020: Colin O’Brady, from being burned on 25% of his body to becoming the fastest person to climb the Seven Summits & ski to the North and South Pole all in 139 days. Wow!
I had been on a great streak with having a bunch of really wonderful guests on and sharing their stories and opening up. I’ve got another really cool guy. He’s a guy that I aspire to be like, despite he’s a few years younger than me. Here’s a guy that grew up in the Northwest and went to Yale that obviously is not any kind of adversity. What happened after going to Yale like so many college students, he set out and wanted to go around the world and travel and explore. He was in Asia, he was in Thailand and he was on a beach and was doing something called Kerosene jump rope. That rope ended up wrapping around his legs catching him on fire and he ended up burning 25% of his body. The doctors told him that he would probably never walk again the same way. He was laid up literally immobile for over 18 months. His mother was a huge positive influence in his life in terms of the vision board of where do you want to go and what can you see yourself doing.
One of the things that he set out as a goal initially was to become a triathlete. He ended up winning his first one of all things. After that, he got a sponsorship and somebody funded his way towards becoming a professional. He traveled all over the world. Then he clicked at this whole idea about trying to become the first guy speed record to climb the Seven Summits and go to the North and South Pole, which he did. It’s just really amazing to talk to this guy. He’s very insightful, very smart. It’s just really focused on when you’re faced with tough things, tough people find their way through tough times and he did that. Kudos to him. As always, we really appreciate the love. Continue to go on rate and review. It helps and we’re getting more and more really cool people to come on to the show. With that said, let’s get into Colin. It’s a great interview.
Colin O’Brady was born in the Northwest and attended Yale University. After graduating from Yale, Colin made the decision to travel around the world; however, while in Thailand, Colin endured a serious accident with a kerosene jump rope, burning 25 percent of his body. Though doctors predicted he would never walk again, today, Colin has completed multiple triathlons, gained sponsorships, and become the speed record holder for climbing the seven summits in addition to the North and South Pole.
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Colin O’Brady, from being burned on 25% of his body to becoming the fastest person to climb the Seven Summits & ski to the North and South Pole all in 139 days. Wow!
Here’s a guy I actually look up to in a way from the standpoint of he has done a lot of the things that I am attempting to do in terms of scaling these different mountains around the world and also go and get to the North and South Pole. His name is Colin O’Brady. It almost sounds very Irish. Is that true?
It’s actually a made-up last name. My mom’s last name is Brady and my dad’s last name is O’Connor. They are hippies in the 80s and mixed their names up to give me my name. More of a hippie Pacific Northwest roots than Ireland but many generations back, I think there are some Irish roots in there.
Normally, I do these podcasts and it’s through Skype just because everybody is all over the country or world when I do these. We hail actually both from the Northwest. You are now living in Portland. I’m from Seattle. Today, you decided to fly down to Hermosa Beach, California World HQ where I do most of my broadcast. Glad to have you here.
It’s always nice to be down in sunny Southern California, so good to be here. Thanks for having me.
We share this love of the Northwest and that’s where I did a lot of my climbing and outdoor stuff with my parents growing up. I read that you’re from Olympia, Washington. For all those people who don’t know about Olympia, Washington, that is the capital of the great State of Washington.
I was born in Olympia. My parents were students at Evergreen State College. I only lived there until I was nine months old, so I don’t have the deepest roots in Olympia, although that’s where I was born. My family moved to Portland when I was very young and grew up in Portland. Even now as Portland is blowing up these days with people moving there from all over the place, I’m one of the few actually natives, not born but raised there.
I looked back at some of the other mountains you’ve climbed and we’ve done a lot of the same ones. I actually did Mount St. Helens before it blew. I was younger and my dad took me up, and I thought it was just amazing. I had to jump over Crevasse and it was scary at the time. That was really my first exposure. Then to be alive at that time where it literally blew its top and covered all of Washington and Oregon, it was truly an amazing event to be a part of like an atomic bomb or something going off. Is that where you started this whole outdoor your love, cutting your teeth on those mountains?
Yeah. I was fortunate to have parents who embraced and loved the outdoors. My parents weren’t huge mountaineers or climbers. Definitely, my dad was an Eagle Scout; loved to go backpacking, hiking, biking around in the back country and whatnot. That’s where it grew for me. I didn’t grew up with a lot of money. Pacific Northwest is a great place to be from because as you know, you can pretty much drive fifteen minutes in any direction and you’re at a beautiful lake or a river or a mountain or a trailhead or something like that. That’s really what we spent our free time doing as a kid and it certainly instilled the love and passion for the outdoors for me from there.
For sure, we are two birds of the same feather. I did not get on an airplane until I was eighteen years old and that plane trip was to Hawaii. I went to Hawaii on a recruiting trip, so it wasn’t even paid. My parents were schoolteachers. I love that. It wasn’t about having to travel all over the world like so many people do now, like my kids did. We’d literally get in our little VW bug and they’d stuff us in the back and off for a camping trip. What a great way to grow up and all that bonding. I had as much fun as anybody else was going any place else.
I have a big family as well, a number of siblings and with the same type of things; get in the car, drive somewhere, go explore outside. It’s funny you said about your recruiting trip. For me, going the other direction, I had never been to the East Coast or New York City before. My first time there was from a recruiting trip at Columbia when I was sixteen years old. It was September 20th, 2011. Nine days after September 11th, I landed in New York City to experience New York City for the first time, but the same thing, for a recruiting trip, not because I was on some trip or something like that. It looks like sports and collegiate sports and things took us both in that direction. Of course, that’s been through line for both of us in our lives since then.
