People around the world were captivated as 33-year-old Colin O’Brady raced 49-year-old Louis Rudd to complete what they called the “first-ever solo, unsupported, unassisted” trek across Antarctica. For 54 days and 932 miles, the men pulled 300-pound sleds in fatal temperatures and dangerous terrain without any assistance. No one had completed this trek and lived to tell the tale.
That’s why people were stunned to hear that an inexperienced O’Brady not only finished the trek but beat an experienced polar expert to the finish line. O’Brady was praised for his efforts, received a very lucrative book deal, and went on to become a motivational speaker. There’s just one problem. O’Brady’s version of the events is a flat out lie. So, what really happened down in Antarctica?
It’s clear to everyone that O’Brady is a talented athlete who is undeterred by epic challenges. After swimming competitively at Yale, 22-year-old O’Brady set out for a trip around the world, using money that he had saved up from painting houses. But one day, while he was partying on the beach in Thailand, tragedy struck.
He severely burned his legs on a flaming jump rope, forcing him to spend a month in the hospital with second and third-degree burns. Doctors told him that he would never walk normally again. O’Brady beat the odds, though, and two years later, he won the amateur Chicago Triathlon. Soon after, he quit his job as a financer to fully commit himself as a professional triathlete.
Hot with ambition, O’Brady launched his new career by setting a world speed record (that still stands) for the Explorers Grand Slam. This competition is a tough one. It requires climbing the highest mountain on every continent, as well as skiing to the North and South Poles. It was during this competition that O’Brady was first introduced to the world of polar adventure.
During the South Pole part of his journey, O’Brady learned of Henry Worsley — an Englishman who was in the midst of skiing solo and unsupported across the continent. “I was fascinated that there was still this, in my mind, iconic first that had been attempted but no one had done yet,” he told National Geographic in 2020.
He knew in his bones that trekking across the frozen continent would be his next feat. But in the meantime, he had to focus on the Explorers Grand Slam. For his ski to the North Pole, O’Brady hired a legendary polar guide, Dixie Dansercoer, who just so happens to have record-breaking Antarctic journeys on his resume.
However, O’Brady wasn’t the only one in the group of adventurers led by Dansercoer. There was also a British father and his two sons, who Dansercoer says, “wanted to fully enjoy the experience.” For most people, a ski trip to the North Pole is a one in a lifetime experience. However, O’Brady had something else on his radar.
He wanted to break a record, and no one was going to stand in his way. Frustrated that the family was partaking in this trip for “deeper reasons,” O’Brady switched guides. His new guide, Eric Larsen, says that he was surprised at how abrasive O’Brady was when trying to switch into a different group. “[It was] excessive,” Larsen told National Geographic.
“We still talk about it.” It seems that O’Brady didn’t just offend the guides but the people that were also skiing the North Pole with him. “It was very hard for my clients to hear him denigrate the way they view things,” Dansercoer later explained. “He truly offended people.”
After his trip to the North Pole, Larsen found himself correcting O’Brady’s posts on Instagram, where he exaggerated the weight of his sled and the coldness of the temperatures. In his book, The Impossible First, he never mentions Larsen, nor does he mention that he hired a paid guide to take him to the North Pole.
O’Brady did, however, say that he met Dansercoer, but the way he described the meeting was a flat-out lie. While he was preparing to reach the North Pole, O’Brady says that he crossed paths with Dansercoer, who was “heading to the Pole on his own expedition, guiding a family of Brits,” O’Brady wrote.
With 125 miles left in his journey across Antarctica, Worsley called in for help. He was sick with bacterial peritonitis—a disastrous infection—and later died at a hospital in Chile. O’Brady saw this as an opportunity.
He decided to get in contact with Steve Jones, the manager of the expedition at the logistics company that was in charge of most of the expeditions in Antarctica, called ALE. However, the company had a strict screening process. Unfortunately, O’Brady didn’t have enough experience and was ineligible for a trek on the continent.
Not taking no for an answer, O’Brady decided to contact his former guide from the North Pole. Despite the fact that Dansercoer had trouble with O’Brady during the North Pole trip, he agreed to be his mentor. Over FaceTime, email, and on the Pacific coast with sleds full of wet sand…
Dansercoer began to train O’Brady in, what he calls, the “fine art” of polar expeditions. A few weeks passed, and the ALE came to a decision: if O’Brady could cross the ice cap in Greenland, then he would be ready for an expedition in Antarctica.
Two months before his Antarctic journey, O’Brady joined a group preparing to cross the world’s second-largest ice cap. Problems began immediately. O’Brady booked an early flight out of Greenland against the recommendations of the guiding service. According to one of the trip participants, there was a major power struggle between the guide and O’Brady.
He constantly tried to undermine the guide, who was a few years his junior, and repeatedly “bullied” the slowest members of the group so he could finish on schedule. His fellow travelers weren’t professional adventurers and this frustrated O’Brady.
