100 Great Explorers of the Last 100 Years Explorersweb – ExplorersWeb

Posted: January 3, 2022 at 2:02 am

In this, the longest piece ever published on ExplorersWeb, we profile in no particular order the 100 figures who have most influenced adventure in the last century.

Some achieved their standing from one visionary accomplishment, others from an exceptional body of work. There are kayakers, polar travelers, mountaineers, ocean rowers, cavers, astronauts, archaeologists, aviators, and more.

You may find some of your personal favorites missing from this list. In some cases, this may have been simply an oversight. In others, we deemed that certain obscure figures had contributed more than others who were perhaps more famous.

All 100 have pushed the limits of their chosen fields, set a standard of excellence, and made the world better known.

Speciality: Arctic Exploration, Anthropology

Best known for: The Thule expeditions

Knud Rasmussen is a throwback to the wild days of exploration, when hardy fellows went on adventures to learn about the blank spots on the map and the people who inhabited them. This is probably why Rasmussen wont feature on many lists of explorers, as his legacy is one of knowledge over athletic achievement.

Son of a missionary, Rasmussen spent his early years in Greenland immersing himself in the local language, driving dog sleds, hunting, and picking up the dark arts of travel in the cold. Following some early expeditions at the turn of the 20th century, Rasmussen cemented his place in history with The Thule Expeditions, a series of polar exploration and ethnographic expeditions from 1912-1933. Most focused on Greenland, but the fifth and perhaps greatest of the Thule expeditions covered nearly 20,000 miles between Greenland and Siberia, including the first European dogsled journey across the Northwest Passage.

For this and his resulting ethnographic works, Rasmussen has been dubbed the Father of Eskimology. Although never formally educated, Rasmussens contribution to anthropology, polar exploration, and knowledge of the native people of the Arctic is recognized globally.

Specialty: Ocean expeditions

Best known for: Crossing the Pacific Ocean on a raft

In 1947, Thor Heyerdahl and a small crew spent three-and-a-half months traveling across the Pacific Ocean. What makes this journey stand out is they did it on a raft. Heyerdahl was fascinated by how Pacific inhabitants had reached the remote Pacific islands. To test a theory (since discredited) that they came from South America, he built the Kon-Tiki, a balsa raft from natural Peruvian materials. They sailed from Peru to Polynesia to prove it was possible.

He carried out two further expeditions, this time opting for reed boats. The first was a crossing of the Atlantic Ocean, from Morocco to Central America. Again, this was to prove a theory, that the Egyptians might have influenced pre-Columbian cultures.

Next was a 4,000km voyage down the Tigris River and the Persian Gulf, across the Arabian Sea and into the Red Sea. It took four months. This time he wanted to establish the possibility that ancient Sumerians may have used similar methods to spread their culture.

Specialty: High-altitude climbing

Best known for: New routes and first winter ascents on 8,000ers, second to complete all 14 of them, and fastest to climb them before the age of fixed ropes

The Polish trailblazer, lord of winter, Jerzy Kukuczka, climbed all the 14 8000ers in seven years, 11 months, and 14 days. He held the record for 27 years.

Kukuczka was one of the Polish Ice Warriors. He climbed four of his 14 8,000ers in winter. Three of them were first winter ascents, and he completed two of them in one season. Likewise, he summited 10 of his 14 8,000ers via a new route, a record that remains unbroken.

While many remember the race between Kukuczka and Messner to bag all 14 8000ers, both climbers pursued excellence on each climb, rather than mere speed. While Messner had a more individual approach to expedition planning, Kukuczka was a team player. But even as a member of large Polish expeditions, he left his imprint. He forged on when others turned back. He achieved nearly all his 8,000m summits on the first attempt, without the luxury of broken trails, fixed ropes, and well-equipped camps. Kukuczca was simply not interested in routes climbed previously by others, or in playing for low stakes. He only used oxygen on the highest section of the new Polish route on Everest.

Kukuczka has a long list of accomplishments. He soloed Makalu in alpine style via a new route in 1981. Together with Tadeusz Piotrowski, he opened a new route alpine style on K2, which has yet to be repeated. Also, he blazed new routes on Gasherbrum I, Gasherbrum II, Broad Peak, Manaslu, Shishapangma, and Annapurna. He climbed Nanga Parbat via the previously unclimbed SE Pillar and Everests South Pillar.

