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How high is too high? For professional triathlete Colin O'Brady, the answer is 29,029 feet. That's the elevation he climbed to last month while on his second attempt summiting Mount Everest, a journey he says was one of the most challenging climbs of his career. O'Brady abandoned his first push to the top last year when strong winds hit the mountain but by now he's used to pivoting in extreme situations.
This January, O'Brady, 31, set out to summit the tallest mountains on each of the seven continents, as well as trek to the South and North Poles. In mountaineering circles, this quest is known as the Explorers Grand Slam, an ambitious, if not insane feat that has been accomplished by 42 people since David Hempleman-Adams first pulled it off in 1998. Of those climbers, only two completed a Grand Slam within a year. O'Brady did it in six months, miraculously avoiding polar bears, hypothermia, and frostbite en route. His reasoning for embarking on such a grim adventure was entirely rational: to raise awareness, and $1 million, for childhood obesity, under the project name Beyond 7/2, and simultaneously set a new world record. He also became the first person to snapchat a successful ascent of Mount Everest.
One week later, I reached O'Brady by sat phone on the final peak of his Seven Summits bid: the 20,310-foot summit of Denali, the highest point in North America. At 14,000 feet, he sounded completely unfazed.
"The base camp that I was living on at Everest was 1,000 feet higher than the summit of Denali," he said. "I can see the final summit, and it's not only the peak—it's the end of Beyond 7/2."
The next day, having braved 40 mph winds on his climb to the top, O'Brady set world records for the fastest times to climb the Seven Summits (132 days) and complete the Explorers Grand Slam (139 days).
We talked to O'Brady about what it takes to climb the world's tallest mountain, how living conditions between climbs can be just as brutal as those on the peaks, and why tragedy looms over Everest.
O'Brady on his South Pole trek. Courtesy Colin O'Brady
Do you feel like your body has had enough time to recover since Everest?
Probably not—that would be the fair answer. Once this is over, I'm going to need a long sleep. The whole project has been really hard and the hardest thing has been having to complete all of the expeditions back to back without much rest in between. That's made each one progressively harder.
Everest is probably the best training you could get for Denali—and anything else in life.
Yeah. For most people, it takes anywhere between two to three weeks to climb Denali because you need time to acclimatize to the altitude at the summit, 20,000 feet high. But, having just climbed Everest this week, my body is well acclimatized.
What was it like to be down on the ground, in between Everest and Denali?
For a very short period of time, it was nice to be down from the mountains. But, with the plane rides and helicopter rides, I was only down in a normal town for one night, catching my breath and sleeping in a bed. My fiancé met me in Alaska so I was able to spend 24 hours with her. That was a wonderful reprieve from the expedition mountain life I've been leading for months now.
What was your day-to-day like when you were on Everest?
Every day was a little bit different but I would progressively try to move up on the mountain, starting at base camp and going to Camp 1, 2, and higher. One of the unique things about Everest is that there's a lot of infrastructure on the mountain—particularly Camps 1 and 2. They're fairly comfortable camps. I was climbing with just one Sherpa but I was using one of the bigger camps so they had a really nice cook and a place to relax and hang out. But just being on a camp at 21,000 feet, just sitting there, is hard on your body. So there was a lot of trying to feel alright and stay hydrated and get enough rest.
How did you decide to climb with a Sherpa instead of traveling with a group?
Most people who climb Everest do it with a larger commercial outfitter with guides and infrastructure. Based on my timeframe being unique and wanting to move quickly on the mountain, I elected to have a downscaled version of that. I didn't feel like I needed the guiding. I more so needed access to the mountain and a Sherpa to facilitate a lot of that. He was great. His summit with me was his seventh summit of Mount Everest.
Did you have time to watch TV or movies while you were up there?
I had a few shows downloaded on my phone. In my downtime, I watched Girls, Treme, and The Walking Dead. I had a Kindle, too.
Did you have a finite number of episodes you had to rotate through?
[Laughs] Yeah, luckily I didn't run out but I had to ration them. It was a nice way to check out for a few hours.
Obviously climbing the mountain involves a tremendous amount of training, but how much preparation did you do for the living conditions up there?
