In December 2019, Goose friend and endurance athlete Colin O’Brady completed the Impossible Row: a daring human-powered traverse of the Drake Passage in a rowboat smaller than a school bus. While the average person might pencil in a few weeks of rest and relaxation after completing such a mental and physical feat, Colin’s schedule has kept a rapid pace as he’s shared tales from his latest adventure in hopes of inspiring others to take action on their “impossible” dreams.
During the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, Colin joined us at the Canada Goose Basecamp on Main Street for an interview with The Atlantic staff writer Shirley Li. The pair explored Colin’s impressive history of tackling awe-inspiring challenges that push the mental and physical limits of what most of us consider possible—and dove into how, exactly, any one of us can take an idea, turn it into action and then return home to share the story of adventure with others.
In case you don’t know this already, Collin is an endurance athlete and an extreme adventurer. But even the word extreme is a bit of an understatement. He has summited the tallest peak on every continent; skied to the North and South poles; trekked alone across Antarctica. And, most recently, with a crew of five other men, Colin rowed across the Drake Passage—which is where the Atlantic Ocean and Pacific Ocean converge between South America and Antarctica. He’s even made social media history—he was the first person to Snapchat from the peak of Mount Everest.
All of that began though with a devastating accident in 2008. When he was travelling through Thailand, he was severely burned and told that he could [potentially] never walk again. After months of recovery and plenty of determination, he was able to beat the odds. Since then, he’s [dedicated his life] to athleticism. Colin’s a mountaineer, an adventurer, and together with his wife, Jenna Besaw, they established Beyond 7/2, which is a nonprofit organization dedicated to encouraging kids to be healthy and live active lives.
Now, I’ve definitely spoken too much. So please join me in welcoming Colin to the stage.
Hello! Thank you for the lovely introduction.
You’ve got a lengthy resume! I have to admit it’s a little intimidating sitting across from you as someone who has never done any of [the adventures you’ve accomplished]. I want to start off with your latest expedition, which was chronicled on the Discovery Channel. You got to Antarctica after crossing the Drake Passage almost a month ago now, on December 25, 2019. And that was after, I believe, twelve days of rowing twenty-four seven… tell me, has it sunk in yet?
[Laughs.] Well, let’s dial it back for a second and give a little context. The project that I just completed was to row a boat—[across] the Drake Passage, fully human-powered. In this case, we were in a small little rowboat—it was much smaller than this room!—29 feet long, about five feet wide. There were six of us on the rowboat and there are three places to row. We had to keep the boat in constant motion because the current and the waves were so extreme in the Drake Passage. [Which meant] we were rowing 90 minutes on, 90 minutes off the entire time, 24 hours a day.
For those who aren’t aware of seafaring ocean passages, the Drake Passage is thought to be one of the most—if not the most—ferocious ocean crossing the world. As you mentioned, the Southern Ocean, the Atlantic and the Pacific all converge so we encountered 40 foot swells, icebergs, penguins and whales—all the highs and lows of it all! But yes! We were fortunate to complete the expedition successfully on the 25th of December—Christmas Day.
We were rowing 90 minutes on, 90 minutes off the entire time, 24 hours a day.
Very cool. And how grateful were you to set foot on land?
I mean, it was a pretty nice feeling to set foot on land after all that time! You hear about seasickness, which, in a tiny little rowboat, yes I did get a little bit of seasickness in the first couple of days. Lost my lunch a little bit… and if we’re talking about film and how it interacts [with adventure], we were filming ourselves on GoPros—having to focus on [setting up those shots] was what made me feel the most motion sickness.
But the weirdest thing was arriving to Antarctica and being so excited to jump onto land: “We made it to land! This is amazing!” We jumped onto land and the six of us proceed to pretty much fall on the ground, because we’re no longer seasick—but we are land sick. Stable land actually made us feel like we’ve taken 10 shots at the bar or something like that. So it was an amazing thing, but also bizarre to be back on land for sure.
