From Turning Point to Highest Point
Vanessa O’Brien is the first woman to reach Earth’s highest and deepest places on Earth
“When I am inspired myself, I feel very motivated to share my experiences with others.”
At Commencement, alumni are told they’ll reach great heights. But no Violet has reached quite the heights two-time alum Vanessa O’Brien (SPS ‘91, STERN ‘97, she/her) has. As the first American woman to summit K2, the second highest peak in the world, she took just 295 days to climb the highest peak in every continent in record time.
In 2008, Vanessa was in a successful career in corporate banking—a career she’d enjoyed since graduating from NYU’s Stern School of Business in 1997. Then, with the financial crisis and the start of The Great Recession, Vanessa found herself at a turning point and rethinking her career. Not one to shy away from challenges, Vanessa set her sights on mountaineering—climbing the world’s tallest mountains.
Vanessa describes this moment in her book, To the Greatest Heights: Facing Danger, Finding Humility, and Climbing a Mountain of Truth, and how she set about to climb Everest. As a business executive, she embraced this shift with a simple list of what to do next. Knowing she wanted to break away from finance, the other criteria included having a goal, measuring success, taking two to three years, and being audacious.
Read on to find out what motivated Vanessa to get to the Earth’s highest and lowest points, and what’s next.
You have climbed the highest points of each of the world’s seven continents in record time (11 months), and you’ve been described as a mountaineer, explorer, aquanaut, author, and business executive. What are you most proud of?
I am most proud of being the first woman to reach Earth’s highest (Mt. Everest) and deepest (Challenger Deep) places on Earth. I would add accomplishing these pursuits later in life (after the age of 40 years old) and being able to contribute to furthering science—whether collecting ice samples at the Godwin-Austen glacier or taking water samples 10,000 feet below the surface of the Mariana Trench. The ability to give back to future generations by furthering the world’s knowledge base and to go where no (wo)man has gone before pushes the pride scale for me personally.
How did you become interested in mountaineering?
High Altitude Mountaineering (climbing mountains over 26,000 feet) involves much more hiking than people realize. It wasn’t until I lived in Hong Kong, that I truly appreciated this fact. Here was a city that had lots of uphill hiking trails within the city itself, plus many more in the outer areas. It was living there in 2008 that I first became interested in hiking, and then started to explore mountaineering.
You’re known as one of the world’s greatest adventurers. Did you recall having that sense of adventure at NYU or did that come later?
After writing my book (To the Greatest Heights), I’ve had all sorts of feedback, which has allowed me to reflect more. Recently, I received a comment about my book from a co-worker at Morgan Stanley in London (where I worked after NYU), almost 25 years ago. She said when she thought back, her best adventures were when she was with me. She went on to give me some examples, where personally and professionally, I pushed the envelope to make things happen. So, I have to say, yes. I think there was a bold person inside me, but by no means an extravert or an expert. I would continuously learn throughout my career, and I was fortunate to have mentors along the way.
Can you tell us about the shift from banking to mountaineering?
Absolutely, as this is how my book starts. I left the banking world at the height of what is now known as The Great Recession. While I was not involved in the mortgage side of the banking business, my clients were often other banks who had mortgage products. These multi-product banks became very risk averse during this time and stopped all business development efforts.
I would eventually resign, not really having a job to perform, and find myself unsatisfied just hiking and being a so-called lady of leisure. I started making lists of ‘what to do next’. My list included:
- Have a goal
- Measure success
- Take 2 to 3 years
- Not be financial
- Be audacious
It was as simple as that. My first couple of thoughts of what to do next would fail against one or two of these criteria and I would seek outside friend’s opinions and advice. About this time someone suggested, “how about climbing Everest?”, and the proverbial penny dropped. I saw climbing as a skill that could be learned and therefore taught. I never feared what I didn’t know.
“NYU played a pivotal role for me because it took me outside of the safety net... and introduced me to another world of professionals from all different walks of life.”
Did your NYU education prepare you for your pivot in any way?
Short answer, yes. I see a person, including myself, like a puzzle. Each of our experiences—both good and bad—make up that person. NYU played a pivotal role for me because it took me outside of the safety net of GE and introduced me to another world of professionals from all different walks of life. It expanded my education to, not just those applicable to the job, which GE provided, but topics that were applicable worldwide. NYU’s international residency that year, of all places, was Asia Pacific. I learned about financial markets, global economics, and risk and return, so pivoting became easier.
You have shared your experience as an author and speaker. What drives you to want to inspire others?
