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Colin O’Brady Completes Crossing of Antarctica with Final 32-Hour Push (nytimes.com)
235 points by davidstoker 6 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 125 comments

Just this week I read a story about Henry Worsley who died trying the same thing: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/02/12/the-white-dark.... After reading, I wonder if you have to a certain level of insanity for doing something like this.

I don't know, but it's an interesting thought. What drives someone do to this? I'm in awe of it. It seems to me that it has to be tied to finding meaning in life one way or another.

I have to wonder though, how long does it take for the afterglow of such a massive accomplishment to wear off and to start asking yourself "what now?"

I have the same thought when I see presidential campaigns. I don't think a balanced person would put themselves and their families through that. You have to be some kind of crazy to do this. Maybe we need these extreme people, but I am not sure we should take them as something to aspire to.

I think about this a lot.

We would have better leadership if it wasn’t such an objectively terrible job.

That's an interesting point about Henry Worsley - he was clearly an excellent leader but he couldn't rise in the UK military (and I suspect this is the case with many organisations) because above a certain point the job is about politics rather than leadership.

There's an interview with Alex Honnold where he says he was already thinking about his next challenge during the last stretch of El Capitan.

I personally can't understand these ongoing Bernoulli experiments, surely something in these people's mind differs profoundly from mine.

They do - their amygdala.

"fMRI testing at the Medical University of South Carolina tilted the scales toward precisely that explanation — an underactive amygdala, not a negligent mother — by confirming that Honnold’s fear circuitry really does fire with less vigor than most."


Honnold seemed pretty down to earth during his last few interviews. He seemed very willing to acknowledge that he doesn't have a good idea of what might be next for him, and that El Cap may end up being his last "big" challenge. Granted, his perspective may have changed with a little more time for reflection.

If you have not yet seen "Free Solo", it is an interesting movie because it delves into the relationship between him and his "I just want to be happy" girlfriend which touches on some of his mindset to pursue perfection.

Having been part of the Ironman community for a while now, I can say endurance folks are definitely different than your average person. Often very humble, they like meaningful, big, challenging goals that redefine “normal.”

Do they get a kick out of overcoming suffering,.doing something really difficult or what drives them? In the end they don't achieve anything useful. I can relate to it somehow. When I did kickboxing I sometimes wondered why I let myself get beat up for no money, fame or any other reward. Never really understood my motivation other than that I had it.

Is it really that weird? We are all going to die eventually someday. If you want to risk your life doing something you love I think that’s your call, as long as you don’t risk hurting other people in the process.

I mean, what do you think you keep after you die anyway? Does it really matter in the end if you sat at a desk for 40 years and then died quietly in your bed as opposed to falling off a mountain at 40something?

It depends what you wish to accomplish in your life and who you have depending on you.

Seems like a good argument against having people depend on you!

I have avoided having people depend on me all my life, because I felt I wasn’t up to it. It turns out I’m not, due to my health. But it is a way that some people give meaning to their lives.

That’s the decision that’s leading to declining birthrate in western nations, isn’t it? Why give up your freedom and increase your stress by creating obligation by having children?

Everyone I know has different reasons. Some are more altruistic than others. Sometimes it’s done in honor of others who cannot do it, eg disabled, fallen vets, etc. Sometimes just because people want to be more than a desk jockey.

Because it's interesting.

Is it interesting? It sounds mind-numbingly dull trudging across 921 miles of ice.

You can't be serious? We could reduce almost any minutae of life to the uninteresting...

Challeninging yourself, and doing something unique is interesting. I can hardly believe I'm wasting my time typing this out.

On the (unfortunately) few, rare occasions I've actually pushed myself to my limits (physical, mental, emotional, or otherwise), I've felt more of a sense of accomplishment and a drive to push further, in any of those domains, not just the one I pushed in, than I've ever had before. I certainly wouldn't claim to have anything figured out in the realm except on a personal level, but for me, every time I achieve something that seemed unachievable it's like it unlocks something in every other part of my life.

