A REVIEW OF
To the Greatest Heights: Facing Danger, Finding Humility, and Climbing a Mountain of Truth
By Vanessa O’Brien
Published by Atria/Emily Bestler Books
Memoir of mountain climbing after personal loss sure to inspire
By Mary Garner Rees
Special to the Mississippi Clarion-Ledger
USA TODAY NETWORK
What would you do if, at 46 years old, you suddenly lost the job and, therefore, the purpose you had poured all of your adult life’s energy into?
In “To the Greatest Heights: Facing Danger, Finding Humility, and Climbing a Mountain of Truth”, Vanessa O’Brien faces this exact question, and in response, takes the reader to the edges of the earth — from the peak of Mount Everest all the way to the edges of the North and South Poles — to show that sometimes it takes pushing yourself to the unlikeliest of places in order to discover who you truly are.
O’Brien, a British-American who successfully climbed the corporate ladder until, along with the majority of the economy, her career plummeted in the 2008 financial crisis, decides to take her climbing expertise to a starkly different arena by setting out to summit Mount Everest.
What follows is a snowball effect in which O’Brien’s newfound obsession sends her trekking up one mountain and down the next, becoming the fastest woman to summit the Seven Summits and completing the Explorers Grand Slam in 11 months. She carries the reader in her meticulously filled backpack. Narrowly avoiding crevasses, frozen bodies, and abrupt weather changes, she uses descriptive detail that illustrates the mountainside scenes so clearly, it is as if the reader witnesses all this in person.
Beneath the author’s tough façade, there is a lingering trauma. It becomes clear to the reader early on that, perhaps, O’Brien has set out on a journey not only of mountaineering but also—if not more so—of healing. Like snow flurries, O’Brien dusts the pages with the unraveling of a sudden, tragic event that jolts her family into a reality they are ill-equipped to handle. As O’Brien processes her own grief, so, too, does the reader have the opportunity to walk alongside her, bolstered by the witty prose throughout and simultaneously humbled by the emotional weight she unpacks amidst her excursions.
Yes, this memoir is about mountaineering, but even more than that, it is the story of a human’s capacity for denying her age, her gender, or her trauma to determine her limits, all told with infectious humor and sobering honesty.
O’Brien’s intensity commands each page: “Nostalgia is a waste of oxygen, and regret has a nasty tendency to avalanche. What matters is the mountain that stands before you.” With this gripping voice, O’Brien virtually guarantees that by the time the final page is turned, her powerful drive will have transferred to the reader, resulting in copious research into the Seven Summits challenge and internally pondering, “could I…?”.
Daring, inspiring, and altogether thrilling, Vanessa O’Brien’s memoir is a testament to exploration of the farthest reaches of the world as well as the depths of the heart. “To the Greatest Heights” is a story for anyone with a sense of adventure and a curiosity about the more treacherous areas of the world. As the temperature here in the South inches towards its summer peak, curl up and cool off with a first-person account of walking atop snowcapped mountains and harnessing a fierce determination to ignite a life-altering path.
Mary Garner Rees is a writer from Madison and a former bookseller of Lemuria Books. She is currently pursuing her master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling at Mississippi College.