When I am inspired myself, I feel very motivated to share my experiences with others. Some of my stories are funny while others are moving and sentimental. As a speaker (and author), I like to entertain, although I usually have an ulterior motive, to educate. To impart knowledge, I must make it fun and interesting and find creative ways to drive certain points home. For example, I’ve even played Jenga with a classroom to drive home the idea of systemic failure using a case study involving a mountaineering expedition. Every time a student spotted systemic failure, they had to remove a Jenga block. It didn’t take long for the whole “expedition” to collapse!
You have described yourself in the past as very goal oriented. What’s next?
There are two companies—Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin—currently taking passengers to space. If there are any NYU alumni that can introduce me to either of them, that would be fantastic!
Virgin Galactic uses a larger carrier jet to lift their two pilots and four passengers to 50,000 feet, where their “spaceplane” is released into space, taken to 80 km, passengers are weightless for 4 minutes, then they glide back to earth on a runway. The fuel used is polyamide plastic with nitrous oxide oxidizer, which creates about 1.2 tonnes of Co2 production, which is the equivalent of a round trip business class flight from London to New York.
Blue Origin’s New Shepherd, on the other hand, is more like a rocket which blasts off from a launch pad. Its capsule holding six crew and no pilots detaches and heads up to 100 km where they are weightless three minutes before falling back to Earth using parachutes. New Shepherd uses liquid hydrogen, so emissions are minimal.
Do you have memorable moments from NYU you’d like to share?
While we were put in study groups of five students from the beginning, one memorable moment involved a class grading us as a team, rather than as individuals. It reminded me of how individuals are really rewarded on the job because the strongest in a team must pull the weakest in a team up (through training and education) to raise overall team performance.
Why this was like business to me at the time was because discretionary bonuses were based on how you did as an individual, how your team did, how the department did, how the business unit did, and finally, how the company did. You might lose individual control as you moved up that ladder, but you still had to care, which with the right corporate values and incentives in place would put a stop to moral hazard and ensure everyone was on the same page.
What advice would you give to NYU graduates—or alumni—on achieving goals?
First, make sure your goal is correct and don’t be afraid to fine tune until you are satisfied that you have the right goal. For example, when I first started mountaineering, I thought my goal was to get to the summit. How wrong I was. The summit is only halfway. The goal is a round trip to base camp. If I use all my energy to get to the summit, chances are I won’t make it to base camp, hence why 85% of death’s happen on descent. That’s a big WOW.
Second, goals are short-term—even if it’s breakeven in year three and ‘up and out’ by year five. That is still short-term. Over the long-term you want to think more in terms of a sense of purpose.
If you need a motivating kick up the backside, ask yourself, who are you when no one is looking? You can’t lie to yourself—what’s the point?
When you ask yourself, what is my sense of purpose instead of what do I need to do to achieve this goal you will get very different answers. The first will include elements of what makes you happy (hint: this usually includes taking care of something or giving back in some way), while the latter will be much more operational and less personally informative. And if you need a motivating kick up the backside, ask yourself, who are you when no one is looking? The answer to that last question better be the best one—you can’t lie to yourself—what’s the point?
Can you tell us a bit about how you helped with the effort to proclaim May 29 as Mt. Everest Day in New York, which New York State Assembly woman Jenifer Rajkumar officially introduced? What does adopting May 29 as Mt Everest Day mean?
I have been an Honorary Ambassador of the US Nepal Climbing Association (USNCA) since 2013. In most years, USNCA has a fundraiser to help in one of three areas—climate change, climbing standards and safety, or community and culture. Two recent events impacted Nepal quite severely—the 2015 Earthquake that killed nearly 9,000 people and the 2020-21 Covid-19 virus that killed over 11,000 people.
This year, USNCA partnered with Jenifer Rajkumar, New York’s first South-Asian Assemblywoman, in Assembly District 38. Our goal was to petition New York State to recognize May 29 as Mt Everest Day; May 29 (1953) was the first ascent of Mt. Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay.
Mt. Everest Day represents the great things we can achieve in our lives (whatever success means to you), while also calling attention to what we stand to lose through environmental degradation, pollution, and climate change, if we are not careful.
For New York State to adopt Mt. Everest Day is more important than a summit because it's bigger than me, shared wider with up to 19.4m New Yorkers, and contains sentiment representing duality—success and protecting our planet.
Thank you for sharing your story with us, Vanessa—we hope to see the NYU pennant with you in space next!
To find out more about Vanessa, visit her website.