I think the interesting part is that any extreme scenario requires very specific and likely innovative solutions — its a difficult optimization problem that any engineer would recognize as strangely santisfying. Actually executing the task with your own life at risk is outside of the standard engineering experience, but to have both must make success outstandingly satisfying

well you go up and down some mountains, see strange ice formations that don't exist anywhere at all, get to tweet out sappy tweets every evening, go where no/few men/women have gone before and all.

You make it sound like a nice stroll in the park, not something that exhausts you to and beyond and your limit and tries to.kill and harm you every day.

It's interesting to explore, it's interesting to endure, it's interesting to experience new physical, mental, and emotional states of being conferred by these unique circumstances.

More interesting than browsing HN 365 days of the year..

Based on experience, I feel like somewhere around mile 250 I’d be wishing I was at home browsing HN and wondering why I ever left.

How do people like you even get out of bed? Have you never felt accomplishment in doing something challenging?

"accomplishment" != "interesting"

I'm proud when I set a new PR time running, but it's not exactly interesting.

If you look at the history of it, it puts him in the same league as the polar explorers of the "heroic age." I think the what now part is two parts: write a book about it; do the motivational speaker circuit.

What now? Time for sun cost fallacy

Thinking a lot does that. It's not just searching for meaning of life and a higher purpose but also realizing how this is the only life you get to have and it is very short. I'd compare people who do this to suiciders,they've both contemplated their current lives intolerable and found a way out: One way is through it,the other is around and both routes are one-way.

Sun cost fallacy is when I don't put on SPF protection thinking it won't be that bad out on the beach today.

Ha! Nice one,will fix typo if it lets me.

It's all about the process not the end goal.

What drives someone do to this?

It's fun.

> I wonder if you have to a certain level of insanity for doing something like this.

My assumption is that people want and need some level of "excitement"[1] to feel like living a meaningful life. Say, in scale 1-10, if you only get exposure to level 1 excitement, you kill yourself to avoid a boring life, occasional level 5 keeps your life interesting, 7-8 starts to be so uncomfortable that you rather avoid and 10 is so much that you rather kill yourself than expose yourself to this level of excitement.

Now, the problem is that same things give very different levels of excitement. There are people for whom game of Monopoly is level 5 excitement. And there are people for whom game of Monopoly is solid level 1 excitement.

With this model you see why some people decide to take risks some other find outright stupid or insane. So next time you think someone is doing something insanely risky, you might want to think how fulfilling your life would be if the things you do to get emotions would be stripped from you before calling the persons with pejorative adjectives...

[1]no, I have no good definition for this word

This model is good.

To me, the whole point of doing something like this is that there is no point. It matters, at the moment, to the guy doing it and that is all that matters.

A couple of years back, I rode my motorcycle for 18 hours with only fuel breaks. 8 hours of the ride was in 40+ degree Celsius heat and the next 10 hours I had to endure the monsoons. I loved the whole experience. What did I gain from it? In the grand scheme of things, nothing. Will I do it again? Yes, already planning another trip.

Life seems pointless to me. I just try to have some fun along the way.

>>To me, the whole point of doing something like this is that there is no point. It matters, at the moment, to the guy doing it and that is all that matters.

Extreme adversity can be a opportunity for tremendous amounts of learning and personal growth. Some people value that.

Exactly. The only meaning in life is one that we create for ourselves.

If crossing the Antarctic has meaning for you, by all means, go ahead! But just in case, be prepared ;)

Lou Rudd is also currently making the same journey, partly in memory of Henry Worsley who he knew.


Him and Colin set off on the same day, 1 mile apart on the ice.

There's a live map of his progress too: https://z6z.co/spirit-of-endurance

This level of insanity is not as foreign as you might think. The feeling of accomplishment I get from climbing a mountain, finishing a marathon or a long bike trip is comparable to the feeling I get after taping out a chip, shipping a major software release or delivering first-of-a-kind hardware to a customer.

