On Dec. 31, 2018, Colin O’Brady kept to himself at the New Year’s Eve party at Antarctica’s Union Glacier Camp, a seasonal enclave for polar tourists and expedition members. Revelers babbled around. He said little, though, still overwhelmed. “After being alone for so long,” he says, “everything is a lot.”
O’Brady, 33, had just completed the first solo, unsupported, and unaided crossing of Antarctica. No kites or dogs to tow him, no food stashed along the way—just a man, his 375-pound sled, and 932 miles of frigid nothingness. Like most firsts, it was once deemed impossible, which is exactly why O’Brady decided to attempt the feat. O’Brady is a man in perpetual motion. He has been since an accident in 2008, when he was laid up in a hospital with second- and third-degree burns.
O’Brady was 22 at the time, on vacation in Thailand, and he foolishly did what any of us might do when invited to try a double Dutch with a kerosene-soaked cord. Afterward, he was told he’d never walk properly again. Instead, he resolved to compete in a triathlon, the hardest thing he could think of. He did, competing in nearly 60 races. Then, in 2016, he decided to climb the tallest peak on every continent and trek the last degree of latitude to the North and South poles—a feat called the Explorer’s Grand Slam. It took him 139 days, a new record. Last summer, he bagged the highest peaks in all 50 states in three weeks.
To capture glory in Antarctica, though, he needed to race for it. Louis Rudd, a veteran polar explorer, was also out on the ice, shooting for the same record. They started a mile apart on Nov. 3. To finish, they would need to ski 566 miles to the South Pole, climbing nearly 10,000 feet in the process, and then traverse 355 miles down to the Ross Ice Shelf.
There are plenty of ways the continent can kill a man—the cold, deep crevasses, dehydration—but a main reason no one had pulled it off was that no one had figured out how to carry enough food. Enter the “Colin Bar,” a protein-laden hunk of coconut oil, nuts, and seeds—designed by O’Brady’s main sponsor, food supplement maker Standard Process, after a yearlong study of O’Brady’s physiology—that he could eat during his 12-hour days to help him take in 7,000 calories per day. He also carried ramen, oatmeal, soup, and freeze-dried dinners—61-and-a-half days’ of food in all, leaving little room for error or delay. After the first day, O’Brady called his wife and expedition manager, Jenna Besaw. “My sled is so fucking heavy right now,” he said. “I don’t know if I can pull it.”
He fell behind. He would occasionally see Rudd’s tent billowing ahead and despair. “The solitude and vastness of Antarctica amplifies all emotions,” he says. But soon, he adds, “I started to trust my craft.” By the end of the first week, he’d taken the lead and found his rhythm—and competitive juices.
“I was racing,” O’Brady admits. “It was my intention to be the first, but it’s such a long and arduous project that to be constantly worried about someone else would have been a reactionary pitfall.”
Fifty-three days in, with roughly 80 miles to go, he trudged for 18 hours, paused, set up his tent, melted snow into water, and texted Besaw. It was Christmas Day. She congratulated him on his longest push of the trip. “I’m not stopping,” he wrote back. “Excuse me?” came her reply. “Call me. We need to talk.” On the phone, she asked, “Is the weather good?” It wasn’t. Fifty-mile-an-hour winds hurtled snow every which way. But Besaw knew better than to question him and sow doubt. O’Brady pushed on and traveled 77 miles in 32 hours, reaching his final waypoint on Dec. 26. (Rudd finished two days later.) The 932-mile journey took 54 days and blasted 20 pounds off him.
Of course, no sooner had O’Brady claimed the first than a debate began about what is considered “unaided.” Norwegian Borge Ousland crossed Antarctica in 1997 and traveled twice as far as O’Brady. But because of the arcane rules of expedition record-keeping, Ousland’s epic wasn’t considered unaided: He used a kite to pull himself along during some of the voyage. Some critics insist O’Brady’s expedition wasn’t unassisted, either, since part of it took him down a plowed trail that is used to deliver supplies to the South Pole.
O’Brady says he isn’t worried about the quibbling. In between expeditions, he’s a motivational speaker, and one of his main points is setting your sights high and tuning out all the naysayers.
“I believed in it,” he says. “And then I went out in the storm and fought for it every single step of the way until it was done.”