An Antarctic Explorer’s Mental Journey

Weekend Confidential

Endurance athlete Colin O’Brady was the first person to cross the Antarctic continent alone and unaided—thanks to an epiphany with 77 miles to go

Fifty-three days into his solo trek across Antarctica and 77 miles from his goal, Colin O’Brady was exhausted and starving. Running out of food, he had stretched out his daily rations to keep himself alive. “My ribs were sticking out, my hips were sticking out,” he recalls. “I had frostbite on my hands and cheeks.” It was Christmas Day 2018, and he could barely summon the energy to pack his bags onto the sled he pulled behind him. But then he started and, step by step, something in him shifted: “My mind came alive. I said to myself, ‘What if I don’t stop? What if I just keep going?’”

From that point, Mr. O’Brady, an explorer and endurance athlete with multiple world records to his name, pushed on for 32 hours straight to the end of his 932-mile quest. He beat his rival, British Army Capt. Lou Rudd, by two days to become the first man to complete a crossing of Antarctica alone and unassisted. But the real journey, he says, was an internal one: “Being alone in this stark white landscape, without music, without podcasts, and figuring out where that would take my mind and my soul.”

Mr. O’Brady, 34, had come to Antarctica with the hope of finding and exploring the “flow state”—a psychological term for the immersive focus of athletes who are “in the zone”—that he had experienced in short spurts in earlier endeavors. In the euphoria of his final push, “It was like I was hyper-present every single minute, like those 32 hours lasted weeks in my mind,” he says. “My senses were super heightened. I felt connected to all of the people in my life, which is very bizarre when you’re completely alone, surrounded by nothing but ice.”

By contrast, he points out, tucking into breakfast at a restaurant in Manhattan, we can also be surrounded by millions of people and feel completely alone.

I love to explore the edges of the world.

In his just-published memoir, “The Impossible First: From Fire to Ice—Crossing Antarctica Alone,” Mr. O’Brady also revisits his unlikely route to his adventurous career. In 2007, after graduating from Yale University, where he had been recruited for the swim team, he set off on a yearlong backpacking trip. On a Thai island, a freak accident changed his life. Joining in a common, though perilous, activity on Thai beaches—skipping a flaming jump rope—he got caught in the rope and suffered severe burns on his legs. A doctor at the local hospital told him he’d never walk normally again.

“I was downward-spiraling,” says Mr. O’Brady. “I’d been a lifelong athlete. I thought, ‘Who am I without that?’” His mother urged him to set a goal, so he did—completing a triathlon. Back at his childhood home in Portland, Ore., she pushed him every day to walk a few steps farther. “I look at that as a sliding-doors moment in my life,” he says. “If I had leaned into the negativity, the fear, the diagnosis, it’s really hard to say where my life would have gone. But instead this other door was opened to me.”

His rehabilitation turned into training, and in 2009, he won the Chicago triathlon. Having completed one goal, he set another and another, winning a spot on Team USA at the 2010 World Triathlon Championships. In 2016, he completed the Explorers Grand Slam, a challenge to climb the highest mountain on each of the seven continents and complete expeditions to the North and South Poles—and he did it in world-record time. The string of athletic highs happened “not in spite of the burn accident but actually because of it,” he says. “They’re a continuation of that curiosity—what more am I capable of?” He hopes that his records create a ripple effect, inspiring other people to “take on the seemingly impossible in their own lives.”

Mr. O’Brady about halfway through his trek across Antarctica, on Nov. 28, 2018. Photo: Courtesy Colin O’Brady

What drew Mr. O’Brady to Antarctica, he writes, was “the idea of the blank canvas, of life unfolding with its deep uncertainties and possibilities wrapped up together.” Growing up hiking the mountains of the Pacific Northwest, he was fascinated by stories of explorers and frustrated to be born when so much had already been explored. But trudging across the ice on his mohair-covered skis in Antarctica, he would remind himself that 99% of his steps were on ground that no one had touched before. “I love to explore the edges of the world,” he says.

His previous records were about speed, optimizing feats that others had already accomplished. There was no blueprint, though, for the Antarctic crossing. Those who had attempted it before him had given up or died. The continent posed a “giant math problem”—carry too much food and equipment and the sled would be too heavy; carry too little and he might die. His wife, Jenna Besaw, the organizer behind his exploits, packed and weighed and repacked his gear. On an early night in his trek, when his sled was too heavy and he was crying tears that froze on his face, she ran the numbers and talked him through how much more he could leave behind at a way station. They talked almost every night. “That’s my favorite part of this,” he says. “It’s not a single man’s effort. Not even close.”

If I had leaned into the negativity, the fear, it’s really hard to say where my life would have gone.

He trained with an ex-Navy SEAL, who contrived exercises such as doing planks with his hands in ice buckets and wall-sits with his feet in ice buckets while solving a Lego set. “It seemed crazy at the time,” Mr. O’Brady says, but the ability to concentrate on tying a knot properly, for instance, in the middle of a storm with frozen hands would be key to his survival.

Another crucial bit of preparation: 10-day silent meditation retreats. On the best days of his journey, the empty landscape would start to fill with vivid memories he didn’t know he had, like wandering through a lucid dream. “It was wild,” he says. “All of a sudden I could tap into these moments—for 12 hours pulling my sled, I’d go into these memory palaces. It was like, oh my god, it’s all in there. We all have that!”

On the darker days, though, he began to lose his grip on reality. Not having seen his rival, who started at the same time, since they crossed paths on the sixth day, he began to wonder if Capt. Rudd was a figment of his imagination. “Is Lou real?” he asked his wife on the satellite phone. He became obsessed, too, with the fate of Henry Worsley, an explorer who died attempting the crossing in 2016.

After Mr. O’Brady reached the finish line, a tiny post sticking out of the snow, he waited two days to congratulate Capt. Rudd.

This past Christmas, Mr. O’Brady set another world first—rowing a boat with five other people across Drake Passage, from Cape Horn to Antarctica. “Forty-foot swells, tiny little rowboat, no motor, no sails, never slept more than 60 minutes at a time,” he says, still riding the high of seeing the giant icebergs and jumping penguins as they reached the peninsula. “Anyway,” he shrugs, “that’s a whole other story.”

Write to Elizabeth Winkler at elizabeth.winkler@wsj.com

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