[O’Brien on the summit of Mount Everest in 2012]
On July 28, 52-year-old Vanessa O’Brien became the first American woman to summit K2 (28,251 feet), the second highest mountain in the world. The “Savage Mountain” claims one in four climbers that attempt the peak. She and her team of 12, safely returned to base camp the next day. O’Brien also holds British citizenship, so she simultaneously became the first British woman to summit K2.
“This was by far the hardest undertaking I have ever come across,” O’Brien told Forbes.com. “Not just the 50-kilometer winds and snow pushing against you, but the pure blue ice underneath your feet that threatened to pull you off balance at any second.”.
This successful summit was O’Brien’s third attempt at climbing the triangular shaped peak situated on Pakistan’s border with China. Unusually harsh weather thwarted her 2015 attempt, and a 2016 avalanche decimated stashed equipment at Camp 3. No other teams summited during those two years.
O’Brien would not be denied in 2017; heavy snowfall and unstable weather forced the other six teams present to retreat and head home, but Only O’Brien’s team of 12 international climbers persevered. The never-give-up attitude paid off with a weather window, awarding the team with the only success of the season. The final push was a marathon effort of 16 hours from Camp 4 at just over 25,000 feet.The weather—incredibly—held for the duration.
“It is said when you climb Everest, you are a mountaineer in the eyes of the world, but when you climb K2 you are a mountaineer in the eyes of other climbers,” O’Brien told Forbes.com before her climb. “K2 fascinates me because while it is not quite as high as Everest, it is technically more challenging with exposed rock, steeper terrain, and a higher avalanche risk.”O’Brien is a graduate of New York University’s Stern School of Business and enjoyed a successful career as a banker, working for giants Morgan Stanley and Bank of America, before taking a break during the 2010 recession. It was then she sought challenges elsewhere. A friend quipped “Everest,” and O’Brien embarked on a fast track international mountaineering program, summiting the tallest mountain in the world in 2012. Along the way, she broke the women’s Seven Summits record for scaling the highest mountain peak on each continent in nine months and 19 days. The prolific adventurer also added skiing the last degree of the North and South poles to the Seven Summits run, completing the coveted Explorers Grand Slam in 11 months.
In addition to flying the American and British flags atop K2, O’Brien proudly flew the UN Women flag, representing the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women.
“A proud day for #woman everywhere at the top of #K2, the world’s second highest mountain,” O’Brien announced via Twitter.
Pakistan has long been feared by travelers with militant attacks making headlines and raising concerns about security. O’Brien serves on the board of the American Pakistan Foundation and has no doubt been touched by the people during her three attempts at K2. “One of the most important flags I carried to the top of #K2 was #Pakistan, a country that has shown me so much love & support #PakistanZindabad (long live Pakistan),” she wrote on Twitter.
Nazir Sabir, chief organizer of O’Brein’s expedition and experienced mountaineer, praised the climber, for her support of Pakistan and message of peace.
Vanessa O’Brien has triumphantly followed in the boot steps of Polish climber Wanda Rutkiewicz, the first woman to top K2 in 1986 and Jim Wickwire, the first American to summit in 1978, adding one of the most impressive mountaineering feats to her already long list of adventurous accomplishments and remarkable professional resume.