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To the Greatest Heights
Facing Danger, Finding Humility, and Climbing a Mountain of Truth
Table of Contents
About The Book
Long before she became the first American woman to summit K2 and the first British woman to return from its summit alive, Vanessa O’Brien was a feisty suburban Detroit teenager forced to reinvent her world in the wake of a devastating loss that destroyed her family.
Making her own way in the world, Vanessa strove to reach her lofty ambitions. Soon, armed with an MBA and a wry sense of humor, she climbed the corporate ladder to great success, but after the 2009 economic meltdown, her career went into a tailspin. She searched for a new purpose and settled on an unlikely goal: climbing Mount Everest. When her first attempt ended in disaster, she trudged home, humbled but wiser. Two years later, she made it to the top of the world. And then she kept going.
Grounded by a cadre of wise-cracking friends and an inimitable British spouse, Vanessa held her own in the intensely competitive world of mountaineering, summiting the highest peak on every continent, and skiing the last degree to the North and South Poles. She set new speed records for the Seven Summits, receiving a Guinness World Record and the Explorers Grand Slam, and finally made peace with her traumatic past. During her attempt on K2, she very nearly gave up. But on the “savage mountain,” which kills one out of every four climbers who summit, Vanessa evolved from an adventurer out to challenge herself to an explorer with a high-altitude perspective on a changing world—and a new call to share her knowledge and passion across the globe.
Told with heart and humor, Vanessa’s journey from suburban Detroit to Everest’s Death Zone to the summit of K2 and beyond, is a transformative story of resilience, higher purpose, and the courage to overcome any obstacle.
Mountain climbing is extended periods of intense boredom interrupted by occasional moments of sheer terror.
I scrambled over a rocky moraine onto the Godwin-Austen Glacier high in the Himalayas. K2 towered over me, marbled white and black against blue sky, an almost perfect triangle, like a mountain drawn by a child. I tried to focus on my feet, but the summit teased the corner of my eye and made me feel a bit off-kilter. It dodged in and out, playing hide-and-seek with the midsummer cirrus clouds and crystalline snow plumes that rode a relentless wind. I don’t recall the exact song I heard in my earbuds. It may have been the Rolling Stones singing about the difference between getting what you want and getting what you need, or maybe the Sex Pistols singing about the difference between what you want and what you get. Every expedition has its own soundtrack, and either one of those would be appropriate for my second attempt on K2.
Straddling the border between Pakistan and China, K2 is the highest point in the Karakoram Range, the second-highest mountain on the planet, at 28,251 feet and around 11,850 feet from Base Camp to summit. Its brutal cold, constant avalanches and falling rock, tricky technical climbs, and predictably dire weather conditions are legendary. It’s a grueling test of physical endurance and mental will. Nothing keeps you there but sheer determination, because going there puts you and everyone who loves you in an excruciatingly uncomfortable position, as my husband, Jonathan, can confirm without complaining.
In 2013, three years before my second attempt on K2, a father and son were swept away by an avalanche near Camp 3, around 24,275 feet. On a bluebird day, I could just about see where they would have been. I had made a promise to the surviving wife and mother and her daughter, Sequoia Schmidt, that I would keep an eye out for any signs of either of them, so ever since we’d arrived at Base Camp and begun seeing the evidence of what various avalanches had been pulling down the mountains, I’d been investigating shredded summit suits, pieces of torn clothing, and yes, even the odd fragments of human remains. When I heard through the grapevine that another team had spotted two different boots side by side sticking out of an ebbing glacier, I felt a surge of hope and went out for a closer look.
The topography here is the legacy of a colossal slow-motion fender bender that’s been going on for more than fifty million years. The Indian Plate smashed into and under the Eurasian Plate, forcing peaks five miles into the air to create the Himalayas, which include the Karakoram Mountains. As you observe when someone gets rear-ended in traffic, the wreckage juts up, folding into itself like an accordion. Fossils that formed in the primordial depths are now embedded in rock thousands of meters above sea level. Avalanches deposit snow into underground streams that gradually cut into the mountain, leaving deep crevasses and brittle ledges.