You’re recruited in what sports?
I swam in college.
You look like you have a swimmer’s body, right?
Yeah. I didn’t end up staying in New York City. I swam at Yale in Connecticut. I ended up on the East Coast, which was a big change from the Pacific Northwest without a doubt, but a collegiate swimmer which was a great experience.
By the way, Yale, the town is?
New Haven, Connecticut.
It’s one of my favorite towns I’ve ever been in. I drove in there. My daughter was on a recruiting trip and went back. She was being looked up by Bridgeport down the street, which isn’t quite New Haven. We did drive down 20 minutes or whatever. As we’re going in towards Yale, she was like, “This looks like Hogwarts.” It’s just this old, gothic, beautiful structure. What a thrill I’m sure to go to Yale.
It was a great experience and certainly a wonderful privilege for me coming, like I said, public school kid from Portland, Oregon showing up on that campus. The way you describe it is pretty accurate like a scene out of Hogwarts, Harry Potter. You’re like, “Where am I? What is this?” It ended up being a wonderful experience and glad I had it.
What you have hung your head on is being a triathlete and then mountain climber and explorer. I want to ask you about you come out of Yale. After Yale, what happens?
I was pretty young. I started college when I just turned seventeen. I graduated when I just turned 21. I’m 32 now. In 2006, I graduated from college and most people in my graduating class, I think 35% of my graduating class were headed for Wall Street jobs. This was pre-crash at 2008. That was the paved road especially for me as an Economics major. I’ve seen that’s where I was going to end up. I’ve had a passion and drive to travel and see the world a little bit instead of taking these Wall Street internships. In the summer, I would go home back to Portland and paint houses with my best buddy, David. My dad lives in Hawaii now and so we would spend some bunch of time in Hawaii as well and I could get over there. Basically living in somewhat of a different path than one of my other peers.
When I graduated from college, I thought at some point I was probably going to settle into a career probably in finance. Before doing that, I wanted to spread my wings so I decided to scrape together a few pennies from that house painting job and go grab a surfboard and a backpack and travel around the world on a shoestring. I traveled to New Zealand, Australia, Fiji, up through Southeast Asia. It was an incredible experience until tragedy befell me in Thailand.
Let’s talk about that. The name of this podcast of course is Finding Your Summit about overcoming adversity. Here you are, a collegian athlete, everything is going great for you and all of a sudden, you end up in a very sticky, scary situation that I’m sure sets you back. Why don’t you explain what happened?
I was in Thailand to probably maybe four or five months into this journey around the world. It had been an amazing experience traveling alone, living in and out of hostels, eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches just getting by. You’re 22 years old so it doesn’t matter. You’re having a great time. Ended up on a beach in rural Thailand, a small island called Ko Tao and the gulf there. I decided that jumping a flaming jump rope seemed like a good idea.
Will you explain what that is exactly?
It sounds ridiculous to say, but it’s actually a fairly common tourist activity there at some of the resorts or little guesthouses there. Basically local Thai guys will fire dance, literally light a rope on fire as if you were jumping rope in the street as a kid and people jump under it. What normally happens even when you trip on the rope is that the rope will bounce off your legs, like putting your finger through a flame of a candle and you’ll be fine. Unfortunately for me, I wasn’t so lucky. The rope wrapped around my legs, there was excess kerosene on the rope that splattered me to my neck and very quickly, my entire body up to my neck was engulfed in flames.
Fortunate for me, the ocean was about ten steps away, so instinct took over and I went and dove under the ocean to extinguish the flames, which ultimately certainly saved my life. Not before about 25% of my body was severely burned, basically mid-calf or mid-thigh down on both of my legs, my right hand and it was a terrible circumstance. A really painful and life threatening injury. Also here I am in rural Thailand, the care that I received immediately was a guy on moped driving me down a dirt path to a one-room nursing station. There’s no hospital on the entire island. Finally, after 24 hours in that situation, transferred to another small tiny hospital where I underwent eight surgeries. There was a cat running around my bed in the ICU as I came out. Pretty much the last set of circumstances you want to find yourself in particularly with an injury like burns or infection can ultimately kill you. It’s terrifically painful injury to have. Honestly, the scariest thing at the whole time was that doctors were warning me like, “You’d probably never walk again normally,” with how bad the burns were particularly over my knee and ankle joints, ligaments and that sort of things. There was a lot of damage that they thought would not be able to be fully repaired and allow me to have the same active lifestyle that I had.
Had you come back to the States at this point?
No. After about that first eight surgeries, I was then finally transferred to Bangkok in a tiny, little medical airplane and that was the first distance they felt like they can move me and be stable.
Which by the way is a crazy town too. The buildings are sideways and crooked and everything.
The one thing I will say is that Bangkok is an international hub for healthcare actually and so it has some pretty great hospitals. Of course, it’s not the United States, but the care was on par, I would say, finally when I got there. About eight, nine days into this journey, I end up in Bangkok where I end up staying for a couple of months and then finally transferred back to the United States. When I was transferred back to the United States even though a couple months had passed, I still hadn’t taken a single step. I was carried on and off the plane in a wheelchair and basically arrived back to Oregon at the Oregon Burn Center. I’m still in a very, very traumatic and injured place, still not knowing if I would really ever walk again.
You’re in such an active state from swimming, running around the Northwest, camping, hiking and then all of a sudden, you go through this. I’ve gone through my fair share of stop, but at least I’m walking, I’m talking, I’m moving. Part of what’s helped me get through a lot of that, my meditation is actually being in the outdoors and exercising. For you, you can’t move. You’re immobile, right?
