The week between Christmas and New Year’s Day is what one writer has called the “Sunday afternoon of the year,” a time for lazy reading and ambitious cooking projects — or, in Colin O’Brady’s case, the final, sleepless 80-mile leg of a two-month race across Antarctica.
On Wednesday, O’Brady became the first person to cross the continent solo, unsupported and unaided by wind power. He made the 932-mile crossing in 53 days, with only one half-day off to repair one of the skins that allowed his skis to grip the snow.
O’Brady’s accomplishment is the culmination of years of athletic feats.
The 33-year-old grew up in Portland, Ore. After graduating from Yale, he pursued a career in finance, but a freak accident on a trip to Thailand a few years later changed everything. On his trip, O’Brady was burned in a fire, suffering severe burns on the lower half of his body. His legs were so badly damaged that doctors warned he would never walk normally again.
Instead, O’Brady made a full recovery and, a just a few years later, won an Olympic-distance triathlon. Inspired, he quit his day job and became a professional triathlete, training for the Olympics. In 2014, he began his quest to complete the Explorers Grand Slam, a series of challenges that includes climbing the highest summit on each continent.
O’Brady prepared for his Antarctica crossing by putting in long hours at the gym. He did planks with his hands and feet plunged into ice water, then practiced undoing thick knots.
After months of training, O’Brady flew on Halloween from Chile to Antarctica, where he began his trek.
O’Brady was on the move for about 12 hours most days, covering 20 to 30 miles each day. He dragged along a sled of gear that weighed 375 pounds at the start of the journey, containing a tent, cold-weather sleeping bags, solar panels, skis, a satellite phone, freeze-dried food and other items.
His final leg was particularly brutal — a 77-mile haul he completed in 32 hours. O’Brady stopped only once during that push to melt some ice, eat a double helping of dinner and call his wife to reassure her he wouldn’t do anything stupid.
“I don’t know, something overcame me,” he told the New York Times of his decision to press on. “I just felt locked in for the last 32 hours, like a deep flow state. I didn’t listen to any music. Just locked in, like I’m going until I’m done.”
O’Brady said the decision to complete what amounted to an ultramarathon in freezing temperatures after two months of constant physical strain came to him as he was making breakfast on Christmas morning. “I was like, all right, I have three more days left, how many hours is that of moving?” O’Brady told the Times. “People run 100 miles all the time.”
O’Brady’s accomplishment places him among some of the greats of polar exploration, including Ronald Amundsen, who led the first expedition to reach the South Pole, and Borge Ousland, the first man to cross Antarctica alone in 1997. (Unlike O’Brady, Ousland used a kite to help him travel.)
In finishing, O’Brady also narrowly defeated fellow adventurer Louis Rudd, 49, who was attempting the same crossing at the same time. At the finish line, O’Brady said he planned to pitch a tent, go to sleep, and wait for Rudd to arrive so they could travel back to South America together.
Even as he was rushing to finish, O’Brady said the final leg of his trip was emotional.
“I was reviewing the entirety of the expedition in my mind, and I was aware I’m going to tell this story for the rest of my life, but I told myself: you’re living this right now — live it!” he told the Times. "It was just getting deep with the senses. What does it sound like when your skis scrape against the snow? What does it taste like out here? Really just try and just live the experience.”