Last fall, I had the chance to meet and interview someone who has since become a personal hero: Colin O’Brady. Colin had been burned in a terrible accident in Thailand in 2008, and was told he may never walk again. He was determined to not only beat the odds, but set a goal of racing in a triathlon once he recovered. Fast forward eight years: Colin is literally, as I’m typing this, summiting Everest.
There are times that I come across a story that is so unbelievable, so incredible, so inspiring, that it makes me feel like there is no obstacle, no challenge, and no adversity that I cannot overcome. I hope his story makes you feel the same.
I caught up with Colin over email a few weeks ago, while he was preparing for both the North Pole expedition and the journey to Everest. Here’s what he had to share about his efforts to raise $1 million to help encourage kids to live active, healthy lifestyles, while setting a new world record for the “Explorers’ Grand Slam.”
Your goal is to raise $1 million to combat childhood obesity – how much has been raised so far?
We have been making some great progress with our fundraising from a wide range of supporters. We have had everything from larger corporate donations to a grassroots fundraiser by school children following along (completely their idea). It’s amazing to see such broad base support for such an important cause. Additionally, Nike, one of our key supporters just announced they are matching their employees’ gifts 2:1. We always planned to have our biggest fundraising push while I am on Everest as this will likely be the height of the media arc, and I am dedicated to spending the remainder of 2016 raising funds and awareness while retelling my story post conclusion of the project.
You’ve received a lot of feedback and encouragement from kids around the world – what’s been one of your favorite communications on this expedition?
It has been incredible to have so many kids engaged with the project. It is amazing that we live in a digital age where I am able to communicate fluidly with the kids from my satellite modem even in the most remote places in the world. Last week Hearthwood Elementary in Vancouver, WA hosted a birthday celebration in my honor. I was not able to attend of course, but Jenna and Marianna our BEYOND 7/2 home team attended and they were overwhelmed with the support. All of the kids have been following along the BEYOND 7/2 project daily in class. Jenna said many parents and kids came up to her and shared their inspiration from the project and how they have begun to live healthier lives and set big goals after following along. It’s amazing to know we are having this impact in the schools.
In our original interview, you talked about one aspect of the life of a pro endurance athlete is being tired all the time – so how are you feeling after trekking to the South Pole and summiting the highest peaks on 5 continents?
HAHA…I am tired!! My body is actually feeling great, overall. I have been very pleased with how I have been able to perform. I was able to scale Kilimanjaro in 12 hours (usually takes about 6-7 days), as well as summitting several of the other peaks faster than expected. As a result, I find myself ahead of schedule, which is fantastic. I can’t begin the North Pole any sooner due to weather windows, so this has given me some extra time to sleep and recover before the final chapter of the project begins.
I loved reading the story about the trek up Mt. Elbrus in Russia: “This would not have been a huge deal as we knew we were both capable of climbing this peak and prepared to climb without a guide originally, until we remembered that Sasha (our guide) was carrying the rope…” Has there been any moment where you thought to yourself – “Shit! What did I get myself into?”
Yeah, that was a very intense and strange moment. I have chosen to climb most of these mountains without guides, including Everest, as I trust in my climbing ability. However, in this instance, we had been traveling for over 48 hours and were racing a very small weather window. Last minute, we decided to take someone with us with local knowledge, as this was a difficult climb to do in winter and requires climbing through the dark of night (99% of climbs of Elbrus happen in summer). This backfired, as this guide turned around (without telling us) in the dark and took our rope with him. Not long after that I fell waist deep into a crevasse. A very dangerous thing to happen with no rope. At this moment, I considered giving up on the climb. However we pushed on, trusting our crampons and ice tools on steep icy terrain, and I am thrilled we made the summit. That was nearly two weeks ago, and I have checked the weather since then and the mountain has been enveloped in a huge storm. This was likely the last possible day to climb in the month so I am grateful we pushed on despite our lack or rope.
So, how do you prepare your body – and mind – for going from absolute sea level at the North Pole, to immediately summiting Everest, the highest point on Earth?
This is probably the most difficult part of the entire project. The Everest and North Pole weather windows are very tight and conflict with each other. I am hoping that all of my time spent at high altitude this year will help me acclimate quickly on Everest as I will be arriving about three weeks behind the usual schedule for Everest climbing. It may sound trite, but the only way to manage this project in my mind is to trust my preparation with logistics and fitness, and at this point take each day at a time, step by step.
Have you had the chance to chat with your mom during this adventure? How is she feeling about the final stretch?
My mom has been incredibly supportive. I know she is very worried about me. I have a GPS tracker that sends my coordinates to a satellite in real time as I am climbing. I know she stays up through the night when I am making my summit attempts for hours watching the little dot on the map move further along. I am sure she is proud of what I have accomplished so far, but no doubt she will breathe a huge sigh of relief when I am back home safe and sound this summer.
I was thinking to myself the other day that a lot of people who choose to live the “trep life,” a life of adventure and taking risks, must have something slightly wrong with them! Like, they’re choosing this path which is so much roller coaster and unpredictability and drama – there must be some part of them that actually enjoys the pain of it all, besides being motivated by wanting that sense of accomplishment when they do something really fucking hard. So – looking at you – you’re more than halfway through what could easily be one of the difficult physical undertakings on the planet. What’s wrong with you, Colin?? (haha =) Do you think there’s a part of you that enjoys the pain and danger and struggle as well as seeing something few human beings ever get to see?
I posted a video after summiting Aconcagua that I think really sums up this emotion. It is a four-minute unedited clip of me reaching the highest point in South America at nearly 23,000ft. I was climbing alone, and it had been a very challenging climb spanning eight days. My emotions poured out as I am crying and smiling at the same time. Clearly physically and emotionally beat down, but relishing the exaltation of accomplishment that I believe you can only find after having such intense contrast with the struggle to get there.
Final question – my first mountaineering expedition was a total failure last year! And I’m determined to make a second attempt. If you’re not too tired of mountains when you get back, would you consider leading the first Trep Life Summit experience (taking a small group of intrepid people on their first mountain climb)?
Absolutely. It is one of my great pleasures to share the experience of mountains with people doing for their first time. There is nothing like the feeling of reaching your first big summit.
Malachi Leopold is a founder, storyteller, content strategist, award-winning producer/director, human rights advocate, documentary filmmaker, mountain biker, aspiring mountain climber, dad, and global goodwill ambassador for Tequila Thursdays. He is the Co-Founder of Trep Life.