Absolutely! I mean, you mentioned it’s a tiny little rowboat…
Yeah, so like I said, there were six of us on the boat, but the boat itself is really only built for about four people, five maximum. But we needed six [rowers] so we’d have the strength to continue to row. But what that meant is we were switching shifts. There’s one small cabin in the back of the skirt of the boat, which had all the navigation and the GPS and everything like that. I was sharing that [room] with another guy—we were the captain and first mate of the boat. I could basically be inside [the cabin] in a fetal position and touch the GPS.
The other cabin, [the rest of the team] would alternate sleeping in there [two at a time]. They were head to toe, basically big spoon, little spoon. A couple of times we got into such massive storms that we couldn’t continue to row—we had to put out what’s called a sea anchor, which is like a massive parachute. Basically, it holds the boat into place. And then we all would try to cram inside the cabins together. Six people in those two little cabins was pretty much impossible: we were basically all curled up on top of each other. One guy would actually have to take a rotation of 90 minutes out in the swell, where there’s about 40 foot [waves] coming over the top of the boat, and he’s just sitting there in ice cold water. The water temperature is about one degree Celsius, it’s basically freezing water….
So you’re saying you were living in the lap of luxury?
Pretty much! [Laughs.] Yes.
You mentioned filming—and like I said, this row was chronicled on the Discovery Channel. What was that like? Did you feel more pressure knowing that cameras were on you and that you were live-streaming this and anybody could tune in?
One of my biggest passions—and I think it’s apropos to being here at Sundance talking about this—is really the power of storytelling. The storytelling element of it was super interesting, because [my wife Jenna and I] have always tried to [capture that in every adventure]. All joking aside, yes, I was the first person to Snapchat from Mount Everest: but I was trying to reach kids at that time. I was [involved in] a bunch of nonprofit programs [where the question was], “Well, how do we reach kids at scale?” and that that single piece of content had over 20 million views on it.
It’s been a passion of mine to try to bring people along the journeys as they’re actually happening and unfolding.
So we’ve always tapped into that inner interest, this intersection of using digital content and media to tell these stories at scale while they’re happening. Now my heroes of yesteryear, the Ernest Shackletons of the world, I love that they would go off and no one would hear from them for, three years or something. And then it might just be a couple of grainy images or some old newspaper article.
But now we live in a time when we can share these stories in real time. It’s been a passion of mine to try to bring people along the journeys as they’re actually happening and unfolding. And so we’ve done that to some regard on all my different expeditions. It was pretty challenging for me, alone in Antarctica to be able to actually fully pull that off. But the rowing expedition gave us a great ability to do that: We had to have a larger supervising vessel [due to Antarctica Treaty permit and environmental protection laws] which was an amazing opportunity to capture as much content as possible. Now, we couldn’t actually receive any help from the supervising vessel because that would be considered “supporting the expedition”. But they could observe [us], and we had the film crew from Discovery on board.
With all the GoPros mounted inside the boat, and with a huge satellite, we could share it [live] through social media. So when I was out there, you know, on Christmas Day smashing around the storm in my rowboat everyone could open up Instagram and watch and me in my tiny little cramped quarters, wet, cold and miserable, and feel better about where they were. [Laughs.]
But it’s been an amazing [storytelling process]. Discovery is going to start with 14 small digital episodes, and there’s a feature length documentary that’s going to come out later this year, telling the story. My hope with all of this is to not just be the athlete who you’re going to say, “Hey, what is this crazy adventurer about?” I want to open people’s eyes—and in particular, young people—and say, “What are the horizons of your potential? What do you want to achieve in your life?” Hopefully by witnessing this or experiencing this alongside me, it’s helping people to stretch and open their minds to limitless possibilities in their life. Even if that’s not [tackling] some sort of expedition. It could be anything.
