O’Brady’s Antarctic Crossing: Was It Really Unassisted?

Antarctic Poles
Tractor tracks on a packed, flattened trail beside Colin O'Brady. Photo Colin O'Brady

Earlier today, American Colin O’Brady became the first person to complete a solo, unassisted, unsupported crossing of Antarctica. He finished the 1,700km in just over 54 days, including a blazing 15 days to cover the last 600km from the South Pole to the beginning of the Ross Ice Shelf. Lou Rudd, a Briton who is attempting the same route, has 80km to go and should finish later this week.

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.

Most recent published photos from the two solo travelers do not show the ground — usually just tight shots of their camp, presumably a little to the side of the road. But a recent image from O’Brady, above, clearly reveals an artificially flattened route, without sastrugi, but with vehicle tracks.

The photo below, taken during an unrelated trek, better shows the width and flatness of the road compared to the ungraded snowfield to the left of it. Yet this location was well before the actual sastrugi fields begin, so the pristine surface is much easier for skiers than most of the way to the Ross Ice Shelf.

The packed road from the South Pole through the Transantarctic Mountains to the Ross Ice Shelf and beyond to McMurdo Station. Photo: Eric Philips

The use of the road doesn’t negate the magnificent achievement of both men. For almost two months, they endured the worst that Antarctica could throw at them, including gales, frequent whiteouts and the unusually poor snow at the beginning that has bedeviled all manhaulers this year. The first 1,000km of their route had no road to guide them.

Nevertheless, this does raise the question whether either expedition was truly unassisted. “I was in touch with Colin before the trip and he confirmed that he is going down the Leverett Glacier,” said Philips. “The only reason people go down the Leverett is because they are after an easy route that follows the road. I suggested [that] he take the Kansas Glacier … The route is stunning, slightly shorter but is pristine. He wasn’t interested.

“Most expeditions skiing the usual Hercules route are likely following vehicle tracks,” he added.

The McMurdo-South Pole Highway. Photo: Wikipedia

About the Author

Peter Winsor

Peter is a journalist, travel writer and photographer based on the Gold Coast, Australia.

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41 Comments on "O’Brady’s Antarctic Crossing: Was It Really Unassisted?"

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louphi
Guest
I didn’t know about this. It changes a lot indeed. I agree with Eric Phillips. To me to have a proper wild experience, they should have avoided this “road”. The challenge is great but I’m always questioning what constitutes a proper crossing as well? Why is passing via the SP a crossing? A crossing of a landmass is from coast to coast. Why not take a direct route not via the SP? Then would raise the definition I have for a FULL crossing: Longest possible from coast to coast OR West-East crossing from furthest points east to west OR North… Read more »
Jacques
Guest

So Philippe, this will be next on your agenda? For sure quite different from Tasmania 😉

louphi
Guest

it is somewhere on my list. Visiting the SPI is really a point I want to visit. But by the time I get to this point I’ll probably be too old to succeed safely. Also, coming from Belgium, this sort of expedition is very very hard to fund as very expensive. I prefer currently to focus on other world firsts where there is a real challenge of thinking everything. Here it was just a matter of time. We have learnt nothing during this crossing. We knew it was possible. We had to wait for an athlete to do it.

Ken
Guest

Sour grapes much?

HThoma
Guest

Think I’d agree. This information leaves the genuine claim still open to be achieved? I also felt that a “crossing” ought to be in a more or less straight line, probably through the pole for good measure, but not necessarily so. There remains obvious potential for some very heroic firsts in terms of solo and unassisted crossing the continent from one side to the opposite.

Mark
Guest
The issue is time. I agree a coast to coast – sea to sea crossing is the purist route. Both Mike H and Rune have done this but wind assisted. To do that kind of distance just by manpower would take roughly 115 plus days – the companies that operate the logistics out there are usually set up for about 80 days so it’s impossible unless you can pay them a shed load of money to stay open. Borg Ousland might also have a comment on South Pole solo crossings! 1997. I understand the debate and agree with the idea… Read more »
louphi
Guest

A full crossing is possible. Even if it takes 200 or 300 days. The person or team might have to overwinter. Very hard, very expensive, very dangerous. But 200 years ago it was impossible to go to the moon. We just need the proper technology to make it possible and then find a bold person not afraid of the death.