Mountains are never static, but the elderly ones that date back billions of years tend to be worn down and docile. In geological terms, the Himalayas are petulant adolescents. They talk back and misbehave, casting off rubble and debris without warning. Between the sharp peaks, frozen rivers and mountain waterfalls are constantly on the move, shifting three to six feet in a single day. A climber can easily slip into a deep crevasse and disappear into the icy abyss. They can get crushed by a tumbling serac or make some fatal mistake. They can succumb to sickness, edema, exhaustion, or hypoxia. They can fall, freeze, or simply fail to wake up.
At this writing, only 377 people have summited K2, and 84 climbers have died there, making it the second-deadliest mountain in the world, after Annapurna. For every twenty summits of Everest, there’s only one summit of K2, and for every four summits of K2, one person dies, and the unpleasant reality is, very few dead bodies come off the mountain intact. Disembodied limbs, ghost gear, and frozen corpses appear and disappear in the shifting ice. The force of an avalanche tumbles the body like a stone in the ocean—bones breaking, joints separating, tendons snapping, cartilage crumbling. The body tends to come apart at its weakest junctures, starting with the neck. The pieces are likely to be found by birds before another human being comes along to shift a disembodied head into a crevasse or shuffle scree over a torso. At high altitude, expending energy to pile rocks on a corpse or attempt to retrieve it would endanger the life of the well-intentioned climber, so my goal was not to recover the father and son, only to identify them with DNA samples.
The Sherpa are spooked by death. Many of them won’t visit the memorial cairn near K2 Base Camp. Some fear that even taking a picture of a dead body might interrupt the soul’s journey. There was certainly no point in asking them to handle a dead man’s ankle, so I’d invited my Ecuadorian teammate Benigno to hike up the glacier with me. He was still below the moraine when I saw a stretch of crystal blue ice and snow the color of whipped cream up ahead. The pale backdrop made it easy to spot the bold blue and neon orange boots. Different colors, same European brand. Maybe two climbers who’d shopped together for gear. Using my Garmin inReach, a satellite device that tracks movement and allows texting, I messaged Sequoia: “Were they wearing Koflach boots?”
While I waited for an answer, I made my way up the glacier to look for other signs of clothing, equipment, or remains. Climbing gear is as colorful as a circus act, specifically because we want to be easy to see against ice and rock. When I first started climbing, I hated this. I wanted to look like a ninja warrior, not a matching set of ketchup and mustard bottles on a grill, but La Sportiva Olympus Mons Evo boots were always going to be yellow. So it’s like Henry Ford’s Model T: you go with what gets you there. I hiked upward for a while, scanning the shadowed snowbanks. Nothing. It was overcast now, and I was pushing against a persistent wind that pushed back hard enough to engage a core of resistance between my ribs and breastbone. I went back to the boots.
I peered into the blue boot first and found that it contained a foot, an ankle, and a broken tibia with a good amount of flesh still on the bone. The quality of the tissue reminded me of the pickled pig’s feet my mother used to love—whitish flesh marbled with jellied fat. I shuddered at the sight of her eating them when I was a kid. After this, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to look at them at the neighborhood deli. On the positive, there was plenty of opportunity to obtain DNA. I’m no expert, but I understand the fundamentals and thought I could be fairly stoic about the sample collection, because I’ve been stoic about things like that since I was a kid.
I remember going to my first funeral when I was eight. My mother took me and my little brother, Ben, up to the casket to pay our respects. Ben was too small to see over the edge, but I stood on tiptoes and asked, “Can I touch it?” Mom nodded, so I reached in and stroked the tweedy sleeve of a starched bark-gray suit. I didn’t know this person. He was an empty rack of clothes. His soul had gone to Heaven, everyone said, and I believed that with the unquestioning faith of a child. I still do. But when I pulled my sample collection kit from my pocket—surgical gloves, scissors, mask, sample container, and Swiss army knife—my hands were shaking. This was not some frog to be dissected in biology class. This was someone’s brother, which made me think of my own little brother, and I felt my stoicism shrivel.
