Colin O’Brady made the decision early on Christmas Day. The American adventurer had already spent 53 days racing alone across the white expanse of Antarctica, and still had a few days’ trekking left to reach the finish line at the Ross Ice Shelf.
“As I was boiling water for my morning oatmeal, a seemingly impossible question popped into my head,” the 33-year-old noted in his online journal, posted from his tent. “Would it be possible to do one straight continuous push all the way to the end? By the time I was lacing up my boots the impossible plan had become a solidified goal. I’m going to go for it.”
On Wednesday, a solid 32 and a half hours after his oatmeal, O’Brady completed an 80-mile final push, reaching the edge of the world’s largest, coldest desert after a journey of 930 miles. He dragged a sled, or “pulk”, that weighed 170 kilos at the start on November 3.
In doing so, he became the first person to cross Antarctica alone and without being resupplied with food or assisted by a kite or other means of power — a feat viewed by many adventurers as one of the last remaining great polar challenges. “I did it!” he added on Instagram alongside a selfie. “I’m delirious writing this as I haven’t slept yet.”
As well as a world first O’Brady has also claimed victory in a two-man race: British Army captain Louis Rudd started on the same route on the same day. O’Brady’s final sprint saw the distance between them open and, at the time of going to press, Rudd looked likely to reach the finish about 48 hours after O’Brady.
There was no welcoming committee: just a wooden marker pole where the Leverett Glacier meets the Ross Ice Shelf and a cache of supplies. O’Brady set up camp to wait for his rival before being picked up together by plane, splitting the cost of the return to Union Glacier, an Antarctic logistics base. The result carries a 21st- century echo of the 1911 race to the Pole between Roald Amundsen and Robert Scott — this time the defeated Briton arriving not to find a flag but his American rival’s (presumably smiling) face.
“He was actually fine about it,” said Wendy Searle, a fellow British adventurer who has been managing Rudd’s crossing. She broke the news of O’Brady’s finish to him during a call on Wednesday night. “He was in good spirits and is just really happy that the end of the journey is close,” she adds. “He’s appreciating it and enjoying it.”
Both men had been following the tracks of two British adventurers whose own expeditions, separated by a century, ended in disaster or death. After Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole, in 1911, Ernest Shackleton wrote that “there remained but one great main object of Antarctic journeyings — the crossing of the South Polar continent from sea to sea”.
Shackleton failed in 1915, his ship succumbing to ice before his team could start its march. They narrowly escaped with their lives, in what has become one of the most celebrated polar stories. Others have succeeded since, in teams or with various forms of assistance. In 1958, an expedition led by Sir Vivian Fuchs and assisted by Sir Edmund Hillary achieved the first overland Antarctic crossing, using a fleet of caterpillar-tracked vehicles.
Rudd had expected to attempt perhaps the purest version of Shackleton’s dream without competition. But as he was preparing to fly to Antarctica, he learnt that O’Brady would be making the same attempt, following the same dog-leg route between the Ross and Ronne Ice Shelves. The American’s appearance turned Rudd’s mission into a race he didn’t want, and created a cultural clash.
While Rudd is every inch the grizzled British Army adventurer, the younger O’Brady is a chiselled former professional triathlete from Portland, Oregon. He has more than 90,000 Instagram followers and carried custom-made organic energy bars he calls “Colin Bars”. He talks like a cross between a motivational speaker and an athlete who does not only do things, but “executes” them.
“We’re very different people,” Rudd told me in a satellite call on 16 December. He described still being “irritated” by O’Brady’s last-minute appearance. The men boarded the same flight from Punta Arenas, the Chilean base of Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions (ALE), which organises trips to the continent. A smaller propeller plane then took them to the “Messner start”, a point where the Antarctic land mass meets the Ronne Ice Shelf. After dropping off O’Brady, the plane taxied for a mile before unloading Rudd. The Brit caught sight of O’Brady on day six, but not again.
On day 11, Rudd stooped to pick up an American-flag sticker that had come off O’Brady’s pulk. He put it in his pocket. The American’s lead then widened slightly each day. “He’s got to win, he’s about collecting records, and becoming a YouTube star by the way he comes across,” Rudd said of O’Brady, who delivered a Ted Talk last year that has had more than a million views. “I’m here for very different reasons.”
