While skiing across Antarctica, American Colin O’Brady, the self-proclaimed first person to ski alone and unassisted across the frozen continent, came to what he describes in his new book, The Impossible First, as “a hellish stretch...one of the hardest places on the continent to get across.” A polar wind he estimates at “fifty or even sixty miles an hour” lashed him as he entered a precarious area that was “off the map—unreachable and inaccessible.” Potential rescue aircraft cannot land here, he explains, because the terrain’s jagged, wind-whipped ice formations “made landing impossible.”
Before he began his journey, O’Brady writes, safety managers for the company that would rescue him in an emergency, Antarctica Logistics and Expeditions (ALE), ominously told him of this area, “If you call for help in here, you won’t get it.” This perilous reach of Antarctica was one of many reasons no one had achieved this crossing before, he writes.
“With my next steps,” O’Brady states, “I’d be on my own in a way I’d never been before.”
It’s a riveting description, but like other critical elements in his book and promotion of his Antarctica expedition, key details do not withstand scrutiny. Safety managers for ALE, which has helped organize and plan expeditions to many remote areas of the continent for 35 years, deny saying he couldn’t be rescued. None of the polar experts O’Brady mentions consulting before his trip considered his journey impossible. And in the “off the map” location he describes above, O’Brady was in fact on a graded and flagged vehicle route used frequently by wealthy tourists where a call from his satellite phone could summon rescue by ski-equipped Twin Otter airplanes within hours.
In the final months of 2018, people around the world were captivated as the 33-year-old O’Brady raced the 49-year-old Briton Louis Rudd to complete what they both called the “first-ever solo, unsupported, unassisted” crossing of Antarctica. Through 54 days and 932 marrow-freezing miles, the men pulled 300-pound sleds alone and with no outside assistance—even accepting a cup of coffee at the South Pole research station would disqualify them from claiming the feat. A newcomer to polar expeditions, O’Brady finished two days ahead of the more experienced Rudd. Global media coverage was rapturous, with the young adventurer gracing magazine covers, speaking at the Smithsonian Institution, and seeing his hometown of Portland, Oregon declare Colin O’Brady Day. His appearance on CNN was typical, where he declared “No human has ever done this before....[accomplishing it] was extraordinary after so many people had failed trying.”
National Geographic also reported on O’Brady and Rudd during their treks in 2018, and when O’Brady completed his journey, described it as “historic” and “unsupported.” After reviewing those storiesand gathering more information, we've amended them with an editor's note.
Prominent leaders of the adventure and polar communities were less enthusiastic about O’Brady’s claims. Conrad Anker, Alex Honnold, Mike Horn, Borge Ousland, and others spoke out against him, accusing O’Brady of exaggerating his accomplishment or worse.
Over the last several months, National Geographic has investigated O’Brady’s claims. He agreed to three phone interviews but recently stopped responding to requests for comment. We also spoke with an array of leading polar explorers, including some of O’Brady’s mentors, many of whom believe he has distorted the truth in pursuit of fame.
O’Brady “didn’t do what [he] advertised,” says Australian polar explorer Eric Philips, cofounder and president of the International Polar Guides Association. “This wasn’t some Last Great Polar Journey. Rather, it was a truncated route that was a first in only a very limited way.”
“O’Brady needs to be called out for his false claims,” says writer Jon Krakauer.
What’s undeniably true is that O’Brady arrived in Antarctica with relatively little experience and skied alone into the teeth of the world’s coldest continent for nearly two months straight. It’s a true sporting feat that deserves respect. So why the controversy?
I don’t think anyone looked at the route [O'Brady] was skiing and thought it was even remotely impossible. The reason no one had done it is because no one thought it was worthwhile, in the sense of being anything record-breaking.
O’Brady claims to be the first person to ski alone and unsupported across Antarctica, but in the opinion of many of the world’s leading polar guides and historians, that distinction belongs to Norwegian Borge Ousland, considered by many to be the modern era’s most accomplished polar explorer.
Shortly after O’Brady completed his trek, prominent American climber Conrad Anker, who has made more than a dozen expeditions to climb the continent’s frozen mountains, tweeted, “@borgeousland is the first to cross Antarctica unsupported. Full Stop.”
