Boston’s Vanessa O’Brien completes ‘Explorers Grand Slam’ in record time

Vanessa O’Brien, the Boston-based mountaineer and adventurer who set out April 9 for Iceland, so she could attempt to trek to the North Pole in 10 days or less, has done it. With the completion of her North Pole trek, O’Brien, a native of Michigan, set the world record for the fastest time a woman has ever walked to the North and South poles and climbed the “Seven Summits,” the highest mountain peaks on all seven continents. It’s a challenge known as the Explorers Grand Slam, and O’Brien did it in 11 months, beginning with Mount Everest in May 2012. Only one man has accomplished this feat faster than O’Brien – former Welsh rugby star Richard Parks, who did the Grand Slam in seven months, between Dec. 2010 and July 2011. Only about 30 people total have completed the Grand Slam.

O’Brien, a former banking executive who began mountain climbing in 2005, actually completed her North Pole trip in four-and-a-half days, arriving at the Pole Tuesday, April 16, at 5:21 p.m. EDT, she reported in an e-mail.

She and her team averaged a speed of a mile-and-a-half per hour, as they trudged through temperatures of 40 below zero and 30-mile-per-hour winds.

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“It was the coldest thing I have ever done by far, which only meant we moved faster to stay warm and take advantage of 24-hour sunlight,” O’Brien says. “We have a three pole poke rule – slamming the ski pole into the ice to see if it will break and hold our weight. This was hard every day and so cold that your face, hands, and feet could not be exposed for any length of time. One picture, then gloves on. One drink, then face mask on. And so wet. All that exertion meant sweat, which froze and never dried, making you colder, wetter, more miserable and shaking to the core when you stopped to set up camp after a 10 hour day…There were lots of pressure ridges that we had to climb over – oftentimes having to take off our skis and drag the sleds through. The ice was constantly moving, even while we were asleep – thankfully at least it moved diagonally in the right direction.”

In spite of the difficulties, O’Brien says she still considers Mount Everest her toughest physical challenge.

After she reached the North Pole Tuesday, O’Brien was presented with a certificate of completion at the Barneo Ice Camp, a temporary base near the Pole, operated by the Russian Geographic Society.

But shortly before reaching the North Pole, O’Brien learned of the Boston Marathon bombings, so her celebration was muted.

“I was horrified to hear of the Boston Marathon... I tweeted one picture of me holding the Red Cross flag and dedicated the North Pole Red Cross Flag of Eastern Mass to the victims of the Boston Marathon. It’s hard to feel like celebrating with such a tragedy unless one turns it around into a symbol of unity against violence and/or terrorism,” she said.

Next for O’Brien is a week of rest and laundry when she returns to Boston in a few days. After that she plans to write a book about her experiences.