Yeah. Certainly, activity, movement is such a huge part of my personal identity that it was dramatically taken from me. That was a reality check for me, “What’s my life going to be like after this? What do I want to do with myself?” Definitely, it sent me in a pretty negative, downward spiral.
Thankfully, enter my mother into the equation at this point, she arrived to Thailand about four or five days into this ordeal. Instead of coming in and crying beside me and being as afraid as a mother should and she certainly was in this situation, she came in with this air of optimism, a smile in her face and saying, “This is horrible but let’s start thinking about the future.” She’s been a strong believer and ingrained in me the power of positive mindset and no better place than to show it and what was this as certainly as I realized in the long run. She came in and said, “Let’s think about the future. This is terrible right now, but what do you want to do when you get out of here? What do you want your life to look like a year from now, five years from now, ten years from now? Let’s dream.”
For me, it was hard for me to play along with that for several days. I was very depressed and still in a ton of pain. I finally said, “Fine, I’ll play along.” If I was healthy and fit again, what I would do is I would one day complete a triathlon. I had been a swimmer but I had never biked or run professionally or collegiately. I thought, “That’s what an active, healthy, fit person could do. That’s what I would love to do one day.” One day, just an aspiration on the future. She said, “That’s your goal now.”
For the next eighteen months, that’s what I focused on every step of the way literally from the first step I took in my mother’s kitchen to taking five steps to taking ten steps and ultimately being able to walk across my house. This was weeks at a time we’d be celebrating one more step that I could take literally. Eighteen months in the future, I had moved to Chicago. I had started a job in finance, which I thought is where’s going to be my career. I said, “I think I’m ready to try this goal.” After having worked so hard to get my body back and learned how to walk again, I signed up for the Chicago Triathlon and started training for that.
What were those distances?
It was an Olympic distance triathlon. That was a mile swimming, 25 miles biking and 6.2 miles of running. It’s certainly a big challenge and something I’ve never done before. I signed up, trained for it, raced the race, which all took place basically exactly eighteen months after my burn accident. Crossing the finish line was a great joy for me just to have proven that despite this terrible loss, despite the doctors telling me I may never walk again, that positive mindset and certainly having this tangible goal to work towards, gave me the strength and perseverance to overcome this tragedy.
For me, crossing that finish line was closing the door on that. What was certainly a huge surprise for me that day that not only I had crossed the finish line, but I actually had won the entire Chicago Triathlon beating almost more than 4,000 of the participants on the day. I was over the moon thrilled to just cross the finish line. That had been my goal to race a triathlon one day. All of a sudden, not only had I raced this triathlon but I had won the entire race, which opened the door for me to become a professional triathlete.
Pretty quickly, I quit my finance job, got my first sponsor and moved to Australia to begin a life of a professional triathlete, which is nowhere near the life of an NFL player like yourself in terms of lucrative contracts and that sort of things. It was a great way for me to live my passion and my always dream of being a professional athlete and here is my window to do that. Eighteen months earlier, I was told I couldn’t walk and fast-forward, here I was beginning a life of a professional athlete.
It’s a great testament for me and in my own life and as I try to tell others that you never know what’s right around the next corner. Certainly as you continue to work hard, persevere, like the name of your show, Finding Your Summit. Whatever that summit is for you, I believe you can get there and this was what really deeply taught me that lesson was this experience. For the next six years after that, I raced as a professional triathlete in 25 countries, six different continents. It was an amazing experience.
[Tweet “Whatever that summit is for you, I believe you can get there.”]
I want to reset something really quick that you said that to me really touched off something, which is about when you put in the power of positivity, you can achieve really anything. Especially with when I went to the University of Washington is where I got a scholarship to go play football and I was in so over my head when I first got there, I hadn’t done the work in terms of lifting the weights and running. I just didn’t understand what it took to play at that level. The same thing with not so much I was ready to play in the NFL but just the odds of anybody making that. Having those blinders on and pushing out the negativity of what anybody else might say or the inner voice might be talking to you in terms of having negative. I don’t know if you can accomplish anything when you’re in that state of mind.
Getting back to what you did say, you put together a game plan, you dreamt about something, a possibility and then after you actually won this thing, now you’re feeling very purposeful about, “This is my path. We’ll just see where it comes out.” That’s where you’re feeling the best in optimizing and now out of this whole thing, you get sponsored.
Just to double down that , as I’ve obviously had this story, overcome this obstacle, become a professional athlete and then ultimately set these two world records in mountaineering, people have asked me, “How did you do it? What was the process?” I recently gave a TED Talk actually and the name of the TED Talk is Change Your Mindset and Achieve Anything. As I’ve thought more and more about the entire process, it’s less about the two world records I have set or being a professional triathlete or being an NFL, whatever that is. That’s just the canvass to explore that. For all of us, what’s the universal through line there? It is the power of positivity. It’s the power of mindset. It’s the power of having that determination towards a singular goal and working towards it.
I love what you mentioned about negative self-talk. Talk to any successful person, they’re going to tell you, “There was a hundred people that never believed that I could grow this company into this or I could create this piece of art or excel at sports,” or whatever your thing is and having been able to block out other people but more importantly, block out your own voice because for whatever reason as humans, we are patterned to have doubts. I’m not impervious to that at all in my own life even as I go forward, even having many successes as well as failures in my life. You really have to have that daily determination to say, “I believe in this. I’m putting my heart and soul into this,” and have the passion to continue to move forward even when things don’t go your way because they’re bound not to.
