no one had defined a crossing in such achievable terms
February 16, 2020 2:35 PM   Subscribe

The problem with the importance of being the first to do something is that something gets sliced and diced in more and more elaborate, and perhaps meaningless, ways. Was Colin O'Brady really the first to cross Antarctica unaided? He responds to the article.
posted by jeather (23 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
So, he's not counting the parts of the Antarctic that are ocean covered with ice? Great. I've just crossed the Arctic, solo, unaided, and unsupported, in nothing flat. Praise me!

Also, I would like to disqualify from all official records anyone who ever makes a claim like this: "he has become the first person to Snapchat from atop Mount Everest".
posted by Halloween Jack at 3:34 PM on February 16 [6 favorites]


So maybe not just perhaps meaningless.
posted by jeather at 4:36 PM on February 16


Great article, shame they didn't do any of this investigation before they published all the breathless panegyrics.

I personally think this kind of shit - carried out at enormous expense and resource consumption - is purely self aggrandisement, regardless of who does it or what they are supporting (I feel no one, environmentally speaking, should be in Antarctica except for scientists).

But I feel like this is such a thing in our culture. I've been staying in an apartment hotel for the last three weeks, so I've been watching a lot of nat geo, discovery etc pay tv. I noticed there's this explosion of shows in the genre of "White Man goes to Africa" kind of thing, where these white dudes go out into some random desert or rainforest or whatever, wander round of a couple of days, drink their own piss, harrass an innocent snake, and then head back.

The shows are quite repellent on a number of levels (I say this as a nature lover). But central to so much of them is exaggeration. Despite the omniscient camera crew, they always pretend they are alone; that they are miles from civilisation (lies), that the situations in them are far more dangerous than they actually are, that they are risking life and limb etc.

I've been watching with my eldest (fellow nature lover), and find myself constantly having to correct the record ("I'm paddling through waters infested with nile crocodiles" - she says "Oh no, how dangerous!", me: "There are clearly no crocodiles in this area.").

Nature doesn't need exaggeration. It's beautiful, powerful, inspiring just by being itself.
posted by smoke at 5:24 PM on February 16 [12 favorites]


An impressive feat, but I am puzzled as to why a kite is considered “assistance” but a satellite phone (among other modern devices) is not.
posted by TedW at 5:27 PM on February 16 [4 favorites]


I guess the difference is whether you're moving yourself and your gear under muscle power alone, or whether you're using technology (however simple) to move. The line is always going to be somewhat arbitrary though.

I actually snorted at this quote from his Instagram:
Today was a major disappointment. As a group we agreed to push hard for the past three days to try and finish by Sunday which is my hard stop date. I’ve been pulling four sleds (more than twice my normal weight) for a few days now to try and get us to move more quickly, but midday today an Everest summiter / ultra-marathoner and guy who has both kayaked and canoed across the Atlantic alone, came to me and tapped out unable to continue to push even if I carried all their weight...this complicates our finishing logistics...If guys of that caliber are tapping out after 26 days of suffering when I’m still strong, smiling and able to push harder and carry more - I’d say my training is successfully complete...Announcement coming soon on the new project.”
You can really tell what type of man he is from this post: He's a liar and a braggart. It's a shame that he's made it so far, but guys like him often do. Sometimes all the way to being the most powerful man in the world.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 6:20 PM on February 16 [14 favorites]


From the NatGeo article:
Put another way, it’s not so much that no one had been able to cross Antarctica this way before, it’s that no one had defined a crossing in such achievable terms.

Ooof. There's a lot of stabs like that, and some clear anger in the piece - I note that it's from the same author as the 2018 article that parroted O'Brady's claims.

I suspect that anger comes in large part from embarrassment, because at its core this story is really a failing of journalism. It seems fairly clear that O'Brady's claims could have been debunked by a phone call or email to literally anyone with a past in or knowledge of Antarctic exploration. (Just look at the people quoted in this new article; you can't tell me that National Geographic would have had a hard time getting ahold of Jon Krakauer.) But no one bothered to have that call, O'Brady's claims were repeated uncritically - by NatGeo and by many other media outlets - and you wind up here, doing what an old colleague called "retract-and-attack."

