Vanessa Audi Rhys O’Brien is a British-American mountain climber, explorer, public speaker and former business executive. She has climbed the highest peaks on each continent. In April 2013, Vanessa made the record for the fastest climb of the seven summits by a woman. This summer, she was in Pakistan to climb the K2 and the Broad Peak but her attempts were thwarted by bad weather conditions. Dawn spoke to Ms O’Brien about her experience.

Q: Why was the K2 so challenging?

A: Climbing K2 is more difficult than anyone can imagine. The famous mountaineer Reinhold Messner called K2, the Savage Mountain and the name is well-deserved. It is very prone to avalanches and rock falls and the weather pattern is not favourable to climbing.

I climbed as high as Camp II at a popular spot called Black Pyramid which is 6,500 metres high. After acclimatizing and depositing my gear, I waited for a clear weather window to push for the summit, but it never came. On July 17, I was forced to quit K2 and head towards my second goal, the Broad Peak.

But the weather conditions on Broad Peak were no different, excessive snow which is extremely exhausting to tread and the climb from Camp III to the summit is 20 hours.

Q: What is it like in the death zone (beyond 7,500 metres)?

A: It is a place where no man can survive for more than 24 hours. The body starts to experience adrenalin failure, lose cognitive abilities and one can suffer from a stroke. The oxygen levels are the same as at sea level – 22 per cent. But because of low pressure the molecules are so disbursed, that a climber takes in only a third of oxygen than what they breathe in at sea level. One has to breathe five times before taking one step.

Most mountaineers climb without oxygen tanks because it is difficult to carry an extra 10 pounds.

Q: What is the attitude of the climbers, towards others?

A: The climbers are also brutal but it is not right. I understand that a lot of money and training goes into climbing but people should always come first. Polish speed climber and skier Olek Ostrowski went missing on Gasherbrum II last month but other mountaineers were more interested in climbing than volunteer for the search. Those people did not make ethical and moral decision. There should be respect for life, even in these terrible situations.

Q: Do you plan to return to Pakistan?

A: It is not just the mountains which will bring me back but the amazing people. At events in Islamabad, I engaged with young people and I saw how they were absorbing each word I was saying. Each one of them wants to change the world and their enthusiasm was infectious. I would like to see which one of them would one day stand out from the crowd and make a difference.

Published in Dawn, August 13th, 2015

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