In 1997, the 34-year-old Norwegian pioneered a new route across the frozen continent, much of it never traveled by humans, over 64 days and 1,864 miles, to achieve one of the world’s last great geographical feats. Antarctica had now been crossed solo.
“I was thinking, is it possible to go all the way from one coast to the other, almost 3,000 kilometers?” Ousland says. “At that time nobody had.”
Staff at the McMurdo Station scientific base at the time recall the day he arrived—a bearded, weather-battered figure in mirrored sunglasses and a headband, emerging from the vast ice pan, a speck that grew into a man, alone, humble, and of few words. A throwback to the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, Ousland had just achieved an objectively more difficult and dangerous journey than O’Brady’s—roughly twice as long and over wild terrain. Yet social media did not exist at the time, and the feat attracted only minor media attention.
So how can O’Brady claim a first crossing? Ousland pulled his sled with his own muscle power, a method known as “manhauling,” for a significantly greater distance than O’Brady’s entire journey, but on a few limited occasions, he used a small kitelike device to boost his speed when the wind was just right. At the time, the polar community did not consider Ousland’s simple sail as assistance, but rather as an elegant innovation.
In recent years, with most of the Earth’s major geographical features traversed and ascended, professional adventurers have looked for ways to put new spins on old challenges, creating criteria for ever-more finely sliced accomplishments and using subtle new qualifiers to claim sponsor- and media-friendly “firsts.” About 15 years ago, the idea of counting wind as a form of assistance was introduced.
In 2007, the website Adventure Stats set forth the first codified rules for polar expeditions, defining qualifiers like “unassisted” and “unsupported” to describe utilizing nothing but your own muscle-power and accepting no aid or supplies from any outside source.
Many in the media are unaware of Ousland’s journey, and others of greater magnitude in intervening years, and trumpet O’Brady as the first person to cross Antarctica alone. O’Brady then shares these inaccurate honorifics on his website and social media.
It might seem like hairsplitting, but these classifications create a framework to build on earlier achievements and claim new firsts (while, in this case, also inadvertently creating an opportunity to claim new, lesser firsts that overshadow Ousland’s landmark feat). “The aim of categories is to understand and communicate what is being done, or still to do,” explains Antarctic explorer and author Damien Gildea. “They are guidelines to quality and progress.”
Looking at a map of Antarctica, you might wonder how O’Brady’s 932-mile route can be considered a crossing of “the entire continent,” as he calls it, since it appears to start and end several hundred miles inland, especially compared to the much longer journeys of Ousland, Mike Horn (who completed a daring 3,169-mile solo kite-ski crossing of Antarctica in 2017), and others.
The surface of Antarctica is in fact an ice cap up to 15,000-feet thick that conceals a relatively small, rocky continent deep below. This shield of ice includes two ancient ice shelves, the Ronne and the Ross, each approximately the size of France, that extend across unseen ocean bays, creating the quasi-circular shape we associate with the continent.
Ousland skied from water’s edge on the Ronne to water’s edge on the Ross. When he undertook his expedition two decades ago, this was considered the only way to claim a crossing of Antarctica.
“To me, Antarctica is what you see on a satellite map,” says Ousland, noting the ice shelves have been a part of Antarctica for at least 100,000 years.
But there is a continent somewhere under there, detectable with remote sensing equipment. In recent years, adventurers have begun claiming a crossing by citing this unseen “coast.” Some, in order to please sponsors and media, did this only after failing in their attempt at a full crossing. Suddenly an Antarctic “crossing” had shrunk in half.
“If you have a picture in your mind [of an Antarctic crossing],” says Philips, who believes a true crossing of the frozen continent must be from water to water, “you just assume it's going to be from the outer edge of the white blob to the other edge.”
Gildea, who has a glacier named after him in the continent’s Ellsworth Mountains, insists anyone claiming a crossing must include the entire ice cap and, “accept Antarctica for what it is.”
However, adventurers eager to shorten the feat quickly seized on the new abbreviated definition. An unsupported couple crossed in 2010, skiing 1,118 miles. A solo woman crossed (with two food drops) in 2012, skiing 1,084 miles. But O’Brady took the invisible coastline strategy to its extreme—his journey was nearly 200 miles shorter than these earlier trips, and the shortest route yet that anyone had claimed as a “crossing of the continent.”
