In hindsight it was not a wise decision. On January 14, 2008, Colin O’Brady was sitting with his friend David Boyer in a beachside restaurant on the island of Koh Tao, in the Gulf of Thailand. O’Brady was 22, had a wanderer’s tan, and was midway through a yearlong trip around the world, for which he’d saved during college. As he saw it, the trip was not a last hurrah before the strictures of adulthood. Instead, he hoped the adventure would open new doors for him and “dictate the next chapter of my life,” he now says.
When the waiter returned to their table, he was carrying a kerosene-soaked cord. It’s a common beach-resort party trick: double Dutch with a flaming rope. “It was pretty obvious that this wasn’t the safest thing in the world,” O’Brady recalls.
“But I don’t know, it just never crossed my mind.” The line made a few passes over their heads before swinging down and catching O’Brady by the legs. Boyer rolled away, but O’Brady tripped and fell to the sand, tangled in fire that rose to his neck. He pulled at the burning lasso with his right hand and wrangled free. Then he ran for the ocean to extinguish the flames, but they’d lingered too long: He suffered second- and third-degree burns on his feet, legs, and right hand — about a quarter of his body.
On the back of a moped, he rode to a one-room nursing station, the island’s only medical facility. There they did what they could. “I remember looking down at my legs,” he says. “This woman is pulling pieces of skin off them and just cutting it away with scissors.”
Temporarily cleaned and bandaged, O’Brady could do nothing but lie on the twin bed, 8,000 miles from home, and wait. “I ended up sleeping next to him,” Boyer says, “holding him for part of the night because he was just in such pain.”
In the morning, O’Brady was transferred to a bigger island with a proper hospital, where he endured eight straight days of surgery. He was then moved to another hospital, in Bangkok, for a month of recovery. His mother had arrived shortly after the accident, and as he lay there, she asked what he would like to do after all of this. “Compete in a triathlon,” he told her. He still hadn’t taken a step.
Eight years and 30 triathlons later, O’Brady is on a mission to become the fastest person to complete the Explorers Grand Slam: climbing the tallest mountain on each of seven continents and trekking the last degree of latitude at both the North and South poles. In November he was on a training climb on South Sister, in Oregon. O’Brady knows that peak about as well as anyone can know a mountain — it was the first 10,000-foot peak he summited, when he was 19 and living in Portland. When the mountain comes into view above the forest, he lets out a howl. “Look! We’re going up there,” O’Brady says. But then he pauses, surprised. “There’s snow on that mountain. There’s a lot of snow! Oh well, we’ll see how it goes.”
Now 30, with the scars of his ordeal slowly fading and his recovery complete, O’Brady has gotten used to people saying that the accident was the best thing that ever happened to him, that it exposed his grit and drove him to shun the ordinary. “I guess I’ve been able to make lemonade out of lemons,” he says. “But, shit, I wish I hadn’t been burned at all.”
After Bangkok, he flew home to Portland, where another month passed before he took his first tentative steps. It was a year before he regained full range of motion. In that time he got a job as a commodities trader, joined a gym, and registered for the Chicago Triathlon, which in August 2009, a mere 19 months after the accident, he won.
The peaks and poles O’Brady will need to tag to break the speed record. (Illustration by Eric Serviss)
Buoyed by the result, he moved to Australia, turned pro in the sport, and set his sights on the Olympics. But after five years on the pro circuit, he craved something more, so he started looking elsewhere for inspiration. At Yale, where he majored in economics, O’Brady had taken a semester off to trek through Patagonia. (“I’ve never seen sky so blue and so big,” he says.) There he learned the basics of mountaineering, and when he returned to Yale, his yearn for the mountains remained unabated.
As he struggled with the decision to continue in the triathlon, he returned to the mountains and a birthday present he’d given his fiancée, Jenna Besaw — the book Climbing the Seven Summits. After reading about the Explorers Grand Slam, he suggested it as a new goal. Thirty-odd people have done it, only two of them (a Welsh rugby player and a Boston banker) in under a year. Besaw said the grand slam sounded like an admirable lifetime achievement. O’Brady said he wanted to do it in six months. In January he set off to accomplish just that. “This is now my Olympics,” he says.
The margin for error is exquisitely small. With such a small window of time, any single item on a long list of circumstances could derail him — bad weather, a freak accident. “If I trip and fall and sprain my ankle when I’m taking a pee in the middle of the night, it could end the project,” he says. “It’s that fragile.”
On his way to the South Pole in January, if things proceed as planned, O’Brady will have dragged a sled for 60 miles in temperatures that averaged 15 below zero. Then he’ll go back-to-back on Antarctica’s Vinson Massif and Aconcagua, in the Andes. On Indonesia’s Carstensz Pyramid in March, he’ll have to manage an elaborate rope traverse over a 2,000-foot canyon. From there it’s on to Kilimanjaro and Elbrus, in Russia. At the beginning of April, en route to the North Pole, he’ll sleep on ice floes that can drift miles south by morning. After that, he’ll turn around and head for Everest, arriving, at best, two weeks into its meager climbing season. The final push is Denali, which, due to the brutal Alaskan weather, may prove to be his hardest trek. And all of this before the six-month bell chimes.
“To me, it’s an interesting endurance challenge more than anything,” O’Brady says. To be sure, there are those in the climbing community who are quick to point out that the Explorers Grand Slam is not all that hard. It takes a lot of planning and the trips are expensive, but the routes are well trod. Eric Larsen, the first person to traverse the North and South poles and climb Everest in a single year, says, “The logistical side of it is probably an equal part of the difficulty puzzle.”
O’Brady will climb some mountains, such as Carstensz, with a group; others, including Aconcagua, with a lone guide. He’ll attempt Everest’s south side with support from the noted New Zealand outfitter Adventure Consultants. (O’Brady persuaded the Nike Foundation and the investment-management firm Gelber Group to help fund the expedition, and he’s using the world-record attempt as a platform to raise money for the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a nonprofit that combats childhood obesity.)
If he pulls it off, he’ll have “created this epic thing and set a world record.” If he doesn’t, “I took this harebrained idea, poured a year of my life into it — money and all sorts of stuff — and asked every single person I know for help, and it just sucked.”
“For a triathlete to be two weeks behind on Everest, that’s nothing,” Larsen says. “But there’s a lot of things that can happen: an avalanche or an earthquake, or an icefall can come down.” Mountains don’t care about world records.
“It is a common human experience,” O’Brady says, “for people to look back on periods of their life and have a paragraph to say about a decade.” In chasing the world record, he is running away from that notion. “This project will change me, I’m certain of that,” he adds. “I don’t know what that impact is going to be. But what I do know is that it’s a privilege to be able to push your mind and body to a level that leaves a stamp on who you are.”