Meditation, Focus and No Ego: Everest Mountaineer and Serial Adventurer Vanessa O’Brien on What It Takes to Reach the Top, Lifestyle News



Tired, her adrenaline drained, her body shaking and her mind numb, Vanessa O’Brien struggled to savor the moment. After a grueling expedition of more than 50 days and a severe test of his mountaineering skills, physical endurance and mental toughness, O’Brien had made his dream come true.

She stood on top of the world, 8,849 meters (29,032 feet) above sea level atop Mount Everest – a place she remembers as being a little wider and longer than a mattress. king-size.

For most people, such an arduous experience would be enough to last a lifetime. Not for O’Brien, who had just started.

Since that day, May 19, 2012, she has climbed the highest peak of any continent, the Seven Summits Challenge, completing it in 295 days – a Guinness World Record for the fastest time set by a woman.

To add to that feat, she skied the last 60 nautical miles (111.1 km) to the South Pole and North Pole to complete what is known as the Grand Slam of the Explorers.


She is the first American woman to reach the top of K2 (the second highest mountain in the world, at 8,611 meters, on the Sino-Pakistan border), and set another Guinness World Record by becoming the first woman to reach the highest and lowest points on Earth. it reached Challenger’s Deep, 10,925 meters below the Western Pacific Ocean at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, in a submersible on June 12, 2020.


O’Brien, 56, recounted his adventures in a book, To The Greatest Heights – Facing Danger, Finding Humility and Climbing a Mountain of Truth (published March 2021, Simon & Schuster).


Armed with an MBA from the prestigious NYU Stern School of Business, O’Brien was ready to rise to the top of the corporate ladder rather than the roof of the world.

But after a successful 20-year career in finance, O’Brien, who was working in Hong Kong at the time, lost his job following the 2008 global financial crisis.

“I was looking for a bold new goal and over a few drinks at a girls’ night out, a friend suggested I climb Everest.

The idea ricocheted through my mind and stuck, ”says O’Brien, whose only mountaineering experience before that was climbing Mount Kilimanjaro (5,895 meters) in Tanzania, East Africa, in 2005. .

With his eyes fixed on his new goal, O’Brien began to train diligently.

“I worked with a performance trainer, Ross Eathorne, to train for the challenges of high altitude mountaineering,” says O’Brien.


Hong Kong-based Eathorne pushed O’Brien to make sure she was up to the challenge.

“We used a wide range of free weights, including a heavy sandbag attached to a rope that Vanessa dragged down the hall to simulate rope climbing.

To help build the high-altitude cardiovascular endurance needed for mountaineering, we have designed high-intensity circuits to be performed while carrying climbing gear and camping gear, ”says Eathorne, 52.

O’Brien first attempted to climb Camp Two on Everest, at an altitude of 6400 meters, in 2010, but was unable to do so.

“I struggled with the Khumbu Icefall, the first challenge you face after base camp. This is dangerous, because you have to bypass large crevasses that suddenly open into the moving glacier.


I realized that my mountaineering skills, my understanding of the impact of high altitude on the body, and my endurance needed to improve dramatically.

“I had pulmonary edema (fluid buildup in the tissues and airspace of the lungs which can lead to respiratory failure) and had to turn around,” says O’Brien.

She returned to Hong Kong, where Eathorne developed a game plan focused on aerobic and anaerobic conditioning.

“Our new training strategy was to stay strong without putting on too much weight.

We added Pilates and yoga for core strength and continued with high intensity interval training, ”says Eathorne.

O’Brien joined a local hiking group and started exploring the trails of Hong Kong.

“My favorite was the MacLehose trail (stages three and four). In many ways, the training for the expedition is more difficult than the expedition itself. It takes patience and hard work, ”she says.

In preparation for his attempt to climb Everest, O’Brien climbed Mount Washington (1,917 meters) in New Hampshire, Mount Rainier (4,392 meters) in Washington state, Cho Oyu ( 8,188 meters) in Nepal and the Shishapangma (8,013 meters) in Tibet, China.


“I had to go lower before I could go higher. During these climbs, I was able to see the benefits of my new exercise regimen, increasing lung capacity and agility, ”she says.

After conquering Everest and completing the Seven Summits, O’Brien turned to K2, a mountain she had attempted to climb twice, in 2015 and 2016.

The delicate technical climbs of the K2, the often difficult weather conditions and the constant threat of avalanches and rockfall have earned it the nickname “wild mountain”. One in four climbers who try to reach the top of K2 cannot do so alive.

O’Brien peaked at K2 on his third attempt in 2017, aged 52, after undergoing surgery to repair three torn tendons in his rotator cuff.


What kept O’Brien going despite several setbacks? “I think that’s my love of data points – each of these ‘missed opportunities’ gave me information, and with more information came the hope and confidence that I could do it.


“It wasn’t easy – every year is another year of training, hard work, intensity and focus. And more money (an expedition to Everest costs between US $ 50,000 (S $ 66,470) and US $ 85,000), ”says O’Brien.

How does O’Brien stay mentally strong in life threatening situations?

“Mountaineering is more mental than physical; you are doing well and beyond what your body is capable of. I have a focused mantra for staying alert, which I repeat: “Today is the day, look to the end.”

I use a form of meditation where if I have a negative thought and become anxious, I visualize putting it on a raft and the thought flying away, ”says O’Brien.

“The mountains have taught me a lot. The first and most difficult lesson is to let go of control and focus only on the things you can control. They taught me patience and made me a nicer person.

“To climb the mountains I have climbed, I had to get rid of the ego I came with, which was far too heavy to carry. I’m sure it’s in a crevice somewhere by now.

O’Brien’s advice to people who want to climb Everest and K2 is to get acquainted with high altitude, climb an 8,000-meter peak first, and learn about high-altitude medicine.

“You’ll have more fun once you understand the dynamics of high altitude mountaineering,” she says.

She is satisfied with the comments she has received on her book.


“I get emails from people who have lost their jobs, want to change careers, are going through a midlife crisis, or people looking for a post Covid-19 fling, saying the book inspires them to cross the line. next big step in their life. she says.

O’Brien subscribes to the classic reason of the English climber George Mallory for wanting to climb Mount Everest.

“Because he’s here,” he told a reporter in 1923.

Mallory went on to say, “The answer is instinctive, part, I guess, of man’s desire to conquer the universe.”

So what’s next for O’Brien? “A mission to the moon, maybe?” She answers.

This article first appeared in South China Morning Post.


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