Put another way, it’s not so much that no one had been able to cross Antarctica this way before, it’s that no one had defined a crossing in such achievable terms.
The first person to attempt a solo, unsupported ski of this new version of abbreviated crossing was Englishman Henry Worsley in 2016. Within 125 miles of completing the journey, he called for rescue due to a bout of bacterial peritonitis, a disastrous infection, and later died in a hospital in Chile. O’Brady frequently cites this tragedy in his promotion and media appearances, writing in his book, “Worsley had died attempting the very goal that Rudd and I were aiming for.”
What he fails to mention is the Brit was actually attempting a longer, significantly more dangerous route and had already gone farther at the time of his emergency extraction—solo, unsupported, and unassisted—than O’Brady did in his entire journey.
O’Brady has built his personal brand around achieving the “impossible.” Yet the veteran polar explorers National Geographic consulted for this story used different descriptors for his trip, labeling it “achievable,” “contrived,” “disappointing,” and “disingenuous.”
“I don’t think anyone looked at the route he was skiing and thought it was even remotely impossible,” says American explorer Eric Larsen, one of the guides O’Brady consulted to learn the skills of polar travel. “The reason no one had done it is because no one thought it was worthwhile, in the sense of being anything record-breaking."
“Enough people have done the route, or sections of the route, that you have a satellite map, a GPS map, that ALE has provided,” Larsen says. “Similar to what happened on Everest, Antarctica is being tamed. Which is part of the reason why there are less experienced people doing it—it’s an adventure tourism thing.”
In his book, O'Brady describes the completion of his expedition as a “decades-long, never completed dream.” As he told The New York Times, “people have been trying to do this for 100 years.”
When asked by National Geographic who before him had attempted his route, O’Brady demurred, “I don’t want to be the definitive source for everything that’s ever happened in Antarctica.”
The history of exploration is basically predicated on taking a man or woman’s word for what they did. But then people like this come along and by violating the code they make everybody subject to skepticism and doubt.
To some, professional adventure may seem like the frivolous pursuit of foolhardy risk-takers. But in centuries past, adventurers were the driving force in expanding our collective knowledge of the planet’s remote corners. Even today, with few unknown places left to reveal, adventurers serve as living laboratories of mental and physical endurance (think Alex Honnold climbing El Capitan without ropes, showing what humans are capable of when they train to control fear). At their best, they’re guardians of the innate human desire to physically—not virtually—explore our environments.
Just as there is a bright line between nonfiction and fiction in the publishing and film worlds, so it is for professional adventurers. Revenues from books, films, TV shows, speaking events, and sponsorships are derived from the notion that what is being sold is real—the meaning can be debated and the value to society, but the truth about the accomplishments is the bedrock for this industry.
“The history of exploration is basically predicated on taking a man or woman’s word for what they did,” explains David Roberts, a dean of American adventure writers and one of the first from the adventure community to publicly criticize O’Brady’s claim. “But then people like this come along and by violating the code they make everybody subject to skepticism and doubt.”
It’s clear O’Brady is a talented athlete who’s no stranger to epic challenges. A collegiate swimmer at Yale, he set out after graduation on a yearlong international trip at the age of 22, with money he’d saved painting houses. While carousing on a beach in Thailand his legs were severely burned by a flaming jump rope, he says, leaving him hospitalized for a month with second and third degree burns. In his book, he recounts doctors telling him he’d never walk the same again. Less than two years later he won the amateur division of the Chicago Triathlon. Eager to see how far his genetic gifts could take him, he quit his job as a commodities trader and spent the next six years as a professional triathlete.
In 2016, red hot with ambition, he launched a new career as a professional adventurer by setting a world speed record that still stands on the Explorer’s Grand Slam (Last Degree). A convoluted crown concocted by wealthy peak-baggers in 1998 that requires summiting the highest mountain on every continent and skiing the last degree of latitude (69 miles) to each pole, it’s an exemplar of the postmodern age of adventure in which feats are more logistical challenge than exploration.
It was chasing this globe-skipping record where O’Brady was introduced to the frozen world of polar travel. While on a guided ski trip to the South Pole, his first visit to Antarctica, he learned of Worsley, who was then in the midst of his fateful journey. “I was fascinated that there was still this, in my mind, iconic first that had been attempted but no one had done yet,” O’Brady told National Geographic.
