Standing atop the world’s tallest peak, Colin O’Brady, Yale ’06, briefly pulled off his oxygen mask to revel in the glory of mountaineering’s most difficult test. He had become one of the few people to ever reach the “Top of the World” at Mount Everest — 29,029 feet up. Exhausted from a climb that required two summit attempts because of poor weather conditions, O’Brady’s celebration and much-needed respite lasted only a few hours. A week later, he was already at the apex of Mount Denali, the tallest point in North America (20,310 feet). With that successful climb, the 31-year-old adventurer completed the Explorers Grand Slam, a technical and depleting race to the top of the tallest peak on each continent and to both the North and South Poles. Reaching the top of Everest (Asia), Aconcagua (South America), Denali (North America), Kilimanjaro (Africa), Carstensz (Oceania), Vinson (Antarctica) and Elbrus (Europe) is a feat that has been accomplished by fewer than 50 people. O’Brady completed the Grand Slam on May 27, 2016, a mere 139 days after he started, breaking the previous world record by an astonishing 53 days.
“The biggest challenge is the consecutive nature and the cumulative fatigue,” O’Brady said. “There were many times where I was brutally tired.”
In completing the slam, O’Brady relied on stamina he had built competing as a professional triathlete in more than 25 countries over the last seven years. He described one particular ascent up Kilimanjaro where both his speed and endurance were on display. Whereas most climbers attempt to summit in six or seven days, O’Brady sought to do it in a single shot. He struggled to find a local guide willing to hike with him, a requirement on the mountain, and many actually bet against him. But O’Brady proved them wrong, making it to the top in 11 hours and 50 minutes. He modestly described that particular climb as “a big push.”
Despite O’Brady’s ultimate triumph, there was a time when even attempting such a feat would have seemed impossible. In January 2008, the Portland, Oregon, native and former collegiate swimmer was exploring Koh Tao, Thailand, with a childhood friend when disaster struck. Locals invited O’Brady and others to participate in a beachside game of flaming jump rope.
On his blog, O’Brady wrote, “One second I was skipping rope, carefree as a kid on a summer day, and in an instant I was face down on the sand engulfed in flames to my neck. I felt the burning of fire all over my body, and in a moment of pure instinct and adrenaline, I picked myself up and ran full speed into the ocean, extinguishing the flames.” O’Brady suffered second-degree burns to 22 percent of his body and third-degree burns to his left foot — the Thai doctors weren’t sure if he would ever regain full range of motion in his legs.
O’Brady’s recovery would prove difficult, and before he could put his full energy into regaining his physical strength, he needed significant emotional healing. O’Brady credited the presence of family, friends and some of his SigEp brothers in helping him through that process.
“The community, camaraderie and friendships of SigEp have all played a significant role in my development,” he said. He was able to draw on these relationships as he looked ahead. With the same determination and perseverance that would eventually propel O’Brady to the top of Mount Everest, he endured the intensive physical therapy required to walk normally again and also began to train for triathlons — a promise he had made to his mother while lying in his hospital bed in Thailand.
In 2009, a mere 19 months after the horrific accident, O’Brady won the overall amateur title at the Chicago Triathlon. It was the start of a series of physical challenges that have come to define his adult life.
O’Brady finds inspiration to push through such monumental challenges from his fiancée Jenna, who helped with the year-long planning for the Explorers Grand Slam, and from the children he and Jenna support through their nonprofit, Beyond 7/2 (an allusion to the seven mountains and two poles). The organization supports O’Brady’s athletic efforts, offers community education, and pursues charitable work. Notably, Beyond 7/2 focuses on childhood obesity and asks kids, “What’s your Everest?” as a way to encourage them to set goals and maintain an active lifestyle. Several schools nationwide had the opportunity to speak with O’Brady via video chat from the Everest base camp.
“It’s amazing to be with these kids. They’re super interested. It’s a story they can really get into, and it has been a cool way to have a geography lesson in the classroom,” O’Brady said. The organization continues to raise money and awareness about childhood health and wellness.
O’Brady spent the summer recuperating and speaking with students he hopes to inspire.
“I physically want to keep testing my limits, but I want to do it for more than just myself,” he said. O’Brady clearly epitomizes a true Balanced Man.
To learn more about Colin O’Brady and his journey, visit his website at beyond72.com.