Update added below.
According to his website, Colin O’Brady has completed the first-ever solo, unsupported, unaided crossing of Antarctica. He has reportedly arrived at the Ross Ice Shelf on the Pacific Ocean.
Using solely his own muscle power, O’Brady skied 932 miles pulling a 300-pound sled over 54 frigid days across the coldest, windiest, most remote continent on Earth, crossing from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean via the South Pole. After a remarkable 80-mile continuous push over the last two days, almost five times his strenuous daily average, he emerged from the TransAntarctic Mountains onto the Ross Ice Shelf a little before 1 p.m. EST, December 26 and stamped his name into the annals of polar lore.
But was O’Brady’s crossing really unassisted? O’Brady and Rudd have been skiing on a packed road all the way from the South Pole to their finish line. Known as the McMurdo-South Pole Highway, or the South Pole Overland Traverse Road (SPOT), it is a flattened trail groomed by tractors towing heavy sledges. It conveys personnel and supplies from McMurdo Station to the South Pole. Flags every 100m or so make navigation easy during whiteouts, and all the crevasses were filled in by the original construction crew. Most importantly for a skier, it eliminates the rock-hard, bumpy sastrugi that the wind shapes out of loose snow.
“It is a highway,” says veteran polar guide Eric Philips, “[that] more than doubles someone’s speed and negates the need for navigation. An expedition cannot be classed as unassisted if someone is skiing on a road.”
In polar travel, while “unsupported” means no supply drops, “unassisted” additionally requires no outside help of any kind to make the distance easier: no kites, dogs, roads or navigation flags. Norway’s Borge Ousland crossed Antarctica alone and unsupported in 1996-7, but his journey is not considered unassisted because a kite towed him part of the way.
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 stories and 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.”