This particular saga is interesting because, well, Antarctic exploration is an inherently interesting topic, and O'Brady is a compelling villain. But it's really just a big ol' standard journalistic falldown. Media outlets are in a crunch to produce more stories, ever-faster, and with ever-fewer resources for unglamorous background processes like fact-checking. Stuff like this inevitably happens. It sucks. But at least they got this one right, eventually, I guess.
posted by ZaphodB at 7:42 PM on February 16 [9 favorites]


I would expect some level of embellishment, I mean I don’t want to read a dry diary of some guy complaining about how hard it is to take a dump in Antarctica, and you don’t earn a living doing things like this without some sort of self-promotion. I don’t understand what the issue is exactly with such an arbitrary accomplishment. It is not like David Blaine taking coffee breaks when he was hanging upside down.

The kite thing is interesting because you get into a weird area where technology definitely plays a role. If he was not using modern, light weight materials he could not have done this. So when you make up accomplishments it is hard to define rules of the game.

The guy enjoys doing stupid hard things for fun, we encourage that when it is geeky. He’s pretty open about what he did. If left out the part where he took a helicopter part of the way, or took a break at the 4 Seasons South Pole, that is different.
posted by geoff. at 8:52 PM on February 16


smoke, I feel for you. I do a lot of fairly extreme stuff, but my budget doesn't allow me much for self-aggrandization! :)

If I can turn you onto a more anti-Bear Gryllis, check out some of the films from Jon Muir (no, not that one). Specifically, Alone Across Australia,

https://vimeo.com/ondemand/aloneacrossaustralia

Which chronicles an attempt of going self-powered, alone... across Australia. Just, total integrity.
posted by alex_skazat at 8:54 PM on February 16


After reviewing those stories and gathering more information, we've ammended them with an editor's note.

I remember when editors not only confirmed details before publication, but also knew how to spell words like "amended".
posted by Joe in Australia at 10:11 PM on February 16 [5 favorites]


He’s pretty open about what he did

The article seems to have two major points. The first and most important point is that he's not open about what he did. It provides several examples of him not being open. One of the most egregious examples is how he wouldn't acknowledge he was using a road when people wondered how he was going so fast. There are several other lies by omission, lies by implication, and just outright lies.

The other major point is that he was an abusive asshole to the people around him.

I really do not see why we should be making excuses for this guy. Yes, the world is full of guys like him, who make up grandiose stories about themselves and sometimes even make a career out of it. You know, the kind of guy who will use your face as a stepping stone to fame. But it's not just a little innocent embellishment. It's toxic and we should expect better.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 10:19 PM on February 16 [8 favorites]


I like how in 16 pages about 5 lines are given to him rebutting feebly the comments that he ruined two other guided group trips. Tho he is very keen to say a crevasse he fell in on one of those trips was legitimately very deep at lenght.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 10:35 PM on February 16


If I can turn you onto a more anti-Bear Gryllis, check out some of the films from Jon Muir (no, not that one). Specifically, Alone Across Australia,

https://vimeo.com/ondemand/aloneacrossaustralia

Which chronicles an attempt of going self-powered, alone... across Australia. Just, total integrity.


...also the classic 1980 Robyn Davidson book: Tracks: A Woman's Solo Trek Across 1700 Miles Of Australian Outback or perhaps the more recent 2013 film version with Mia Wasikowska and Adam Driver (although camel-powered rather than self-powered, it offers a refreshing alternative to the male narratives that dominate the genre).
posted by fairmettle at 1:17 AM on February 17 [1 favorite]


I like how in 16 pages about 5 lines are given to him rebutting feebly the comments that he ruined two other guided group trips. Tho he is very keen to say a crevasse he fell in on one of those trips was legitimately very deep at lenght.

