Michael "Big Mike" O'Brien, who lost his mother in 1996 and his sister in 1999 to Huntington's disease, knew he had a 50-50 chance of getting...

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Michael “Big Mike” O’Brien, who lost his mother in 1996 and his sister in 1999 to Huntington’s disease, knew he had a 50-50 chance of getting it, too.


It was a big reason he lived his life so fully, forsaking a traditional career path so he could spend his time and money traveling, his family says.


O’Brien, a 39-year-old river guide and bartender who moved to Seattle 3 ½ years ago, died from a fall Sunday on Mount Everest during a climb with his younger brother. The climb was meant to raise money and awareness for the deadly hereditary disease.


“He lived adventure to adventure,” his girlfriend, Rebecca Stodola, said yesterday from her parents’ house in Chicago.


O’Brien, who earned a master’s degree in political science from Syracuse University, bartended at Safeco Field and Qwest Field “so he could make a lot of money fast and go on vacation,” often on two-month trips to Asia, Africa or Europe, Stodola said. O’Brien spent his summers as a white-water rafting guide on the Wenatchee and other Washington rivers.


“He loved Seattle and all the adventure Seattle could offer,” Stodola said, adding O’Brien scaled Mount Rainier two or three times in preparation for his Everest expedition.


O’Brien; his brother Christopher, 32, of New Jersey; Seattle-area expedition leader Dan Mazur and other local climbers left the United States on April 3, arriving at their base camp in Nepal on April 12.


By the time they left the United States, the O’Brien brothers had raised $15,000 for the Hereditary Disease Foundation. Their goal was to raise $100,000 to battle the neurological disease that led to the deaths of their mother, sister and other family members. They were supposed to come home June 7.


O’Brien called his girlfriend in Seattle at 9:30 p.m. Pacific time on Saturday from Camp 2, about 20,000 feet up.


“He sounded like a kid on Christmas — his voice sounded breathy with excitement,” Stodola said of her 10-minute conversation with O’Brien, whom she met seven years ago in Chicago.


Because of snowstorms and avalanches, O’Brien and his climbing party decided to head back down to their base camp and rest for a few days before again attempting to summit the world’s highest peak, Stodola said.


Sunday morning, O’Brien’s family in New York State received word that he had slipped and fallen into a crevasse, said O’Brien’s eldest sister, Kathryn Caltabiano. By the time his fellow climbers were able to reach him, O’Brien was dead.


“I honestly never even dreamed anything bad would happen to them. We’re all numb and shocked,” Caltabiano said yesterday. “Mike was physically fit, mentally stable and cognitively aware of the challenge.”


Nicknamed “Big Mike” because of his 6-foot-7 frame, O’Brien had a quiet nature and quick wit, his sister said. An effortless leader with “a magnetic personality, he was loved everywhere in the world he went,” Caltabiano said. “Little kids would follow him around, old ladies too. No matter where he went, he met people and connected with them. He was just a real adaptable soul.”


Between the two of them, the O’Brien brothers scaled more than 25 peaks around the world, Caltabiano said. The idea for the Mount Everest expedition was born after the brothers scaled Cho Oyu — the world’s sixth-highest peak — in 2000, she said. They decided if they were to go on another such trek, “they would do it for a good and noble cause greater than just the challenge of the climb,” she said.


O’Brien’s family is awaiting the return of his body and is planning a funeral in Oswego, N.Y., where he grew up. A memorial service also is being planned for O’Brien’s friends in Seattle.


In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made in Mike O’Brien’s name, c/o HDF Everest Expedition, to the Hereditary Disease Foundation, www.hdfoundation.org or 1303 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica, CA 90405.


Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or sgreen@seattletimes.com