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Adventurer Completes First Solo, Human-Powered Trek Across Antarctica

It took Colin O’Brady 53 days to drag a sled 921 miles from the Ronne to the Ross Ice Shelf

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Yesterday, American adventurer Colin O’Brady skied the final 77.54 miles of the first solo, unsupported and unaided, coast-to-coast crossing of Antarctica. It took the 33-year-old explorer 53 days to make the 921-mile trek, setting out from Union Glacier near the Ronne Ice Shelf and skiing to the geographic South Pole before continuing on to Leverett Glacier on the Ross Ice Shelf, reports Adam Skolnick at The New York Times.

The feat was not undertaken on a whim, according to Skolnick in a previous story on the adventurer. O’Brady, a native of Portland, Oregon, and lifelong athlete was a competitive swimmer at Yale. In 2008, while in Thailand, his legs were severely burned in a freak accident. He was told he'd never walk with a normal gait again. But O’Brady wasn’t willing to accept his new limitations, and he signed up for a triathlon in 2010 while living in Chicago. He won the race and decided to become a professional triathlete.

In 2014, O’Brady left the sport to dedicate his life to exploration. He completed the Seven Summits, climbing the highest peak on each continent including Mount Everest and Vinson Massif in Antarctica. In 2016 he skied the last degree (the final 60 nautical miles) to the North Pole and the South Pole. He then climbed to the highest points in each of the 50 U.S. states last summer, a feat that took him just 21 days while he prepared for his solo trek across Antarctica.

O’Brady’s pulk, or sled, weighed roughly 350 pounds at the beginning of the trip. He pulled his gear behind him while sliding forward using skis covered in skins, which give the skis traction in one direction on the snow. O’Brady skied across the ridged snow and ice for 12 to 13 hours per day, facing winds and almost constant sub-zero temperatures. Other than sleeping and eating, he only took one break, an unscheduled half day to re-glue one of his skins when it came loose from his ski.

Perhaps the most remarkable moment of the trip, however, was the last day. Aaron Teasdale at National Geographic reports that Brady was feeling energetic with the finish line in sight. “I woke up this morning about 80 miles away from the finish line... [and] a seemingly impossible question popped into my head. I wonder, would [it] be possible to do one straight continuous push all the way to the end?” he wrote in an Instagram post. “I’m going to go for it,” he continued. “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.”

In the end, he did complete the journey, skiing for 30 hours straight. “I don’t know, something overcame me,” O’Brady tells The New York Times. “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. It was profound, it was beautiful, and it was an amazing way to finish up the project.”

Though O’Brady finished the crossing alone, he didn’t start that way. According to National Geographic, another adventurer named Louis Rudd, a 49-year-old U.K. army captain and veteran polar explorer, set out on the same quest on November 3 from the same base camp. Though Rudd was in the lead for the first week, O’Brady soon overtook him, keeping a one- to two-day lead for the remainder of the trip. In fact, O’Brady is currently camped on the finish glacier waiting for his friendly competitor to complete the journey so the two can be picked up together.

Despite not winning the race, when Rudd completes the journey it will be memorable for other reasons. In 2015, Rudd’s friend and polar mentor, 55-year-old Lieutenant Colonel Henry Worsley, attempted the same crossing. After 71 days on the ice and just 30 miles from the finish line, Worsley became too sick and exhausted to continue and called in an evacuation. He died soon after of an infection. Rudd is carrying Worsley’s expedition flag and family crest on his journey across the world’s most southerly continent.

While the crossings are incredible feats in and of themselves, Brad Wieners at Outside questions whether they are really firsts. He points out that in 1997, Norwegian explorer Borge Ousland crossed the continent solo and unsupported (meaning he pulled everything he needed behind him), but he used a kite to pull him about a third of the way across the ice. Two other people have repeated the feat using kites, including one last year. O’Brady and Rudd, if he finishes, will complete the trek solo, unsupported and unaided, meaning they used only their own leg power instead of dogs, kites or any other source of power.

The distinction is not only significant for the annals of polar exploration, but it also helps to reveal how physically and mentally demanding the nearly two-month crossing was for O’Brady. Antarctic treks have come a long way since the first explorers ventured to the South Pole using whatever they could to make the journey, including dogs (which they often ate to survive), ponies, airplanes, airships and Sno-Cats to reach the unknown. But for O’Brady and Rudd, the trip involved little more than skis and a sled full of gear.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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