Well, and this expedition was quite different from the one you did before—when you walked across Antarctica in 2018. And that was all by yourself, but for the [Impossible Row] you had an entire team, you had Jenna [on the supervising vessel] almost by your side. What were your biggest challenges in Antarctica?
I mean, there’s a huge contrast. With the Impossible First expedition—my solo crossing of Antarctica—I was completely alone, in isolation, for 54 days in empty, blank white canvas of Antarctica where the average temperature is about -25, -30 degrees Celsius. It’s called “unsupported, unassisted” which meant that there was no resupply of food or fuel. I had to take a sled (which ultimately weighed about 375 pounds the beginning) and drag it by myself all the way across Antarctica, nearly 1000 miles.
The challenges of that were immense—particularly the solitude and loneliness, and what it meant to be out there completely isolated without any resupplies throughout this time. Now, the rowing expedition that we just completed, was really opposite to that, as you said. Not only were there other people, other people that I was quite literally living on top of, there were six of us total—and a pretty diverse group of backgrounds, guys from four different countries, three different continents, all of whom had varying degrees of high-level ocean or rowing experience. So bringing together a team, the element of that was really the difference between success or failure. You know, we’re absolutely trusting each other with our lives. These are guys I’ve known for decades, we have a long-standing history of doing lots of expeditions yes, but making that into a highly functioning team is what’s super crucial to success for sure.
Just to go back to storytelling—what did you learn from your other expeditions that you brought to this row? Were there ways of filming that you felt like you enhanced this time around?
Yes, from a filming standpoint, with my other expeditions, we didn’t have a huge entity filming us the same way Discovery was [our partner for this one]. Obviously, the scale and scope is different, although I’ve captured as much as I could myself. A lot of the footage and content that I have on social media is, you know, self-shot footage.
In my book [The Impossible First], I talk about this moment where I’m out in the middle of Antarctica, and I want to share my experience, but to actually take a picture of myself or to film myself is this really pathetic process when you’re alone! It’s -30 degrees, I have huge gloves on and a tiny little tripod to set up. But I want to get a shot like I’m pulling a sled across Antarctica—you want to see an action shot of that right? Well! That would require me to put my sled on and start pulling the sled across the frame. But if you watch all the outtakes of this, I have to, of course, go back and pick up the camera by myself. Or there’s multiple times where the wind would knock it over.
I wrote this book from a really candid and vulnerable point of view. It’s definitely not just a heroic retelling of my accomplishments. There’s also some humor in there—like [the movie] Castaway, where [Tom Hanks’ character] starts calling the volleyball Wilson—in Antarctica I just started talking to my camera. It started out as me just video journaling, talking to the camera… but then I started talking to my camera with capital C cam, like, “Hey Cam! There’s no one else out here!” It felt like my only way of connecting back to humanity, even though no one would see me. But when you’re alone for 54 days, all sorts of crazy things happen in the mind.
The reason I love [creating and sharing] content is that I want to bring people into that experience, you know, “a picture’s worth a thousand words.” To be able to have content to share [from a place like Antarctica helps to build a connection]. It really is such an abstract place. I personally had never felt that cold before I went to Antarctica—but I have a picture where I took a cup of boiling water and I threw it into the air and it immediately turned to ice in a puff of smoke. When I’m trying to explain the cold to people, and I show that photo versus describing and people are like, “Oh! Now I can feel that cold a little bit more.” I think that that’s the power of storytelling from these extreme places.
Absolutely. And they can see that photo on your Instagram! So going back to your book, when you were revisiting your trek across Antarctica, were there any moments that maybe surprised you, as you were retelling it, or anything you learned about yourself that you didn’t expect?
