“I failed that first time,” O’Brien said. “I didn’t make it to the summit, only to base camp. It was a humbling experience. But if it wasn’t already clear to me, and it was, that failure drove home the fact that it is a deadly serious sport. It isn’t a game in any way.”
When she reached the summit of Everest — the world’s highest peak at 29,035 feet — last May, it was with both elation and sadness, as Duane Nelson, a Portland, Ore.-based executive with Intel Corp. and member of her party, lost all the toes on his right foot to frostbite, and several other members of her party developed altitude sickness and had to turn back early in the climb.
Nelson, a marathon runner and experienced climber, said O’Brien made it to the top because she was simply better prepared.
“She was consistently among the first group to reach every one of the climbing objectives,” Nelson said in a recent telephone interview from his home in Oregon. “She never got sick like the rest of us. . . . She clearly trained to the appropriate level per best on the planet practices.”
Seattle-based Mike Hamill, a star climbing guide, photographer, and author, who has scaled all seven summits at least four times and some as many as 20, reiterated Nelson’s praise for O’Brien’s preparation.
“It’s about conditioning, physical and mental, and about good judgment,” Hamill said. “What struck me about Vanessa is that there are people who prepare enough to get by, to make it. And then there are people who prepare like professionals, like they could lead the way if they had to. That’s Vanessa.”
Mixed martial arts fighter Brett “The Hammer” Oteri, O’Brien’s trainer at Equinox gym in Boston’s Financial District, gives a satisfied chuckle whenever he hears of people in awe of his client’s fitness level.
“Honestly, when I first met Vanessa a few years ago and she told me what she was planning, to climb the summits and to do it in such a short period of time, I didn’t know if she had it in her,” Oteri said. “But the thing about Vanessa is she doesn’t quit. I know that’s a cliche. But I have clients who tell me to push them, push them, push them. And then after a short while they tell me, ‘Stop! I can’t do it.’ Not her. She’s defiant and just asks for more.”
Their workout routines take about 30 hours per week, including Pilates, yoga, and weight lifting in the gym. Several more hours are spent on Revere Beach with O’Brien dragging a 50-pound tractor tire through the sand to build endurance and lung capacity.
Jonathan O’Brien, her British-born husband, said you couldn’t pay him to climb a mountain, unless it was a short distance to a ski lift. But he’s not surprised by his wife’s determination.
The couple met when the bank he worked for purchased the bank she worked for in London, and his team was brought in to manage the merger. They moved to Boston in 2011. The couple has no children.
“Vanessa and I first met almost 18 years ago in London,” Jonathan O’Brien said. “And since I’ve known her she has had this very fierce focus. . . . So it is no surprise at all that she’s been able to succeed in climbing.”
Returning to Boston recently from her Kilimanjaro climb, O’Brien — tired and windburned — could not stop smiling.
“One way or another we all try to climb, literally or figuratively,” she said. “I have every reason to smile. I’ve been lucky enough to do it more than one way.”
James H. Burnett III can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org