Some of us see mountains as scenery, others as a challenge. And then there's Colin O'Brady, whose peak performance has a special place in the history books. Here's Lee Cowan:
Battling your way to the tallest place on earth is an accomplishment for anyone.
"I'm on the summit of Mt. Everest! There are no words to describe..."
But Everest was only a 29,000-foot pit stop for Colin O'Brady, whose trip to the top of the world actually started at the bottom of it, almost five months ago -- at the South Pole. He trekked some 69 frigid miles to get there, all on foot.
Weeks later, he was doing the same thing at the North Pole, climbing over pressure ridges and dodging polar bear tracks along the way.
It's a fair question to ask: "Why?"
The answer: an adventure called the Explorers Grand Slam. It's a grueling test of endurance requiring not only reaching both poles, but also the summits of the tallest mountain on every continent -- seven in all.
Fewer than 50 people have ever finished the challenge. Only two have done it in under a year.
But just nine days ago, on May 27, at 6:00 p.m. local time, Colin O'Brady made history as he clawed his way to the top of Mt. Denali in Alaska.
He had finished all nine expeditions in just 139 days -- a new world record. "I don't think it's fair to say it's sunk in yet," he told Cowan. "I haven't even gotten a full night's sleep yet, so I think it will take some time."
Cowan caught up with O'Brady after he made his way back down Denali -- almost in a daze of what he had just done.
"You were pretty sure you could do this -- you weren't sure you could break the record but you were pretty sure you could accomplish all nine feats, right?" Cowan asked.
"Physically I thought I was very capable, but there were a lot of things that had to go our way."
Sometime mountains push back; with Everest, it can be more like a shove. The danger was readily evident to O'Brady -- at least six climbers died this year alone trying to make the summit.
He himself barely made it -- high winds forced him to abandon his first attempt -- but he managed to summon the energy for one last push to the top.
"I'd be lying to say that I didn't have doubts throughout this project," he told Cowan. "There was many times when the weather, or just the loneliness, or the tiredness, the fatigue, really just hits so hard that you wonder, can I go tomorrow?
But every tomorrow had its own challenge -- and every mountain its own clock.
He raced up Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa -- only to arrive at the summit in the pitch dark. It might take a "normal" person six or seven days to climb the peak. O'Brady made it in less than 12 hours.
"That's insane!" said Cowan.
"Yeah, yeah, it was a big push," he said.
The adventure started on Christmas Day. Jenna Besaw -- a fellow mountain climber, and also his fiancee -- drove him to the airport.
He'd proposed to her atop of the third-tallest mountain in Ecuador. "Of course, he did," Cowan laughed.
"Of course, he did! Of course he did. He made we work for it!"
They dubbed their operation Beyond 7/2 -- seven summits, two Poles. Colin climbed; Jenna planned.
Besaw was his rock, or at least she tried to be. She admits she has moments of doubt. "Of course I do. My high school sweetheart passed away when I was 17, and to take on this project with Colin and know that he is potentially in harm's way, is terrifying.
"But I have to believe that we have controlled what we can control and that the risks are being managed very carefully. But the fear is real. The fear is really real."
Colin always had a love of adventure -- a thirst to experience everything. But while on a trip to Thailand back in 2008, he made a mistake. He got in on a popular beach party trick -- a game of jump rope -- only the rope was dipped in kerosene and lit on fire.
"It wrapped around my legs and had excess kerosene and sprayed me to my neck," he recalled.
He burst into flame. "I threw the rope off me and dove into the ocean to put out the flames."
Twenty-five percent of his body was severely burned, mostly from mid-thigh down, and both of his feet. "It's the worst pain you could ever experience," he said.
The pain he endured through his recovery, he says, taught him something about himself. Pushing his body to its limits gave him a sense of accomplishment like nothing else.
Against the odds, O'Brady became a professional triathlete. But even that wasn't enough.
It came to a point, he said, where he thought, "This is amazing, but I would like to do more."
So he and Besaw began touring elementary schools near their home in Portland, Ore., telling kids about the fire, and the power of setting goals -- even seemingly impossible ones, like completing the Explorers Grand Slam.
The kids ate it up. "We don't really know him, but we really want him to make it," said one student, Jackson.
"If he makes it, he will say that anything is possible," said Molly. "You can do anything even if you've gone through a lot."
"No matter how hard it is?" Cowan asked.
"Yeah, 'cause that is really hard!"
Just how hard was written on O'Brady's face when he finally finished on Denali. He had just enough energy left to call Besaw. She boarded a plane and flew straight to the glacier to meet him, and to celebrate not one record, but two.
Turns out O'Brady had not only broken the Grand Slam Record, but he also broke the Seven Summits speed record, too.
"I hope that people take away from this the power of the human spirit," he said. "When you believe in yourself, and you dream big, that anything is possible."
Some climb mountains because they are there. Colin O'Brady climbed them simply because he believed he could.
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