Professional triathlete-turned-adventurer Colin O’Brady captured the public’s imagination in 2018 when he skied solo across 932 miles of Antarctica in 54 days and beat a rival explorer to the prize he immodestly termed The Impossible First. A little more than a year later, his book of the same title is a New York Times bestseller. He’s been featured on the cover of Outside magazine, appeared on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, and his TEDx talk has racked up more than 1.5 million views. But you’re hearing about him now thanks to journalist Aaron Teasdale’s devastating exposé of the exaggerations, omissions, and disputed claims that helped propel him to fame.
O’Brady claimed to be the first person ever to cross Antarctica alone, unsupported, and unassisted—a collection of qualifiers that, in Teasdale’s careful language, “do not withstand scrutiny.” Even the claim that he crossed Antarctica relies on definitional sleight-of-hand. O’Brady started and ended hundreds of miles from water, and he crossed at the narrowest distance possible. O’Brady’s route was less than half the mileage Norwegian Børge Ousland covered in the first human-powered crossing of the continent from November 1996 to January 1997—an accomplishment O’Brady dismisses as assisted because the Norwegian occasionally used a kite, without disclosing that he himself traveled hundreds of miles on a marked and graded ice road.
The pushback from the exploration community was swift and unequivocal. The day after O’Brady finished, veteran polar guide Eric Phillips gave his assessment of the use of the graded road, known as the tractor route and formally called the South Pole Overland Traverse (SPoT), to ExploresWeb. “It is a highway,” he said, which “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.” A few days later, Antarctic explorer Damien Gildea published a powerful rebuke of O’Brady’s claims, stating flatly that O’Brady “had neither crossed the continent nor been unsupported.”
Adventure luminaries including Conrad Anker, Alex Honnold, Mike Horn, and Ousland himself joined a chorus accusing O’Brady of exaggerating or misrepresenting his accomplishment, but their voices were lost in the flood of acclamation that greeted O’Brady’s return. It took Teasdale putting all of them together under the National Geographic masthead to derail, at least temporarily, O’Brady’s hype train. From Teasdale’s February 3, 2020, report:
“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.’ ”
A request for comment sent to O’Brady’s email address Tuesday was answered by a publicist, who referred Adventure Journal to a February 6 Instagram post in which O’Brady wrote, “I’m not sure how or why [Teasdale] got the facts so twisted around, but I assure you the article is full of inaccuracies.” On Thursday afternoon O’Brady posted on his website a 16-page request for retraction addressed to National Geographic, in which he denies exaggerating the dangers he faced on his Antarctic expedition and defends its “unassisted” claim.
“Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions (ALE) provides clear classification definitions that confirm my expedition to be a solo, unsupported, and unassisted crossing and a ‘first,’ ” O’Brady wrote in the statement. ALE is the company O’Brady hired to organize his logistics and plan his route.
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TRUTH AND TRANSPARENCY – A couple of days ago I was stunned to see a confusing article in Nat Geo about my expeditions. I’m not sure how or why they got the facts so twisted around, but I assure you the article is full of inaccuracies. Here’s just one example—the article inaccurately states “O’Brady claims to be the first person to ski alone and unsupported across Antarctica . . .” It’s as if the journalist may not have read my book. The photo above is from page 49 of The Impossible First, where I acknowledge and compliment one of the most pioneering Antarctic projects of all time. I write, “The Norwegian adventurer Borge Ousland in many ways defined the terrain of astonishing modern Antarctic feats, becoming the first person to cross Antarctica solo when he traveled eighteen hundred miles alone in sixty-three days from late 1996 to early 1997. Not only did he cross the entire landmass of Antarctica, but he also crossed the full Ronne and Ross Ice Shelves from the ocean’s edge. Ousland’s expedition, which had deeply inspired me, was unsupported in that he’d hauled all his food and fuel with no resupplies . . .” Ousland used a parawing (kite) and traveled much farther than I did. I was completely human powered, crossing just the landmass. Apples and oranges. I look forward to continuing to express my humility, gratitude, and appreciation for those who came before me, and I’ll be cheering from the front row all future expeditions in Antarctica that will inevitably continue to push the boundaries. You all know that a big part of how I live revolves around transparency—sharing my journeys and my ups and downs with the world. It’s why I keep my GPS live throughout every expedition so you can see where I am and where I’ve been. So, I’m going to keep following that practice with this issue. I’m putting together a letter to the Nat Geo editor providing them with the supporting materials they can use to correct the record. Because there are a number of errors, it’s going to take me a few days to finish it. When I do I’ll post a copy of the letter on my website.
