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What’s the use of a fine house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?

- Henry David Thoreau

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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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Adventure Travel

Jul 31, 2018

Kayaking’s Elite Return to India at the Malabar River Festival

During the week of July 18th to 22nd, the Malabar River Festival returned to Kerala, India with one of the biggest cash prizes in whitewater kayaking in the world.

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WRITTEN BY

Brooke Hess

A $20,000 purse attracted some of the world’s best kayakers to the region for an epic week battling it out on some of India’s best whitewater.

The kayaking events at Malabar River Festival were held on the Kuttiyadi River, Chalippuzha River, and the Iruvajippuzha River, in South India on the Malabar Coast. The festival was founded and organized by Manik Taneja and Jacopo Nordera of GoodWave Adventures, the first whitewater kayaking school in South India.

Photo: Akash Sharma

“Look out for these guys in the future because there are some future stars there”

One of the goals of the festival is to promote whitewater kayaking in the state of Kerala and encourage locals to get into the sport. One of the event organizers, Vaijayanthi Bhat, feels that the festival plays a large part in promoting the sport within the community.  “The kayak community is building up through the Malabar Festival. Quite a few people are picking up kayaking… It starts with people watching the event and getting curious.  GoodWave Adventures are teaching the locals.”

Photo: Akash Sharma

Vaijayanthi is not lying when she says the kayak community is starting to build up.  In addition to the pro category, this year’s Malabar Festival hosted an intermediate competition specifically designed for local kayakers. The intermediate competition saw a huge turnout of 22 competitors in the men’s category and 9 competitors in the women’s category. Even the professional kayakers who traveled across the world to compete at the festival were impressed with the talent shown by the local kayakers. Mike Dawson of New Zealand, and the winner of the men’s pro competition had nothing but good things to say about the local kayakers. “I have so much respect for the local kayakers. I was stoked to see huge improvements from these guys since I met them in 2015. It was cool to see them ripping up the rivers and also just trying to hang out and ask as many questions about how to improve their paddling. It was awesome to watch them racing and making it through the rounds. Look out for these guys in the future because there are some future stars there.”

Photo: Akash Sharma

 

“It was awesome because you had such a great field of racers so you had to push it and be on your game without making a mistake”

Vaijayanthi says the festival has future goals of being named a world championship.  In order to do this, they have to attract world class kayakers to the event.  With names like Dane Jackson, Nouria Newman, Nicole Mansfield, Mike Dawson, and Gerd Serrasolses coming out for the pro competition, it already seems like they are doing a good job of working toward that goal! The pro competition was composed of four different kayaking events- boatercross, freestyle, slalom, and a superfinal race down a technical rapid. “The Finals of the extreme racing held on the Malabar Express was the favourite event for me. It was an epic rapid to race down. 90 seconds of continuous whitewater with a decent flow. It was awesome because you had such a great field of racers so you had to push it and be on your game without making a mistake.” says Dawson.

Photo: Akash Sharma

The impressive amount of prize money wasn’t the only thing that lured these big name kayakers to Kerala for the festival. Many of the kayakers have stayed in South India after the event ended to explore the rivers in the region. With numerous unexplored jungle rivers, the possibilities for exploratory kayaking are seemingly endless. Dawson knows the exploratory nature of the region well.  “I’ve been to the Malabar River Fest in 2015. I loved it then, and that’s why I’ve been so keen to come back. Kerala is an amazing region for kayaking. In the rainy season there is so much water, and because the state has tons of mountains close to the sea it means that there’s a lot of exploring and sections that are around. It’s a unique kind of paddling, with the rivers taking you through some really jungly inaccessible terrain. Looking forward to coming back to Kerala and also exploring the other regions of India in the future.”

 

For more information on the festival, visit: http://www.malabarfest.com/

Subscribe here: https://www.outdoorjournal.com/in/subscribe/

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