It was an interesting process to write a book this year, certainly something that stretched me in unique ways. It’s not just a retelling of the 54 days across Antarctica–that would be a really boring book—like, “It’s day two. I’m still alone. I’m walking.” I mean, there are definitely edge-of-your-seat adventure storytelling moments in there, a hundred percent! But inner woven in [the book] is kind of a tapestry of my entire life, my background and things that were great my childhood things that weren’t so great. I’ve been journaling since I was a little kid, so it forced me to go back and read all of my journals. [I mentally had to] go back through the kind of history of my life and kind of pull out different threads—what had a huge impact, what were really devastating moments.
You know, you mentioned the burning [accident in] Thailand, and of course, I think about that. It was such a traumatic experience to be, you know, completely on fire in rural Thailand. Doctors looked at me and said, “You’ll never walk again normally.” I’m in a rural ICU, in a hospital where there’s a cat running around my bed and across my chest and no one’s speaking [fluent] English. Those are some really deep and dark moments of my life. And obviously I want to capture the truth of that experience. But the only way to go back there and to write about was to really go back to the totality of that whole experience.
Wow. Just reliving it, almost. Now, I read that your next expedition is going to be with Jenna. You two are going to summit Mount Everest in April?
Yes! We are. So, I do a lot of speaking to school kids, and in 2016 I was setting the record for the Seven Summits and Jenna was running our media campaign in the background. She started asking this one question to students, she’d say: “Colin is climbing Mount Everest, what’s your Everest?” And students are amazing. In a gymnasium you can get 500 hands in the air answering with whatever sort of creative and interesting things kids dream of doing.
I realized that I needed to ask other people of other ages that question—it’s pertinent no matter what phase of life you’re at. What is the goal? What’s something that’s just out of reach?
Around this time last year… well first of all, Jenna is an incredible human being and the love in my life. But she’s not somebody who personally self-identifies as being an athlete. She didn’t grow up in the outdoors. But we’ve climbed the mountains, we were engaged on the top of a beautiful mountain in Ecuador—but she certainly does not identify in that way. But last year, she looked at me over dinner and she goes, “My Mount Everest is in the next year to climb Mount Everest!”
And so it’s really fun [to plan this together]. She’s been so supportive and loving of what we’ve created together and me at the the focal point of the athleticism—so to kind of turn the tables and to go back to Everest together, and for me to be in service of her goal to climb that mountain and to experience that through her—that’s going to be a fun next chapter for us.
Very cool—good luck! I do want to know though, how do you decide what to do next? Everest is a repeat for you, you’ve summitted it twice…
Three times! [Laughs.] Excuse me! So, how do you decide what to do?
That’s a good question. My whole life, I identified as an athlete. But there was a moment when I actually started thinking of myself a little bit more as an artist—realizing that what Jenna and I were creating were art pieces, almost like performance art in the world. A true artist wants to create something fully unique, something that no one has ever done before in history. And so when I was setting my sights on the Antarctic solo expedition, it was appealing to me because not only was it “a world record” but it was a world first—something that no one had ever done before in history. People had attempted and tried—tragically, someone died trying to cross a few years before me and there have been other kinds of harrowing history with that expedition.
But the curiosity there was to say, “Can we do something that no one has ever done?” Not because I want to pat myself on the back for doing something, but actually the curiosity of wondering why hasn’t it been done? Why are people calling it impossible? Is it possible that we can look into this and actually find an iteration of what is possible? Then [after Antarctica] the next iteration was, “Can I do something in a discipline that I’ve never done, like rowing?”
I don’t know what the next project is, but I think it will speak to me from sort of a unique vantage point that I’m not certainly super passionate about. To me it’s not about notches on the ballot or another world record, but it’s about cultivating my own curiosity—and then being able to spread that message with other people.
Now, every time you start an expedition, does it get easier? Or is it just as hard?
I mean, if it was getting easier, I think you’re doing something wrong. The goal for me is to continue to flex in different ways. I encourage people to step outside their comfort zone. Why? Because I think that that’s where we grow the most. That’s where we actually learn the most. I believe as humans we all have reservoirs of untapped potential to achieve extraordinary things. And I learned that through tragedy, I learned that through failure—and so in the expeditions, it’s not about a mastery of craft, to [reach the point of,] “Oh, this is easy.” If that was a point that I wouldn’t be learning or outside of [my] comfort zone to grow.