In 2011, Rudd joined his friend, mentor and fellow army man, Henry Worsley, in a centenary rerun of Scott and Amundsen’s polar race. Worsley, who was also a leading authority on his hero Shackleton, shared his expertise — he had already walked to the pole — as well as an obsession with the continent. They were successful, but Worsley had in mind a greater test: a solo crossing to honour Shackleton’s doomed expedition. On January 22 2016, after 71 days of walking and battling against storms, dehydration and a bacterial infection, Worsley finally called for rescue. He was about 100 miles — perhaps a few days — short of completing the traverse. Two days later, he died of organ failure in a Chilean hospital.
The only non-essential item in Rudd’s pulk has been the flag Worsley carried with him. Rudd borrowed it from his friend’s widow, Joanna. It bears the family crest. “I want to be able to take it back to her and say, ‘this time it made it right the way across’, and I think that will help her grieve,” Rudd told me. “It will also mean a lot to me.”
Three days after I spoke to Rudd, O’Brady gave me a call at 10:30pm his time. (It is a strange experience to be woken up at 1.30am in London by a call from a polar adventurer in his tent). “It’s getting pretty stormy now, you might be able to hear the wind outside,” O’Brady said. It was still light; the sun doesn’t set during an Antarctic summer. The American was buzzing after walking for 25.5 miles, breaking his day into 90-minute sets and five-minute breaks. There was no doubt in his mind that he was racing. “Obviously I am, because I’m trying to be the first,” he said. “But it’s not only a race against Lou, but against history.”
Sixteen people have crossed Antarctica on foot with different levels of support, enduring temperatures as low as -45C and 60mph winds. In 1997, Borge Ousland made the first solo crossing. The Norwegian hauled all his food but used a kite to help pull him and his pulk. In 2010, Cecilie Skog and Ryan Waters made the first crossing without resupply or kites, but they could share trail-breaking and camp duties, as well as the emotional toil involved in such a feat.
Felicity Aston, a British scientist and adventurer, completed the first solo crossing without kites in 2012, but she picked up two caches of food along the way. She fell in love with Antarctica in her early twenties, during a 36-month stint at a British Antarctic Survey research station. “It’s just so ancient, vast and empty,” she said from her home in Iceland. “There was always this idea in the back of my mind that it would be amazing to see an entire cross section of this continent, and do it alone. What would it feel like?”
Aston, 41, said she was constantly terrified. ALE can organise a rescue when an adventurer or their remote support team requests it, but on steep glaciers or in a severe storm, help might take days to arrive — too late for anyone stuck down a crevasse or stripped of their tent by high wind.
Aston still wonders if she could have made it with a heavier pulk and no food caches. But she is also sanguine about the vagaries of modern adventure. So much has been achieved since Shackleton’s era that the parameters for new journeys get blurry. Hours after O’Brady’s finish, an article on ExplorersWeb, an online news site, questioned just how “unassisted” his journey had been, pointing out that since he passed the South Pole two weeks before his finish, both he and Rudd had followed a supply trail that runs between the US McMurdo station and the Pole. Flags dot the route and the tracked vehicles that ferry supplies to the Pole leave a smooth, flat surface behind them.
Ben Saunders, another friend of Worsley’s, made his own attempt at the crossing last year, but bad weather slowed his journey to the Pole, leaving him without enough food to finish. He quit, and said Worsley’s death changed his attitude to risk. But, in retrospect, he says he also wonders if the “road” ahead might have been part of his thinking. “To me it felt like there was potential for an almighty anticlimax to be following a track between flags,” he told me. “It only adds weight to the argument that these are athletic challenges. We don’t claim to be explorers in the Edwardian sense. I’ve never drawn a map. We’re talking about a peculiar offshoot of ultra endurance sport.”
Shackleton never had a sat phone, either. During his final push, O’Brady called his family so that they could test his mental state, and be sure he was safe to continue. As Aston put it: “What expedition is truly ‘unsupported’ these days? We are all out there by the grace of a complex network of support logistics.”
“People get very technical about these things,” Searle said when I asked her about the trail. “Yes, the kit and communications are better, but it’s still you against mother nature. What they’ve done is still monumental.”
