Solo ski mission across Antarctica

Endurance athlete Colin O’Brady is trying to ski alone and unaided across one of the planet’s most forbidding landscapes.

By Mark Synnott
Published 5 Nov 2018, 08:36 GMT, Updated 15 Jul 2021, 14:09 BST
Photograph by Colin O'Brady

It’s extreme challenge season at the bottom of the planet, with adventurers gathering to begin various Antarctic crossings. They’re taking advantage of milder summer weather, when temperatures will average -28°C (-18°F), rather than -60°C (-76°F). Among the group is 33-year-old endurance athlete Colin O’Brady, who is attempting to ski across the frozen, unforgiving landscape solo, hauling all his supplies on a sled and receiving no outside aid.

O’Brady has been preparing for this expedition, which he’s dubbed the 'Impossible First', for years. After suffering a terrible accident that left him with burns covering 25 percent of his body, he won the amateur division of the 2009 Chicago Triathlon. He then went on to set a speed record for the Explorers Grand Slam, a feat that entails climbing the highest peak on every continent and skiing the last degree to both poles. (This has been accomplished by 63 people, according to a blog that tracks attempts.) Over the last year, he began training for the Antarctica crossing, his most grueling challenge yet.

Also, on the continent is Louis Rudd, a British Army captain and close friend of Henry Worsley, who famously attempted a solo, unaided passage across Antarctica in 2015-16. (National Geographic interviewed him just before he departed.) Worsley developed a fatal infection during the expedition and called for rescue just 30 miles before his finish line. Rudd says his attempt is in honor of his friend.

Both men are hoping to claim the first complete solo, unsupported, unaided crossing of Antarctica, though some expedition watchers say it’s already been done. In 1996-97, Børge Ousland finished the trip alone, hauling all of his supplies, earning the title of Antarctica’s first cross-continent solo skier—but he used a kite, which helped propel him. Two others, Rune Gjeldnes and Mike Horn, have made the trip in the same way. O’Brady acknowledges their accomplishments but believes a kite-less trip is fundamentally different.

We spoke to O’Brady while he was preparing for his departure in Chile about the accident that brought him to endurance sports, his visceral connection to Antarctica, and how he’s prepared for the solitude and dangers of the expedition.

How do you feel now that you’re on the verge of setting off?

This has been a couple years in the dreaming and at least one year in earnest in the planning, so it's fun when a long-term goal is finally coming to life. There's a little bit of pre-expedition nerves as per usual, but I kind of expected it to be worse. More or less, I’m just feeling relaxed and in flow.

Can you explain exactly what you intend to do?

The big goal is to be the first person to complete a crossing of Antarctica solo, unsupported, and unaided. I plan to start on the Ross Ice Shelf and end at the edge of the Ronne Ice Shelf, either at Hercules Inlet or the Messner Outlet.

(Editor’s note: The Messner Outlet is where famed Tyrolean mountaineer Reinhold Messner finished his crossing in 1990. Some polar explorers have argued that a proper crossing of the continent has to include the Ronne and Ross ice shelves, because though technically not part of the underlying land mass they are more than half a kilometre thick and 100,000 years old, making them for all intents and purposes an integral piece of the continent).

Most crossings have been from north to south. Why are you going in the opposite direction?

I've done a lot of research and there are pros and cons to going either direction. The direction that I want to go makes it a little bit steeper at first. It's about 400 miles to the South Pole rather than 700 coming from the other side. The predominant katabatic winds spill downhill, so I figure it’ll be slow going at the beginning, because my sled will be heaviest, but I'm hoping it pays off in the long run with having the wind at my back once I've passed the pole.

Are you saying then that you're expecting headwinds on your way to the South Pole but tailwinds once you pass the pole? Does the wind blow in different directions based on where you are relative to the pole?

In Antarctica, the winds are katabatic, which basically means they spill downhill. The pole is very near the high point of the polar plateau, and it spills downhill in all directions from there. I’m expecting a headwind as I climb to the pole [2,800 metres (9,200 feet) above sea level], but then I should have tailwinds for the longer 700-mile leg from there to the Ronne Ice Shelf.

As you know, Henry Worsley died just 30 miles from the end of his journey. He was a highly experienced polar explorer. Why you think you can succeed—with much less experience—where he failed?

It's a real concern. I never met Henry, but I was actually on a much smaller expedition in Antarctica that year, and I just missed crossing paths with him at the South Pole. It was very sad news when I found out that he didn't make it.

I can only read what's been written about Henry, and I’ve talked to various people in the polar community to try and learn about some of the things that didn't go well for him. For me, it's all about preparation.

One of the things I've really focused on with this project is getting the nutrition right. On these long expeditions in the polar regions, you see people losing a ton of weight, getting really weak, and making bad decisions as a result. My main sponsor is a company called Standard Process. The top nutritionists, PhDs, food scientists, and doctors there have done a year-long longitudinal study on my blood work. From that, they’ve created custom food that specifically meets my calorific demands and the exact phytonutrients and macronutrient balance that I need for my exact physiology.

