being a mother away, but I do have to compartmentalize it a little bit so I can focus on what I am climbing. Then when I come home, it is really hard to switch back into mother. You know, I am full mother when I am home. I am in the classroom, I am picking them up from sports, I am taking them to ski races, cooking them dinner, making them lunch. I am just mom, like what moms do. It is almost like I am two different people living in one body.”

Nelson’s somewhat double identity life is what defines her. But it didn’t come easy. She describes her comeback from childbirth as the single most difficult challenge she has had to overcome. “Getting back to being an athlete after having babies was about the hardest thing I have ever done. In fact, it was so difficult that it almost makes climbing and expeditions look easy.” Her first son was born via a relatively “easy” c-section. Her second… not so easy. Hours of surgery for both mother and son, combined with blood loss and blood poisoning resulted in Nelson taking an entire year off from athletics.

By the time she returned to training and to the mountains, her mental strength had taken a huge hit. “I pushed hard to get back in it, but it was really difficult. It was really challenging on my confidence.”

All challenges aside, getting back into it was worth it. Having just completed one of the most iconic ski descents in history, Nelson was eager to show her boys some media from the Lhotse expedition. Nelson’s recount of their response made me giggle. “They looked at some video stuff of it yesterday and some photos… I mean, they are hard to impress, my kids.” With notable ski descents around the world, as well as being the first woman to climb two 8,000 meter peaks in 24 hours (Everest and Lhotse), and being named a 2018 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, I am actually not surprised her sons are so hard to impress. She has set the bar pretty high!

Nelson says the boys are finally at an age where they are starting to become aware of what her career means. One of the most challenging aspects of it – long stretches away from home. Recently having gone through a difficult divorce, the challenge of leaving her kids for long periods of time becomes even more apparent. When she is in Nepal, the kids stay with their father. With the recent addition of 3G internet access to Everest Base Camp, it has been easier for her to stay in touch with her kids. However, a month is still a month, and time spent away isn’t easy. Nelson says she used to feel guilt when she left her kids, but now she has learned to view her career as a positive influence in their lives. “It has taken a long time for me to realize that having my job and being a mother has been beneficial to my kids for them to see me be a person, individually, and trust in that. It was a struggle for me for a long time that I was hurting my kids by continuing my profession. But I see now their joy and their support for what I do, and we can have rational conversations about it. I see that they are proud of me. I see that they appreciate what I do, and see me as a person. So I think it has all been worth it, but it wasn’t without a lot of tears and a lot of difficult times.”

“I don’t think they fully appreciate the dangers of it, but I also think they understand that it is dangerous”

Another challenge of her career – the danger. Ski mountaineering is one of the most risky sports any mountain athlete can partake in. At ages 9 and 11, Nelson’s kids are just beginning to understand the danger associated with it. “Skiing and mountain climbing to them, it has always just been a part of their lives as long as they can remember. I don’t think they fully appreciate the dangers of it, but I also think they understand that it is dangerous. I don’t know if they are okay with it, but it’s just what I do, and they love what I do.”

The first time Graydon and Quinn skied in the rain. “Being from Washington State, I grew up skiing in the rain and it was fun to see my kids reaction to the adverse weather. Of course, they thought we were crazy…”

“Then they want to come to the Himalayas.”

Danger and challenges aside, Graydon and Quinn look up to their mom with the utmost admiration. The boys support her career, and are proud of her accomplishments. Between their mom’s career, as well as their own personal experiences, the boys have started viewing mountain sports less as hobbies, and instead, a way of life. “Both my boys consider skiing not even a sport for them. They learned it as soon as they learned how to walk. It’s just a way of life. It’s how they play.” Nelson says she isn’t going to push the boys into climbing and mountaineering. However, despite her lack of effort, both boys have already made a list of the mountains they hope to summit. “First they are going to climb Mt. Baker, and then Rainier, and then they want to climb Denali. Then they want to come to the Himalayas.”

Both boys have already been to Makalu base camp, as well as summited several 14,000ft peaks in Colorado. When they were ages four and six, they made it most of the way up Kilimanjaro, but in Nelson’s words, they were “a little bit little” to make it to the top.

Family time on Telluride Via Ferrata.

As much as the boys idolize her, Nelson is reminded every day that they are still kids. They go to school, they play tag at recess, they wrestle, fight, cry, laugh, and most of the time are completely unconcerned with Nelson’s career as a world-renowned ski mountaineer.

“The best thing in the world is going on these expeditions that mean so much to me, but then coming home and having kids that in some ways are oblivious to what I do and are just kids… It’s awesome. It’s just a great thing to have in my life.”

Photo by Nick Kalisz Courtesy of The North Face

Cover Photo by Nick Kalisz Courtesy of The North Face

 

Read about Hilaree Nelson’s ascent and ski descent of Papsura, The Peak of Evil here.

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