Let’s start with my incongruous first meeting of Vanessa in New York, which is where the quote she ends her book with originated.
I sent the quote to her as she headed off to K2, on the second or maybe even her third attempt. K2 is an unfriendly mountain at the best of times. Returning to it probably increases your odds of getting killed, more than your chance of summiting. Many of us were worried about her.
So our first meeting was not in the heights, unless you consider New York’s illustrious Union Club, home of the annual Black Tie dinner for the New York Chapter of the American Alpine Club, a place to ascend to.
Introduced by our mutual friend Jim Clash and pushed together for a group photo, in keeping with the spirit of camaraderie, I put my arm around her shoulders.
At which point she turned to me and with only a trace of a smile said, “Robert, just be careful of the hair extensions.”
While perhaps a topic at some New York events, it probably wasn’t a comment often made at the American Alpine Club.
In To the Greatest Heights, Vanessa has translated that openness, that ability to talk about the emotions, triumphs and travails of her own personal experiences with the broader highs, lows and adventure inherent in her experiences.
The inner climber and the outer adventurer are juxtaposed to give us a rare view into the determination required to achieve what she has. Vanessa doesn’t shy away from the small, intimate and sometimes uncomfortable details that create a big story that brings you right into the heart of the adventure.
And her book includes her tumultuous and tragic family upbringing, with experiences that strongly influenced her determination and approach to the tallest mountains of the world.
If her first career in finance gave her the power and control she hungered for, her second career as a climber gave her the strength of humility, where the real confidence in life comes from.
In an early attempt on Cho Oyu (the worlds’ sixth highest mountain) in preparation for Everest Vanessa writes about this realization:
I’d been struggling all my life to control whatever I could in my small world. In my earliest memories, I’m huddled under the table, my arms around my little brother. I was determined to protect Ben from the storm of violence that blew in when our parents were drinking, screaming and punching, hurling things across the room, a howling, directionless sense of rage. My answer to this was to work, to grasp, to set my sights on something and calm myself with the illusion that if I was dogged enough and persistent enough, I could shape my world the way I wanted it. Every time I failed, I swallowed my wounded pride and worked through it.
‘Come back,’ said Cho Oyu, ‘when you have no pride left to swallow.’
Vanessa started climbing with the lofty goal of Everest immediately before her. She set her sights on Camp 2 as a warm-up in her first attempt. Even that proved a rather miserable undertaking, and a start that many would have well hung up their crampons after, (not an uncommon event on Everest it seems), though related with humor and plenty of learning on exactly what high altitude really can throw at you.
After a more suitable apprenticeship on other peaks, she returned and successfully reached the top of the world. That was a mere stepping stone to her following adventures.
She rapidly worked her way through the 7 summits and on to reaching the North and South Poles. From crawling through the jungles of Indonesia to get to Carstenz Pyramid to skiing across Antarctica with my fellow Antarctic guide, Scott Woolums, her book covers the global cacophony of noteworthy and adventurous destinations.
However, the global adventures pale next to the personal adventures, the impact the mountains and the people had on her, and the experiences she shares from the heights.
It is in that personal perspective, in the personal moments, in her interactions with others, that the book uniquely shines.
The first part of her perspective is pre-ordained as she naturally has a woman’s view and interests, from hair extensions to not being afraid to comment on her males guides attributes and share jokes with her female climbing companions.
As much as us boys attempt to share our emotions, discuss our friendships and reveal inner thoughts about the heights, good writing on these topics by men is about as rare as a windless summit of Everest.
The second part of having perspective, is Vanessa was, and could argue still is (we will let her husband Jonathan weigh in on this, who appears quite frequently in the book), a highly successful business woman. She is used to managing staff, sitting at large boardroom tables and making decisions based on a myriad of facts that corporate finance demands. It is worth adding an educational quote from Jonathan that is a truism it seems:
“How do you make one million dollars mountaineering? Start with two million.”
Climbers may or may not have an interest in the funding and finance of expeditions – mostly not it seems, but it does provide experience that once you decide to lead your own Himalayan expedition, comes in rather handy. If anything, you don’t have the confidence or the ability to begin the journey to the heights without some decent funding, be it raised, begged, borrowed or stolen.
As I learned early on from Chris Bonington, an international expedition is a business until it gets to Base Camp. Only then is it a climb. Vanessa inherently understands this and put her experience to good use.
This ability to move from the boardroom, to the ballroom, to the mountain, portrays a sense of progression, as the skills for one are adapted and tuned to build success in the new realm of mountaineering she had entered.
I’d had the opportunity to read an earlier draft of this book, when it was more like three books with at least as many directions. Fortunately, Vanessa has gone back to this, the way she went back to Everest and then K2, fine tuned, reworked and edited it into a very fine volume.
While completing the Explorers Grand Slam, the 7 summits plus the north and south pole, in record setting time for a woman, it is in the final chapters on her K2 climbs we get a sense that the business woman turned adventurer has now become a real climber.
Having watched and learned how expeditions work, she takes charge and puts a team in place to support her and finally, in a year that saw many fail, sneaks through to the summit, becoming the first American and British woman to summit and return safely home. If I am perhaps giving away the plot, the story is far better in the telling than the final result.
A climbers motivation, their desire to actually climb, not to simply say they have climbed, has always been the decider on whether someone is a real climber or not.
This was not an easy story to tell and to tell well, with a mix of business acumen, family tragedy, climbing team drama and expedition leadership that resulted in her final success.
In the genre of climbing books, she joins David Breashears, David Roberts and Chris Bonington in writing excellent books that openly discuss their early lives, the personal challenges of their youth and lives and how it has shaped their climbing career.
With climbing a metaphor for life, it is in these tellings that we are rewarded with better understanding for the motivation and drive behind climbing, and climbing the worlds highest and most dangerous peaks.
As a story, To the Greatest Heights, is masterfully told, weaving in her youth, with business, deep determination and finally ultimate success.
It is certainly very aptly titled as Vanessa climbs to the greatest heights, while taking us along on her grand adventure of life.
To the Greatest Heights: Facing Danger, Finding Humility and Climbing a Mountain of Truth by Vanessa O’Brien