That’s just what happens. That’s life. I’ve got this thing called SUMMITS and it’s an acronym of accomplishment. It’s the seed, unleash your plan, then you move your plan, then you measure your plan, you improve your plan and traverse. Things happen. That’s what you’re talking about right now where you’re going down the certain path and the obstacles coming your way. In my case, a divorce, the markets may change, whatever those things are for different people, so it is that mindset. One of the things that I’m just absolutely committed to along with this power of positivity is if you want to be successful, hang out with successful people.
You’ve got to keep the negative voices away from you. For me, that’s one of the things that I try to do. Number two is I do daily affirmations because even though you’re out there, you’re doing some great things, you just still have that little negative voice that jumps in your head. It’s a constant fight about trying to push out those things when things don’t look the way you want them to appear. Then the third thing I do is every single morning I get up and I go workout because that’s just firing all the neurons and getting my mind in the right place of like, “I’ve accomplished this and now I’m ready to start the day.”
You go out and in terms of sponsorship, what’s the return? Somebody goes and sponsors a triathlete, how does that guy that’s putting the money out, how do they get their return on that?
To be perfectly candid, I happened into a really fortunate set of circumstances to begin my career, which allowed me to launch my professional career; a guy by the name of Brian Geber in Chicago who’s a well-known trader, financial star in Chicago. I am friends with him and his family. I was working for a different firm at the time, I was not working for him. He heard about the story at a barbecue at his house the day that I won the Chicago Triathlon completely coincidental and he was like, “This is an incredible story.” He actually agreed to become my first sponsor, which allowed me to take the first initial leap to quit my job and to pursue this.
For him, it’s not as tangible of an ROI as you would for a brand partnership or something like that. I have so much gratitude and debt to him for just him believing in me and him seeing something in me when I was 24 years old. Ultimately, he stuck with me for the past six or seven years through this path of all the way through my path through triathlon as well as being a huge support through the world record project as well.
That’s something that has been just a tremendous blessing and tremendous gift from him and what he has had to support me. He’s become just a great friend and an incredible mentor. His canvass is the financial markets and trading but he is an expert in that. Him and I have had so many great conversations over time and his mentorship has meant so much to me as he has been able to. We’ve had these great conversations about high performance, what it takes to succeed. He’s had tremendous failures as well. Ultimately, been an incredibly successful guy, but of course, the markets don’t always go your way and so he had to weather those storms. We’ve had some great dialog over the past decade or so about all of that.
That was sort of my first sponsor and my longest standing sponsor through my career up to last year. That was the initial boost to get me out into the world, I was able to as I gotten better in the sport, had better results. I was able to have more traditional brand partnerships so that would be someone like from my world record project. Nike was a big sponsor and hardware companies that want to put their brand or logo or likeness around an idea or a concept. My world record project not only wasn’t about me breaking these world records in mountaineering, but it was also about inspiring kids to have active, healthy lives, a huge promotional campaign around inspiring others to find their Everest, move their own bodies, live active, healthy in life.
Brands are excited to partner with that from different content and media plays. You’re in digital media so you understand the very different avenues that are in that. To be an athlete, a professional athlete outside the scope of a traditional sports league where you’re signing a contract and that’s the line share of your income. For me, it’s been a far less lucrative path but it’s also been an entrepreneurial path. It’s been a path of finding the right partners, the right people that want to support you and wanting to work with people that are excited about what you’re doing. Finding those people sometimes can be very challenging, but I’ve been blessed with having some wonderful partnerships not only from Brian Gelber but some other companies along the way.
I interviewed a guy, actually, he was a former teammate of mine, Jerry Robinson. I went through the opening with him, “Jerry, how are you doing?” He goes, “Mark, I’ll tell you what. Every single morning, I wake up with an attitude of gratitude.” I said, “I love it.” I look at you and what a blessing it is to be surrounded by mentorship and people who really want to springboard you in a way that took you towards a path you never would have imagined, doing TED Talks, climbing mountains, being in races, really living a purposeful life. I’ve come to the rightful age of being in my mid-50’s now and I’ve been able to have a bunch of successes. I’m just at this point my life where I’d much rather be purposeful than driven by just the dollar. To me, that’s what a rich life is.
I agree with that for sure. There have been people who have asked me, “You can look back now when you were 23 years old and you changed away from this Wall Street path to be the path that I followed. Do you ever regret that decision? Certainly, you can have more money in your bank account now,” and this kind of stuff. I said, “My life has been so rich and full of life experience. I followed my passion. I followed my heart and yet, it’s been a tough path. Don’t get me wrong. Freezing at the top of Mount Everest or pulling a sled to the South Pole and these things are challenging things, but maybe I’m a masochistic person but that Type II fun is what I thrive in what I love. Having the opportunity from someone who had never been in New York City until they were sixteen years old to now have been in 50 some countries in the past, six or seven years, have been on every continent, have reached the tallest point of each of the seven continents is a great blessing. For me, no amount of money can change that. It’s just a life experience and the people I’ve been able to surround myself with I feel very fortunate.”
I do believe that a lot of those people too that they envy that life too. You get stuck in the golden handcuffs a little bit, right?
Let’s get into this two-time record holder. What is that all about?
In 2014, I was still racing triathlon professionally. I actually just come off a win in a Half Ironman race It struck me that although I had love this path to become a professional triathlete, I love the past five or six years of traveling the world and racing and competing and pushing myself against the best athletes in the world and having just want to race to show that I was still in tiptop world class form. It hit me that I wanted to do something bigger, something that had to push myself, I still think of myself as an athlete today. There are many other athletic feats and projects that I want to pursue. Triathlon for me had somewhat run its course. I loved it. I don’t regret a single day that I did it, but it was time for me accept the next challenge, which was to still push my body at a high level, but also to do something that had a greater purpose beyond just my own success or failure on the race course.
