Book Review: The Impossible First: From Fire to Ice - Crossing Antarctica Alone

The Impossible First: From Fire to Ice - Crossing Antarctica Alone by Colin O’Brady

The Impossible First is Colin O’Brady’s account of his solo trek across Antarctica. It’s a thrilling tale, though one not untouched by controversy.

O’Brady is an endurance athlete, who competed professionally in the ITU World Cup Triathlon Circuit from 2009 to 2015 before turning to mountaineering. He brought the finish-line oriented competitiveness of his triathlon experience to mountain climbing. He pursued and achieved the world records as the fastest person to complete both the Explorers Grand Slam (Last Degree) and the Seven Summits in mountaineering*. 

While on his quest for the Grand Slam record, O’Brady first learned that another record was still open. No one was yet credited with a solo, unsupported and unassisted crossing of Antarctica. He determined to pursue that goal as well. The Impossible First tells the story of how he achieved it.

Arriving in Antarctica, O'Brady discovered that someone else was attempting the record crossing. British polar explorer Louis Rudd would start at the same time, and in the same place as O’Brady. This turned O'Brady's trek into a race. As a race it played to his strengths. It also meant high interest from the media. When O’Brady completed the trek first, lots of positive media reporting came his way, leading to the book deal that resulted in this book.

It’s a very well written account. I especially liked the way O’Brady seamlessly weaved in stories of his life before the trek, helping explain how he got to Antarctica in the first place. It’s also a pretty compelling story. I read it in two sittings. So I can definitely recommend it to anyone in search of a gripping true adventure story. 

Having said that, there is a caveat. Shortly after The Impossible First was released, National Geographic published an article claiming that O’Brady’s account was “embellished”. Anyone who reads O’Brady’s book owes it to themselves to also read the article. (The link is here, but note that it's behind a paywall.) The long and the short of it is that there is controversy around the “unassisted” part of the record claim that both Brady and Rudd were seeking. 

It turns out that the route both men took from the South Pole to the end of their trek was actually on a tractor road. This “road” is a flattened surface across the snow, marked by bamboo poles with orange flags every 400 meters. It is also known as the South Pole Traverse (SPoT), or the McMurdo-South Pole Highway.

O’Brady never mentions the road. In fact, as he discusses that part of the journey in the book he emphasizes that the snowpack becomes more treacherous, with frozen drifts of various heights making pulling a sled more difficult. This is true in general of the area he was crossing. But the tractor road presented him with a flat surface less challenging than what he faced in the first part of his trek. 

A solo journey across Antarctica had been done before, by Borge Ousland.  The journey is acknowledged by O'Brady in the book. At points in Ousland’s trek (on a route twice as long) he used a ski-sail to pull him and his sled, meaning he had an "assist". By contrast, Rudd and O’Brady used only their own muscle power. But they clearly had to exert less effort than they would have if they’d not used the tractor road and its orange flags serving as navigational markings, which  made the road itself an “assist” according to his critics.

If you dig deeper there are more allegations thrown O’Brady’s way - allegations about his character, and criticism of the length of the chosen route for the solo trek, among others. Whether any of these have merit, or take away from what O’Brady actually accomplished I leave to you to decide for yourself. I will note that O’Brady published a 16 page rebuttal and a request to National Geographic to retract their story. After review, the magazine declined, though they did make minor changes “for clarity”. The article is still available. For those unable to access the National Geographic article, this more recent article from the New Zealand Herald summarizes the controversy and details recent steps to clarify the rules around Antarctic crossing attempts.

The book itself is a great read, but the controversy does make me wonder how much it's embellished. That has diminished the experience for me. As a recommendation I feel like I can only give the book Three Stars ⭐⭐.

* The Seven Summits mountaineering challenge involves climbing to the summit of the seven highest mountains on each of the traditional seven continents. The Grand Slam throws in polar trips to both the North and South Poles, while the Grand Slam (Last Degree) is the more modern version of the Grand Slam where the adventurer starts his or her polar treks from a point along the  89th degree of latitude (the poles being at the 90th degree). To date, only 50 people have completed the Grand Slam (Last Degree), including O’Brady with the fastest time to complete. While I can’t find a recent list it seems many more have completed the Seven Summits (more than 270 by 2010 according to Wikipedia).

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Title: The Impossible First: From Fire to Ice - Crossing Antarctica Alone
Author: Colin O’Brady
Publisher: Scribner (Simon & Schuster)
Publish Date: January 14, 2020
ISBN-13: 9781982133115
Publisher’s List Price: $28.00 (Hardcover as of 02/2022)