Vanessa O’Brien has become one of just 20 women in history to conquer K2

After three years and two failed attempts, she had become one of just 20 women in history to conquer K2.“It was an amazing feeling,” she says of the 28,251ft peak in northern Pakistan, the second highest on the planet.

A perilous climb, one in four who reach the summit lose their life, most of them on the way back down.

But 52-year-old Michigan-born Vanessa wasn’t always a worldclass explorer.

In fact, in 2010 she was a successful financier working in London, where she lives with her husband Jonathan, 50, who works for an international law firm.

“Because of the recession it was a really horrible time, so I started looking for a new challenge and somebody joked that I should climb Everest.“At first I laughed and thought, what a ridiculous suggestion. But the next day I couldn’t stop thinking about it.”Vanessa became consumed by the idea of climbing Everest. She took a mountaineering course and signed up to climb to Camp Two, 21,000ft up the 29,029ft mountain.

Despite months of training, the climb later in 2010 was a disaster.

“I failed miserably and ended up getting water in my lungs.

My nails and my lips turned blue and I had to go home,” she says. But rather than giving up, she was determined to conquer the peak and went back to the drawing board.

“I trained differently, learnt about high-altitude medicine and brushed up on my technical skills.”

Vanessa O'Brien

Vanessa took a mountaineering course and signed up to climb to Camp Two, 21,000ft up the mountain

Then in 2011, she climbed China’s Shishapangma, the world’s 14th tallest mountain, and Cho Oyu on the China-Nepal border, the world’s sixth highest peak, getting to the top of both.And in 2012 she took on Mount Everest for a second attempt. This time she reached the summit.“I was determined to climb Everest and after climbing Shishapangma and Cho Oyu, I had such a great experience. I was in my element,” says Vanessa, who self-funds her expeditions.

Her obsession with climbing grew and in 2012 and 2013, she set a world record for climbing seven summits on seven continents in 295 days.

And in 2014 she conquered Manaslu in Nepal, the world’s eighth highest mountain. “A lot of people ask me why I climb.

The answer is to prove I can and to do something that’s important symbolically, like being one of the fi rst women there.”

In 2014, Vanessa chanced upon a news story that would spark her greatest challenge yet: being one of the first women to summit K2.

“The coverage said that six women had recently summited K2, doubling the total number of women to have ever done it. I thought: ‘Are you telling me only 12 have ever made it to the top?’”

Although one in four who reach the top of K2 die trying, Vanessa was determined to stand at the top and fly the flag for women everywhere.

But those closest to her were worried about the idea.

“They thought I was crazy,” she laughs. “But I knew that I had to do it.”

Vanessa O'Brien

Vanessa reached the top of the after three years and two failed attempts

Ignoring their concerns, Vanessa put together a team and in 2015 they set off for the summit.But sadly the expedition only reached Camp Two at 22,178ft because the weather was too warm, meaning a risk of avalanche. Not to be deterred, they tried again in 2016 and this time they reached Camp Three at 24,442ft but a huge avalanche buried their equipment.“Everything was wiped out. All of our tents, equipment, all gone.

Everybody was devastated and even if we could have scrambled enough from the remaining supplies and equipment, morale was too low to try again.”

Vanessa had also run out of money but despite this decided to make a fi nal attempt at climbing K2 in June this year. “I called it ‘the final conquest’.

“There was no way I could contemplate doing it again.”

The 14-strong team, three women and 11 men, battled freezing conditions and nights of sleeping in cramped tents.

“Two people turned around at Camp Two because they didn’t want to go any further. And when people start to turn around it makes you doubt yourself.”

But the team rallied and managed to carry on, despite bad weather holding them up.

“A few days in the middle of nowhere feels like eternity.

“You start thinking the routes are going to be completely snowed in and all the work that you’ve done will be for nothing.”

One thing which kept Vanessa going was getting her socks dry.

“Getting my boots and socks off is my favourite thing.

We don’t have a lot of changes of layers, so the best way to dry those things is to put one on each shoulder while I’m cooking dinner so my body heat warms them up.”

The expedition battled on and after several weeks managed to reach the fi nal camp before the summit.

“When we woke up on the day of the summit, we couldn’t see a thing because of the snow.“But while any other expedition would have turned back, I looked around me and realised these guys were going nowhere.”Finally, after three years and two failed attempts, they reached the top of the mountain and Vanessa raised the UN Women’s flag.

“It was an amazing feeling to be one of only 20 women who have stood at the top of K2. There’s nothing more powerful than getting to the top of a mountain to signal how far women have come,” she says. Although the team were elated at their success, they knew they still faced the most dangerous part of the climb: the descent.

“Accidents can happen on the way down. It’s easy to fall or make mistakes, especially when you’re tired,” she says.

“We came down at night which was very scary because our head-torch batteries had burnt out on the way up.

“You’re very high up, so there is cosmic light, but the stuff that you’re worried about isn’t always visible such as the snow bridges that hide the crevasses.”

Thankfully, seven weeks after they set off, the expedition arrived safely back at Base Camp.

“By the time we got there the team had made a cake. They had put fairy lights and candles out, there was music and it was a huge celebration. It felt really special.”

But Vanessa, who now conducts scientifi c research on her trips, doesn’t plan to stop there.

“There’s so much of the world which is undiscovered. I’ll never stop exploring.”

–  By Vanessa O’brien for EXPRESS

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