Explorer completes historic Antarctic trek

Colin O’Brady finishes solo, unaided journey across frozen continent.

Published 27 Dec 2018, 10:45 GMT
Photograph by Colin O'Brady

American Colin O’Brady has completed the first-ever solo, unsupported, unaided crossing of Antarctica. According to his website, which has been tracking his GPS signal since he departed November 3, he has arrived at the Ross Ice Shelf on the Pacific Ocean.

Using solely his own muscle power, O’Brady skied 932 miles pulling a 300-pound sled over 54 frozen days across the coldest, windiest, most remote continent on Earth, crossing from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean via the South Pole. After a remarkable 80-mile continuous push over the last two days, almost five times his strenuous daily average, he emerged from the TransAntarctic Mountains onto the Ross Ice Shelf a little before 1 p.m. EST, December 26 and stamped his name into the annals of polar lore.

In the final week of this long and perilous journey, O’Brady and Louis Rudd, 49, the British Army captain attempting the same feat, had battled life-threatening wind chills and whiteout conditions. With their thinning bodies shrinking from the effort—Rudd estimates he’s lost five inches off his already trim waist—they charged for 13 hours a day into a frozen, swirling world of white. Visibility was often so bad they could not see the ground in front of them.

If this looks hard, that's because it is. Rudd’s sled weighs 150 kilograms; O’Brady’s a hefty 170 kilograms. The men fix skins to the bottom of their skis to gain traction on the snow.
Photograph by Colin O'Brady

After a month and a half of skiing and camping in subzero temperatures, Rudd declared in his nightly update, “My God, it’s brutally cold at the moment here.”

Over the last four days the weather has cleared in spurts, and while still intensely cold the men were able finally to see their surroundings. Visible in the distance were the ice-encased peaks of the Transantarctic Mountains, which Rudd described as, “a hugely emotional moment.”

It was near here that Rudd’s friend Henry Worsley, who nearly completed the same quest in 2017, was flown out on an emergency rescue and later perished. “I thought about Henry a lot today...I’m carrying Henry’s flag, his family crest flag, that Joanna has very kindly lent me, that he carried on all his journeys, and it’s really important to me that, this time, the flag goes all the way, and completes the journey right to the end. And it will.”

For the next three days Rudd, the older, more experienced polar adventurer, gained on O’Brady. It had the makings of a dramatic finish. But then on the 52nd day, after missing his traditional early-evening posting time—leading some observers to fear a mishap—O’Brady’s update appeared at 1:00 am EST with a declaration:

“I woke up this morning about 80 miles away from the finish line... a seemingly impossible question popped into my head. I wonder, would be possible to do one straight continuous push all the way to the end?”

In the Antarctic summer the temperatures may stay below zero, but the sun never sets. Here, atop the world’s largest ice cap, O’Brady put to rest any question about who would finish the historic continental crossing first.

“I’m going to go for it,” he declared. “I’m going to push on and try to finish all 80 miles to the end in one go. Currently, I am 18 hours and 48 miles into the push.”

There are many perils when skiing across the frozen continent. Deadly crevasses lurk in the ice and marrow-freezing temperatures can quickly drain the life from even the fittest humans. An 80-mile effort in this environment, after nearly two months of superhuman exertion, is unthinkable. But O’Brady—who calls his expedition “The Impossible First” and frequently declares, “We all have reservoirs of untapped potential”—did just that, skiing onto the Ross Ice Shelf after more than 30 straight hours of effort and the completion of the first solo, human-powered crossing of Antarctica.

Meanwhile, Rudd posted Christmas night that he was 80 miles from the finish. He plans to cover the distance in three big days, “’If the conditions, surface and weather allow.” O’Brady’s heroics aside, this will be a massive effort after 53 days of pushing his body to the limits of endurance in one of the world’s most hostile environments.

That’s his plan, anyway. As he points out, “You never know with Antarctica, she may have other ideas.”

Aaron Teasdale, based in Missoula, Montana, is an award-winning writer specializing in adventure travel, wilderness, and conservation.

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