Kukuczka died while climbing the mightly South Face of Lhotse. Leading a pitch at 8,200m, with a 2,000m drop below his feet, he fell. The second-hand rope he had bought at a market in Kathmandu snapped.

In the 21st century, Kukuczkas records may be beaten on paper, but they wont be equaled because the world has changed. While the mountains remain, technology, logistics, and climbing style have changed the game.

Specialty: Alpinism, High-altitude climbing

Best known for: First to climb all 14 8,000ers and climbing them without supplementary oxygen

High-altitude mountaineerings most famous name for the last 50 years, Messner remains a strong voice in the mountaineering community at age 77. Born in South Tyrol (northern Italy but German-speaking), he broke boundaries on the Himalayan giants. In 1978 with Peter Habeler, he made the first ascent of Everest without supplementary O2. At the time, it was considered impossible for a human to survive at Everests summit altitude, but Messner was determined to climb the mountain by fair means or not at all. Two years later, he made the first solo ascent, from Tibet and in full monsoon season.

He cut his teeth in the Dolomites, quickly progressed to the Alps, the Andes, and finally to the Himalaya. Yet his first ascent of an 8,000er was wrapped in drama. A member of a large expedition up Nanga Parbats huge Rupal Face, Messner and his younger brother Gunther continued when the rest of the team retreated. They had to descend in a blizzard, down the unexplored Diamir Face. Messner lost seven toes but Gunther never made it down.

Messner has tried to climb in what he considers a respectful style, lightweight expeditions, pioneering new routes, and always without supplemental gas. Of his 14 8,000ers, he climbed five via new routes.

Specialty: Polar Travel

Best known for: First confirmed dogsled journey to the North Pole without resupplies

American Will Steger is one of the leading figures of modern Arctic and Antarctic travel, with a particular focus on dogsled travel. Steger made the first confirmed dogsled journey to the North Pole (without resupply) in 1986, completed a 2,500km traverse of Greenland in 1988, and then made the first dogsled traverse of Antarctica in 1989, a 5,500km slog across the coldest continent.

As well as giving lectures and writing, Steger has focused in recent decades on climate change advocacy. In 2006, he started the Will Steger Foundation to engage people about climate change solutions.

Specialty: Polar Travel

Best known for: First solo unsupported crossing of Antarctica

Without question the finest modern polar adventurer, and perhaps the best ever. In the 1990s, Ousland bagged most of the remaining polar firsts. These included the first unsupported full-length trek to the North Pole with Erling Kagge, the first solo and unsupported full-length trek to the North Pole, and the first solo crossing of Antarctica.

To pull off these feats, the reserved Norwegian prepared meticulously, innovated with equipment (i.e. a drysuit for Arctic Ocean swimming), and carefully selected only the best expedition partners. Formerly a member of the Norwegian special forces, Ousland has combined his physical and mental resilience with a keen eye for detail.

Ouslands most impressive expeditions have come in recent years. In 2006, he made the first unsupported full-length winter trek to the North Pole with the irrepressible Mike Horn (also featured on this list). In 2019, Ousland and Horn teamed up again to cross the Arctic Ocean by boat and ski in autumn-winter. Ousland declared this his greatest achievement, and Horn reckoned that it was the hardest expedition he had ever done.

Specialty: High Altitude Mountaineering

Best known for: The first summit of Mount Everest

This duo, one of the finest-ever expedition pairings, needs little introduction. On May 29, 1953, New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Nepali Tenzing Norgay became the first climbers to summit Mount Everest, as part of the ninth British expedition. Their feat made the world stop and draw its breath for just a moment.

Hillary and Tenzing were originally slated as the second summit pairing. They got bumped up when Bourdillon and Evans turned around just 100m shy of the top because of a faulty valve in Evans bottled oxygen. Norgay had worked on more Everest expeditions than anyone else over the previous decade, and the pair had all the experience required.