For some of us, getting Tetris to work in Conway's Game of Life is insanity. For other people, walking across a continent is insanity.

Except that guy literally died. Nobody dies playing on a computer and it's pretty rare to die from running or biking in civilization.

Google ”died playing on a computer”. I got many hits showing “Nobody dies playing on a computer“ isn’t true. Examples:




Often higher risk goes hand-in-hand with higher reward. It's all on a spectrum.

There's absolutely zero reward for crossing the Antarctic alone and very high risk of death.

I can think of a few rewards. Being the first to do something is personally rewarding, but the notoriety is also totally bankable.

People kind of do, since the lifestyle of sitting down 18 hours a day at a computer is very unhealthy.

I read that and just thought this guy is a moron. There's no discovery, no profit, just vanity.

That's way too harsh to describe a man's personal quest for adventure. It's not just vanity. You have no idea how many young minds have been influenced by this adventure. How many potential new startups will come about because someone somewhere out there thinks 'well this guy just gave up his life trying to cross the Antartic, what stops me from doing something perhaps tiny in comparison, but monumental in value, or something that I can undertake'. This is true of all adventurers who seek to accomplish something beyond perceived abilities - free diving, climbing k2 or summitting Mt.Meru on the shark fin route.

The indirect benefits of such expeditions have not been measured. If someone did, I'm quite certain, a ton of benefits will crop up.

I'd agree but if you were talking about going to Mars or something, but for this particular quest, that seems a bit much. Just look at this list of "first person ever to do X from Y to Z" since 2000:


I'd liken this more to climbing Mt. Everest: challenging and personally rewarding, sure, but of ever-diminishing inspirational value to the rest of the world.

I understand the appeal of such adventures and excitement that goes with it, but lets not pretend they are doing something useful. There is no real value in people free diving, climbing k2 etc. People do it for themselves and that is fine as far as it goes and interesting.

It can inspire people to train a bit or visit nature or something of the sort. If watching expedition makes you start startup, then it is odd as caring about business makes physical training harder.

You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again. So why bother in the first place? Just this: What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know.

Rene Daumal

An excellent book: Mount Analogue.

Yeah, maybe. But I also think it’s cool to see humans push the boundaries on physical and mental limitations in these types of ways.

That's why I watch pro football. Honestly I'll bet there's quite a few people who have the physical and mental stamina to cross the Antarctic, just nobody else wants to.

Those are harsh words. Great feats don't necessarily involve discovery or profit.

I thought it was a real adventure, an extreme form of hiking in a very extreme and cold environment, as well as an exercise in managing risks. I have the impression that he did it just to see if it can be done, as a kind of personal adventure, as a way to win a victory over himself.

I recently read an interview of a retired ex-paratrooper who lost his friend to Piteraq in Greenland (similar katabatic winds exist at Antarctica), the tent broke, exposing the people and they froze to death. With winds up to ca. 80 m/s and double-digit subzero temperatures, the wind chill effect is insane and a new shelter must be up within minutes.

It was a dangerous undertaking, no doubt. But then again so was Thor Heyerdahl with his raft, and Apollo 11 with the flight to the Moon, and so on.

Tip: if you want to concretely experience extreme cold, and the sheer brutalness of it, look up a cryotherapy room. -110 C or so for a few minutes while wearing swimming gear (and some cover for the extremities) felt like a hopeless, prolonged open ice swimming without the immediate endorphin rush (which eventually did come sometime later).

It would be a sad and cheerless world if the only motivations were discovery and profit.

What have you done?

What is the definition of crossing Antarctica? It seems you have start at some point on the coast, go to the South Pole, then go to another point on the coast. But the South Pole isn't the midpoint. Nor are the two coastal points 180 degrees apart. Like what's the smallest angle that qualifies as a crossing? (If I hike along the France Spain border, is that hiking across Europe?)

