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Colin O'Brady on Denali

During a post-college trip around the world in 2008, Portland-raised Colin O’Brady suffered a horrific accident while “fire jumping” on the Thai island of Koh Tao, leaving 25 percent of his body badly burned. Despite warnings that he would never walk again, O’Brady became a triathlete for the US National Team, and, nearly a decade later, set the world record for completing the Explorers Grand Slam: summiting the highest peaks on all seven continents and completing expeditions to the North and South Pole, all in 139 days. He named the record-breaking project “Beyond 7/2,” raising some serious cash for the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a nonprofit that combats childhood obesity. (His expedition was sponsor-funded.) We met up with the 33-year-old superathlete to talk recovery, ridiculous mountain winds, and a new record attempt in his own backyard.

After the accident, the “ambulance”—a moped—took me down a dirt path to a one-room nursing shack—the complete medical facilities of the island. It was so graphic, sitting there watching Thai nurses literally cutting my skin away. I got to a slightly bigger hospital, where I spent the next eight days, and underwent a surgery every single day. It was a better hospital, but there was still a cat running around my bed in the ICU.

My mom (New Seasons cofounder Eileen Brady) is the hero of this whole story. She never showed me fear. She came into that hospital (in Bangkok, where I was eventually moved) every single day, saying, “Let’s think about the future; let’s set a goal.” That positivity gave me the goal of running a triathlon. Eighteen months later, I made a full recovery and raced the Chicago Triathlon. I ended up winning the entire thing, out of 4,200 participants. That changed my whole trajectory. The next day I quit my job [as a Chicago commodities trader] and moved to Australia to train with an Olympic coach there. Over the next six years, I raced in 25 countries and six different continents. I had some big professional wins and raced every distance, including Ironman—a 2.4-mile swim, 112 miles biking, and a full marathon.

The final third of the Explorers Grand Slam—the North Pole, Everest, and Denali—was the hardest. To come from the North Pole, which is at sea level, to climb the highest point in the world was ridiculous. When I came off the summit of Everest, I just had one expedition left. But Jenna, my fiancée, who had been running the logistics of the project, said if I could summit Denali in the next week, I also had a shot at setting another speed record.

She said, “I have a helicopter waiting for you at base camp to take you to Kathmandu. You don’t have time to take a shower, but there’s an evening flight from Dubai to Seattle to Anchorage.” I had three days to climb Denali; usually it takes about three weeks. So just 100 hours after standing on the summit of Everest, I was in Alaska, at the base of Denali, about to start my final climb. A huge storm rolled into Alaska: 60 mile-per-hour winds, and minus-60-degree windchill. We actually got blown off our feet a few times. If I hadn’t been going for a world record, I would have stayed in my tent.

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Various stops along the way to breaking the Explorers Grand Slam world speed record. Clockwise from top: the South Pole; Mount Kosciuszko in Australia; Vinson Massif in Antarctica

After my last record, I’ve been out in the community, in schools, in corporate environments. But no matter who I’m talking to, a lot of my narrative is the same: inspiring people to dream big, set goals, and lead active and healthy lives. In June, I’m going to attempt to break the speed record for climbing the tallest mountain in each of the 50 states. Currently the record is 41 days. I’ll most likely try to ski off the summit of Denali, fly to Hawaii, climb Maunakea, then fly to Florida. There, I’ll be met by a Sprinter van, and be more or less in constant motion. No breaks other than transporting between the different mountains. I’ll head up the eastern seaboard, back down from Maine through the Midwest, and back around through the West Coast. I’m planning to finish in Oregon on Mount Hood.

I’m calling this the Forrest Gump effect: to get as many people as possible around the country to participate in the project with me [walk, hike, climb]. It’s fun to tell stories of being on Mount Everest, or Antarctica, but it’s also inaccessible for most people. This is a project where I’m going to be an hour from your house: you have no excuse but to participate or at least be aware of it. Red states, blue states, urban communities, rural communities—having people participating in this larger goal together is important, at a time when our country is somewhat divided.

It’s not my intention to make an overtly political movement with this, but public lands are under attack with this current administration and so my hope is to cast a super positive light. I’m going to be on snowy mountains in Alaska, the deserts of the Southwest, the deciduous forests of the Northeast, and everything in between. People might not even realize, “Oh, there’s this trailhead—this mountain—only an hour away? I’m going to try to climb it.”

You can follow O’Brady’s progress by signing up at colinobrady.com/50hp, or on Instagram @colinobrady

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