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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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Climbing

Jul 11, 2018

The Mountain Monks of Montserrat – Exploring History, Legends, and Great Climbing

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WRITTEN BY

Apoorva Prasad

Apoorva Prasad, The Outdoor Journal Editor-in-Chief, recounts a climbing trip to Montserrat in 2009, where he followed in the footsteps of the mountain monks of Santa Maria de Montserrat Abbey.

A small boy scrambled up the rough rocks, yanking at tough brown shrubs and grabbing the pebbled conglomerate of the rocky Catalan spires. His sure-footed goats had already reached a large clear ledge above. He gasped with the effort and tried not to look down. It was late afternoon and he had to gather his flock and drive them homewards soon. He mantled up to level ground and looked around. There they were, near a large, dark-mouthed cave. He yelled at them, the stupid creatures. He spoke only Catalan, a language native to these wild, mountainous parts between France and Spain. And then, the woman emerged.

She was dark and luminous. She was haloed by light, a strange sort of energy exuding from her, illuminating the entrance to the cave. He felt something touch him, a sort of blessedness. And then he fainted.
So was born the legend of the black Madonna.
Fast forward three hundred years. A large monastery and church stand on that ledge, surrounded by thousand-foot high spires of rock. There are two ways to the monastery – a winding mountain road, or a cable car. Today, like most days, the road is closed due to rockfall. The cable car has limited running hours – and we barely catch the last one up, with the lone operator holding it for us.
Montserrat – Jagged Mountain in English  – is a four-thousand-foot high plateau composed of reddish pebbly sedimentary rock needles that reach up into the sky, with holds that seem like they’ll pop out the moment you pull on them. Pinnacles emerge from the jumbled matrix, cliffs, and aretes that soar over the surrounding countryside.

More than a thousand routes spider the mountain. There are barely enough climbers here. When I was there, it seemed possible to spend a whole day climbing thousand foot classics without ever meeting another party – in near-perfect temps, even in February, the month of my first trip here. This is the warm, beating heart of Catalan mountaineering.

It was a warm late February day, and we had been completely alone so far. The only other people we’d seen was a small group of climbers hiking ahead of us on the trail before they disappeared into the brush as we detoured towards the base of our route. Even though we were barely a 40-minute drive from Barcelona, it felt like wilderness climbing. The overgrown brush covered everything. It is an incredible sensation, to know that there is real adventure all around us, so close to established urban centres. There are ibex and wild boars in the forests in and around the mountain, and we walk carefully to not disturb the peace and natural beauty of this place.

The base of the route appears suddenly from the green brush. Vegetation ends and rock begins. The sensation is familiar and reassuring. The first part is not-yet-vertical, but real climbing nonetheless. I like to lead first pitches, since I haven’t yet had the time to feel scared and I can bluster my way through, while the ground seems reassuringly close – which in reality makes no difference to any real or perceived danger, of course. The route is mostly bolted or marked with old pitons, there is little scope for natural protection.

Climbing slowly, we reached halfway up. I was belaying my partner Gilles, a Franco-Australian climber I had met some years ago in India. The route is considered the area’s classic and most popular climb – the 5.10a+, 11-pitch, 1033 foot (315m) Aresta Ribas. The Aresta – “arete” – first climbed by a certain Ribas in 1979, is the prominent spur of rock on the sunnier, south-facing side of the mountain – perfect for a winter climb. Despite its ranking, there is literally no-one else on the climb. For comparison, a 3-star multi-pitch classic like this one nearly anywhere in the United States or even in the French Alps would literally have a queue of climbing parties on it.

Suddenly, an old man in a blue sweater appeared to my right, climbing in what looked like sneakers. As I watched, their party of three appeared one after the other, traversing to our belay station, moving much faster than us. The leader was a younger man, the only one who spoke English. That was how I met Josep Castellnou, a local who told me stories of this amazing history of Montserrat. Josep, a vet from a nearby town, also managed rocktopo.com – a climbing site extolling the virtues of the natural park of Montserrat, with downloadable guides for each part of the mountain. [Ed: unfortunately the site is no longer online, but some topos are still available elsewhere].

“You are visiting here?” said Josep, casually while on lead. I was well secured in my belay anchors.
“Yes”, I replied, shielding my eyes from the sun while paying out rope to Gilles.

“Good!” he said, smiling. “But you will not know how to find the trail down. We will wait for you!” he exclaimed, before setting off again.

Their party was doing a route just adjacent to ours, and flying on it. I cherished such encounters in the mountains – in every way a normal social interaction, but between two strangers clinging spider-like to a vertiginous mountain wall. These meetings sometimes lead to lifelong friendships, and one can meet again decades later with the same sense of warmth and gratitude.

The climbing was unexpectedly difficult. The holds were rounded cobblestones emerging from a matrix of hard sediment, requiring you to balance your toes on rounded surfaces, with no real edges. I needed to think about footwork before making each move, which meant our progress was very slow. The route was series of spires stacked one upon the other. An immense panorama behind us gave me a massive sense of exposure, a feeling of stomach-churning, calf-tightening vertigo that kicks in when you can only see the air above, below and behind you. Eagles rode rising thermals, balancing motionless with outstretched wings on waves of invisible air. They nested on the cliff walls, and climbers were under strict instructions to leave certain areas and routes alone in this protected Park Natural de la Muntanya de Montserrat.

A young fresh faced Editor-in-Chief, Apoorva Prasad

The climbing took nearly the whole day. We reached the top as the sun began to set. Gilles and I quickly began to coil the ropes and switch out our rock climbing shoes for hiking footwear – wearing rock shoes the whole day is an incredibly painful experience, for those who haven’t yet tried it. Josep and his party were patiently waiting for us at the top, just beyond and below the ‘summit’ of the arete. I was warmly surprised, they must have reached at least an hour before us. They smiled and greeted us again, and rather quickly now, given the fading light, led us towards climber’s left, towards whatever path there was. Within some minutes it became clear to me that we would have never found it on our own, especially in the dark. The trail down was a complex, hours-long scramble over water-worn rock and incredibly dense brush, and not really a proper ‘trail’. If we hadn’t run into Josep’s party, we’d have probably spent the entire night cautiously hunting for the way down, having heard enough stories of climbing parties lost on descents upon being cliffed out, or going over an edge in the haze of fatigue, in darkness.

A little while later Josep pointed out a cave.
“You see these caves? Monks used to live here and meditate. Now climbers use them. They spend the year just living here and climbing”.
So medieval Benedictine monks had faded away, replaced in this new age by climbers, similarly meditating on paths to salvation amongst spires reaching up to the sky. Who were these 21st century rock-climbing monks? I was eager to find out, but tracking these unknown climbing hermits, seekers after greater truths… was not going to be easy or feasible.
The sun had already set below the horizon, we were hiking down in the twilight, and could barely see the trail. Yet I paused to look inside the cave. It was a small nook in the rook, just enough to serve as a passable campsite sheltered from the rain, to lay a sleeping bag on the uneven ground, a mendicant’s bowl on a rock ledge, perhaps a worn book. For a second, I closed my eyes and imagined that life. Then I heard the group outside, patiently waiting for us to follow that hidden trail, and I stepped back into the fading winter light.

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