In 2018, Colin O’Brady became the first person in history to walk completely unsupported across Antarctica. Unlike previous walks across the continent, he received no support, no food drops and no outside help for the duration. Here’s how he did it.
Adventurer Colin O’Brady had been in Punta Arenas for nearly a week, watching banks of polar fog roll over the Straits of Magellan.
There was plenty to do. Calculate freeze-dried rations. Pack the sled. Double-check the synthetic skins. Go over the expedition route one more time: Start on the Ronne Ice Shelf, then trek to the craggy Messner Glacier, from there start climbing, up through whipping katabatic crosswinds toward the Thiel Mountains, when you see those lonely peaks, swing a dogleg to the southeast and follow that latitude to the South Pole—do not stop for tea.
After that, descend the Leverett Glacier and reach the Ross Ice Shelf on the other side of the continent. Approximate distance: 1,400 kilometers. Number of successful attempts in human history: Zero.
It was October 30th 2018, and the weather reports looked promising. The Ilyushin cargo jet was waiting on the tarmac. The crew was ready. All they needed now were clear skies and a friendly breeze. O’Brady bunkered down and flicked on some music. The zydeco beats of Paul Simon’s Graceland filled the darkening room.
Last year, Colin O’Brady became the first person in history to cross Antarctica unsupported. He did it on foot, dragging a Nordic sled (known as a ‘pulk’), stacked with 170 kilograms of freeze-dried food, tents and polar gear. The journey took 54 days.
He hiked on purpose-built skis through some of the worst conditions on the planet: Blinding white-outs, blizzards, blasting 90kph polar winds, and temperatures that dropped to -50ºC. Any exposed skin, even a pin-prick in your thermal face mask, could cause frostbite in around 15 seconds.
“Alone in Antarctica for two months, pulling this ridiculously heavy sled, the mental challenge was real,” he tells me down the phone. “I remember during the first couple of days, the sled was so heavy, and I was in so much pain, that I started crying. When you’re crying into your goggles and it’s -25ºC, your tears freeze to your face. And you’re pulling this sled for like 12 or 14 hours a day, and all I would say to myself is, ‘Colin, this too shall pass.’”
For O’Brady, calculating the optimal fuel-to-weight ratio would be the difference between historic victory and dying alone on an ice sheet.
Colin’s wasn’t the first to attempt a solo Antarctic crossing. Other explorers have used kites to surf the polar airstreams (although this doesn’t count as ‘unsupported’), and several have tackled the journey on foot. In 2012, explorer Felicity Aston became the first person to cross solo, without kites, but she received two food drops along the way—Colin received none. Aston’s feat was (and still is) a monumental act of human endurance but, until Colin, no-one had ever made an entirely solo successful crossing.
The most recent was English polar explorer, Ben Saunders, who covered 1,300 kilometers in 2017 before tapping out. The year before that, noted explorer Henry Worsely actually died on the ice, just 200 kilometers from the finish line. Worsley was the descendant of Frank Worsley, the captain of Shackleton’s tragic trans-Antarctic journey in 1917.
“I was aware of Worsley’s death,” says O’Brady. “I was actually in Antarctica at the same time, doing another world record attempt. To see him fall ill and die was very sad for the community. It really put the challenge into focus.”
O’Brady’s real enemy wasn’t the Antarctic elements or losing digits to frostbite, it was basic mathematics. Every day, he’d be burning around 10,000 calories: A Herculean number usually reserved for Olympic athletes and steroidal power lifters.
To consume anywhere near that amount, he’d need to eat a lot of food. But since he was dragging every ounce himself, the more food he packed, the slower the journey, the more calories he’d burn, the faster he’d atrophy and starve. Calculating the optimal fuel-to-weight ratio would be the difference between historic victory and dying alone on an ice sheet.
But the first step was bulking up. O’Brady spent more than a year at his gym in Portland, working with professional trainer Mike McCastle. Every day, he’d endure non-stop, grueling weight sessions. McCastle made him hold wooden planks with his feet and hands in buckets of ice water. He practised untying and tying knots with frozen, trembling fingers. After 12 months, he’d put on six kilograms of pure muscle.
The second step was nutrition. “Antarctica was a unique challenge,” O’Brady says. “You have to put on weight knowing you’re going to lose weight. I spent a year with one of my sponsors, creating nutritional supplements for the project. We called them Colin Bars. They were basically coconut oil, nuts and seeds. Just pure fat and fuel for the journey.”
Even on a steady diet of Colin Bars, O’Brady’s body started to diminish as the weeks dragged on. He reckons he was consuming 7,000 calories each day; about 3,000 shy of what he was burning. “I’ve lost a ton of weight,” he wrote, six weeks in, “so much so that I’m afraid to take a close look at my body. My calves feel more like the size of my arms at this point. My watch is starting to slide around my wrist.”
“I was able to get in this flow state and go back into memories of my childhood. But not just for a minute or two. I’d be lost in this lucid dream for like one or two hours, thinking about family and love and my wife. No distractions, no nothing.”
There are strict rules when it comes to Antarctica world record attempts. For this to be an official ‘unsupported’ crossing, O’Brady had to bring and carry everything himself. He couldn’t accept even a cup of tea from the Scott Station researchers who turned out to watch him pass—curious bystanders in the literal middle of nowhere.
“It was funny actually,” he says. “Because I’d come from Punta Arenas, I was on Chilean time. But the South Pole base is run by the American government, and they’re on Christchurch time. So although it was like 10am for me, it was 3am for those guys, even though we were in the exact same place. These two scientists wandered out and said, ‘There would be more of us, but everyone’s still asleep, sorry.’”
By the time Colin reached the Ross Ice Shelf, he’d walked over 1,400 kilometers and become the first human to cross Antarctica without support. In fact, he powered through the last 123 kilometers in one, Zen-like 32-hour marathon, going without sleep or rest, caught in some lucid world between dream and consciousness. “I was able to get in this flow state and go back into memories of my childhood,” he says. “But not just for a minute or two. I’d be lost in this lucid dream for like one or two hours, thinking about family and love and my wife. No distractions, no nothing.”
There was no fanfare when Colin reached the finish line. No screaming hordes or news crews. It would be another four days before a cargo plane flew his wasted body back to Chile. When he finally put down the sled, he sent a breathless and tearful GoPro video to his family back home. Just three choked words: “I’m so tired.” (“I kind of wish I’d thought of something more profound to say,” he jokes).
He did pack one album, his favorite: Graceland. It’s hard to imagine a less ‘polar’ soundtrack. Graceland is effervescent. It’s a mix of mbaqanga pop music and twangy zydeco bass, written by Paul Simon in South Africa in the 1980s. It’s an album of color and movement and foot-stomping life—perhaps a strange choice of soundtrack for one man, trudging alone at the end of the world. Or perhaps a perfect one.
Aside from Graceland, Colin completed his expedition mostly in silence. The only other sounds a steady pant, the rhythmic crunch of the skis, and the whistling polar wind blowing over a lonely continent. “The landscape was just white on white,” he says. “like standing in the belly of a ping-pong ball.”
You can read more about Colin’s 54-day solo journey across Antarctica on his website.
James Shackell is a freelance journalist with words in The Huffington Post, Red Bull, Canadian Traveler and Smith Journal. One day, he'll be bumped to business class, and you'll never hear the end of it.