“Hey, Benigno,” I called, and he clambered onto the icy rise and stood next to me, puffing white clouds of breath.
“I may be a bit out of my depth here,” I said, offering him a mask and gloves. “I don’t suppose you’d give me a hand? Or a foot, as it were.”
He shrugged, grinning. Climbers are used to dark humor. I held the boot, instructed him what bits of flesh to saw away, and opened the container to receive the sample.
“Right. Perfect. Now can you snap off that bone fragment? Good. Same thing on this other one. I’ll get another container.”
We repeated the whole process with the other boot. When it was done, I removed my mask and gloves, labeled the containers, and bagged them with the knife.
“Hey, don’t throw away the knife,” said Benigno. “Give it to me. I’ll clean and keep it.”
Fair enough. I let him reach in the bag and take it. There was a deep crevasse a few yards away, so we gathered the rest of the remains and carefully placed them into the dark recess, marking the GPS coordinates.
“Let me say a prayer,” I said.
Benigno stood respectfully, head bowed, hands behind his back.
“Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done as Earth is in—on Earth in—in Heaven.” My voice cracked. I’d recited the Lord’s Prayer every day for forty years of living memory. Now I blinked my watery eyes, disturbed to find the familiar words out of reach while a host of unfamiliar emotions rushed in. “Lead us not into temptation. Deliver us from evil. Amen.”
Farman, our cook and Base Camp manager, said he would keep the samples on ice. I sent another message to Sequoia, and this time the answer came back quickly. Neither her father nor her brother had been wearing that brand of boots.
Fuck. I was hoping it would be them. I had nothing else to offer this mother and daughter, who would linger on in pain, not knowing. Their unresolved grief sat in bitter counterpoint to the unidentified DNA samples in the icebox, meaningless if you can’t connect them to a family member. I understood all too well. My mother died aching that same ache. My father could never talk about it, even before Parkinson’s took away his ability to talk at all.
The scene stayed with me, threading nightmare themes into my restless high-altitude sleep over the following days, which played out like a bad dream anyway. An avalanche much like the one that took the father and son swept the contents of Camp 3 down the mountain, sparing lives but taking all our carefully cached equipment, tents, supplies, and oxygen. My second attempt to summit K2 ended in a witch’s brew of shit weather and bad luck. I didn’t know if it would be physically, financially, or emotionally possible for me to try a third time. At the moment, I felt like I’d been dragged under a door.
The more I climb, the more I see how climbing history repeats itself. The dynamics of the business world, my previous life, for better or worse, mirror the dynamics of mountain climbing: the way we learn; how we interact; what happens in times of ascendance and collapse; the cultures of teamwork, alliance, and lone-wolf-ism. I truly thought I could MBA my way out of any problem that stood between me and the summit. The mountains corrected me.
Nonetheless, I received a hero’s welcome from my friends, which is why I look forward to the celebration that follows every expedition. My husband of twenty years and counting means the world to me, and ever since I was a kid—from the time my own family fell apart—I’ve taken refuge in creating an ad hoc family wherever I go. My friends are the first sounding board for all my hopes, fears, and dreams. When I come home triumphant, they keep me grounded. When I come home defeated, they make me optimistic again. Jonathan takes a dim view of optimism until it’s been supported by numbers.
