A world record breaking ex-banker who became the first woman to reach the Earth’s highest and lowest points is now a full-time mountaineer – claiming her former career taught her that anything is possible.
Swapping financial challenges for expeditions in the name of science, in 2020 Vanessa O’Brien, 57 – who had already climbed Everest – received a Guinness World Record when she reached Challenger Deep, the lowest point in the world – meaning she had made it to the planet’s deepest and highest places.
Vanessa, who lives with her husband, Jonathan, 54, a chartered accountant, in central London, said: “Challenger Deep is the bottom of the Marianas Trench, beneath the western Pacific Ocean and, at 10,925 metres, it’s deeper than Mount Everest is tall.”
She added: “I went on a diving expedition down there to survey and map out some of the area.
“Ninety per cent of our oceans are unexplored, so it’s not surprising when planes and shipwrecks go missing. It’s often near impossible to locate them.”
Originally from the USA, Vanessa became passionate about mountaineering after being made redundant during the 2008 global recession.
She said: “I was looking for something else to do.
“My husband and I were living temporarily in Hong Kong and I was doing quite a lot of hiking there when somebody suggested that I climb Mount Everest.
“It was such an outrageous suggestion but, at the same time, I had always been trained to look at everything as something that could be learned and, therefore, taught – so I didn’t see it as something that was so outrageous it couldn’t be attempted with the right training.”
And Vanessa has not looked back.
She said: “My life is now exploring.
“Each climb is always different and mountaineering has given me a completely new outlook on life.”
She added: “It’s made me so much more knowledgeable and passionate about climate change and now I’m using my experiences to help with research.”
In 2010, she climbed to Mount Everest Camp 2, 21,000ft up.
She said: “It took me two years to reach the Everest summit.”
She added: “I was in no rush. I wanted to make sure I was safe and doing it right.
“Like every good entrepreneur will tell us, everybody should fail first because that’s how you learn how to succeed.
“I reached Camp 2 on my first attempt and there was a bit of an avalanche situation which I was not prepared for.”
She added: “Two years on, in 2012, I returned and made it to the summit.”
Vanessa, who published her memoir, To the Greatest Heights, in March, says her success has partly been down to her patience.
“You have to work within your limits,” she said. “On these kind of expeditions, Mother Nature is in control and it is very humbling.”
She added: “It’s unnatural to sleep on the floor, in the open, in minus 30 degrees in severe weather, to be cold, to be hungry.
“These are things that people would naturally fight against in a survivalist way, so to be in those environments puts one in a humble situation.”
And, once the world’s tallest mountain was ticked off her ‘to do’ list, Vanessa was on to the next adventure.
She said: “At first, it had just been about completing Everest, but it had been so exciting to see a new part of the world that I didn’t want to stop there.
“I put all of my focus into becoming a full-time explorer and mountaineer, reaching the summit of K2, the second tallest mountain in the world in 2017.
“I spent a lot of my free time training for these big expeditions on smaller mountains and I really started to notice the effects of climate change, which began to change my perspective on the world.”
She added: “You never climb the same mountain twice, even if you’re literally climbing the same mountain, because the weather patterns are constantly changing.
“For me, the purpose of climbing changed and I wanted to use my experience and expertise to give back to science.
“There are different dangers today in climbing. There are more crowds and there’s more rockfall then there was in the past.”
But while Vanessa says her toughest adventures are often her favourite and most memorable, her husband prefers to support her from the comfort and safety of home.
Vanessa said: “I think it’s really important to have a support network, someone who is rooting for you and my husband is definitely that for me.
“There is nothing that could convince him to endure the levels of discomfort that we go through on the expeditions, but he’s very proud of what I have accomplished.”
She added: “Still, he looks forward to the regular phone calls we have while I’m gone. That way he knows I’m safe and OK.”
Vanessa is also using her accomplishments as part of The Aviva Decision School, helping the nation to tackle its indecisiveness by offering a free, online teaching academy, training people to overcome hesitancy and make life changes more easily and with confidence.
She said: “There’s a lot written in my book that is actually relevant to the Decision School. Aviva are offering five different lessons and I participate in three of those, involving procrastination, following your head versus your heart and on trusting your gut instincts.”
She added: “All three of those dovetails into exploration. In the expeditions, I have to lead with my heart and then consider whether I’m rationally OK with the consequences. If the answer is yes then I know I’m making a good decision.
“But trusting your gut will save your life. There is never any shame in turning around before reaching the summit.
“I always think to myself, ‘The mountain will always be there, but you have to be alive to give it another shot.’
“Being able to turn around is OK, it’s all part of the adventure.”