I followed Henry’s journey and it appeared that he was suffering but was so tough he just kept pushing. Obviously, he pushed too far. You’re clearly a very determined individual yourself, so do you worry that you could end up in a position where you don’t realise how close you are to the edge?

If I get into trouble in the same way Henry did, I do have a satellite phone. Hopefully I can call in time to get rescued. Being solo presents a challenge because you don't have the sounding board of an expedition partner, so it's a little bit harder to notice those signs when it's just yourself in a vacuum.

I’m going to be communicating with my wife Jenna throughout the journey. We've been together for 11 years, and she’s been on the other side of that sat phone many times, including me being caught in a really bad storm up in the death zone on Everest. She's taken those phone calls for me. I've granted Jenna the authority to call the logistics operator and say, "You guys need to go pick him up." If she sees me not moving for a few days or hears something in my voice that she doesn't like, she can hit that ejector button.

The Norwegian explorer Børge Ousland completed a 1,768-mile crossing of Antarctica in 1996-97, solo and unsupported. There has been some disagreement in the polar community over whether or not his crossing should be classified as “unaided” because he used a kite to help propel him. What would you say to those who insist that Ousland was actually first to cross unaided?

I agree that Børge should absolutely be mentioned when discussing the most epic and pioneering expeditions that have ever happened in Antarctica. But the truth of the matter is that what he did with kites is so fundamentally different from what I'm doing unaided. It's almost like comparing apples to oranges. He was not resupplied, but with a kite you can easily travel 100 to 200 miles in a day. I was just sitting with a guy last night who said he crossed from the pole to Hercules Inlet in nine days using kites. That usually takes 40 plus days when you’re hauling a sled with supplies. It's like the difference between sailing a boat across the ocean and rowing a boat across the ocean. They're really just two very different modes of travel.

Have you done any big solo expeditions before?

I've spent a fair bit of time in the mountains solo, but nothing of this extended nature. The biggest thing I've done solo, that's actually not directly related to adventure but more sort of the mindset of being alone, is that every year, I do these 10-day Vipassana meditation retreats. No reading, no writing, no eye contact, sitting and meditating in complete silence and isolation for 10 days. It's been incredibly valuable for me in my mindfulness practice and general mental well-being.

I've never been alone in Antarctica for 60, 70 days by myself. Although I think the solitude will be one of the most beautiful and meaningful parts of this experience, it will also be one of the most challenging elements.

Describe the accident that led you on this path of extreme expeditions.

It was just after college. I had never really travelled internationally, so I took a backpack and a surfboard and set off to bum around the world on a shoestring budget, living in youth hostels and hitchhiking around. Three or four months into the trip, I found myself on a beach in rural Thailand. Being 22 years old and somewhat precocious, I thought that jumping a flaming jump rope looked like a good idea. Unfortunately, it went terribly wrong for me.

A rope soaked in kerosene wrapped around my legs, spraying excess kerosene the length of my body and lighting me on fire to my neck in an instant. I was able to get up and jump into the ocean, which extinguished the flames, but not before 25 percent of my body was severely burned, particularly my legs and feet.

I was in the middle of nowhere on an island with no hospital. Instead of an ambulance, I was transported on a moped down a dirt path to a one-room nursing station. I had to undergo eight surgeries with a cat running around my bed. Because of the damage to the ligaments and tissue on my ankles and feet from the deepness of the burns, the doctors said, “Look, you'll probably never walk normally again.”

I ended up being in the hospital for several months. When I flew back to the United States, I still hadn't taken a single step. Mentally, I was in this really depressed state. Physically, I was in so much pain. I was like, my life's over. I'm not going to walk again.

My mum is the hero of this story. She said, “What do you want to do when you get healthy again?” And I said, I want to race a triathlon. And instead of her being like, “No, I meant a more realistic goal,” she just said, “Yep, let's work on that.” So literally every single day I woke up for a year and a half thinking somehow, I’ve got to get out of this wheelchair, which culminated in me racing the Chicago Triathlon in 2009. My goal was just to finish the race, but to my complete and utter surprise, I won. I quit my job the next day and became a professional triathlete.

That's an incredible story.

Over the next six years, I raced triathlons as a member of the U.S. national team. Then, in 2015, I transitioned into doing these bigger expeditions. It’s all been an iteration from that one moment of tragedy and overcoming it.

As humans, I believe we have these reservoirs of untapped potential inside of us and that we can achieve incredible things when we set audacious goals and commit to the process of going after them. I'm calling my Antarctica project the Impossible First. One-thousand public school kids around the United States will be able to ask me questions live from the field, and I’ll be educating them about science, climate, weather, and preserving public land.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can follow Colin O'Brady's journey across Antarctica online or on Instagram, where he'll be posting new photos every day.

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