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Our Members: Vanessa O’Brien

Posted on: April 3rd, 2012 by Luke Bauer

Vanessa (in red) and Kami (in blue) on the way to the summit of Shishapangma. Photo by Mark Hamill.

The American Alpine Club has over 9,000 members worldwide and each of those members approaches climbing and time in the outdoors differently. For some it’s a career, for some a diversion, for others, an obsession. The Club’s membership spans boulderers, sport-climbers, hikers, skiers, trad-rats, scientists, big-wall aficionados, adventurers, ice-climbers, peak-baggers, explorers, and alpinists. It’s a big tent, but there are a lot of people in love with the mountains excited to fill that tent.

Telling the stories of our members is important to us because it helps the community understand who makes up that community.  

At the Club’s Annual Dinner, the auction is always a draw; for those that bid on items, and for those that just love all the drama and action of an auction run by a talented auctioneer like Steve Schofield.

But for some participants, certain items are too much of a draw—they must have them. For AAC member Vanessa O’Brien—inspired by the premiere of The Old Breed—she just had to win the bidding for a day of climbing with Freddie Wilkinson, especially since she’d be outfitted in a brand new Ueli Steck Collection kit from Mountain Hardwear. So Vanessa, an investment banker turned climber, “squeezed the lemon”—waiting until the very last second of bidding and throwing out an unbeatable bid. She won, of course.

Vanessa quit banking after the worldwide economic meltdown and turned to climbing—there were a number of common themes that attracted her. In both business and on the mountain, “leadership, team morale, giving 110%, commitment, courage, drive, determination, cooperation, a focus on winning, goal-orientation, utilizing (scarce) resources, and the leveraging of team assets” are critical to the success of the expedition.

She applied these themes to her first attempt in the Himalaya: a shot at Everest (8,848m) in 2010. Altitude illness stopped her halfway through the Khumbu Icefall.  Irritated by an unsuccessful summit, she attempted Cho Oyu (8,201m) that autumn, but was stopped again, this time by unrelenting avalanches.

During her 2010 Everest attempt, Vanessa ran into an old acquaintance from New Zealand. He mentioned that his guide, Mike Hamill from International Mountain Guides (IMG), was spectacular. Vanessa began watching Hamill’s group and was impressed by his management: “strong, decisive, respectful, engaging, interesting, very safe, and extremely knowledgeable.” Vanessa booked her next Himalayan trip with IMG and Hamill became a mentor to her. (Hamill, incidentally, recently climbed the Seven Summits in just under 11 months and wrote a book about it.)

With Hamill’s help and mentorship—“I couldn’t have done it without him!”—Vanessa engaged in a vigorous training program and returned to the Himalaya in 2011 to summit both Shishapangma (8,013m) and Cho Oyu (as did Ueli Steck the same year). These successes emboldened Vanessa to follow in the footsteps of her mentor Mark Hamill and try for the Seven Summits—ideally before the end of 2013, since it corresponds to the Chinese Year of the Dragon, Vanessa’s birth year. She’s just left for Nepal for her second Everest attempt and is planning Denali in June, Elbrus in July, Vinson in November, and hopes to slot in the others along the way.

Vanessa, via email, said, “The draw for me is the challenge—mentally, physically, and spiritually—of whether or not I can reach the summit. Every mountain is unique and every time it is a new challenge and a random walk. Lower peaks aren’t necessarily easier and just because you’ve been high doesn’t mean you’ll make it high again. I choose the routes based upon the recommendations of the guides, but with the ultimate aim of summiting.”

Vanessa suggested that more climbers’ goals could be realized with corporate backing. “ I realize [that] I am in a privileged position to be able to both afford climbing and to take the time off to undertake these adventures. Something I would like to see more of is corporate sponsors helping to underwrite some of these guys in, say, Fort Collins, CO for the big expeditions like Everest, as I think the team sitting in the office could draw so much inspiration from the stories and challenges to be shared by someone who has made the attempt. Businesses want to be # 1 and to get to the Top, too.”

Vanessa recommends reading John Hunt’s The Ascent of Everest, the late Anatoli Boukreev’s Above the Clouds, and Ed Viesturs’s No Shortcuts to the Top. She indicated via email shortly before leaving for Nepal that she’ll be bringing Freddie Wilkinson’s new book, One Thousand Mountain Summits—The Untold Story of Tragedy and True Heroism on K2 and Ed Webster’s Snow in the Kingdom—My Storm Years on Everest for some basecamp reading.

Vanessa hopes to cap her successful Seven Summits bid with a human-powered trip to each of the poles—the so-called “Grand Slam”.  “…If all works out well I would like to have finished the Seven Summits by the end of January 2013 and then look at both poles. I don’t snow ski, though—probably the only climber that doesn’t—so I need a non-skiing option on the poles!”

Want to tell your story on the AAC’s blog? Email us. We want to hear from our members—and share their stories—whether they’re bouldering in New England’s forests, trekking across Mongolia, jamming cracks in Indian Creek, or sitting by the fire reading about others’ adventures. Climbing unites us and the Club strives to unite climbers.