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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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Expeditions

Jul 29, 2019

Trans Himalaya 2019: Breathless in the Himalaya

In an unprecedented Himalayan snowfall, ultra-runner Peter Van Geit breaks out his ice axe to access undocumented passes in the High Himalayas.

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WRITTEN BY

Davey Braun

Last month, The Outdoor Journal received the first contact from Peter Van Geit on his 2,500 km self-supported journey across 100+ Himalayan high passes in Himachal, Ladakh, and Uttarakhand, accompanied by filmmaker Neil D’Souza. In his latest update, Peter navigates unpassable verticle cliffs and holy glacial lakes along his spellbinding adventure.

After completing the entire length of Uttarakhand in 17 passes, I entered the neighbouring state of Himachal Pradesh. I had been doing 600-700 km ultra runs through this beautiful state in previous years on lesser-traveled roads in remote valleys. This time I was targetting several passes across the high mountains in three major sections: the Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP) a wildlife sanctuary and protected biosphere, the Dhauladhar range separating the Kangra plains and Chamba valley, and the Pir Panjal range separating Chamba from Lahaul. As of mid-July, I completed 45 high altitude passes touching 4,600 meters and heavy snow due to unprecedented snowfall this winter.

Shepherds from Barmour descending from the snow-covered Chaurasi pass at 4700m in Chamba valley on their way to graze their herds in the high altitude meadows around the Chaurasi Ka Dal lake.
Panoramic view from the Gaj pass at 4100m from the Dhauladhar high range onto the snow-covered Lam Dal Lake in the upper range of the Chamba valley. Late summer after the snow melts tens of thousands of pilgrims visit this holy lake.

Climbing above 4,000 meters in early summer meant cutting through steep, frozen snow gullies with my ice axe, opening several passes not yet traversed by anyone or following the fresh trail of the shepherds who had just migrated across some passes. With the Northeast monsoon setting in soon, I’ll be moving next to the high altitude deserts of Lahaul and Zanskar to complete several 5,000-meter plus passes and come back down to Garhwal in Uttarakhand in September once the rains in the lower Himalayas subside.

Read next on TOJ: Alpine-Style, Ultra-Challenge in the Himalayan High Passes

GHNP is cornered between the high ranges of the Parvati National Park and Kinnaur. Three major rivers flow through this national reserve: the Tirthan, Sainj and Jiwa Nala separated by sharp, steep rising ridges. With no accurate trail info available on the Internet (no blog references meant few people or none have hiked here) I explored all three valleys using a very rough PDF sketch map made available by the tourism office and crossed over through three steep passes. The park has some of the steepest and most inaccessible rock cliffs I have encountered. Losing the trail here meant getting stuck inside near-vertical cliffs.

Sharing a cup of tea beneath the onset of the monsoon clouds with these shepherds while climbing up to the Waru pass at 3870m while crossing over the Dhauladhar range from Chamba valley to the Kangra plains.
Hospitality in the mountains. Night stay and dinner with these two shepherds on a ridge above the Jalsu pass in the Dhauladhar range of Himachal. Beautiful views on the snow-covered Mani Mahesh in the background, one of the seven Holi shrines of lord Shiva.

Once the snow melts on the higher ranges, many young men in Uttarakhand and Himachal go out in search for the “Jungli Nalla”, a high altitude medicinal root which is smuggled across the border from Tibet into China. One kilogram fetches 20 thousand rupees ($300 USD). Spending one and a half months in the mountains provides sufficient income for the rest of the year. While hiking deep inside the GHNP, I came across several villagers digging for both roots as well as large, beautiful rock quartz crystals.

Dhauladhar is a 4,000-meter plus mountain range which rises up steeply from the Kangra plains between Dharamsala and Palampur. Several passes cross over to the beautiful Chamba valley fed by the Ravi river which flows down from the high ranges separating Kullu-Chamba-Lahaul districts. There are several high altitude glacial lakes in the Dhauladhar which are considered holy and visited during an annual late summer pilgrimage by the local people. Most of the lakes were still covered under a thick sheet of frozen snow when I passed by.

Woman carrying home firewood from the forest in Lug valley in Himachal Pradesh for cooking purposes. With no road access or electricity in many remote hamlets, people rely on natural resources for home building and cooking.
Two Gurjar (mountain tribe) from Mumbardar in Chamba valley of Himachal were grazing their buffaloes in the alpine meadows above the clouds and upon seeing me passing by immediately invited me over for dinner and a night stay in their mud home.