Not to say it's any easier, but ever since these stories started coming out I've been wondering who decides what it means to cross the continent. Would going from Dronning Maud Land to George V Land, a journey of double the distance but passing north of the South Pole, count?

His website has a map and discussion of the route:


That doesn't really explain the definition of crossing. If crossing a continent invokes going from one point to another, as one might reasonably assume, then why the detour to the South Pole? Why not simply go in a straight line between those points?

I feel like going to the south pole is part of the overall goal. Also this particular flavor of accomplishment has never been done before, and I imagine they're less concerned about time, thus being less concerned about crossing the exact shortest distance. At the same time, I would bet there are already per-established base stations at the start and finish locations. Just a hunch though.

I don’t think the intention is to impress people by sneaking in the word “crossing.” I think it just means, well, walking across Antarctica a pretty long way with no outside support. That should be impressive enough. It’s not like it was easy because they didn’t choose the longest possible straight line through the South Pole.

Because South Pole has an airstrip and a summer tourist camp, in addition to the chrome ball to get your hero shot beside, being a place of geopolitical import, etc.

In general though; "simply" going in a straight line between two points isn't often the easiest (nor most interesting) way to get between two points.

Because how many people have been to the south pole? It's an elite club and if you're already going most of the way there, why not get two cards punched instead of just one?

I don't understand the concern here. We're not saying Colin didn't cross Antarctica, are we?

So it seems like a hypothetical: "If someone takes Ted's Shortcut in the future, will that still count as crossing Antarctica?"

Maybe it will count, maybe it won't. But I'm happy to let those future people decide.

One thing we do know... If they take the shortcut, they won't get a photo like this:


Why can't I simply be curious about the geographical or geometric definition of a crossing? It seems like a straightforward question, but instead of answering it I get six replies about the friends you make along the way.

It's an interesting question, but it doesn't have an easy answer. Words and phrases in English mean whatever you and I and everyone else agree on. And we won't always agree: words and phrases can mean different things to different people.

One person may define crossing Antarctica as a straight line, coast to coast, that intercepts the South Pole.

Another may say the South Pole isn't significant with regard to the continent of Antarctica. It's the South Pole of the Earth, but it's not that close to the geographical center of the continent. If you're really going to cross the continent, you ought to go through that geographical center.

Someone else may ask what is a coast? Do you include the great ice shelves? Do you have to start from the outermost edge of any ice shelf or can you start at the edge of the (smaller) landmass instead?

Another person, perhaps Colin, may say "Talk about this all you want, but here is where I am going. It's close to the route that previous Antarctic explorers have taken. I'm the one putting my life on the line, and I say I'm crossing Antarctica. But feel free to disagree with me."

You're right that it would make more sense if the route had to go through the midpoint of Antarctica (defined as the point that is farthest from any coast) rather than to the south pole. That remains un-done. For now, the "through the south pole" route is the longest trek that's been completed.

At first I was shocked by how large a sled he dragged. I use a much smaller sled (just a deer sled). Then I saw how smooth the terrain was at least where the photo was taken.

Then I read that he was out for 53 days. And of course his conditions are far, far more grueling than I have ever faced (all in North America). So then I was shocked at how little he had with him!

I talked to a guy who tried to cross it once. To get the huge number of required calories in a compact form they drank olive oil. He didn’t like it and it sure sounds nasty.

O'brady describes his diet here:


7000 calories a day!

Truly amazing this guy is crossing Antartica and plugging for a nutrition bar brand at the same time. I wonder why Red Bull didn't sponsor him.

> To get the huge number of required calories in a compact form they drank olive oil.

Eating sticks of butter is common too.

Thru hikes sometimes it's peanut butter and Nutella

A few weeks in to my first long trip, a mentor said in a grocery store in Franklin, North Carolina: "You'll become one of two kinds of hiker: you'll count calories per pound, or you'll count calories per dollar. Either way, you win with cake frosting".