I’m curious about your routine for decompressing after an expedition. Do you do anything in particular? Listen to a specific song? Or do you just cheer? [Laughs.]
You know, it’s an entire process. I think that the totality of the journey for me certainly doesn’t live within [the expedition itself]. It’s also the build up and the preparation and everything that goes into creating that piece of art—it’s a long process. Each one of [the expeditions I’ve done] took a year, sometimes multiple years to plan and create. And then there’s also this moment [at the end] of assimilating that and reflecting upon that.
Certainly, I think I’m still probably in that phase with the rowing project—I got back from the row and Jenna and I immediately [flew out to meet] my book publisher in New York City. And my book came out and [suddenly] it was all about that—which I’m very proud of, but [I’m still in] this crazy moment of not assimilating [what happened on the row] fully yet. It takes time.
One of the things that I do is write for myself and journal: when I finished the Antarctica crossing, I ended up being there for four days by myself before I was picked up by the plane. I actually elected to stay, there was another guy was racing across the continent and I had finished a few days ahead of him. I really want to congratulate him and acknowledge him on completing the crossing—which is a whole other part of the story. But I’m really grateful for [those four days], not only because I got to have that moment with Captain Lou Rudd at the finish line.
It gave me a few days [to decompress]: I’d finished the crossing, I’m still alone in Antarctica, and I had no idea how much sort of press and media and television interest [was waiting]. I sat there alone with my journal and I wrote stream of consciousness—you know, what, do I care about, what was so meaningful for me about this project? Let’s talk about the mindset. Let’s talk about flow states. And the top thing that I wrote was the phrase ‘Infinite Love’.
Infinite love. On that last day in the middle of Antarctica, I actually stretched my arms out to receive what I felt, even though I was so alone. I was the most solitary person quite literally on the planet, but I felt connected to this sort of energetic presence of love and positivity and kindness and gratitude.
On my last push in Antarctica, I ended up pushing 33 hours non-stop, [travelling] 77 miles in the final [stretch]. I tapped in my mind deeper than I’ve ever gone. Even though my body was falling apart—my hips are protruding, my ribs are sticking out, I was running out of food, I could barely even pick my bag up to put it on my side, I was exhausted—but I found this place in my mind that was a resonant energy of positivity and love and creativity. And the mantra that came to me was Infinite Love.
Infinite Love. It might have looked weird—but on that last day in the middle of Antarctica, I actually stretched my arms out to receive what I felt, even though I was so alone. I was the most solitary person quite literally on the planet, but I felt connected to this sort of energetic presence of love and positivity and kindness and gratitude. It was probably the most profound experience of my entire life. But then I was able to sit with that experience, write about it in my journal.[When] I was asked to write a book [about the Antarctica expedition] I was so grateful that I had that moment of reflection and clarity. The last chapter of my book is titled Infinite Love. Given what I’ve done on the surface level, it would be very easy [for a publisher] to say, “Colin, we would love for you to write a book about this epic thing you’ve done: all the hardcore things, how heavy the sled was, how you trained, how cold it was.” And there’s certainly elements of that in the book.
But I want to stay true to the truth—and the true essence of the spiritual journey that I went on. And [what I wrote during those four days at the end of my expedition provided] such beautiful clarity—without being clouded by the noise of the world, it allowed me to have an anchor to write this entire book from. And it wasn’t just the Infinite Love piece, [there are] about six or seven core elements I was able to come back to throughout the entire [narrative]. I think as a result, this book and the storytelling is the most authentic and vulnerable representation of all the highs and lows in the totality of the experience.
Want more Colin O’Brady? Watch all 14 episodes of his Impossible Row expedition across the Drake Passage now on Discovery.