Probably because those claims are actually true and the ones about him lying are on much shakier grounds. The NG article seems to have been written by someone with little knowledge of the history of polar exploration. This stuff is not remotely new. Every time someone sets a new "first", certainly in the latter half of the 20th century when many of the obvious ones had been done, a debate breaks out about exactly how "first" it was. If you read about polar exploration at all, you will find page after mind-numbing page of argument back and forth (including between Ranulph Fiennes and Borge Ousland among other polar greats) about what the rules "should be".

I mean, look, the whole thing can get a bit silly as was accurately pointed out in the New Yorker article but the reality is very simple: by the accepted rules of play currently in place, satellite phones and using the SPOT track count as "unassisted".

Ousland pulled his sled with his own muscle power, a method known as “manhauling,” for a significantly greater distance than O’Brady’s entire journey, but on a few limited occasions, he jury-rigged a small kitelike device to boost his speed when the wind was just right.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. Obviously wrong if you have read Ousland's book about his trip. This makes it sound like he just managed to cobble this together on the spot. The kite was custom designed for his journey and he used it to cover considerable distance. Ousland's crossing was much more impressive than O'Brady's but this is not an accurate description of what he did.

I don't particularly like the guy, maybe because he's so aggressively enthusiastic and self promoting, but then I'd assumed this was just because he was American. You can't really expect the same stoic reticence from an American as you can from a Norwegian or a Brit. Let's be clear though about what he did and did not do wrong.

Philips has recently announced the Polar Expeditions Classification Scheme, a more detailed system than Adventure Stats that sets a new standard for polar expeditions and records. According to the PECS, which was created in consultation with leading polar authorities, O’Brady’s trip would not be classified as a “full crossing,” nor would it be considered “unsupported.”

I think that's totally fine and good, by all means lets be clear about what he is doing but I will note that this is exactly what happened with kite-supported crossings. At the time they were first done they were counted as unsupported, since then the classification scheme has become finer grained.

It is a little lame that in the PECS guidelines they don't even mention how O'Brady's expedition would be classified. By my reading it would be a Solo, inner coastal Antarctic crossing. The new scheme does not allow use of tracks like the SPOT in an unsupported crossing and also makes it clear whether a crossing includes the Antarctic land ice.

I suspect that anger comes in large part from embarrassment, because at its core this story is really a failing of journalism. It seems fairly clear that O'Brady's claims could have been debunked by a phone call or email to literally anyone with a past in or knowledge of Antarctic exploration.

The planned route for the expedition was there for anyone to see. Someone covering Antarctic expeditions for the National Geographic should have been able to see immediately that he was using the SPOT.
posted by atrazine at 3:29 AM on February 17 [3 favorites]


Antarctic exploration is an inherently interesting topic

Sure, but there's a fair distance between exploration and doing pointless stunts. Do we have a collections of the maps he made? Samples he took from places people (or even just Americans) hadn't been before?
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 4:53 AM on February 17 [1 favorite]


Cross the antarctic unaided you say? Well, to be entirely authentic, a real man would walk out into his backyard, strip naked and start hiking. Along the way he would knap his own tools, fletch his own arrows and braid his own bowstrings. Clothing and footwear would be crafted from skins and sinew. Food and supplies would be gathered from local flora and fauna. Upon reaching the coast, a real man would build his own outrigger, from scratch, mind you, provision it, and sail to McMurdo.

Avoiding all contact on these wintery shores, our intrepid traveler would fashion a sled from his outrigger and then walk directly across the continent in a straight line, using a combination of dead reckoning and rudimentary celestial navigation.

Upon reaching the other coast, he would then hide to avoid any lurking media, turn around, and walk back. After re-configuring his sailing vessel, adding several new features dreamed up during his long march, the real man would sail away. Upon reaching his own home, having now completed the trip without the aid of a single solitary human being, he would go inside, ignore the incessant ringing of his phone, crack open a Miller Lite, and watch a couple of re-runs of Night Court. Then, he would go to bed.
posted by valkane at 5:56 AM on February 17 [7 favorites]


you don’t earn a living doing things like this without some sort of self-promotion.