These fellow trekkers were goodhearted, hardworking people who were on the trip of their lifetime. Unlike O’Brady, they had taken time off from work and their families to make the 360-mile trip across Greenland. But O’Brady was ruining everything. “I had dreamt about the trip for a long time and knew it was going to be difficult,” says neuroscientist Anja Gundlfinger.
“But we really suffered…Colin had his own agenda and can be very pushy.” According to Gundlfinger, O’Brady continuously screamed and yelled profanities at her and the other woman in the group. He demanded to know why they were so slow.
O’Brady, however, denies these claims, which he says are “inaccurate.” Under the explorer’s relentless pressure, the entire group trudged on. They skied 12 hours a day on very little sleep. Some days, they covered more than 20 miles while pulling heavy sleds carrying their supplies. Then finally, Gundlfinger broke down. She was exhausted and was suffering from nosebleeds.
“I do not want to continue like this,” she told O’Brady. Everyone else agreed. Later that night, O’Brady posted to Instagram from his tent using a satellite connection. “Today was a major disappointment,” he began.
He says that as a group, everyone decided to push hard and finish by his hard stop date. “I’ve been pulling four sleds (more than twice my normal weight) for a few days now to try and get us to move more quickly,” he continued to write on Instagram.
“But midday today, an Everest summiteer / ultra-marathoner and a guy who has both kayaked and canoed across the Atlantic alone came to me and tapped out, unable to continue to push even if I carried all their weight.” Little did his followers know that this was a lie, according to National Geographic.
He then went on to boast that if someone of this caliber had to tap out while he was still “strong, smiling and able to push harder and carry more,” then his training for Antarctica was officially complete.
According to multiple members of the group, O’Brady was describing a man in the group who backed Gundlfinger when she declared that she finally had enough. This man was, in fact, a highly accomplished adventurer who, like O’Brady, was carrying extra weight so the women in the group could keep up with the fast pace of the group.
The day after O’Brady uploaded his controversial post to Instagram, the group began their final ten percent of their trek across Greenland. O’Brady, however, was nowhere to be found. He had called for a helicopter to take him to his flight back to the States. Everyone was relieved.
They finally had a few days of peace and quiet. A few days later, O’Brady wrote on his website that his journey across Greenland had been a “success.” In his book, he only accounts for a very brief version of his trip to Greenland and focuses on a “near-death experience” he had on his final night.
“Within an instant, I felt nothing below my legs but air,” O’Brady wrote in his book, The Impossible First. “The crevasse was blue-walled deeper than I could see. It went down into the ice’s inky darkness and would have spelled almost certain death if I hadn’t caught myself.”
But again, this story was an exaggerated version, according to one of the group members. Apparently, the guide had told O’Brady to pitch his tent close to the group because there were a lot of cracks in the glacier’s surface. He didn’t want anyone to fall in.
O’Brady, of course, didn’t listen. So right around the time when everyone was getting ready to call it a night, they suddenly heard O’Brady begin to yell. The guide runs over, only to find O’Brady in a shallow crevasse that was nothing close to danger.
When the group finally finished their 360-mile journey, everyone headed to the airport, where O’Brady’s mentor and former guide was there waiting for them. He apologized to them for recommending O’Brady to the tour guide group in the first place. “I had no clue that this was going to happen,” Dansercoer said.
But regardless of how everything turned out, O’Brady had, in fact, accomplished his goal. Now he was eligible for Antarctica. Over the years, polar adventurers were born with a passion and love for Earth’s snowiest and coldest places.
They’ve spent years as apprentices, learning skills, terminology, ethics, and history. O’Brady, on the other hand, skipped all of these steps. The only thing he was aware of, however, were the rules he had to follow to set the record of the first “unsupported” crossing of Antarctica if you can call it that.
What comes to mind when you think of crossing the entire continent? From ocean to ocean? Well, that’s not what O’Brady did. Looking at the map of Antarctica, you might wonder how his 932-mile route is considered crossing the “entire continent,” as he calls it.
This is especially true since men before him ventured out on more daring and dangerous journeys. In 1997, Borge Ousland from Norway trekked 1,864 miles across wild terrain on the frozen continent. However, on a few short occasions, he used a small kitelike device to boost his speed, and therefore, his journey didn’t technically count as “unsupported.”
To set the record, O’Brady knew that he had to be careful. This meant that he couldn’t use porta-potties along his route, nor could he enter the heated Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station. In his book, he describes quickly walking past these utilities.
Under the rules of “unsupported crossing,” he could not accept any help. However, many people say that O’Brady, in fact, did get help. During his final 366 miles of the trek, O’Brady skied on the South Pole Traverse, the “SPoT.” This is a highway used to haul supplies to researchers in the field. But this is just the start of his controversy.
The SPoT is also smooth and sleek, which completely eliminates the danger of some of the continent’s worst sastrugi, which are dangerous, wind-formed snow piles that can reach up to six feet. So there’s a reason why people have traveled this plowed highway.
This had left many Antarctic veterans asking themselves the same question: how can O’Brady call his trek unassisted when he clearly benefited from a manmade haul route? “IMHO skiing on a tractor road is a bigger ‘aid’ than a kite,” American climber and Conrad Anker tweeted, referring to Ousland’s 1997 journey.
