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.
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 took a mountaineering course and signed up to climb to Camp Two, 21,000ft up the mountain
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 reached the top of the after three years and two failed attempts
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.
“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