O'Brady Is First To Complete Solo, Unassisted Trek Across Antarctica
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
After a final 32-hour push that took him through Christmas night, adventurer Colin O'Brady made history by becoming the first person to cross the continent of Antarctica unaided.
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COLIN O'BRADY: 2:25 p.m. local time Chilean on December 26, 2018 - I just made history. This was such a hard journey.
MARTIN: Indeed, it was. The Oregon native had spent 54 days dragging a sled across Antarctica's vastness, covering more than 930 miles, with no help from wind kites, no supply drops. He is now back home in the slightly warmer climate of Portland, Ore. And I had a chance to catch up with him.
What were the biggest threats in your mind setting out? And then, did those match the reality of what the threats actually were?
O'BRADY: We named our project The Impossible First, and the reason we named it that is it's sort of been talked about, as well as written about, as this project is impossible. And so for me, that was the biggest challenge was getting the food right, getting the nutrition right, getting my body in a place that could not only carry the weight but it meant that I had to - I couldn't take any days off. If I took a day off, I'd be eating food in my sled and using my supplies, and there was already such a limited amount. So it meant every single day, I had to get up and move no matter what the weather was doing. You know, 50, 60-mile-per-hour winds, I was out there, which meant, you know, windchill of minus 70, minus 80, minus 90 degrees, you know, whiteout conditions. I was moving all day.
MARTIN: As I still try to wrap my head around this whole endeavor and what you accomplished, did you not have any low points? I mean, was there not a moment when you thought, I don't know if I can do this right now? I don't know if I can put one foot in front of the other.
O'BRADY: Oh, there was tons of low points. You know, early in the expedition, I even, you know, called up my wife and I said, you know, I think we named our project the right thing. And she's like, excuse me? I was like, I think it might be impossible...
O'BRADY: ...You know, just literally, you know, crying in my ski goggles, you know, with the tears freezing on my face from just how cold it was, how hard it was, how heavy my sled was. Early on, you know, dragging 375-pound sled, getting my body used to that, my mind used to the long days and the blank canvas of the endless white was extraordinarily challenging. And then even as far as the, you know, 48th or 49th day, I think there's a video clip.
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O'BRADY: I'm kind of down in my mind right now. This is - even though I'm so close, day 48, this is the first time in the project I'm feeling like I just wish I could quit. I'm not doing good but trying to hold it together.
At that point, there was a storm that had gone five or six days in a row. I hadn't seen anything but complete whiteout. And I can't even see one step in front of me. And I'm getting out of my tent to walk, you know, 12, 13 hours every single day, dragging my sled.
MARTIN: Can you tell me about the final push? Because you had, like, a pace. You were setting out to do a certain number of hours every day. And near the end of it, you just decided that you were going to push way further than anyone even on your team expected you to. right?
O'BRADY: Yeah, absolutely. So I calculated and I thought, you know, I'm about 32 to 36 hours away from finishing this thing. And so it just kind of came over me just this deep knowledge. I was like, wait, I'm not going to stop until I get to the end. And so I went from Christmas morning at 6 a.m. straight through the night. Of course, it's endless sun, so the light just - the sun just stays overhead. But I ended up going 32 1/2 straight hours and nearly 80 miles in one single push to finish this project.
MARTIN: Wow. So you were actually racing against one other man, a former British army captain named Lou Rudd. He ended up finishing two days behind you, but you waited for him, I understand, at the finish line. What was that reunion like? You two had just clearly done something so incredible.
O'BRADY: Yeah. You know, although it was, you know, a competition of sorts, and clearly we were both pushing as hard as we could to become the first to make this crossing, you know, there's a deep camaraderie between two people setting off on a journey like this. When we said goodbye to each other at the drop-off point, we gave each other a big hug and said, hey, hope to see you on the other side safe, sound, successful. Both of us are aware of the risks out there. So in the first week, he went ahead of me, you know, gained a bit of a lead in the first week. And although that was a little bit, you know, challenging mentally, I was also like, OK, stick to my own plan. I actually brought more food than he did. I had a heavier sled because I thought that in the back end I wanted to make sure that I had more energy and didn't run out. And that, you know, compromised a little bit of my speed on the front end.
But by day six, I had caught up to him. And it was the one time that we saw each other while we were out there. I walked past his tent and in this bizarre, you know, two men in the middle of nowhere in Antarctica just kind of gave this quick wave, walked past him. And I ended up staying in front of him for the rest of the time, all the way through the finish when I became first. And so as I finish this and have been alone for so long, I realized I didn't just want a plane to come pick me up and, you know, cheer my success of being first but rather, you know, give respect and compliment to someone who had completed this journey just a couple days slower than me.
And so it was an incredible reunion when we saw each other. You know, as he goes back to the U.K. and I go back to the U.S., we didn't know each other before this trip and, you know, it's not like we'll be talking every single day, but we certainly will always carry this bond of both having completed this. And it was an extraordinary job by him to make it across as well.
MARTIN: You had a bad accident about a decade ago. Can you talk a little bit about how that pushed you to want to do this journey?
O'BRADY: Yeah. So 11 years ago, I was in Thailand on a small beach, and, unfortunately, I got really badly burned in a fire. You know, a flaming rope wrapped around my legs, lit my body on fire completely to my neck, had to jump in the ocean to extinguish the flames, which saved my life but not before about 25 percent of my body was burned, predominantly my legs and feet. And the doctors in Thailand warned me that I would never walk again normally. And, you know, through the recovery process of that really guided by my mother, who came into my hospital room and sat with me for many months when I couldn't walk and said not only are you going to walk again, but dream about what you want to do with your life. And so I thought to myself, you know, one day, I want to race a triathlon. One day, I want to be mobile. One day, I want to, you know, do these things.
And so through this long road of recovery, not only did I race raised my first triathlon, but I actually ended up winning my first-ever race 18 months after this burn accident in the Chicago Triathlon. And that just kind of illuminated for me the power that we have that I believe that we have inside of all of us to achieve and accomplish amazing things, particularly when we shift that mindset towards a positive and not be victimized by a situation externally.
And certainly, if you look over the last 10, 11 years of my life and now being the first person to cross Antarctica solo, unsupported, unaided, it just goes to show that maybe one day someone will tell you you'll never walk again normally, but you never know if you keep pushing forward one step at a time what lies for you on the other end of that perseverance.
MARTIN: Your mom sounds awesome.
O'BRADY: She's amazing.
MARTIN: Colin O'Brady - we've been talking about his historic journey across Antarctica. Colin, thanks so much, and congratulations.
O'BRADY: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.