The partnership of the wily, tough Kiwi and the dependable, powerful Sherpa reflected a rapidly changing world. Feted globally for their achievement, Hillary went on to take part in 10 further Himalayan expeditions, Antarctic travels, and major philanthropic work in Nepal. Norgay went on to become the first Director of Field Training of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute and founded a trekking company.

Specialty: Travel writing and photography

Best known for: Spending seven years among the Madn tribe

Wilfrid Thesiger spent his childhood in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and said that this is where his lifelong love of travel and adventure came from. After serving in World War II, he returned to a life of exploration.

In November 1945, he completed a two-month crossing of the Rubal-Khali in the Arabian Peninsula, with Bedouin guides. Thesiger had been sent to the region by the British Middle East Anti-Locust Unit to find the source of locust infestations. But Thesiger had no intention of leaving after a few months. Instead, he stayed in the area for four years, exploring by camel.

He then traveled to Iraq, where he became the first European to make observations of life in the southern marshlands. He spent seven years with the Madn tribe, immersing himself in their way of life. An unusual skill allowed him to gain access to a number of villages and ethnic groups during his time there: He was quite skilled at performing circumcisions. He traveled with western medicines to treat injuries and began carrying out the procedure. In his seven years there, he is said to have done over 6,000 circumcisions.

After Iraq, he traveled around Afghanistan. He then settled in Kenya before ill health forced him back to England. He wrote multiple books on his years of exploration and documented them all through photography. His book, Arabian Sands, is one of the all-time great travel narratives. After his death, his collection of over 38,000 photos was donated to the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford.

Specialty: Arctic travel

Best known for: One of the longest-ever dogsled journeys

You likely havent heard of A.H. Joy. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officer flourished in the 1920s and early 1930s, a time when Canada was scared of losing control of its High Arctic islands to other nations. To make a statement, RCMP posts were set up in isolated locations. Every spring, the officers made sovereignty patrols by dogsled to strengthen the countrys claim to the territory. They covered thousands of kilometers without incident, thanks largely to the Greenland Inuit who hunted food for them. It is ironic that Greenland/Denmark, one of Canadas chief rivals at the time, supplied the manpower to make these patrols succeed.

Joy was the greatest of the RCMP travelers in this era. He did several mammoth journeys in the late 1920s. On his greatest patrol, he dogsledded 4,000km in three months in 1929 from Devon Island to Melville Island and back to an RCMP post on Ellesmere Island. No drama, no frostbite, nothing bad happened. It was a tour de force of competent travel.

Eventually, Joy was promoted to a desk and sent south, away from his beloved Arctic. He killed himself the night before his wedding day, in the prestigious Chateau Laurier hotel in Ottawa.

Specialty: Arctic travel

Best known for: Guiding explorers for over 20 years

The Tenzing Norgay of the High Arctic, Nukapinguaq guided almost every white expedition between 1915 and 1937. Among many others, he accompanied A.H. Joy on his epic sovereignty patrol to Winter Harbour on Melville Island. No one ever went hungry on one of Nukapinguaqs expeditions. He was the greatest traveler the High Arctic has ever known.

His prime coincided with the era of great long-distance expeditions. In one five-year period, he covered 9,000km.

In 1953, aged 60 but still extremely spry, Nukapinguaq and his wife spent a winter on central Ellesmere Island. A new RCMP post had just opened, but times and personnel had changed. In a bitter irony, the constables reminded Nukapinguaq a key figure in the sovereignty patrols of the 1920s and 1930s that it was illegal for Greenlanders to hunt in Canada.

Photo: Chris Bonington

Specialty: High-altitude climbing

Best known for: Everest Southwest Face, pure alpine style

We have chosen Doug Scott as the representative from a group of visionary British climbers who trail-blazed a pure alpine style on big walls around the world.

He took part in some 50 major expeditions, driven by new routes, high difficulty, and ingenuity. Thirty of these expeditions culminated in first ascents.

Scott gained fame after his excellent first ascent of the SW Face of Everest with Dougal Haston in 1975. They summited but had to spend the night 100m below the summit, with no tent or sleeping bag. They made it back alive and with all their toes and fingers.

