After conquering the K2, Vanessa O'Brien has won more than just the title of becoming the first British-American woman to climb the treacherous mountain.
On July 28, 2017, after reaching the summit of the world's second highest mountain, Vanessa unfolded the Pakistani flag she was carrying and stretched it out in front of her while one of her team members snapped a picture - signifying a monumental moment for the climber and marking yet another effort towards pushing boundaries for women.
Here's why it's significant: only 19 of the 376 people who have climbed K2 have been women and Vanessa now marks the 20th. Images got in touch with the mountain climber to ask her about her journey, the significance her achievement holds for other women, and of course, Pakistan's famed hospitality.
Images: What made you decide to climb K2?
Vanessa O Brien: I was following the K2 climbers in 2014 and it was during this period I started researching the mountain. I was so surprised by everything from all those early attempts by the British and the Americans, the so called ‘K2 curse on women’ (whether they could climb and survive K2), and the fact that statistically it was so much harder to climb than Everest – K2 had much higher death to summit statistics and very low rates of ascents.
Images: How did you prepare for it?
V: I find that the best way to prepare for any 8,000-meter peak is to increase my cardiovascular performance because I will be going into an environment where oxygen is a limited resource. So, I trained for the Boston Marathon and the event took place in April (we left for K2 in June). And I climbed a staircase in Manhattan with 1,210 steps (five times up and down, maybe three times a week). I also like Pilates for core strengthening work, but not so many weights.
Images: What hardships did you face during your journey?
V: Most of the hardships were weather-related. It is very hard to predict the weather on K2 and even if you think you can, it will change throughout the day/night. We encountered 50km winds, really deep snow, falling snow and white-out conditions along with temperatures as low as -40C.
Images: What was your biggest fear before you started and during the journey?
V: I had been to K2 two years prior and had seen two different mountains! In 2015, with El Niño weather conditions, the mountain was too warm. There was hard blue ice and a slushy, snow cone consistency on top, which made crampons hard to stick to. We only managed to get to Camp 2 and had two terrible accidents that year with falling rock that normally should have been frozen to the earth.
"I had been to K2 two years prior and had seen two different mountains! So I was looking at four years worth of actual weather forecasts, which didn’t tell a pretty picture."
In 2016 we had perfect conditions, however, increased precipitation caused an avalanche at Camp 3, wiping out all cached oxygen, supplies, tents and equipment. That called an end to the expedition.
So my biggest fear during the journey was the weather forecast and summit window. I was looking at four years' worth of actual weather forecasts, which didn’t tell a pretty picture. In 2016 during the last half of July, traditionally K2’s summit window, there were only four days when the winds were under 25km an hour, and they were not consecutive. The average was 63km for this period. I was worried we were going to have a rough summit day no matter what, which proved to be somewhat correct. So I guess you can say I was preparing myself for the worst!
Images: How did you feel once you reached the summit of K2? What was the first thought you had?
V: I think my first thought was ‘Oh no! We’ll be descending in the dark'. This was not my first choice. But miraculously when we reached the summit, we had blue skies instead of the white-out conditions in which we climbed up to the summit.
I was awestruck by the beauty of the landscape before me. I felt overwhelmed by our height and how we could see for miles. It really was amazing to see all the mountains and glaciers on the horizon.
Images: How does it feel to be the first British and American woman to scale K2 and what does it mean to you?
V: It means a lot to me because this is a mountain that is so hard to summit and one I dedicated three years of my life to. It means that perseverance, dedication, and unwavering focus combined with the right climbing and support team and weather window would lead to the summit... eventually. It feels great. I am also very grateful that so many people prayed for me and helped me find that extra courage to go that extra mile.
Images: What advice would you give to those interested in/preparing to scale K2?
V: Keep an open mind and be patient. Collaborate if it makes sense but be prepared to climb with your team only. Understand the history of K2 because there are lessons to learn, and pay respect to those at The Gilkey Memorial who came before you. Finally, be sure to make friends in Pakistan.