Richard
Guest

So go do it and shut everyone up…mostly the flat earthers.

Den White
Guest

“technical coast to coast” that means [I think] they get picked up by charter airplane near the start of the ice shelf. That is hundreds of miles from the “coast”. Am I correct? The map shows start and end point hundreds of miles inland from the ocean?

damiengildea
Guest
The ice shelves are land ice and therefore part of the continent. This was accepted by all the earliest polar travellers who did, or attempted, crossings – Shackleton (who didn’t have a choice to fly), the Mordre brothers, Messner and Fuchs, Dansercouer and Hubert, Ranulph Fiennes and Borge Ousland. This means you start OUTSIDE them, not inside them. So you probably begin at the ‘outside’ ie north side of Berkner Island and finish at Ross Island (Scott/McMurdo base). This is a continental crossing. When Fiennes-Stroud failed to make it across the Ross Ice Shelf in their attempted crossing, they initially… Read more »
Jenny
Guest

Børge Ousland was the first!!!!!

Jan
Guest

Peter Valusiak tried unassisted crossing on real pristine route. He failed though. His try is depicted in this documentary movie:

https://www.netflix.com/sk/title/80156336

Donald Fox
Guest

How did he pull a 400 pound sled??? Years ago I tried pulling my kids in a sled and it was brutal. And how did he keep the batteries in his electronic devices from dying? Just wondering.

louphi
Guest

it is possible to do without electronics. 100 years ago it didn’t exist. With 1kg of batteries you can charge GPS or satphone. No need for a laptop etc… I think best is to just use the satphone for emergencies or sending daily a point of the campspot. It’s about saving batteries.

Fred
Guest

I don’t know how he charged his batteries. There is plenty of wind in Antarctica so if he had a mini wind generator, he could set it up while sleeping and that could charge his batteries.

Klemet
Guest

Every discussion starts with an achievment, followed by a claim.

Wilson
Guest

Does, having communications to the outside come under assisted or non-assist category ?
Seems to be a feature that many modern expeditions have to either receive weather updates(assisted navigation) and even just for moral support from friends/family or as a back-up for an emergency.
What are the guidelines for assisted/non-assist.

what happened to the good old days of sailing a boat there, doing your thing and sailing home.

Matty C
Guest

Totally agree. Just listened to Joe Rogans interview with Colin and found out he talked to his wife every night. In fact, he explains that he might have quit one hour into the journey had he not been able to call her for support after an emotional breakdown on the very first day. An impressive feat but in my oplinon the record is still up for grabs. No phones, no contact. Do it alone.

Simon Mentz
Guest

I am staggered that using kites can’t come under the term of ‘unassisted’. Sounds like bullshit use of the term to me. like. You may as well say that if you have skied down any incline then you have had gravity assist which would negate virtually any ‘unassisted’ crossing. However I agree with the notion that skiing along a packed road in such an environment throws doubt on the claim of unassisted.

Alex Hibbert
Guest

Are sailing boats allowed to enter swimming races?

Southern whale
Guest

Skiing down an incline is quicker than running down. So could skiis be considered aids?

Skis & kites both offer assistance to people born without these attached to their body.

louphi
Guest

The idea behind is to use non-motorised transport, then it came to human-powered journeys. The slope down or up are part of the natural terrain. Skis are used on snow as a kayak on water. You can try to paddle sitting on the water but you must do it extremely fast not to sink. The kayak makes it easier, possible.

Alex Hibert
Guest

Are cowboys allowed to ride crocodiles?

polarsivert
Guest
According to the discussions here and in the media I would say that a true crossing, unsupported and unassisted would be from the coast of Queen Maud Land to the coast of George V Land (i.e. Dumont D’urville station). Not necessary via the Pole. That would make some 4500 km and not possible to do time vise without the help of kite. If we take the classical routes I would say that from Hercules Inlet (not following the vehicle tracks) to the Ross Ice via the Pole and down the Axel Heiberg Glacier would be absolutely acceptable as a “worthy”… Read more »
Alex Hibbert
Guest

A important point here is that the South Pole (which isn’t in the centre of the Arctic landmass or icy mass anyhow) need not be passed through on a traverse. People tend to though as it’s another feather in the cap and a useful node.

