On April 9, Vanessa O’Brien will set off for one of the most inhospitable landscapes on the planet, the North Pole. Frigid, shifting ice floes will make for brutal conditions. Temperatures may plunge to minus 30 to minus 45 degrees, cold enough to freeze exposed skin in under a minute.
O’Brien, 48, of Boston, won’t have much time to get there.
She needs to make it to the pole this month in order to set a new world record for climbing the highest peaks on all seven continents, and reaching the South and North poles, faster than any woman ever has. She intends to complete that feat, known as the Explorers’ Grand Slam, in about 11 months.
“The obvious question is why,” O’Brien said in a recent phone call from a camp on Mount Kilimanjaro, a little more than halfway up the 19,341-foot peak, the highest in Africa.
“I like the challenge. I need the challenge, really,” she said. “And in a way, this — mountain climbing — has allowed me to escape and keep climbing. The record, if I get it, will be great. But this is about the challenge.”
O’Brien, a former banker, lives on Marlborough Street near the Public Garden, but in recent months she’s usually found in more remote locations. Besides Kilimanjaro, she has since May 2012 scaled Everest (Nepal), Elbrus (Russia), Aconcagua (Argentina), Carstensz (Indonesia), Mount McKinley (United States), and Vinson Massif (Antarctica), joining a list of about 53 other women who have done so. (O’Brien also climbed Kosciuszko, at 7,310 feet the tallest mountain in Australia, which is sometimes included on Seven Summits lists with or in lieu of Carstensz.) In December, she trudged to the South Pole after being dropped off by ski plane 60 nautical miles away.
The North Pole trek will pose very different challenges. O’Brien and her team — expedition leader Doug Stoup of Ice Axe Expeditions, and Santa Monica-based Karl Pettijohn, one of her climbing partners from Everest — will rendezvous at the Longyearbyen settlement in Svalbard, Norway. By ski plane, they will head to 89 degrees North, where they will begin the frigid and wet journey.
“There may be times we will have to put on dry suits and jump in the water to pull our sleds across to get to another piece of ice if we cannot get around,” O’Brien said. “Furthermore, we may find ourselves drifting off course at night while we are sleeping, which means we may need to make up mileage during the day . . . to reach our goal.”
As a teenager growing up near Detroit, O’Brien knew she wanted to climb. But instead of mountains, she hoped to climb the corporate ladder — inspired, friends say, by her very determined mother, a nurse who overcame challenges both professional and physical, including the loss of an arm.
After graduating from New York University Stern School of Business, O’Brien worked her way up in the financial services industry as an executive at Bank of America, Barclays, and Morgan Stanley, in the United States and in the United Kingdom.
But when the global economy began to show signs of fracture, O’Brien said, she became disenchanted. “So many people were suffering as a result of the financial markets falling apart. . . . So I quit,” she said. “I left the industry.”
Leaving her job didn’t mean that her ambition disappeared. After a few months of soul searching, she had an epiphany: “I should really climb.”
Almost immediately, O’Brien said, she became keenly aware of the potential for some resentment among those in the elite climbing world. O’Brien wasn’t an experienced climber, but she had the means — that is, the money — to get very serious about the pursuit.
“I didn’t have to struggle financially to put climbs together,” she recalled. “And people can sometimes assume things about you, based on your level of success.”
Indeed, climbing and trekking can be very expensive. O’Brien’s South Pole trek cost about $45,000. The North Pole will cost about the same. Her climb up Everest cost about $70,000, including travel, equipment, guides’ salaries and Sherpa fees.
Of course, O’Brien had no desire to become a lightning rod like Sandy Hill (formerly Pittman), a mountaineer, wealthy socialite, and the second American woman ever to climb the Seven Summits. Pittman was part of a 1996 disaster in which eight climbers died on Everest after getting caught in a freak storm. The ill-fated expedition was chronicled in Jon Krakauer’s bestseller “Into Thin Air.”
O’Brien made her first successful major climb in 2005 — just months after she decided to start climbing — ascending Kilimanjaro. But she said the best climbing “lesson” she’s ever learned came almost three years later, the first time she attempted Everest.Continued...