Having trekked hundreds of miles into Antarctica in late 2018, American Colin O’Brady reached a memorable landmark: the south pole. It was only a waypoint on the way to O’Brady’s pursuit of a record – the first-ever unaided, unsupported solo crossing of the continent. Yet when he made it to “due south”, it was time for an impromptu celebration. He did a handstand, posing as if he was holding up Earth.
“I was at the south pole, the bottom of the world,” O’Brady tells the Guardian. “It was a moment of riding high. My emotions were on top of me … I’m thankful I let myself experience that positive moment.”
Things weren’t always so lighthearted as O’Brady navigated his way through sub-zero temperatures and whiteouts while engaged in a head-to-head competition with Britain’s Louis Rudd. Now O’Brady shares his story in a new book, The Impossible First: From Fire to Ice – Crossing Antarctica Alone.
O’Brady recalls his journey of 932 miles over 54 days. He also discusses his previous experiences setting speed records for the Seven Summits – cresting the highest point on all seven continents – as well as for the Explorers Grand Slam, which includes reaching those peaks as well as traversing the final mile to the north and south poles. He reflects on a time when such achievements seemed impossible – an accident in Thailand left his legs burned, after which he needed to learn to walk again, aided by his mother, Eileen.
“Of course there were obstacles,” O’Brady says. “As much as I would not wish them on my worst enemy, I learned a mindset of positivity and love from my mother, that I could not just achieve but thrive, with courage and strength, [toward] bigger goals.”
National Geographic questioned O’Brady’s record earlier this year. The article said that O’Brady used a groomed vehicle trail during the final part of his crossing. The article cited a previous solo crossing of the continent – a longer journey by Borge Ousland in 1997, in which Ousland used a sail at several points. The article asked why a sail constitutes technological assistance, while a groomed vehicle trail does not. O’Brady calls the National Geographic article “completely factually inaccurate”, adding that it contains “blatant omissions”. He has also asked the magazine to retract the article.
The book contains a cast of characters including himself; his wife, Jenna Besaw, who provided key support throughout the journey; and his rival Rudd. And, what he sees as a non-human player: Antarctica.
O’Brady recognizes that most readers will never visit the southern continent. He tried to evoke it through sensory descriptions of what he calls its “scope, grandeur, intensity, desolation”.
As a child, he read about famed Antarctic explorers of the early 20th century, such as Roald Amundsen, Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton. But it was the Explorers Grand Slam that first took O’Brady to Antarctica. He learned about unsuccessful attempts at a solo, unassisted, unsupported crossing – such as the one by Henry Worsley, which cost Worsley his life.
“I just got really fascinated by Antarctica,” O’Brady says. “It was a personal challenge.”
He knew from reading about previous attempts that it would takes enormous amounts of physical and mental strength. “Certainly for this one, I was curious about how it would tap into my body, mind and soul,” O’Brady says. “I would be alone in a really intense two months there.”
He attempted the feat on cross country skis, dragging a 300lb sled packed with supplies including his tent, stove and provisions. Throughout the journey, Rudd was in O’Brady’s thoughts.
“He’s an extraordinary man, a really accomplished polar explorer, a really accomplished British military veteran,” O’Brady says. “He was very sure of himself. He was clearly in my psyche. I was in awe of him, intimidated.”
Although they shared a plane ride to Antarctica, their paths only crossed once during the actual competition, on day six. The space Rudd took up in O’Brady’s mind became obvious when he asked his wife in a phone conversation, “Is Lou real?”
“It was such a bizarre [question],” O’Brady says. “I had been out there so long, I didn’t know if he was a hallucination … if I’d made this person up in my brain.” By then O’Brady was becoming gaunt and was fearful of frostbite.
Ultimately, O’Brady resolved the dilemma about Rudd by deciding that his rival was “either real or not real, but a great motivator.”
O’Brady says such motivation was vital, beginning on day one when he despaired of pulling his sled, and it continued to help on occasions when all seemed lost. He experienced such a moment not long after his headstand at the bottom of the world. A fearsome Antarctic wind nearly yanked away his tent off into the icy void.
“Thankfully, I grabbed onto it and held on for dear life,” O’Brady says. “Antarctica is so unforgiving. You can have 40 or so good days in a row before you make one mistake. It would have been game over.”
Yet the game continued and at the end, O’Brady finished two days ahead of Rudd on the Ross Ice Shelf on 26 December 2018.
“We’ve continued a friendship that I’m really grateful for,” O’Brady says, adding that of seven billion people on the planet, Rudd is the only one who knows what his journey was like.
Since then, O’Brady has returned to Antarctica – to set another world record last December. He was part of a six-person team in a rowboat that naviagted the Drake Passage from the southern tip of South America to Antarctica.
“It’s one of the most challenging and dangerous waterways in the world,” he says. “It’s a whole other journey.”
The Covid-19 pandemic has put an end to O’Brady’s adventures for the time being – he and Besaw had been scheduled for an expedition to Mount Everest. In the meantime, O’Brady is reapplying his insights on solitude gleaned from his Antarctic trek.
“The lesson is that isolation can be a place where we maybe get to a deeper point of contact,” O’Brady says, “where we’re not fully disconnected from everyone.” He notes that even while alone in Antarctica, he was corresponding with students and answering their questions as part of a nonprofit that he and his wife have established.
“Solitude certainly has fearful, intense moments,” says O’Brady, yet it has been part of “important pieces in my life … I hope that in the midst of the coronavirus crisis … some people can have a moment of reflection, and hopefully something positive moving forward.”