Meet the adventurer: mountaineer Vanessa O'Brien on her record-breaking climbs

The British-American explorer discusses conquering the Earth’s highest peaks and her voyage into Challenger Deep, the world’s deepest ocean trench.

By Farida Zeynalova
Published 18 Apr 2021, 08:00 BST, Updated 20 Apr 2021, 11:59 BST
Vanessa says that climbing K2, the world's second highest mountain, was her most challenging expedition.

Vanessa says that climbing K2, the world's second highest mountain, was her most challenging expedition. 

Photograph by Alex Buisse –

What was it like­ descending into Challenger Deep, and how was it done?

It was a unique experience. It was surreal climbing into a titanium globe that slowly descended into darkness. The bottom, which took four hours to reach, looked like the moon, with tiny creatures scurrying about. It’s a highly unusual and unexplored place. Reaching the bottom — 35,843ft under the Pacific Ocean — requires a submersible that can resist immense pressure. But, finally, this multi-trip two-person submersible was engineered. It wasn’t perfect, but it could make the full journey, complete the survey and mapping works, and separate devices were also sent down allowing us to take water samples to test acidification.

Were you ever afraid? 

No, I’m never afraid. With the extreme amount of focus and concentration that it takes — and this is as true on the mountains as it is underwater — there isn’t really room for fear. Things will go wrong. Some batteries will die and you’ll think, what if we can’t get up? But the only thing you do is troubleshoot and get into a left-brain way of thinking.

How does it feel to be the first woman to reach both the highest and lowest points on Earth?

It means a lot to hold this record because by the time I was born, every 8,000-metre peak had already been summited, and even Challenger Deep had already been reached. We know nothing about almost 90% of the mapping of the bottom of the ocean, which is staggering. When I talk to students, especially children, they ask “why should we bother if it’s already been done before?” And I tell them that the planet is constantly changing, and there are always ways to participate and give back through mapping and survey work, film and photography, and understanding human limits using your own body. It’s important to not get cynical because no two journeys are ever exactly the same.

Why did you decide to be a mountaineer?

I wasn’t working due to the 2008 economic crisis, and having nothing to do is dangerous for me. I was having an existential crisis. Then one day somebody suggesting climbing Everest and it just resonated. The penny dropped. It was a good way to check out of my career in financial services and do something completely different. But by the time I summited Everest, it still wasn’t a good time to go back to work. I picked up a map and looked at the Seven Summits [the highest mountains on each continent], and there was Denali, the highest in North America, calling to me. Each continent has a climbing season, and they all follow each other — so Denali follows Everest, Elbrus [Europe’s highest] follows Denali, and so on. That’s how it all started. 

Which of your expeditions proved the most challenging, and why?

For me, it was K2 [the world’s second-highest mountain]. I never thought it would take three years, but each failed attempt taught me something important. The first year, we made it to Camp 2, but I realised it would be too risky to summit as a large team. The second year, I led my own expedition, but an avalanche tore through stashed equipment, supplies and oxygen at Camp 3, and I realised I wasn’t as independent as I thought. The final year was also tough — we were the only team to summit. I gained a love and appreciation for Pakistan, which would never have happened if I’d hightailed it out of there after a year.

What advice would you give to those who want to follow in your footsteps?

I think of mountaineering as a metaphor. It’s there to inspire people — especially girls and women — to do anything they want to do. Dream big and bold. It doesn’t have to be conquering a mountain. Have confidence and curiosity — those are the two most important ingredients. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes and take calculated risks.

What’s the best and worst piece of advice you’ve ever received?

The worst was things like ‘you can’t’, ‘you won’t’ and ‘there’s no way’. Anything like that should go in one ear and out the other. The best advice comes from a quote I love, by the actress Ali MacGraw, which was given to her by her mother: “Find something you like to do that doesn’t require the applause of others.” Do things that are important to you — not what somebody else thinks you should do, or what you think will be popular on social media.  

Read more interviews from our Meet the Adventurer series

Published in the May 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

Follow us on social media


Explore Nat Geo

  • Animals
  • Environment
  • History & Culture
  • Science
  • Travel
  • Photography
  • Space
  • Adventure
  • Video

About us


  • Magazines
  • Disney+

Follow us

Copyright © 1996-2015 National Geographic Society. Copyright © 2015-2024 National Geographic Partners, LLC. All rights reserved