Images: After three years, the number of women to have reached the K2 summit has gone from 18 to just 20. Why do you think the number of women to scale the K2 is so low compared to men (376)?
V: If we look at the first five women who climbed K2 and stood on her summit, all five died – either on descent of K2 or on other 8,000-meter peaks. This started the so-called 'K2 Curse' – that women who climb K2 could die. It wasn’t until 2004, when Spanish climber Edurne Pasaban summited K2 that the curse was broken.
"It is my hope that any time a woman reaches the top of her profession she shows other women that they, too, can achieve the same."
By 2011 there were six living women who had climbed K2; and miraculously this number doubled in 2014 when six additional women summited K2 in a single year. Dong and I climbed this year adding #19 and #20, respectively.
Actually, the number of women as a percentage to men is not low compared to other 8,000 meter peaks – let me compare K2 and Everest and you will see 5.3% and 6.4% which is statistically similar. If we take 20/376 = 5.3% for K2 and Everest = 489/7,646 = 6.4%.
I think climbing 8,000-meter peaks is an extreme sport. If you were to remove the high altitude and say climbing (rock climbing, ice climbing and add in trekking) you would find women to make up a higher percentage, maybe 35% - 40%.
Images: As the first British-American woman to have scaled the K2, how do you think your achievement influences or impacts other women who wish to scale mountains?
V: It is my hope that any time a woman reaches the top of a mountain, the bottom of the ocean, the North or South Pole, goes up to Space, or even reaches the top of her profession that she shows other women that they, too, can achieve the same.
Images: At a news conference you said you love Pakistan’s people more than its mountain, could you elaborate and tell us how the locals won you over?
V: On my first day in Pakistan in 2015, I had a tooth fall out. I took a piece of candy from reception and as I was walking to my hotel room, I bit down on the candy and I could tell immediately that it took my tooth out. I was so shocked and horrified – I mean, how could I climb at altitude with a missing tooth?
I called a dentist in Islamabad who insisted I visit him immediately. He knew how important it was to secure my tooth in order to prevent trapped air otherwise I would have a problem at high altitude. When I tried to pay him for his services, he wouldn’t let me. He said that when he was in New York City years ago, a stranger helped him. So this universal debt had landed in my lap.
"I received many acts of kindness and made many friends in Pakistan. I did not experience anything negative either culturally or in the way of security," she says.
In my three years in Pakistan, I received many other acts of kindness and made many friends. I did not experience anything negative either culturally or in the way of security. Pakistan, Great Britain, and the US were there to celebrate Pakistan’s 70th year of Independence.
The UK’s history we know well - in August 1947, Pakistan saw the end of the British Empire's reign. But relations between the U.S. and Pakistan began prior to Pakistan’s independence, when the United States Secretary of State, George Marshall, sent a message to Mohammad Ali Jinnah, extending best wishes on behalf of the United States, as mentioned in Jinnah’s address to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan in 1947. We are allies and friends.
"The point of the flag carry to the K2 summit was to remind people of the continued support of friendship, peace and solidarity between the US and Pakistan."
That was the point of the flag carry to the K2 summit – to remind people of this continued support of Friendship, Peace and Solidarity.
Images: Are there other places in Pakistan you’d like to travel to and why?
V: Yes! I would like to travel to Hunza as this is the home of Nazir Sabir (Pakistani mountaineer) and almost all of my porters and many of my Liaison Officers. I have been told stories of how beautiful it is and next time I really must go.
I would also like to see Lahore – how could I say I know Pakistan without seeing this city? Now I have too many friends that live there to not go. This is the cultural capital and I would love to see all the architecture and read up on the history – I’d like to see the Palace, Fort, Mosque, and Gardens!
Third would be Karachi because it is Pakistan’s most populous city in Pakistan and friends and students have invited me there.