Carbohydrates are 4 calories/gram. Fats are 9 calories/gram. Frosting does not win.

I believe frosting is mostly fat by weight. Nevertheless butter beats it, pretty much by definition.


Looks like a >4:1 carb:fat ratio by weight.

But eating cake frosting by the spoonful is far easier and more pleasing than downing pure butter or olive oil.

(speaking from experience)

And climbers already have an equivalent of cake frosting: kendal mint cake: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kendal_Mint_Cake

Thanks for looking this up!

Appalachian Trail? I did it too!

Fritos and Nutty Buddies were my go-to. I added a few notes about my trip here: https://pkshultz.com/at/

Yep! Dropping out of high school to go backpacking on the AT was one of the better decisions I've made. It's been a decade and a half, and I'm still making connections through the trail network.

Since you're such a recent finisher; Springer Fever is a real thing, and I think it's best not to suppress it too much.

I struggle with his on through hikes bc as a diabetic I can’t eat a lot of the standard calorie dense foods. A lot of fats is really all that works for me :-(.

> Then I saw how smooth the terrain was at least where the photo was taken.

If you look through Colin's earlier instagram posts [1] you'll see that the terrain was not smooth for much of his journey. The terrain is covered in sastrugi [2] and this year was marked with unexpected higher temperatures and snowfall which made the skiing very slow for Colin and all the other explorers out there. Explorers Web has a good collection of blog posts about the various expeditions that are happening this season [3].

[1] https://www.instagram.com/colinobrady/ [2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sastrugi [3] https://explorersweb.com/category/poles/antarctic/

For long stretches the terrain was awful, as well there was climbing up to ~8500 feet or so

All solo...truly amazing!

That's got to be the best place in the world, imagine the solitude, the quietness and amazing scenery. Must have been an amazing experience.

I have read Shackleton's book and also one by a member of Scott's expedition. From that I got the sense that it's a place of wind, danger and misery. It's not a quiet stroll after fresh snowfall.

If you haven’t already, have a read of South, by Shackleton. It can be pretty unpleasant and far from quiet.

Colin just accomplished an incredible feat of endurance! His daily Instagram postings have been inspirational to read for the past 53 days. Other info about his expedition:



To those inspired by this achievement to look more into polar expeditions, I can highly recommend Michael Palin’s “Erebus”. It’s a riveting read on the challenges, successes, and tragedies of the British explorer ship Erebus, its commanders, officers, and crews.

Outline for people geowalled http://outline.com/ezrgYS

This is right out of "The Left Hand of Darkness."


I once met a guy who told be about a historical book of, as far as I can remember, 2 or 3 explorers who were friends (?) and were racing to explore Antarctica. Does anyone happen to know the name of said book? It's been my white whale.

Not the book the guy told you about, but one of the finest memoirs ever written about exploring Antarctica - The Worst Journey In The World.


It's a fantastic read, written by Apsley Cherry-Garrard who was part of Scott's expedition. Such an amazing story, and to think they were doing this in a day where sat phones and GPS were not a thing (not even flashlights!)

Off topic, but was given a brief guided tour of the egg collection at Natural History Museum at Tring when we donated my father-in-laws collection a couple of months ago - we were shown the 3 Emperor Penguin eggs collected by Cherry-Garrard and donated - fascinating! Here they are in a presentation by Douglas Russell, curator (who also showed us round).


If it was about Antarctica, it might be Lansing's "Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage": I recall that it opened with some chapters describing the preparations and some descriptions of the spirit of camaraderie among Arctic and Antarctic explorers of various nationalities. It's set just after the race to reach the pole. It was a best seller, and they made a movie about it in 2000, so it had reach enough to be mentioned.

It's definitely not a story about 3 friends racing to explore Antarcica - for one, while it takes a few small creative liberties, it's an historical narrative, and only one of the three are significantly included.