For his ski to the North Pole he hired legendary Belgian polar guide Dixie Dansercoer, who has two record-breaking Antarctic journeys of over 2,500 miles in his lengthy resume. Also in their group was a British father and his two young adult sons, who Dansercoer says “wanted to fully enjoy the experience.” The record in his sights, O’Brady had a different agenda.
“There was a discussion and Colin was very overpowering,” says Dansercoer, who describes O’Brady as a “very ambitious young man.” Dansercoer laments the effect the Explorer’s Grand Slam has on people’s experience in polar regions. The family group, he says, was there for a “deeper experience.” Eventually, O’Brady switched guides, joining a group Eric Larsen happened to be leading that included another person chasing the Explorer’s Grand Slam. Larsen says he and other guides were surprised at the aggressive way O’Brady handled the transition, describing it as, “Excessive—we still talk about it.”
“It was very hard for my clients to hear him denigrate the way they view things,” Dansercoer explains. “He truly offended people.”
After the trip to the North Pole, Larsen found himself correcting O’Brady’s exaggerated Instagram posts where he overstated the coldness of temperatures and heaviness of his sled.
Later, Larsen was further disturbed by the inflated claims on the upstart adventurer’s website once O’Brady’s Antarctica expedition kicked off. In an attempt to impart a deeper understanding of traditional explorer’s ethics, he sent a politely admonishing email to O’Brady’s wife and manager, Jenna Besaw.
In his book, O’Brady never mentions Larsen, not even in the lengthy acknowledgements. Nor does he mention that he paid a professional guide to lead him to the pole. He does describe meeting Dansercoer while, “I was preparing to cross to the North Pole” while the Belgian was “heading to the Pole on his own expedition, guiding a family of Brits.”
Despite the polar community’s skepticism,
O’Brady took the concept and ran with it. Soon his website unveiled his next adventure:
“The Impossible First.”
After Worsley’s death, O’Brady saw his opportunity. He contacted Steve Jones, expeditions manager for ALE, the logistics company that orchestrates the vast majority of expeditions on the continent, and announced his intention. But ALE has a strict screening process for approving solo expeditions and informed O’Brady he lacked the proper experience.
So O’Brady reached out to Dansercoer, who says he enjoys trying to instill “strong values in the new generation of adventurers.” Dansercoer coincidentally summers in O’Brady’s home state of Oregon and agreed to be his mentor. Over email, FaceTime, and on Pacific beaches with sleds full of heavy sand, Dansercoer trained the younger man in what he calls the “fine art” of polar travel.
Finally, ALE and Dansercoer together agreed that if Colin completed a traverse of Greenland’s ice cap, he could win approval for his Antarctic expedition. Booked with other clients at the time, Dansercoer recommended him to one of the polar world’s premier guiding services—owned by none other than Borge Ousland. Only two months before the planned start of his Antarctic journey, O’Brady joined a group led by one of Ousland’s young guides for a 360-mile crossing of the world’s second largest ice cap.
Problems arose almost immediately. Against the guiding service’s recommendations, O’Brady had booked an early flight out of Greenland in order to attend a meeting with one of his sponsors. According to trip participants who wish to remain unidentified for fear of retribution, O’Brady promptly started a power struggle with the guide, attempting to undermine the authority of the man a few years his junior, and put heavy pressure on the group to increase their speed to suit his schedule, repeatedly “manipulating,” “denigrating,” and “bullying” its slowest members and “really insulting people.”
One group member points out their fellow travelers were working people who’d saved and taken over a month away from their jobs and families for the trip of a lifetime. They describe O’Brady’s “demotivating” outbursts, which were often laced with profanities and particularly focused on the two women in the group, demanding to know why they were so slow.
“I had dreamt about the trip for a long time and knew it was going to be difficult,” says Anja Gundlfinger, a German neuroscientist and avid outdoorswoman. “But we really suffered...Colin had his own agenda and can be very pushy.”
When asked by National Geographic about this, O’Brady replied, “That is definitely inaccurate.” He then declined to answer further questions.
