Last week, Colin O’Brady topped Everest, putting him just one summit away from completing the Explorers Grand Slam — climbing the seven highest peaks on each of the seven continents, plus skiing to the last degree of latitude at both the North and South poles. Fewer than 50 people have succeeded in the achievement, and only two were able to do it in less than a year. Since starting the endeavor at the South Pole on January 1, O'Brady has completed all but Denali, the highest peak in North America, putting him on track to finish in a record-shattering six months. We caught up with O’Brady by phone in Alaska, just before he caught a bush plane to the Kahiltna Glacier at the base of Denali, to talk about the effects of cumulative fatigue and how things fared for him on Everest.
You’ve had a busy year.
This is the first time I’ve been on U.S. soil in almost six months, and last night was my first sleep in a proper bed since I arrived at Everest Base Camp in April.
How are you dealing with the cumulative fatigue?
I think I’m just delaying it with my mind. I mean, if I let myself break down, it’s all over. I’ve got one more mountain to go. I just have to get through this. I’m looking forward to a long sleep and a recovery period. Fatigue is a funny thing. I mean, obviously I’ve trained a lot for this undertaking and have been a professional athlete for a number of years, all of which helps with the physical and mental side of continuing to push. But at the same time, I’m human. After summiting Everest, I went back to Camp 2 and struggled just to crawl into my tent and change my clothes. Then after a couple days of rest, I’m ready to climb Denali. So maybe it’s more that I have an ability to bounce back.
Did your Everest summit go smoothly, relatively speaking?
You know, it really didn’t. I originally tried to summit on May 14. We were up at Camp 2 and got a weather window, so we skipped Camp 3 and went straight to Camp 4 [the last camp before the Death Zone — the final 3,000 feet to the summit]. But then we got caught in a wind storm and had to stay at Camp 4, then retreat back to Camp 2. That kind of effort completely saps your energy. We tried to summit again several days later, but got caught in another wind storm on the 17th. The weather forecasts just weren’t reliable, and I had to jump into somebody’s tent at Camp 3 for the night. When we finally did get the weather window we wanted, lots of other teams were in the same boat and stacked up, ready to go, which made for a crowded summit day. There were probably 200 people, clients and Sherpas, all going for it. I left Camp 4 at 11:15 p.m. on the 18th and passed 100 people or more during the first half through the Death Zone. In the second half, on the upper lines, it’s too dangerous to pass, to let go of the rope, so I was in this long line moving really slowly toward the summit. It made me nervous because that’s the kind of situation where people get frostbite. Fortunately, it was a clear night, a beautiful night with a full moon and little wind. I reached the summit at 7:45 a.m. on the 19th. It was an incredible moment. And the fact that it had taken me three tries, well, it was kind of crazy.
You’re one of more than 400 people who have summited Everest so far this season. What’s the sentiment on the ground?
The day I summited was the biggest summit day of the season. The fact that several hundred people stood on top of Everest that day is a huge win, especially compared to the last two seasons. I heard there were some fatalities over the weekend, which is terribly sad, but a few losses are expected each year. At the start of the season, the general consensus among everyone was, “Let’s just have a boring Everest season with lots and lots of summits and very little tragedies.” And so far, that’s how it’s been going. The season isn’t over yet, but it’s definitely winding down.
Are you ready for Denali?
My parents treated me to a business class flight — my first one ever — so I got a good rest after Everest. My fiancé Jenna met me in Alaska, so I got a quick visit with her. I’m ready. I mean, as ready as I can be after everything. I’m about to get on the plane that will take me to the glacier [at the foot of Denali], so part of me is thinking "Great, another freezing tent, another night on the hard ground." But the sooner I go, the sooner I get it done, right?