O’Brady’s notoriety is a commentary on how heroes are made in this day of media saturation. His exploits have been amplified by his massive social media presence and relentless self-promotion, but he also seduced traditional media gatekeepers, especially the New York Times and National Geographic.
The Times, in particular, went all-in on the story, publishing a number of in-depth pieces focusing on the exotic setting and the competition between O’Brady and his 49-year-old British rival Louis Rudd, a race redolent of Scott and Amundsen’s epic dash for the pole in 1910 and 1911, straight down to its tragic undertones. The first person to attempt a route similar to O’Brady and Rudd’s was Englishman Henry Worsley in 2016, who contracted a bacterial infection barely 100 miles from the finish. He was whisked from the ice and flown to a Chilean hospital, where he died a few days later. Worsley’s extraordinary life and death was the subject of a 20,000-word New Yorker feature published in 2018, and while the Times doesn’t employ a polar beat reporter, its editors do read the New Yorker. The newspaper pursued O’Brady’s story with great enthusiasm, publishing a long feature about both adventurers and creating a slick graphic web page to track their progress.
National Geographic followed suit, hiring Teasdale, a freelancer, to write four stories about the race as it unfolded. When O’Brady reached his finish line the day after Christmas 2018, Teasdale and National Geographic rushed to break the news. “I was writing the final expedition recap in a Google doc and my editor was marching a paragraph behind me,” Teasdale said Tuesday.
He already had some misgivings about O’Brady’s story, but deadline pressures didn’t leave him time to pursue them in his initial coverage. The details of those first accounts are largely accurate, but they lack critical context and restate O’Brady’s false description of entering “no-rescue zones” where planes could not land. (National Geographic has since changed headlines and added an editor’s note but has not otherwise changed the original stories.) Teasdale felt he’d been deceived. He immediately set about researching a follow-up piece, a process that consumed two months and yielded a 10,000-word draft exploring Antarctic history, geography, and the changing nature of professional adventure. “I decided I’m going to find out the truth and I’m going to tell the truth,” he said.
A who’s who of the polar exploration community wanted to comment, on the record, no punches pulled. That’s rare in such circles, where explorers who are remarkably bold on the ice are often more reserved with the media.
Why such an outpouring? “There were a lot of little things,” Teasdale said, “like coming in inexperienced and claiming the world. But if you want to know what I think it boils down to in a single word, it’s the word ‘impossible.’”
O’Brady came to Antarctica with a resume loaded with superlatives but notably lacking in self-guided experience. He’d set a record in 2016 as the fastest person to complete the Explorer’s Grand Slam (Last Degree), which consists of climbing the highest mountain on each continent and skiing the last 60 nautical miles to the north and south poles. He turned the trick in 139 days and parsed out a pair of other records in the process—the Seven Summits and Three Poles Challenge. He claimed another world record in 2018 for reaching the highest points in the 50 states in just 21 days—an athletic and logistical accomplishment to be sure, but weekend warrior stuff compared to the likes of Ousland.
“Imagine you’re Børge Ousland,” Teasdale said. “You are the preeminent polar explorer of your time. You have spent your entire life honing your skills and developing new techniques. You make your gear with your own hands and you actually cross Antarctica alone, something that has never been done. And then someone comes along 20 years later who’s never done anything in the poles and says he’s the first, and that people have been trying to do this for 100 years and no one could.”