Under O’Brady’s unrelenting pressure, according to Gundlfinger and other trip members, the group skied more than 12 hours a day on little sleep and sometimes covering more than 20 miles at a time while pulling heavy sleds laden with their supplies. Finally, after both women had broken down in tears and with Gundlfinger suffering recurring nosebleeds from exhaustion, she confronted O’Brady, telling him, “I do not want to continue like this.” Other members agreed with her. National Geographic reached out to others on the trip, and they confirmed Gundlfinger's version of events.
That night, using a satellite connection from his tent, O’Brady posted a photo on Instagram. It featured him towing four sleds, two more than usual, and read in part, “Today was a major disappointment. As a group we agreed to push hard for the past three days to try and finish by Sunday which is my 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, but midday today an Everest summiter / ultra-marathoner and 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...this complicates our finishing logistics...If guys of that caliber are tapping out after 26 days of suffering when I’m still strong, smiling and able to push harder and carry more - I’d say my training is successfully complete...Announcement coming soon on the new project.”
According to multiple group members, O’Brady was describing the man who’d backed up Gundlfinger. Gundlfinger and other members point out the man, a highly accomplished adventurer, hadn’t given up any of his own weight, and in fact was pulling extra, like each of the men were, in order to help the women keep the pace O’Brady demanded. They also say O’Brady’s claim of pulling four sleds was exaggerated. He did momentarily, or long enough for a photograph.
The next day, with 10 percent of the journey still remaining, O’Brady called for a helicopter and left to catch his flight. A short while later, his website declared his crossing of Greenland a “success.”
In his book, O’Brady recounts a brief version of his Greenland trip, focused mainly on his account of falling into a crevasse near his tent on his last night, a story he tells often in media appearances. “Within an instant, I felt nothing below my legs but air,” he writes. “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.”
According to one group member, O’Brady had ignored the guide’s warning to pitch his tent close to the group to avoid a nearby crevasse field. Hearing O’Brady’s shouts, the guide went to check on him and, according to Gundlfinger and others interviewed, reported back to the group that the crevasse was shallow and not dangerous.
At trip’s end, Dansercoer met the group at the airport and apologized for putting O’Brady with them. “I had no clue that this was going to happen,” he says. Ousland was also upset with the Belgian for his recommendation.
“I felt pretty ashamed when Borge called me out on sending someone that didn't please him nor his guides,” Dansercoer says. “So suddenly I asked myself, hey, wait a moment, that's all fine to consult and pass on knowledge and hoping that the younger ones listen to you. But if they start to spoil—that's not good for me.”
Regardless of how things turned out in Greenland, O’Brady had accomplished his goal—he now had ALE’s approval for Antarctica. Steve Jones presented him with a route labeled as a legitimate unsupported crossing of the continent—an opinion that puts Jones at odds with every non-ALE polar authority National Geographic spoke with. Describing the overall route to National Geographic in an email, Jones calls it, “an achievable first that hadn’t been done and claimed because many people didn’t realize it was a record that was there for the taking.” It’s worth noting that though ALE is highly regarded among the polar community for their focus on safety, they are also in the business of selling trips, and easily digestible routes are less dangerous, less expensive, and easier to support.
Despite the polar community’s skepticism, O’Brady took the concept and ran with it. Soon his website unveiled his next adventure: “The Impossible First.”
Historically, polar adventurers were born of a passion for the austere beauty of the world’s white places. They spent years in mentorship with veteran explorers learning skills, ethics, terminology, and history. O’Brady didn’t take those steps. “It's gone so fast for him that I fear that, yes, he has missed out on some of the values,” says Dansercoer.
Yet O’Brady still knew enough to be keenly aware, like nearly every adventurer aiming for a record in the polar regions, of maintaining his unsupported status.
When he saw a frozen porta-potty at one of ALE’s refueling stations along his route, the first structure he’d seen in weeks, he writes, “I would’ve been afraid to use it for fear of violating the rule of taking support of any kind.” At the South Pole, with its enticingly heated research station, he describes being eager to move on quickly without even entering the building, because, “Under the rules of an unsupported, unassisted crossing, I could accept no help.”