Here is a radical thought maybe people shouldn't be able to make a living doing things like this.
posted by PMdixon at 9:54 AM on February 17 [5 favorites]


An impressive feat, but I am puzzled as to why a kite is considered “assistance” but a satellite phone (among other modern devices) is not.
Or skis, maps, balaclavas, hand-warmers, butter. . . I understand the impulse to do extreme things. Antarctica is really neat and worth seeing. I don't understand why anyone but the guy's closest friends would care about whether or not he's first in some incredibly specific category.

A friend of mine recently got press because his daughter was the youngest woman to summit a particular mountain. I care about them both and I'm glad they had fun climbing a mountain. . . but, I find it impossible to care about their record. "Nobody bothered to try before" is a weird thing to be (a little bit) famous for.

If you're going to pay money to hear about hearty men conquering the antarctic, buy the Mawson diaries. At least he was trying to do something useful, mostly.
posted by eotvos at 10:48 AM on February 17


I found yet more interesting articles instead of working.
When Fiennes-Stroud failed to make it across the Ross Ice Shelf in their attempted crossing, they initially admitted that they had failed. Only later, did they spuriously introduce the idea that by crossing the land only did they make a continental crossing.
Includes lots of links.
In polar travel, while “unsupported” means no supply drops, “unassisted” additionally requires no outside help of any kind to make the distance easier: no kites, dogs, roads or navigation flags
Includes interesting photos of the road he used.
The distance they traveled — 925 miles — was only half the 1,864 miles that Mr. Ousland covered in 1996-97.
Slightly more about Ousland
posted by jeather at 12:00 PM on February 17 [1 favorite]


Two things.

First, there's an Antarctic marathon? (In the Nat Geo piece, there's a photo captioned "Runners from the Antarctic bases cross the sea ice in Ross Ice Shelf during the Antarctic marathon.")

And secondly, from Explorers Web re: various crossing records
Manhauling relies on concepts like the nobility of suffering, but paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to force ourselves to demonstrate how tough we are can seem like some game for the bored and affluent. One can only make such choices from a position of luck and privilege, and such resources might be put to better use than dragging your snacks across the snow for a couple of months while quoting Shackleton on Instagram.
posted by spamandkimchi at 1:28 PM on February 17 [2 favorites]


White man overstates his own achievements shocker.
posted by penguin pie at 7:35 AM on February 18


(Just look at the people quoted in this new article; you can't tell me that National Geographic would have had a hard time getting ahold of Jon Krakauer.) But no one bothered to have that call, O'Brady's claims were repeated uncritically - by NatGeo and by many other media outlets....

This seemed an appropriate time to mention that a few years ago National Geographic Magazine was acquired by Rupert Murdoch's business empire. ("Earlier this month, the company announced the largest round of job losses in its history, prompting a wave of bitterness from lovers of the storied science brand – one former NatGeo worker describes the first deal between the companies in 1997 as “inviting Fox into the henhouse”. Employees dubbed October “Choptober”. This month is “Knivember”.") (MeFi link)

But as it turns out, NG magazine was more recently sold to Disney, resulting in more layoffs. National Geographic’s famous flagship magazine will still continue to operate, one of these people said.... The move would appear to leave National Geographic as more of a TV-centric operation, focused on its U.S. and overseas cable networks.

Not that I'm bitter or anything. (Yes, I'm bitter.)
posted by cattypist at 6:19 PM on February 19 [1 favorite]


I would expect some level of embellishment, I mean I don’t want to read a dry diary of some guy complaining about how hard it is to take a dump in Antarctica

I would love to read in detail about how hard it is to take a dump in Antarctica. :-)
posted by cattypist at 6:21 PM on February 19


I would love to read in detail about how hard it is to take a dump in Antarctica. :-)
I realize saying the same thing twice in a single thread is a bit gauche, but the Mawson diaries feature a lot of diarrhea. Really, a lot.

Since bragging is fun, I've run a 5k on the continent. I claim my poor placing was due to the very constraining costume I chose to wear, not just being way less fit then all of my colleagues. But, I also didn't know there were marathons.
posted by eotvos at 10:34 AM on February 26


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