That's a great question. Everest is not the coldest place I've been—Denali is cold—and I was in both the North and South Poles where the average temperatures are minus 40. So I've endured quite a lot of cold and gotten used to managing my body in that environment.
As a professional athlete, I'm used to pushing my body hard all of the time but one of the things that not everyone realizes is that there's a lot of downtime and enduring that from an emotional perspective, as your body is recovering, is really challenging. Staying positive is huge so your body and mind are engaged when the time comes.
What did you do in the moment to ease your mind? Did you use any calming tactics or meditation?
I have a daily meditation that I've been doing for many years now. It's an awareness practice to help me realize that when things are hard, it's just temporary. That's been valuable mental strength for me.
Did you have any close calls with frostbite or hypothermia?
No, but I was always right on the edge, monitoring my toes and hands. I put hand and feet warmers in my boots and gloves and had to be really aware because it only takes a minute or two in those super cold temperatures.
O'Brady surveying his route to the summit of Mount Everest. Courtesy Colin O'Brady
Were there any moments on Everest when you thought you might not make it down?
There weren't, but it's a dangerous mountain. When I was up there, a lot of people got injured and a few people died on the same summit day. For me, it's always more important to get down safely from the mountain than it is to get up. The summit is only halfway, and a lot of people make the mistake of using all of their energy to get up there and run out of gas on the way down. So I'm always checking in with myself as I'm going up to make sure that I'm strong and well enough to continue up.
How do you regulate your energy?
It's a matter of drinking and eating properly throughout the whole climb, as well as knowing my body. I've done a lot of time in the mountains as well as training as a triathlete so I'm aware of how much energy I have left.
Did you eat anything good while you were up there?
My favorite meal was what all of the Sherpas eat: rice, lentils, and vegetables. It's not glamorous but it's solid carbohydrates, protein and energy.
It took you a couple of tries to summit Everest. Did you have any second thoughts while you were waiting?
Definitely from my first attempt when I went all the way to Camp 4 and got caught in a big storm, [I learned] how rough and harsh the mountain could be. I certainly had my doubts.
What are some misconceptions about Everest?
A lot of people naturally focus on the tragedy that happens on the mountain but I think there are better and worse ways to climb. There are safe people to climb with and I think that, unfortunately, some of the people who passed away up there have come somewhat unprepared. That might be one of the biggest misconceptions.
That anyone can do it?
Yeah. It's a very challenging mountain and it needs to be taken seriously, and unfortunately there's operators who are willing to take anyone up there and some of the inexperienced people who go are the ones who end up with frostbite and passing away.
Did you get the sense that there were a lot of recreational climbers this year?
No more than any other year. I think that's the nature of the beast. People want to climb Everest and they're not necessarily lifelong climbers or mountaineers. They see it as a major goal and attack it. I'm on both sides. On one hand, I admire people's passion and dedication and desire to do that. On the other hand, I think that mountains are inherently dangerous and if you don't know what you're doing, they can turn bad quickly.
How do you think social media has changed the perspective of Everest?
We live in an era where social media is king. I think it's amazing that people can tell stories from all over the world in real time. I know it's been fun for my followers to get an eye into something they wouldn't necessarily get to experience itself. I think the only downside is that it potentially exposes some people to it that might not be ready to be in that environment themselves.
How challenging has it been to be alone throughout all of the expeditions?
It's been really hard. I've been sharing the project with my fiancé, Jenna—she's really the backbone of this project. So even though we haven't been able to see each other as much as we'd like, it feels like we're working on a common goal, which has helped. Being away from home, sleeping in a cold tent all alone is hard, no doubt. I will be looking forward to the completion of this project.
Would you say this journey has been the hardest thing you've done?
No doubt this has been challenging but also rewarding. I was severely burned in a fire eight years ago and spent several months in a Thai hospital without knowing that I'd ever walk again. So I'm not sure that anything has been more challenging than that.
With the death rate as high as it is, and the tragedies that the past few years have brought, why do you think that people continue to climb Everest?
I think it's human nature to want to challenge ourselves to extremes, and unfortunately sometimes that results in the ultimate toll: death.