Being from the Pacific Northwest, I’ve always had the passion for the outdoors and mountains. I dreamed up this project, which was to see if I could set the world record for something called the Explorers Grand Slam. For the Explorers Grand Slam, it is to climb the tallest mountain on each of the seven continents collectively known as the Seven Summits. Also reached the North and South Pole by crossing at least the last degree of latitude on foot.
I dubbed the name my project Beyond 7/2 for the seven peaks and the two poles. Fewer than 50 people have ever accomplished the Grand Slam. Most of those people have done so in tenor fifteen years as a legacy or lifetime project. I was aiming to become the fastest person to do it by climbing each one of those mountains with no rest in between, not going home in between and just climbing consecutively without stopping.
It was a year and a half in the planning and preparation for all of this. I didn’t have any money or sponsorship or funding to kick it all off and so I had to go out and figure all that out. I started a non-profit to make sure that my charitable mission and purpose, which was all around kids, active, healthy kids promoting an active, healthy lifestyle and really using the media arc of this not to promote myself and my own feats, but really to promote this larger universal message about goal setting, reaching your full potential, living an active, healthy life. We partnered with an organization called the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, which does incredible work with school kids nationwide and fitting in with their program to use my unique story and path to elevate their message around health and wellness.
There were a lot of different elements and moving parts to this entire project. 2015 was full of doing that and it was for sure myself and my fiancée, Jenna Besaw. She was a full dedicated team member. She originally said, “I’ll help you out a little bit on this.” Before helping out, it will turn into a hundred-hour week nonstop job for two years with very little financial reward. I couldn’t have done it without her, that’s for sure. We dreamed this project up together and somehow, someway despite countless setbacks successfully completed.
I began in early 2016 and 139 days later, I found myself on the summit of Denali having set the world record for the Explorers Grand Slam. Also having set the world record for the Seven Summits just themselves. I ended up setting two speed records.
When I first was reading about this, I thought you had done it, then somebody else had beat you and then you went back and did it again. I’m like, “That is insane.”
The Seven Summits, which is what you’re trying to accomplish. I’m also the fastest person to ever climb the Seven Summits. Originally, I had just been setting out to set the Explorers Grand Slam record. That is a good story. I actually talked about this a little bit in my TED Talk because of a pivotal moment for me along this whole journey. I climbed Everest. Everest was the eighth of nine expeditions. I’ve been going for 130 some days at this point and I started with the South Pole. The way the record works and both records work is the clock starts when you reached the first summit or the first pole, in my case, it was the South Pole. It’s not when you begin the expedition. It’s when the clock starts. Guinness World Records makes these rules. That’s how the rules, I don’t make the rules. Someone just showed me that Guinness book just got published. I’m actually in the book this year, which is really cool. It’s just fun to see as a little childhood fun, boyhood fantasy for me.
Anyways, the clock starts when you reach the first summit or pole and then finishes on the last summit. When I came down from Mount Everest, it had been a pretty intense climb. Obviously, I’m a hundred and some days into this journey at this point. At this point, I’m about two months ahead of the Explorers Grand Slam world record. I think, “I just have Denali left. I can at least catch my breath down at Everest Base Camp for a few days, fly to Alaska and maybe sleep a couple of days in a hotel and then begin climbing Denali,” which normally as you know, it takes about three weeks to climb.
I get back down to Camp 4 in Everest, which is also known as the death zone. It’s the highest camp on Everest if you come down from the summit and I had a pretty rough time. I actually had to make two attempts on the summit after being caught out on a bad storm high in Everest to my first attempt. Successfully climbed it, called back home to Jenna on the satellite home and I say, “I’ve done it. I’ve climbed Everest. That was the hardest one. I’ve just got one mountain left to climb.” She goes, “I’m going to need you to keep coming all the way back down the base camp right now.” I’m like, “Why?” She’s like, “I’m doing some Math back home and it just so happens that if you can get to the summit of Denali in the next week, then you can set not just the Explorers Grand Slam world record, but also the Seven Summits world record. You’re a competitive guy. Certainly, you want to give that a shot.”
I said, “Yes, but I just climbed Everest. I’m exhausted. What’s that going to take?” She said, “Literally, I need you to climb back to base camp right now. There’s going to be a helicopter waiting to pick you up in the base camp that will take you to Kathmandu. From Kathmandu, you don’t have enough time to stay overnight in a hotel or anything like that, but there’s a flight that will take you to Dubai, Seattle, Anchorage and you have about three days to climb Denali rather than the customary three weeks. What do you think? Give it a shot.”
I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at that moment, but I listened to her, executed the plan and just a hundred hours after standing on the summit of Everest, eight expeditions to this, I ended up at the base of Denali and then climbed Denali over the next three days. I actually, would love to hear about your experience in the storm out there because I got caught out in a really bad storm to try to make it up for my summit day.
I made it up to 16 4 and we buried a cache up there and then it was -60 degrees on top and it was death or fingers gone or something. We had to go back down. I was really bummed about that and I too think, I like to do things quick. I happened to be able to go up. That’s just one of my skill sets. I don’t know where you get this, but moving at a fast pace, we had put 22 days to climb the mountain and I felt I could have done it much quicker. When the windows open, go.