Which helps explain why his use of the South Pole Traverse, or SPoT, also known as the McMurdo-South Pole Highway, for the final 366 miles of his trek has generated strong accusations. Created in 2006 by the National Science Foundation, SPoT is a haul route for supplies from the coast to the Amundsen-Scott Station at the South Pole. Offering the navigational assistance of bamboo poles with orange flags every 400 meters, or closer when needed, its smooth, bladed surface eliminates a 100-mile stretch of some of Antarctica’s worst sastrugi—dangerous, wind-formed ridges of snow up to six feet high that slow skiers to a crawl. There’s a reason people have traveled the route on recumbent cycles.
Many polar veterans ask how O’Brady can diminish Ousland’s trek for his use of a rudimentary kite on untamed ground, while himself benefitting from the assistance of a human-made haul route.
As Anker tweeted, “IMHO skiing on a tractor road is a bigger ‘aid’ than a kite.”
Adventure Stats is unambiguous, “Using tracks created by motorized vehicle is considered support.”
When asked about this route choice by National Geographic, O’Brady downplayed the aid of the SPoT route and took a shot at “armchair criticism” coming from, “people making claims that haven’t been out there and seen it.”
“It more than doubles someone’s speed and negates the need for navigation,” counters Eric Philips, who has pioneered three new routes to the South Pole and has crossed over the SPoT numerous times while guiding, though has never used it as a route. “An expedition cannot be classed as unassisted if someone is skiing on a road.”
“It makes a massive difference if you don’t have to navigate,” says Horn, widely considered one of the world’s greatest living explorers. “It makes a massive difference if you’re on a road where the crevasses are filled up and the sastrugi is broken.”
“It’s an outright lie saying unsupported, unassisted when you get on that road,” asserts Larsen, who has skied to both the South and North Poles multiple times. “It’s contrary to the epic nature of what the expedition was billed as—skiing on a literal snow road with markers is hardly an unsupported ‘first.’”
One of the greatest dangers of any solo Antarctic journey are crevasses. On the SPoT route, they are filled in and mitigated, creating a largely hazard-free runway through the otherwise perilous terrain of the Leverett Glacier. This explains why Jones and ALE steered the inexperienced O’Brady to this safer option, while allowing more seasoned polar travelers to take wilder, more dangerous routes.
ALE’s expedition approval, Jones explains, is based on, “the viability of the expedition plan and the experience of the individuals.”
Worsley avoided the vehicle route and was heading for the unmanicured Shackleton Glacier when he fell ill. Ousland and Horn each pioneered new routes through areas no human had likely ever seen, navigating complex crevasse fields alone and devising clever ways to self-rescue when the ice opened beneath them.
When asked by National Geographic why he chose the groomed route, O’Brady explained, “Some of the other glaciers are quite dangerous as a soloist—it’s a very hard thing to do when you're by yourself.”
During his expedition and for some time afterward, O’Brady didn’t acknowledge his use of the SPoT route, and does so only glancingly in his book. Instead, he describes the area as the most dangerous section of his expedition, adding, “on the Leverett Glacier...blue-ice crevasses were common.” Conversely, Rudd, who was roughly a day behind O’Brady, and who confirmed to National Geographic that he encountered no crevasses, was forthright about utilizing the route during his expedition, even describing his bizarre encounter with a team of Taiwanese ski tourists and other travelers in large, modified pickup trucks.
National Geographic contacted a member of the United States Antarctic Program who helps maintain the SPoT route. He agreed to comment but asked that his name be withheld because he’s not authorized to speak to the media. He described skate-skiing its smooth surface while traveling in the vehicle convoy delivering supplies to the South Pole research station. “Establishing and maintaining the SPoT route has involved 16 years of tremendous work and heartache that has even cost one life,” he said. “For O'Brady to not even acknowledge he used our route [for so long] is highly insulting.”
People from around the world following O’Brady’s daily progress on social media and other platforms noted the relatively short distances he logged during the first part of the trip. But after passing the South Pole, observers were amazed as his daily mileage skyrocketed, unaware he was on the SPoT route. When asked afterward by The New York Times how he could move so quickly through such dangerous terrain in his final days, he simply responded, “I don’t know, something overcame me.”
O’Brady received a flurry of post-trip criticism from polar insiders over his route, something he attempts to blunt by writing in his book that Jones told him taking the SPoT route was “non-negotiable.”