O’Brady says he has never disparaged Ousland. “I have on many occasions publicly credited the great explorers who have come before me, especially Børge Ousland,” he said in his statement. “This is evident in my book, on my website, and in many of my social media posts.” That’s true, but it also misses the point. O’Brady’s transgression was not what he did or didn’t say about Ousland. It was promoting his own expedition as something more than it was. “O’Brady came up with a new definition that was shorter and easier than what Ousland did, and made a claim as if it were greater. He did so much less, and claimed it was so much more,” explained West Hansen, a river explorer who has followed O’Brady’s case closely. “He has a machine geared toward self-promotion, and they’re very good.”
A good sales pitch has always been an essential part of exploration. Shackleton never would have left Britain if he didn’t have a gift for hype. Deception, too, has been a part of polar exploration from the beginning, but when Robert Peary claimed to have reached the North Pole in 1909, he needed only a few ambiguous photos and a notebook full of dubious sextant readings to make his case.
The remarkable fact about O’Brady’s claim is that the actual facts of his crossing are not in dispute. His expedition was tracked from start to finish, with real-time social-media updates and extensive coverage in dozens of news organizations. O’Brady never said he went farther than Ousland. He just found an opening and stretched and stretched until it became a wormhole to a completely different reality. And the traditional media gatekeepers got sucked right through.
“That democratization of media and ability for everyone to create their own has also allowed people like Colin to be able to fool what’s left of traditional media—especially when it comes to something as arcane as polar exploration,” Teasdale said. “He puts forward false claims and creates his own reality distortion field to his followers, who are now proclaiming National Geographic fake news.”
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-90°00’ S, 0°00′ E // I didn’t stay long at the South Pole Station and I didn´t go inside. I was only half-way through my expedition to cross Antarctica and I wanted to keep the ice and the loneliness inside me. I couldn’t allow myself to get too comfy! But I had time to take this self-portrait with the metal sphere that marks the South Pole. 🇦🇶 @IceLegacyProject @Norrona @Helsport @DevoldofNorway @Roam * * * #IceLegacyProject #SoloAntarcticaCrossing #PolarExplorer #Legacy #Legend #adventure #exploration #preservation #adventuredocumentary #adventure photography #soloexpedition #getoutdoor #antarctica #antarcticadventure #norrona #helsport #explore #getoutdoors #adventure #antarctica #ice #glacier #travel #nature #antarctica #polar #norway #adventurers #explore2restore #southpole
Explorers themselves were never fooled, but that’s not to say they weren’t hurt. In his reporting, Teasdale spoke with adventurers who have gone to pitch sponsors on truly historic undertakings, only to find everyone in the room wants to talk about Colin O’Brady. “They have to explain that what Colin did wasn’t really what he claimed, and all of a sudden they’re the bad guy,” he said. “It makes it that much harder to get sponsors.”
Another victim is the nobility of exploration itself. When you realize that you can’t take one explorer’s claims at face value, it’s easy to question all of them. The same is true when a champion athlete is caught doping and everyone who wins or even competes in that sport falls under suspicion. When a hero behaves badly, it becomes that much harder to trust in the rest.
“The history of exploration is basically predicated on taking a man or woman’s word for what they did,” veteran adventure writer David Roberts told Teasdale. “But then people like this come along and by violating the code they make everybody subject to skepticism and doubt.”
There’s no telling where this story will go. O’Brady has already submitted his full-throated rebuttal to the court of public opinion, and will argue his case strongly. After reviewing O’Brady’s response Teasdale reiterated that he “stands by my reporting,” though he admits he’ll be happy to move on to other things. He’s already working on a story about another polar expedition, one he finds inspiring not because of the fanfare accompanying it or the superlatives that apply, but what the team accomplished on the ice.
“I’m excited about this story because what they did was incredible,” he said. “But now, are people going to question whether they really did this? What a tragedy that is for people that are doing this the right way.”
Top photo: O’Brady in 2016. Via Wikimedia