The only benefit of climbing the mountains as quickly as I did during this project is of course I’m acclimatized from previous mountains, so I just been at 29,000 feet on Everest. One of the reasons Denali obviously being 20,000 foot mountain, you can’t just go to 20,000 feet from sea level. For me, at least I have the advantage of being pre-acclimatized. That said, I was 130 some days into this project and I was completely exhausted but I had a climbing partner. I did most of the climbs independently, not guided or anything like that by myself or with a climbing partner friend. In Everest, I climbed by myself and one Sherpa by the name of Pasang Bote, who’s an incredible climber. Then on Denali, I met my friend, Tucker Cunningham over on Denali who’s a great climber. I said, “You think you can try to get us up in three days?” He had actually been on Denali for about a week prior to that because he didn’t know exactly I was arriving, so he had already been pre-acclimatized a little bit as well. He said, “Let’s give it a shot. We’ll give it a shot. That would be cool if you could set not just one but the second world record as well.” We get up to 14 Camp, which is the main base camp as you know.
That took you one day to get there?
Yeah, 36 hours. I got in late at night off the plane and then we went up to about 7,500, slept the night and then going up to 14,000. That night, basing at that plan, I had about 24 hours until the clock was going to expire on the record and a huge storm blew in at 14,000. There’s about 60, 70 mile per hour winds that night recorded the ranger station there. The windchill was -50, -60, similar to what you were describing.
[Tweet “Not knowing what the final outcome will be, but just see what the next steps would look like.”]
It looked like there is no way we can be able to climb this mountain. Usually as you know, you go up from 14,000 up to the 17,000 foot camp and try to go from the summit from there. We had decided, “The only way we’re going to do this is if we’re going to be able to go to the summit straight from 14,000.” There’s no way we’re going to be able to put a camp in at 17,000. All of a sudden, it’s 50, 60 mile per hour winds. I’m still in that mentality of not knowing what the final outcome will be, but just taking a few steps and just seeing what the next steps would look like.” I said, “Tucker, do you think you can climb for fifteen minutes? I think we can go towards the summit for fifteen minutes and just test it out.” He’s like, “Yeah, I’m here for you.” He’s way more energetic than I am and I owe so much of the success of this climb to him because he was totally up for pushing through some really tough circumstances. We get all our climbing gear on, walking out of 14 Camp. Someone literally unzips their tent and says to us, “Are you guys building up this mountain. We hear the storm is going to last eight or nine days. We’re thinking about going down too.” We said, “No. Actually, we’re going up.” “Up where?” “We’re going to try to go to the summit today.” They’re like, “Get back in your tent. No one is climbing today.”
I will be honest about this. I would not have even attempted to climb the mountain on this day under any other circumstances other than I was trying to break this world record. I was definitely putting myself out there and taking a larger risk on a mountain that I normally would and that’s controversial. Should I have stayed more true to my own climbing ethic, which would have not been push through conditions like this or go for something that literally no one on the planet has ever done before. I opted to at least give it a shot. The 15 minutes turned into 30 minutes, 30 minutes turned into an hour, an hour turned to two hours. About nine hours after leaving 14 Camp, we ended up on the summit of Denali pushing through a terrible storm. No one on the entire mountain climbed that day. Everyone stayed hunkered down their tents and we’ve reached the summit of Denali.
Luckily for us, the visibility was actually decent, so we could see where we’re going. There wasn’t a lot of preset, but it was just crazy, windy. As you know, when the wind kicks up there, it’s the coldest, most brutal. There’s a small video clip or photos that we took of course I’m reaching the summit and setting these world records, and a lifetime achievement for me and something I’m tremendously proud of and thinking about all the people that have supported me along the way and kept getting very emotional. You would think also there just be this huge smile on my face like, “I did it.” The first clip of me is just this look of just sunken, beaten. It wasn’t until I was back down off the mountain, feeling safe again, warm again that I finally was like, “I can celebrate and take it all in.” It took every last ounce of courage and strength and determination and the support of others to make it to that final summit and I’ve ultimately set those two world records.
Incredible. Awesome. Somebody asked me about that. They go, “When you get to the final summit, is it just like catching that winning touchdown?” I said, “Actually, I have been very fortunate to be on the winning end of the last second jump in the air, come down in SPORTS illustrated cover type thing.” It’s in the moment. What people don’t understand is that you’ve made the summit of Everest, of Denali, of Aconcagua, these other ones, but you still got either days or hours to go to get back down. You’re so fried by that time and it’s not like that moment of jubilation. You go up there and you hug and you high five, and you go, “Now, I’ve got to go down.”
Any good mountaineer would tell you, the summit is just halfway. It’s great to get up there, but unless you get back down safely with all your fingers and toes, it’s really not that a celebratory of an event. It’s not until you get back down, get back to their base camp or even off the mountain completely that you can totally unwind because 80% of climbing accidents and fatalities happen on the descent. You’ve let your guard down a little bit, you’re more exhausted. It’s getting later in the day, the mountain is warming up, things are moving around. There are so many things that can still happen, objective hazards and whatnot. Mountaineering is strange in that way that the finish line seems to be the summit of the mountain, but it’s really not until you’re all the way back down and safe and sound.
We have certainly some jubilant moments in that, when you’re fully in that and fairly immersed in that. I love what you said about gratitude earlier. For me in those moments, there was so much about gratitude. Of course, it was a personal accomplishment, but to me, that was an accomplishment on the backs of so many other people that helped and supported me through that.