But it is a fantastic read, and even if it isn't the one you're looking for it is both well worth your and it is concerning the same topic.

Scott and Amundsen

"The race to the South Pole, 1911. In 1911, British explorer Robert Falcon Scott and Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen went head to head to be the first to reach the South Pole. In the early 20th century, the race was on to reach the South Pole, with a number of explorers setting out to claim it for their own."


Maybe it’s a book on Shackleton?

His own book, ‘South’, is truely epic and ranks up there as one of the best books I’ve ever read.

Shackletons Way is more of a 'leadership under adversity' book. IIRC there wasn't a mention of a race with others.

Wasn’t the crossing of Antartica unsupported already done in http://www.travelexplorations.com/cecilie-skog-and-ryan-wate...? Asking because Colin’s website says it’s a first but I must be missing something.

You are missing that Colin did it solo.

Yes, by Børge Ousland in 96/97. But the whole concept of a first is sort of vague. Ousland used a kite, but he also went almost 1000km further. But I think it's widely accepted that he was the first to cross Antarctica unsupported and solo.

It would surprise me if it wasn't a Norwegian that did it, we seem to have some sort of obsession with the South Pole. Cecilie Skog in the article you linked to is, no surprise, also Norwegian.

If you ever want to walk in the tracks of people like Roald Amundsen you should check out Expedition Amundsen, a 100km ski trip by sled over three days at Hardangervidda. Hardangervidda is absolutely stunning, but also known for taking a toll on even the most seasoned polar explorers.

And Mike Horn did it solo as well. It's a bit of an artificial category, but still impressive as well.

Is it easier now because of climate change? (Not to take anything away from the accomplishment, it might actually be harder due to how climate change works.)

If anything I would wonder if it’s easier because they can contact the outside world. Having a sat phone, gps, and a sympathetic ear had to help. At one point he got a call from Elton John! Imagine the morale boost :) also, knowing there is an escape hatch. Someone to send a rescue team etc...

It was actually Paul Simon that he got the call from. Agreed it must have been a huge morale boost.

Doh. Thanks for the correction!

It wouldn't change how far he was going, as he was crossing the actual land part, not ice extent. Might be 1 or 2 degrees warmer than it was 50 years ago or something.

Where was a report recently that said some parts of Antarctica have grown in amount of snow. So that might make it harder or make there be more "land" to cover?

It was actually much harder this year due to unexpected higher temperatures for this time of year, more snowfall, and whiteout conditions which all led to slower skiing. Many explorers failed to accomplish their goals this year due to poor conditions.


As I understand it, a big part of the challenge that is mitigated by technological advancement is nutrition. It is incredibly difficult to carry enough calories with you to support the journey. Colin's food supply was largely custom made by a nutrition company named Standard Process.

At that temp 2 degrees is negligible.

Anyone else seeing 6 nytimes articles on the frontpage? Why not just redirect us to the nytimes at this point?

Any stochastic process is going to involve runs of 6 sometimes. HN seems best served by looking at article quality individually and not worrying too much about domains.

I do wish users would submit more weird out-of-the way articles, though, and less major media. Especially ones that haven't appeared here before. Edit: like this one! https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=18760852

I'd rather read the current crop of NYT articles than some medium.com blogspam, or an announcement that yet another go-nowhere language that compiles to javascript has released a new minor version.

NYTimes is ok as long as it is not one of their ubiquitous "Anonymous sources within the intelligence community say..." political articles.

3 of top 6 right now

And NYT is locked. They get so much traffic from HN but they don't let us read it. Maybe a deal needs to be negotiated similar to FB and WSJ deal so that HN referrers could read the article.

HN is probably a drop in the ocean in terms of traffic, but it’s good quality traffic admittedly.

I think maybe they don’t let us read it because we aren’t paying customers? I would assume they save their best material for people who pay their bills.

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