Rudd and O’Brady endured weeks of solitude, but there were breaks. On day 44, Rudd came across a campsite and three trucks. A Taiwanese group had been driven from the pole to ski the three degrees of latitude (180 nautical miles) back again. Rudd recorded the encounter on his blog: “They haven’t got any kit . . . just skis . . . with big campsites and a cook and everything else.”
Last year, 51,000 people visited Antarctica, although 99 per cent floated there on cruise ships. ALE accounts for almost all of the rest, flying in about 400 clients each austral summer. The company thinks awareness of climate change may be fuelling its steady growth. Half its clients come to climb Mount Vinson, Antarctica’s tallest peak. This season, ALE also expects to fly 70 people to the South Pole — no walking required — while 30 are due to visit penguin colonies. Forty are on expeditions.
Neither Rudd nor O’Brady has revealed the cost of their crossings, but estimates suggest a budget of more than $200,000 each, most of it covered by sponsors and private backers. (A seat alone on an ALE flight from Chile costs more than $20,000). Rudd has put up money of his own, too, and watched with horror in the summer as the pound fell against the dollar. At one point the fall would have had added £10,000 to his bill.
Both men put the expectations of sponsors and the pressures of their purported race out of their mind. They had enough to contend with, including 50mph winds and zero visibility. Rudd had to tie his tent to his pulk on the night of December 18, and pray it stayed anchored. Before Christmas, Rudd felt something in his sock. He paused to take it off and found a toenail — the third he had lost.
He and O’Brady will have plenty of time to compare notes — and war wounds — during potentially awkward return flights to Chile. The American has been worried about how much weight he was losing as he maintained such a high pace. His watch was falling off his wrist. “It makes me really nervous even to look down at my legs to see how small they are,” he told me. Rudd, who has a wife, Lucy, and three grown-up children at home, had to sew folds into his long johns to keep them up, but was more concerned by a “cold injury”. Constant exposure to icy air turned large parts of his mouth into a painful mass of blood and pus, making eating difficult. Cracks were also opening in his finger tips.
Searle said she did not know how the men would greet each other when Rudd walked up to O’Brady’s camp. They may cross paths again on the busy adventure speaking circuit, but will first return to very different lives and traditions. “They didn’t know each other well before, but they have both just done something that no one else on Earth has done,” Searle said. “I suspect they’ll find things to talk about.”
Note: this is an updated version of an earlier article, “The race to cross Antarctica”, published on December 21
A timeline of Antarctic firsts
First sighting of Antarctica by Russian naval officer Thaddeus von Bellingshausen. He spots an “icefield covered with small hillocks”.
American John Davis and a crew of seal hunters are first to set foot on land. His ship log reads: “I think this Southern Land to be a Continent.”
British-backed expedition is the first to build huts and overwinter. One member dubs Antarctica “truly, a land of unsurpassed desolation”.
NorwegianRoaldAmundsen beats Britain’s Robert Scott to become the first to reach the South Pole. On leaving the Pole, Scott writes: “Now for the run home and a desperate struggle. I wonder if we can do it.”
US Navy lands first aircraft at the Pole; its passengers are the first people there since Scott.
Pan Am becomes the first commercial airline to land on Antarctica. The air hostesses judge a beard competition at McMurdo, the US research base.
Sir Vivian “Bunny” Fuchs leads the first continental crossing, with a team including Sir Edmund Hillary, using converted tractors and other tracked vehicles.
Lars-Eric Lindblad takes 57 tourists on the first Antarctic cruise; the oldest is 86.
A party of six US scientists and journalists become the first women at the Pole. They jump off an aircraft cargo ramp on to the ice at the same time.
Emilio Palma is the first person born in Antarctica, part of an attempt by the Argentine government to claim sovereignty of a small sector of Antarctica.
Norwegian Borge Ousland takes 65 days to complete the first solo continental crossing without resupply, using skis and kite.
Norwegian Cecilie Skog and American Ryan Waters bag the first crossing using muscle power alone and no resupply.
Briton Felicity Aston completes the first solo continental crossing using muscle power alone, receiving two supply drops en route. Her luxury item was a pot of peanut butter, which she devoured one spoonful per day at bedtime.
Using a recumbent bike, Briton Maria Leijerstam becomes the first person to cycle to the South Pole.
Timeline by Ash Routen