For sure, the larger purpose of it, which was really not so much about me, but just showcasing that you can be going through something terrible in your life. I could be burned in a fire, told I may never walk again and then ten years later, here I am in some of these mountains. Hopefully that is what lives on from this and less about my own accomplishment. Others realizing that, if you’re out there listening to this and you’re in the middle of a hard time, that you continue to move forward one step at a time and really there can be some incredible outcomes on the other side of that and certainly the work we did with kids and that I continue to do with my non-profit work. We did this whole campaign during that time, which was called What’s Your Everest? with kids. While I was climbing Everest and these other mountains, asking them, “Colin is out there climbing these mountains,” and they were excited and engaged. We’re having all this social media. I was the first person to Snapchat from the summit of Everest and some silly things like that.
[Tweet “Continue to move forward one step at a time and there can be some incredible outcomes.”]
These kids would send us messages and they say, “My Everest is to be the first person in my family to graduate from college. My Everest is to be a scientist one day and I want to study really hard. My Everest is to be a great athlete. I want to be the next Simone Biles,” this is a ten-year-old girl, “so I want to go work really hard towards that goal.” It was amazing for me much more than my own personal accomplishment, but to see this being used as a metaphor and as with the name of your podcast which I love, for other people just going for whatever it is in their life because that’s what makes an incredible world. That’s what I’m passionate about of seeing people work hard towards whatever is going to make them happy and fulfilled in their lives.
Climbing mountains just happened to be my canvass. That doesn’t mean that I’m trying to inspire everyone to go climb all the mountains in the world. If you want to do that, awesome, that’s great. I can tell you a lot about it. Really, it’s just about having a purpose filled life and working towards things that you’re passionate and fulfilled by.
How much weight did you lose?
I’m a pretty small guy to start with. I’m six-foot tall. My race weight in triathlon was somewhere around 155, 157 pounds. I’m very thin. I got myself up to about 170 before starting all of this, which is still relatively small. As you know, it’s not uncommon to lose 20 or 30 pounds just on the Denali expedition, 20, 30 pounds just on Everest expedition.
I lost seventeen pounds.
Totally normal and the same thing of dragging a sled across the North Pole and the South Pole. It’s -40 every single day out there and you’re dragging a sled for eight, ten hours a day. People commonly lose again 10, 20 pounds. If you start doing the math, you’re like, “I’m already 170, I can’t lose 20 pounds to the South Pole, 20 pound on Everest, 20 pounds on Denali. I will be a no person. I won’t exist anymore.” Ultimately, I think I’d probably start at 170 and finished at about 160 even 139 days later. That was really, really strategic and one of the less sexy adventure stories. Certainly one of the keys to my success was being super aware of that and what I was putting in my body.
From being in Aconcagua up at high camp 19,000 feet, your body just doesn’t want to eat when you’re up that high. For whatever reason, your metabolism is shutting down. You don’t want to eat all up at Camp 4 in Everest in the death zone. People are about to set out on what is most likely one of the hardest physical days they’ll ever have in their life and you’d see them put down two bites of oatmeal is the only thing they can get down. They’re like, “That’s enough.” You just put 50 calories inside of yourself and then you’re probably going to bonk. I really had to fight almost my own physiology and my own psychology. My mind is telling me I don’t want to eat. I’m not hungry. My body is telling me I can’t hold anything in there and I was like, “If I lose 20 pounds on Everest, I’m not going to be able to fly to Denali and climb it three days later.
It was an obsessive amount of force feeding myself at times and then also replenishing myself with the best nutrition that I possibly could, given the remote locations I was in. That was something I was hyperaware of the entire time and fortunately I didn’t lose a ton of weight. That was definitely one of the things that led to the success was being able to maintain my weight throughout the time.
I don’t know if you did the same thing. That’s been a challenge for me and as I progressed through my journey of trying to climb the Seven Summits, my nutrition. My girls called me manorexic. I just don’t eat that much, just in general and I have ran into those same issues where you get to that summit day and you usually get up as you know in the middle of the night and then you got to force down an oatmeal or something else and it’s just like putting something down your stomach and it’s very difficult. My little trick that I learned on Aconcagua from some guys is I put all these little Snicker bars. I’m not a candy guy. I’m not a sweet guy. I’ve got loads of these Snickers and I break them up in these little chunk bites and as I’m going up, just drop one in, it tastes good, you get a little protein with the nuts in there.
You’re out sitting here in Hermosa Beach eating Snickers all day long. It’s funny when you’re up there what your body craves, it’s a whole different thing and figuring out what works for you. For me, in a very similar type of way, I eat GU Chews. Not the GU gel packets but little chunk gummy chews. Same type of thing; just progressively throughout the day and every twenty minutes, pop in a couple of those in my mouth. It’s got another 50 calories. Consistently keeping that blood sugar, carbohydrate, protein balance in there is what works for me. Also just keeping a little bit of sweet in my mouth. I really don’t like candy. I’m not a sweets guy like when I’m down here but a little bit of that. That sugar and carbohydrate is definitely for high performance in those types of super long days. Some of those days are ten, fifteen plus hours at the middle of the night exhausted, weather, wind. You’ve got to keep filling yourself.
The success of this whole thing, again, I have lots of great epic stories about big storms and pushing through and all that stuff. But there’s a lot of subtler things that also lead to even being able to put yourself in a situation to climb through a tough night, which is nutrition and everything is staying healthy. For me, when I was in all these airports, all these Third World countries, flying all over the place, not sleeping properly, sleeping on planes. One of the things that led to my success was obsessively washing my hands for 139 days. I’m a nail biter. I always have it since I was a little kid. You’re flying through from Tanzania to Nepal or wherever it is, you start biting your nails. Who knows what you can pick up in there? That sounds gross but just these stupid things that I had to rework and be like, “You can’t do that. You’ve got to wash your hands. You’ve got to make sure you get enough sleep when you can get sleep. You’ve got to put the right nutrition.”