When I met my husband, I was on top of the world, and I don’t mean Everest. I was living in London with a fresh MBA and a thriving financial-sector career. Jonathan, a corporate accountant who survived the icy abyss of English public school from age seven, found all of the above compellingly sexy. He adored my “spirit of adventure,” which entailed risky activities like twirling in sandals, jumping onto ski lifts—carpe T-bar!—and doing whatever it took to get back to the safari on time. I believe the technical term is fun: a three-letter word rendered foreign to little boys in draconian English public schools. What Jonathan didn’t know then—what he’s only come to know as I’ve come to know myself—is that some terrible things had happened in my life, and these things hadn’t ceased to bother me. I was just very good at never talking about them.
I’m less good at that now. Every summit has changed me. My stiff upper lip has softened a bit. That said, I refuse to dish up the idea that climbing resulted in Jungian self-actualization or any such haggis as that. I subscribe to George Mallory’s classic reason for wanting to climb Mount Everest: “Because it’s there,” he told a reporter in 1923. “Its very existence is a challenge.” That much I agree with. But then Mallory went on to say, “The answer is instinctive, a part, I suppose, of man’s desire to conquer the universe.”
A man’s desire, maybe. Not mine. I never wanted to conquer K2 or Everest or any other mountain. I see myself climbing into the lap of a mother mountain. Never would I consider myself stronger, grander, wiser, or more noble than she.
The first two men to summit K2 were Lino Lacedelli and Achille Compagnoni, part of a historic 1954 Italian expedition. The first two American men to climb K2 were Jim Wickwire and Louis Reichardt in 1978. The first woman to summit K2 was Polish climber Wanda Rutkiewicz in 1986, a year that saw thirteen climbers, including Rutkiewicz’s climbing partners, lose their lives. In 2017, thirty-one years after Wanda, the first American woman to summit K2 was me. Because I have dual citizenship, I was also the first British woman to summit K2 and survive the descent. It was my third attempt. I was fifty-two years old and had been climbing seriously for less than eight years.
I’m as surprised as anyone to find that my business experience actually did prepare me for a life of adventure and exploration—and yes, there is a difference. Adventure is something you do for yourself; exploration is something you do for posterity and to give back. You don’t always have to have fun to have fun. If fun happens along the way, that’s great. I love the planning, research, and camaraderie of expeditions. I’m overwhelmed by the stunning vistas and the generosity of the local people in different countries. What a privilege it is to be embraced by the people of Pakistan and Nepal! But the actual climbing of a mountain is often a miserable experience while it’s happening. Mentally, it’s a grueling test of how many times you can sing “Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” Physically, it’s high mileage at best, and at worst, it’s shattering. Frostbitten fingers and toes blister and blacken and sometimes get lopped off. Living outdoors for weeks or even months, there’s no reprieve from the raw elements. Getting within shouting distance of the world’s highest peaks requires travel through third world countries, where the drinking water is more dangerous than the jet stream winds, not to mention thugs whose cottage industry is holding climbers for ransom.
“I can’t wait to never be here again,” another climber once sighed, and this crookedly optimistic declaration comes back to me whenever I see cows eating cardboard on the banks of a sewage ditch or children working as field hands. I think of those words every time I enter a vermin-infested lodge with dirt floors or gag at the smell of a sludge-covered latrine. If I peel off a moist sock and find ground meat where the ball of my foot used to be, I remind myself that hope is backhanded; in order to experience it, you must be down on your luck. So it is in business and in life.
But sorting through some old family photos not long ago, I noticed something I’d never seen before. Almost every picture had mountains of some sort in the background. Here’s a shot of me as a baby on a picnic blanket in some forgotten meadow. My handsome father leans in, resting on his elbow, the steep rake of a park bluff behind him. Here’s me and my little brother, Ben, stuffed side by side into a kiddie ride, him grinning, me looking like I’m about to murder someone. Through the rickety rails, you can see the pyramid of a distant peak. Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone—all the usual American family vacation goals plus a host of snowcapped hills and headlands I don’t recognize. I see them now, great stoic sentinels, hulking in the shadows of a troubled time, lending their formidable mass to a world about to shatter. Long after my family disappeared, the mountains came back to claim me.