Mike
Guest

Yawn another long walk which is inevitable. Its not that big a deal on the adventure in my opinion. A feat of stamina yes. Skiing down K2 now that is real adventure. Definition when the outcome is uncertain. For me its a combination of skill, fitness and mental stamina. Wheres the skill in dragging a sledge on a prepared snow road. Come on folks lets have a real adventure not another booring plod!

Jack Summers
Guest

Colin Obrady claims using a kite provided assistance to Borge Ousland. How does he define using a road as unassisted? This greedy narcissist posting every single detail of his trip for fame and money needs to be put in his place. He is not anywhere close to the definition of an explorer.

Randall Jacobs
Guest

Who shot all of the photos?

G B Leatherwood
Guest

I want to know this also. Some of the pics were taken from a long way off, and he couldn’t possibly have taken the snow throwing pic himself. Documenting the journey was important, but why not say how it was done?

Jack Summers
Guest

G B, The snow throwing pic was taken in the south pole when he did the explorers grand slam. If you read the comment section in his instagram you’ll see people identify the same pic in his feed from a year back. It is downright disingenuous to post the same photo and pretend it was taken on the solo antarctic crossing. What else is he hiding? He certainly has not been up front about using a road for over 1/3 of his journey.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BNiKoskh3rb/

Ken
Guest

Uh… tripod; timer.

Fred
Guest

There are many ways to cross Antarctica, Unassisted, Unsupported etc. One method is skiing on the trail used by tracked vehicles which flattens the sastrugi fields. Some people are going to use the easiest and some will use the most difficult and all of that is going to vary based on weather conditions with the easiest possibly being the most difficult if you have bad weather. Much more than I could do. I get cold at 45 degrees F and hit my head getting in my truck. Stay warm.

JerryMc
Guest

The competition is always with oneself. He succeeded in a tremendous way. May you all succeed in yours.

Jerry
Guest

If Colin was alone who took all the pictures of him that were shown on PBS’s News Hour this evening (Jan. 17, 2019)?

Robin Birdwell
Guest

If Colin was alone, who took the pictures and videos?

Jack Summers
Guest

O’brady cheated by taking a road. Enough of this debate. His “achievement” depends on the ignorance of his audience about the South Pole. Without the audiences ignorance he can claim no glory.
https://alpinemag.fr/tricherie-au-pole-sud/?fbclid=IwAR3khy7V5ljjGR6IykOfg_T322Av1SiUwL1uzpajpQppSeuCowhn-Yf9-gM

Silo Ramos
Guest

This disclosure changes everything and should have been revealed to the public. The Norwegian that completed the crossing solo in 97 didn’t use a road, he fell in a crevasse on one occasion, and dodged the wind-ice formations from coast to coast, after hearing the American and English guy’s use of a road, the Norwegian’s use of a kite for certain stretches with his skis and sled doesn’t negate his achievement as first man to cross solo unaided.

Ken
Guest

This discussion could be couched as, “What is the next polar challenge?” Don’t use roads; don’t use GPS; don’t use SatPhones; take a longer route etc. The challenge was defined before the trek began. He did exactly what he said he would do. Criticizing men like O’Brady is not good form.

Jack Summers
Guest
Ken, The challenge was defined before the trek began and O’brady did not follow it. That is why almost all Polar explorers consider his claims comical. He called the challenge “impossible” and claimed no one had done it before. But to traverse the route and road he chose is not impossible. No one had done it because no one had tried it before him. All previous polar explorers considered the route either unethical or the road had not been formed in the years they tried it. The next person to try it after him completed it with no issues. O’brady… Read more »
Brandon
Guest

I don’t respect the fact that he and the expedition is being compared to others who have attempted crossing Antarctica. A hundred years or decades ago the products he used were not as advance as they were. The equipment he used are much more advance. And he had a cell phone to make phone calls and listen to music? Indeed it is an accomplishment, but it should not be compared to hikes from decades ago.