It’s all these almost like a pilot’s checklist of things that was constantly running through to maintain my health and fitness throughout this project. Of course, I got more and more tired through the end. I was proud to come back not only successful with the records but ultimately with my body feeling pretty good. It took me several months to really rest, recover and fully recoup. I didn’t come back with any lasting injuries. I didn’t come back with any cold injuries, frostbite, anything like that, which for me that’s how I defined success even before this project. Success looks like setting the world record, but success looks like coming back a complete whole, healthy human.
That would be anybody’s goal to come back with ten fingers and toes.
You know the risk when you go up there. Frostbite is real and things happen up there; those subtler, little, less exciting stories. That’s a huge part of the success of a project that has this long duration to it is just figuring out how to be healthy day in and day out.
One of the things I’m going to do once we go off the air here is to talk to you in going back to Denali with me this next year. I’m going up there with Jim Mora, so maybe that’s an enticer for you. What’s next? You become the two-time world record holder in this feat that you pulled off, which is remarkable and you’ve got this foundation that’s going. You were talking earlier about you’ve got new aspirations and things that you’re trying to point out there. What are those things?
I haven’t publicly announced any of my actual projects yet, so I’ll be coy and not name them by name. For me, it’s multifaceted. It’s been amazing to see and ultimately this project in terms of its media exposure and growth grew beyond my wilder expectations. Have hundreds of millions of media impressions and 50 plus million impressions on social and the things that we’re able to create from that were amazing particularly for the larger purpose of really getting this larger message out there.
As I move forward in my career, I’m still passionate. There are a number of other physical activities that I’m working on and these physical feats, I should say, that I’m working towards. I’m excited about launching those. Doing that in a way that also tells a compelling story that inspires other people to get out there to overcome obstacles in their own life, to chase their own dreams and I’ll continue to do my work with kids.
I’m working on a book right now. Hopefully that will come out next year at some point. One other thing that I can’t tell you that I am doing is a fun little project. A guy by the name of Jesse Itzler, an incredible businessman, he’s put together this thing called the 29Zero29. He’s taken Stratton, Vermont in October, the ski mountain and invited a number of people out there. I think there are some few spots left, so if anyone who wants to come, tag along. It’s called 29Zero29 because that’s the elevation of Everest. Seventeen laps of this ski mountain is climbing the same feet from sea level to the summit of Everest. There is no snow on it in October. It’s on foot. It’s a race or a participation of sorts. You actually ride the gondola down, so you’re only climbing up. He has the whole weekend blocked out for and it will go take multiple days. I haven’t done the math a little bit in my mind. I’m not going to put a number on what I think it can be done in. It certainly is a big challenge on the level of harder than an Ironman or something like that in terms of the amount of hours it will take to climb that many feet.
What’s the elevation?
It’s not a super high elevation because we’re on the East Coast, it’s 5,000 feet successively. You’re not talking about high altitude. I recently tried to climb Mount Hood and Mount Rainier back to back, which are two big Pacific Northwest mountains. Between those two, you’re talking about 14,000 foot of elevation gain in the day and that’s a big day. You’re thinking, “That’s only half of what we’re talking about here.” It’s not technical, you’re not roved up, there’s not snow, there’s none of those factors, but it’s 29,000 feet consistently without stopping.
That’s not one of my bigger projects but it’s a fun project that I have going up. I tell people to check it out. 29Zero29.com I think is the website. It’s a fun challenge. This guy is I think, as far as I know, dreaming up some other fun endurance projects, which I love obviously. As a professional endurance athlete and being out in the world doing this type of stuff, I love that. I love that endurance sports, for me, bring together everyone. As a professional triathlete, I loved racing Ironman on other distances. Of course, I was racing as a professional. I think it’s fun that everyone race on the same race course on the same day. The professionals start first but there are also some people that are going to finish several hours behind that but they’re achieving their own personal success on that.
For me, this 29Zero29 is just another example of that. I’m not trying to go in and win it. That’s not a professional race or anything, but it’s a way to participate with a bunch of people who have trained hard to work towards a big and random but exciting goal. I think if you finish that, you climbed 29,000, you’re going to feel something: fulfilled, tired, exhausted, elated and a little bit of both and everything probably. That’s a fun thing I have coming up next month. Then, the best way to keep track with me is on social @ColinOBrady. My website, Beyond72.com. Definitely looking to get other projects out there.
I’m on social. Stay tuned, there will definitely be a couple of other big projects being announced soon, which I’m really excited to get out there and get on to the next thing. For me, it’s not about reaching whatever summit you reach and then kicking your feet up and going, “Now, I’ve done that. Now, I can just sit around.” For me, it’s always about the journey on reaching those summits. Maybe that sounds cliché or trite but for me, the excitement of this entire thing, the dreaming of it, the planning of it, the working towards it, the people I’ve met along the way, the experience of it all. Not just that fleeting moments on the summit is one thing. It’s great to finally find the finish line or achieve that goal but it’s really the process of getting there and the daily dedication to that. It’s exciting for me to be launching some new things.
You’re definitely walking the walk and talking the talk. I’m not doing this full-time, but I’m trying to do this as much as I can, so every day is another step towards that goal. When you’re going and you’re doing these different races, you’re inviting people out to do these crazy up and down seventeen different times, you’re hanging out with successful people or people who strive to be happy and that brings them happiness. You surround yourself like that and your orbit continues to expand. It can become very infectious. Anyways, I appreciate it. It’s been amazing. You’re an amazing guy. It’s really cool to see people who’ve overcome things and gone on to do great things out there.
Mark, thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure. I really appreciate it.
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