This is the story of how I climbed to the top of the world’s highest peaks and navigated some dark valleys that are not easy for me to talk about. It’s a story about resilience, the love child born to obstacles and avalanches, and about how the adventure of life evolves into exploration. Also, it’s about how to pee while mountaineering, because for some reason, people always ask me about that. In order to tell the story in the most effective way possible, some characters and events have been composited, and conversations have been re-created to capture the spirit of the exchange to the best of my recollection. For a variety of reasons, many of the names have been changed. Events not relevant to the story at hand have been omitted. This memoir does not begin to cover the full scope of my life or career. I hope the people in my professional life and personal life will understand that their presence in this book does not directly measure their place in my heart. There are several versions of this story, and all of them are true in their own way, true as any memory shared with a friend in the shifting lamplight of perspective.
When it comes up in conversation with my friends, Stephanie is certain she’s the one who said I should climb Mount Everest. Pippa says it started with a dare/double dare sort of email. Maya blames tequila, and I agree with her insofar as this is a story of unruly spirits. The foggy details no longer matter. I tend to fast-forward rather than rewind. Nostalgia is a waste of oxygen, and regret has a nasty tendency to avalanche. What matters is the mountain that stands before you.
- Publisher: Atria/Emily Bestler Books (March 30, 2021)
- Length: 368 pages
- ISBN13: 9781982123789
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Raves and Reviews
"O'Brien pours her unflagging energy and hard-won life wisdom into every aspect of her book . . . A vicariously engaging addition to the literature on mountaineering as well as a beacon of inspiration in these dark times. O'Brien's warm, witty voice will bring a wide audience to her world-class adventures."
– Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"Thrilling . . . O’Brien makes readers feel as if they’re on the mountain with her through her vivid descriptions and detail . . . Readers will devour O'Brien's sensational, electrifying tale."
– Publishers Weekly
"Readers will enjoy vicariously experiencing O'Brien's thrills and fears, and she does a fine job of sharing her joys and failures. This should be a high-point for armchair adventurers."
"What a wonderful, honest, refreshing book, full of free spirited adventure, humour and profound thoughts to provide inspiration to anyone who simply dreams of getting out and doing their own thing."
– Sir Chris Bonington, world famous mountaineer and internationally bestselling author of ASCENT
"Ernest Shackleton listed those qualities an explorer should possess over a century ago: Optimism, Patience, Idealism with Imagination, and Courage. Vanessa’s qualities are truly akin to these."
– Alexandra Shackleton, Sir Ernest Shackleton’s granddaughter
"A must-read for anyone interested in adventure and exploration. Vanessa’s memoir gives us insight into what drives her and how she approaches challenges, both in her personal life and on the world’s highest peaks."
– Jim Clash, Forbes adventure journalist
"An extraordinarily moving and touching story."
– Sir Humphry Wakefield, Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society
"Refreshing and delightfully written, To the Greatest Heights is a rare mix of heart-stopping adventure and powerful self-reflection by one of America's finest mountaineers."
– Johanna Garton, author of EDGE OF THE MAP
"TO THE GREATEST HEIGHTS is a brutally honest, beautifully crafted and truly inspirational account of an almost impossible journey completed thanks to the author’s unswerving commitment, determination and courage."
– Neil Laughton, Chairman of The Scientific Exploration Society
"An excellent exposition of the will and resolve of a woman to achieve the most challenging objectives and goals in life. A saga of physical and psychological pain and determination. A treat to read."
– Masood Aslam, (Ret) Lt-General Pakistan Army
"O’Brien’s story is deep in insight and observation. An impressive read."
– Peter Hillary, Chairman of the Himalayan Trust
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- Book Cover Image (jpg): To the Greatest Heights Hardcover 9781982123789
- Author Photo (jpg): Vanessa O'Brien Photograph by Penny Vizcarra at PV Public Relations(0.1 MB)
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