But theres a world of mountains beyond Everest, and Scott took the best from it. He pioneered routes in Kenya, Baffin Island, and elsewhere in the Himalaya. He was part of the unparalleled first ascent to Shishapangmas South Face in the purest alpine style, and the ascents on Pakistans Ogre and Indias Shivling, together with Chris Bonington.

Scott continued to climb while he could move his legs. His last activity, sick with cerebral cancer and in full lockdown from the COVID pandemic, was climbing the stairs of his home, dressed in high-altitude attire and ice-ax in hand, to raise funds for a Nepal-based charity. He passed away some months later, aged 79.

Specialty: Sea kayaking

Best known for: Solo kayak across the Pacific Ocean, from California to Hawaii

In June 1987, Ed Gillet set out to kayak from California to Hawaii. It is a journey no kayaker has been able to replicate, despite multiple attempts. Over 64 days, he paddled across the Pacific Ocean in an off-the-shelf, 20-foot Tofino double kayak. Arriving three weeks later than planned, his family and authorities were sure he had perished.

Before GPS devices and satphones, Gillet relied on thrice-daily sextant readings to find his way. The journey was rife with challenges. His rudder broke in the first week, he lost crucial gear to rough seas, open sores spread over his body and forced him to take sedatives, with side effects that included panic attacks and depression. His food ran out after 60 days. For the final four days, he survived on bits of toothpaste.

Thirty years after the legendary journey, Dave Shively convinced Gillet to let him write a book of his story. In 2013, The Pacific Alone was published.

Specialty: Astronaut

Best known for: The first man to walk on the moon

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong uttered the words, Thats one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind, as his boot touched the surface of the moon. Alongside Edwin Aldrin and Michael Collins, he spent four days in Apollo 11 before landing near the southwestern edge of the Sea of Tranquillity.

Armstrong was the first to walk on the moon. He and Aldrin left Apollo 11 for over two hours to explore, collect samples, and take photographs.

Armstrong joined the space program in 1962, and walking on the moon was not his only world first. In 1966 he was the command pilot of Gemini 8 and completed the first manual space-docking maneuver. Throughout his career, he was at the forefront of space exploration. After the moon landing, he moved out of the spotlight. He was not interested in being a public figure. He resigned from NASA in 1971 and moved into the academic world as a professor of aerospace engineering.

Specialty: Rock Climbing, Mountaineering

Best known for: Exploratory first ascents

American mountaineer Fred Beckey was once called the most accomplished climber of all time. Leading alpinist Colin Haley suggests that the volume of climbing he has done, near and at the cutting edge, is leagues beyond anyone else. When World War II was in full swing and most peoples attention was focused on battles outside the mountains, two teenage brothers from Seattle, Fred and Helmy Beckey, were quietly making a harrowing second ascent of Mount Waddington in British Columbia. No other human was to step atop Waddington for the next 35 years, such is its difficulty.

Fred Beckeys drive for difficult and audacious climbs prompted him to make first ascents of remote peaks all across America and around the world, as far back as the 1930s and, even more astonishingly, well into the 2000s. Beckey shunned a conventional family life to dedicate himself to the mountains, and live the life of a climbing dirtbag. He probably made more first ascents of mountains and climbing routes than any other explorer in history.

Beckey was also a scholar of the mountains. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of thousands of peaks around the globe. He took a keen interest in geology and the environment before it became popular to do so. This translated into a literary legacy of 13 books, which have inspired successive generations of climbers. Beckey defiantly continued climbing until he passed away in 2017 at the age of 94.

Specialty: Maritime archaeology

Best known for: Discovering the Titanic shipwreck

In 1985, Robert Ballard solved a mystery; Where was the Titanic? The ship sank in 1912 but despite numerous attempts over seven decades, its location eluded everyone.

Though this is what he is best known for, finding the Titanic was not his goal. He was testing a new submersible he designed and this was just an exciting way to test its capabilities.

Ballard was a pioneer in the field of oceanography and submersibles. He developed multiple submersibles and discovered thermal vents in the Galapagos Rift and submarine volcanoes on the Pacific Rise.

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100 Great Explorers of the Last 100 Years Explorersweb - ExplorersWeb

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