“If you’re going to do this, that’s it,” Jones says in O’Brady’s telling, “A.L.E. will only support soloists on the Leverett.”
Jones, however, told National Geographic he never said this. Labeling O’Brady’s telling of their conversation “not completely accurate,” he says, “There are other options through the Transantarctic Mountains we would have looked at if he had presented a request for us to do so—the Heiberg Glacier had been descended solo by Borge Ousland, so that is something we would have entertained. But that is a more difficult route than the Leverett.”
After National Geographic informed him of Jones’s comments, O’Brady promptly called his former expedition coordinator and within a few hours Jones sent a contrite email walking back several of his statements. “I would like to add an update,” Jones wrote. “To clarify and perhaps correct an error I made.”
The SPoT route was, he now believes, “the only option we were willing to consider supporting his expedition on.”
In his book and in national television appearances on HBO’s Real Sports and elsewhere, O’Brady claims to have skied through extended “no-rescue zones,” where dense formations of sastrugi prevent planes from landing. “I’m in a place without possible rescue,” O’Brady writes. “Where no plane can land.”
Simon Abrahams, travel safety manager for ALE who participated in briefings with O’Brady before his expedition began, is quoted in O’Brady’s book pointing at a map and saying, “If you call for help in here, you won’t get it.” Abrahams denies making such a statement, stating, “I wouldn't have said that.” And as he points out, the SPoT route runs through the area and, “We could obviously drive a vehicle out there.”
When queried by National Geographic, Rudd says, “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.”
Before departing on his doomed expedition, Worsley was interviewed by National Geographic writer Mark Synnott and asked about the possibility of rescue. He replied “Oh, yeah. It's very strictly controlled. I have to make a call every 24 hours to ALE, where they have a doctor and light aircraft. If you miss two of those calls, they'll come and look for you based on your last GPS location.”
Laval St. Germain, a former bush pilot and Boeing 737 captain, who attempted a solo ski to the South Pole last year, says, “Rescue or pick-up on the plateau in good conditions is as benign as requesting an Uber.” Thanks to satellite phones and ALE’s ability to fly in with replacement tents, food, and other supplies, he says, “You never feel like you are truly on your own nowadays on the polar plateau.”
Additionally, Iain Rudkin, ALE’s other travel safety manager who personally led O’Brady’s pre-trip safety briefing, stated, “Rescue would have been possible throughout Colin’s trip.”
He adds, “There are certainly some expeditions which venture into fairly extreme terrain and rescue would be much more problematic than Colin’s route, which is well travelled and in Antarctic terms relatively safe.”
The ending of O’Brady’s book describes an emotional Today Show producer praising him for, “How you waited for [Rudd] there at the end.” O’Brady writes how instead of simply flying home he decided to wait because, “I wanted to honor a worthy competitor...to congratulate him in person....So I waited, calling off the plane that was on standby to pick me up.”
It’s one of many times O’Brady has framed his waiting for Rudd as a selfless act, drawing heartfelt praise from many observers. “I realized I didn’t just want a plane to come pick me up and, you know, cheer my success of being first,” he said in an appearance on National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition in the days immediately after his expedition, “But rather, you know, give respect and compliment to someone who had completed this journey just a couple days slower than me.”
The truth is more complicated. The flight from the men’s finish to ALE’s base costs more than $100,000. “We agreed before they set off,” Jones explains, “that if one got there within a couple days of the other, and the first person to arrive was safe, with no medical issues, it made huge financial sense for that person to wait for the second and share the cost of the pickup flight.”
In other words, O’Brady stood to save $50,000 by waiting. “Definitely worth eating expedition rations for a couple more days,” adds Jones with a chuckle.
When asked about this by National Geographic, O’Brady responds, “There was no conversation with Lou and I about colluding so that money would be saved,” he says. “That is just not true.”
ALE’s Abrahams has a different view. “He wasn’t going to get picked up individually,” he says, pointing out ALE also kept a cache of food and fuel at the finish. “He wasn't magnanimous—he waited for Lou because they were getting picked up together to cut their costs, quite substantially.”
Rudd, who is set to publish an account of his expedition with his own book due out in June, declined to discuss this.