I crossed five passes in the Dhauladhar: Baleni, Minkiani, Indrahar, Waru and Gaj pass between 3,800 to 4,300 meters coming across heavy snow at the North facing (less exposure to the sun) Chamba side. The most adventurous was Waru at 3,870 meters, a lesser-known pass used only by shepherds (which means undocumented) where I lost the trail several times. Trying to get back on track, I had to scramble through dense forest and climb down through several side gullies which had cut deeply into the valley slope resulting in several “free solo” moments while climbing down 100-meter plus vertical drops. I survived several breathless and adrenaline rushing moments here until I set a foothold on firm ground again.

One of the near-vertical rock descents into a snow-covered gully which deeply cut inside the main valley while navigating my way “off-trail” to the Waru pass across the Pir Panjal in Himachal.

The Pir Panjal is a high range of 5,000meter peaks separating the Chenab river valley (geopolitically split across Pangi and Lahaul districts) and Chamba valley. Shepherds from Chamba annually migrate with large herds of 300 to 1,000 sheep and goats across several very steep 4,500 meter passes to graze the high altitude meadows of Pangi and Lahaul which produces better quality milk and meat. They return home only five months later at the end of the summer before the passes close again.

Camping below the stardust of the milky way while camping at Trakdi along the Manji Khad stream inside the beautiful Dhauladhar mountains near Dharamsala in Himachal.

I crossed the Marhu, Darati and Chaurasi passes touching 4,200 to 4,600 meters, all undocumented, following the footsteps of the Gaddis or shepherds who had just crossed over. The most adventurous and scary one is Darati, which is a sheer vertical 1,000-meter rockface that seems impossible to climb at first sight. From steep snow-covered ridges on top of the pass to a labyrinth of narrow passages through steep rock faces, one can only imagine how shepherds traverse these with 500 sheep. About 5% of the sheep do not make it alive to the other side.

Shepherds from Chamba Valley, Himachal at the base of the Darati pass waiting to cross over the steep snow-covered pass in early July across the Pir Panjal range into the high altitude meadows of Lahaul.
Women at Kalprai village in Chamba valley harvesting wheat on the rooftops of the mud separating the grains from the stem by hitting with large sticks while rhythmically rotating in a circle.

I experienced one of the most spellbinding moments in my entire journey so far while I was about to climb up the Chaurasi pass. At exactly the same moment, a massive herd of more than a thousand sheep and goats descended down the snow-covered pass displaying their natural skill to traverse these very steep slopes. They were guided by ten shepherds from Barmour district in Chamba on their way to the fairytale Chaurasi ki dal glacial lake surrounded by lush green meadows dotted with alpine flowers of all colors of the rainbow.

One thousand sheep descending from the snow-covered Chaurasi pass (4700m) in the Chamba valley in Himachal on their way from the plains to graze the high altitude meadows. They will only return home 5 months later at the onset of winter.

The most memorable moments in these remote valleys of the Himalayas have been my encounters and night stays with the Gujjars, or mountain tribes. Small, remote hamlets far beyond the last villages deep inside the forest, completely disconnected from civilization. These tribals live with their cattle in large beautiful rock and mud shelters built with huge pine tree trunks. They graze their buffaloes, horses, and sheep in the meadows which stay together with them under the same roof. Each and every encounter along my way with these native people has been one of heartwarming hospitality. After a full energy-draining pass crossing, ending up around a warm fire in a mud home eating freshly cooked food with these families who consider you as one of their own is beyond words.

Unseen hospitality with the Gujjars or mountain tribes in Chamba, Himachal who live disconnected from society deep inside the forests in mud homes grazing their cattle in high altitude meadows.
Overnight stay and dinner with the mountain tribes at Rali Dhar in Chamba, Himachal. The lady of the home is preparing yummy rottis (flat breads) on the fire with buffalo milk. They stay under one roof with their cattle.

Peter will continue to share his field notes with the hope of inspiring others to explore these beautiful locations. You can read more about Peter’s experiences and motivations in his interview here – Alpine-Style, Ultra-Challenge in the Himalayan High Passes. Stay tuned on The Outdoor Journal for Peter’s next update along his 2,500 km journey.

To follow Peter’s expedition, visit his blog.
Facebook: @PeterVanGeit
Instagram: @petervangeit
Chennai Trekking Club

For more Neil Productions, visit: http://neil.dj/
Facebook: @neilb4me

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