O’Brady, however, shakes off the comments, which he calls “armchair criticism” coming from people who have never actually “been out there and seen [the SPoT].” As a side note, Anker has seen the route and has completed more than a dozen expeditions in Antarctica.
But Anker isn’t the only one who’s been outspoken about O’Brady’s self-proclaimed “unassisted” trek across the continent. “It more than doubles someone’s speed and negates the need for navigation,” polar expert Eric Philips told National Geographic in 2020. “An expedition cannot be classed as unassisted if someone is skiing on the road.”
The greatest danger to any Antarctic journey is the crevasses, which explains why the ALE told O’Brady, who they considered as inexperienced, to take the paved highway. But during his expedition and for quite some time afterward, O’Brady didn’t acknowledge his use of the SPoT.
However, people from around the world who followed his daily progress on social media noticed that his daily mileage suddenly skyrocketed, despite the fact that he was trekking through the most dangerous part of his journey. When the New York Times asked how he was able to move so quickly, he responded, “I don’t know, something overcame me.”
In his book and on television appearances, including HBO’s Real Sports, O’Brady claims that he skied mainly through “no-rescue zones” where the wild terrain makes it impossible for planes to land. “I’m in a place without possible rescue,” O’Brady writes. “Where no plane can land.”
Before his trek, O’Brady was required to sit through briefings with Simon Abrahams, the safety manager for ALE. According to O’Brady’s book, Abrahams pointed to a map and said, “If you call for help in here, you won’t get it.” Abrahams says this is not true.
The SPoT route runs through that area, and if someone needed help, “We could obviously drive a vehicle out there,” he says. Abraham’s version of the events was also backed up by 49-year-old Louis Rudd, who was in Antarctica at the same time.
“I have never been told that rescue is impossible on any of the three expeditions I’ve done in Antarctica despite all being different routes and in total covering 3,000 miles of the continent,” he told National Geographic in 2020. In fact, ALE has strict rules for anyone who is participating in a trek.
Every single one of their soloists is required to call ALE once every 24 hours. If someone misses two of those calls, ALE will send an aircraft and a doctor to come looking for you, based on your last GPS location. This is standard procedure for everyone, including O’Brady.
“Rescue or pick-up on the plateau in good conditions is as benign as requesting an Uber,” Laval St. Germain, a former Boeing 737 captain, said. Thanks to satellite phones and the tour guide’s ability to fly in food, replacement tents, and other supplies, “You never feel like you are truly on your own nowadays on the polar plateau.”
At the end of his book, O’Brady describes a Today Show producer, overcome with emotion, praising the adventurer for how he waited for another man, 49-year-old Louis Rudd, who was also after the title for the first unassisted solo trek across the continent. Instead of immediately flying home, O’Brady says that he decided to wait for Rudd because “I wanted to honor a worthy competitor.”
“To congratulate him in person,” he wrote in The Impossible First. “So I waited, calling off the plane that was on standby to pick me up.” It seems as though O’Brady milked this situation during his entire media tour.
“I realized I didn’t just want a plane to come to pick me up and, you know, cheer my success of being first,” he said in an appearance on NPR’s Weekend Edition a few days after his expedition, “But rather, you know, give respect and compliment to someone who had completed this journey just a couple of days slower than me.”
Again, this is not true. The flight from the men’s finish line to the ALE base costs $100,000. According to the tour guide company, Rudd and O’Brady agreed that if one person arrived within a couple of days before the other, they would wait for one another.
This made huge sense financially since the two could share the cost of the pickup flight. So, in other words, O’Brady saved a whopping $50,000 by waiting for Rudd. “Definitely worth eating expedition rations for a couple more days,” Steve Jones from ALE told National Geographic.
This explanation was a far cry from what O’Brady countlessly shared on TV and in his book. When asked about this conversation, O’Brady denies that it ever occurred. “There was no conversation with Lou and I about colluding so that money would be saved,” he tells National Geographic. “That is just not true.”
O’Brady isn’t the first person to make overly exaggerated claims about their adventures — but this is never a good idea. Before he set out for his fatal Antarctic trip, Henry Worsley cautioned against this type of boasting. “Never spin,” he told National Geographic. “You will get found out.”
O’Brady, however, is still defending his version of events. “Adventurers and explorers have been attempting this feat for over 100 years,” he said in a recent podcast. “People have died attempting it. No one had been able to do it before. I cracked the code.”
Well, it seems that O’Brady is making quite the paycheck since returning from Antarctica. He received a very lucrative book deal after his expedition and is an up and coming motivational speaker. O’Brady currently makes up to $50,000 per appearance and is regularly interviewed on national television and popular podcasts, such as Joe Rogan.
“You can do whatever you want, so long as you’re honest about what you did and you place any claims in context,” Damien Gildea, an elder statesman among Antarctic adventurer, told National Geographic. “Colin failed on both counts.”