True nobility does exist in the world of Antarctic adventure. Consider Norwegian Aleksander Gamme who set out in 2011 to establish the record for farthest unsupported, unassisted polar journey (he did this by skiing from ALE’s base at Hercules Inlet to the South Pole and back). Early on he spent time skiing alongside Australians James Castrission and Justin Jones, who were attempting the same route and record, as seen in their movie Crossing the Ice. After skiing for 1,411 miles over 85 days (almost 500 miles farther than O’Brady), he stopped one kilometer short of the finish, set up his tent, and waited four days for the other two men to arrive, knowing how much the record meant to them.
“It was a lot more fun celebrating together,” Gamme said about their ski to the finish and jointly held record, “instead of making winners and losers out of two great achievements.”
Something similar could have happened with O’Brady and Rudd. In the first week of their expeditions, as they crossed paths for the final time before the finish, Rudd proposed to O’Brady the possibility of finishing together. O’Brady has never publicly acknowledged this, only writing that he told Rudd at the time, “We both know the stakes out here...We’re doing this solo, let this be the last time that we speak until this is over.”
There’s a storied history of adventurers making outsized claims at the ends of the Earth—from National Geographic-supported Robert Peary’s dubious claim to have reached the North Pole in 1909 to Martin Szwed claiming a South Pole speed record in 2015 when he’d come nowhere near the pole. Henry Worsley cautioned against this type of hype in his interview with National Geographic before departing on his doomed expedition. “Never spin,” he said. “You will get found out.”
By contrast, O’Brady distills his narrative to its essence in a recent podcast, stating, “Adventurers and explorers have been attempting this feat for over 100 years. People have died attempting it. No one had been able to do it before. I cracked the code.”
Whatever it is that fuels O’Brady, his endeavors have been profitable. After Antarctica, he landed his lucrative book deal. His speaking fees can exceed $50,000 per appearance. He is regularly on national television and popular podcasts, where he cuts an inspirational figure espousing the power of positivity.
“You can do whatever you want, so long as you're honest about what you did and you place any claims in context,” explains Damien Gildea, an elder statesman among Antarctic adventurers and one of the first to call out O’Brady for exaggerating his claims. “Colin failed on both counts.”
Driven by what he describes as the “embarrassing confusion” over O’Brady’s claims, and recognizing how a lack of well-defined criteria allowed him to “pull the merino wool ” over the public and media’s eyes, Philips has recently announced the Polar Expeditions Classification Scheme, a more detailed system than Adventure Stats that sets a new standard for polar expeditions and records. According to the PECS, which was created in consultation with leading polar authorities, O’Brady’s trip would not be classified as a “full crossing,” nor would it be considered “unsupported.” Philips, who boasts a lifetime’s commitment to polar exploration and the community surrounding it, says he wants to make sure something like this doesn’t happen again.
“PECS is trying to sort out the mess,” he says, “and creating a smoother, more clarified path for people in the future.”
Dansercoer wants to get the different generations in the same room to find common ground, but worries, he says, “The young ones couldn’t care less if they're caught lying. See in [the United States] what’s happening—it’s becoming the new normal.”
“Your process is just as important as the outcome,” Larsen says, citing disgraced figures Lance Armstrong and Greg Mortenson, the mountaineer and author of the debunked Three Cups of Tea. “These are examples of why integrity is so important.”
“I think Colin is smart enough to correct here and there whatever has gone wrong,” O’Brady’s mentor Dansercoer says, “He is a true adventurer in the sense that he likes the outdoors. He gets amazed by the force of nature. He loves the confrontation with difficulty and beauty. And so all the elements are there. However, the bigger driver is his own ambition.”
It should be noted that while O’Brady has profited from his exaggerations, he has also founded a nonprofit organization, Beyond 7/2, to encourage schoolchildren to be active outdoors. By framing his accomplishments in the language of self-improvement, he has inspired many. But as David Roberts, a leading expedition chronicler and author of Great Exploration Hoaxes, explains, when adventurers don’t tell the truth about what they’ve done, “They tarnish the whole ethic of adventuring and exploring.”
As Larsen put it in his email to O’Brady and his wife, imploring Colin to be more honest in his self-promotion, “The story as it is, is compelling enough.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated for clarity on February 26, 2020.