The Behind-the-Scenes Drama on Climber Colin O’Brady’s Record-Shattering Expedition

Colin O’Brady has had one hell of a year. In January, he set out to become the fastest person ever to complete the Explorers Grand Slam — climbing the tallest mountain on each continent, and trekking the last degree of latitude to the North and South poles. (He dubbed his pursuit Beyond 7/2.) On May 27th, after just 139 days, he shattered the world record, besting the previous top time by nearly two months. He also earned another Guinness record by shaving two days off the fastest climb of the Seven Summits, a feat that often takes years to accomplish.

Sure, some unforeseen circumstances stymied him along the way. A taciturn guide on Russia’s icy Mt. Elbrus left him marching to the summit without a rope. A holdup with the North Pole’s landing strip (the ice kept cracking) stole precious time from his Everest acclimatization, making his summit dangerously rushed. But O’Brady never drained his bellyful of resolve. A mere eight days after summiting Everest, he got to the top of Denali — despite wind gusts that kept the mountain’s other climbers tent-bound. “Having to push the boundaries in unfavorable conditions to break the record was super challenging,” he says. “But it was always meant to be a challenge, and it certainly tested me. It’s amazing to come out the other end of that victorious.”

We asked O’Brady, who’s back home in Oregon wrapping up a million-dollar fundraising effort to combat childhood obesity, about the staggering endurance his world record required.

Kilimanjaro (summited on February 9)

“So much of this project is really a logistical challenge as much as it is an endurance feat. I was fortunate enough to finish the first few mountains [Vinson and Aconcagua] ahead of schedule, and so we decided to put Kilimanjaro next, rather than a month later, as we had originally planned. But that meant me calling Jenna [O’Brady’s fiancée and Beyond 7/2’s executive director] from a dusty dirt road in Argentina, as I was driving back from Aconcagua, to say, ‘Hey, I think we should do Kilimanjaro. Can you make that happen, basically, right now?’ Within 24 hours I was on a plane to Sao Paolo, then Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, then Kilimanjaro.”

Mt. Elbrus (summited on March 20)

“I pledged to my family that I would make decisions that were safe regardless of the record, the pressure, and the sponsors. But in reflection there were definitely a few times when I pushed the boundaries or upped the risk. In Russia, on the last day of our weather window, I looked back and the guide I was climbing with was gone. He’d turned around, without telling me, while carrying our climbing rope. I had this moment: Should I continue on without a rope, in winter, in Russia, on a super icy mountain, exposed to a long fall and serious injury or death? Should I go back and wait out a two-week storm that could potentially jeopardize the entire project? I decided to push onwards. I fell into a crevasse on that climb — unroped. [He was able to self rescue.] I was pushing the edges to try to set this record.”

North Pole (reached on April 19)

“We were getting these updates, and most of the time it was bad news: ‘Yep, the runway’s still cracked.’ We spent, in the end, an eight-day delay, hanging on every word. I was sitting there at sea level, not only not progressing on my project, but regressing in terms of my preparedness and fitness in the mountains and acclimatization [for Everest]. In the back of my mind I’m going, ‘Maybe this is all for nothing. By the time I get to Everest, from sea level … there’s no way.’ I had a lot of doubts, and I just feel so grateful that my body responded so well, and I was able to pull it off.”

Everest (summited on May 19)

“I was almost a month behind the normal cycle. I was dealing with some headaches and some early symptoms of acute mountain sickness. Nothing too bad, but just enough to know that my body wasn’t very happy. And then a weather window opened up on the early side of things. Because that weather window was pretty tight, it required me not just pushing for the summit in the regular way, but going all the way from Camp 2 to Camp 4, which is 5,000 vertical feet in a single day, above 21,000 feet. I didn’t hear of any other climbers on the mountain doing that push [without stopping at Camp 3] other than the Sherpas, who are amazingly strong.

We got up to Camp 4, just around the Geneva Spur, and the weather changed dramatically. It was so harsh it took us almost two hours just to set up a tent to get inside, and we pretty quickly realized that this was the end of our summit bid. We could see the whole route [to the summit]. It just felt so close, yet so far. You’re already so on the edge on Everest between life or death. When I was going back down the Lhotse Face the next day, retreating to Camp 2 out of the storm, I had all these doubts in my mind, wondering not only if Everest was out, but if the whole project was over.

The second time I was attempting to summit Everest [he set out again just two days after returning from his first bid], I called Jenna form Camp 4. We were about to set out for the summit, and the weather forecast for that day was also very bad. I knew, for sure, that was my last shot at the summit after having already tried one time. I called her and I said, 'I don’t know. Looks like the weather is going to be bad. I think people are going to get frostbite today. And I’m scared.' She was just as scared for me, but in that moment, she said: ‘Colin, you can do this. You’re strong. People are going to summit Everest today, and there’s no reason you can’t be one of those people.’ That encouragement and that love, despite her own fear, in some of my most vulnerable moments meant the world to me.”

Denali (summited on May 27)

“I always knew the last third of this project — North Pole, Everest, Denali — was going to be exhausting, but it was even more continuous than I expected. Coming down from Everest, I was hopeful that I’d get at least one night in Katmandu in a hotel room. But in the end I literally took three helicopters from base camp to Katmandu, got on a plane for thirty hours and flew to Alaska. I landed in Alaska, spent one night there — the only night I spent in a bed — and then went straight up to Denali. There were quite a few people at the 14,000-foot camp that day, and not a single person moved either up or down, let alone tried for the summit. In the first 30 minutes, we were getting knocked off our feet by the wind. But I had this feeling: It’s the last one. If I can get it done, I can get off the mountain and be back in a bed.”