100 Great Explorers of the Last 100 Years


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.

1. Knud Rasmussen

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 won’t 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, Rasmussen’s contribution to anthropology, polar exploration, and knowledge of the native people of the Arctic is recognized globally.

2. Thor Heyerdahl


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.

3. Jerzy Kukuczka

Specialty: High-altitude climbing

Best known for: New routes and first winter ascents on 8,000’ers, 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 8000’ers 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 8,000’ers 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 8,000’ers via a new route, a record that remains unbroken.

While many remember the race between Kukuczka and Messner to bag all 14 8000’ers, 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 Everest’s 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, Kukuczka’s records may be beaten on paper, but they won’t be equaled because the world has changed. While the mountains remain, technology, logistics, and climbing style have changed the game.

4. Reinhold Messner

Specialty: Alpinism, High-altitude climbing

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

High-altitude mountaineering’s 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 Everest’s 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 8,000’er was wrapped in drama. A member of a large expedition up Nanga Parbat’s 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 8,000’ers, he climbed five via new routes.

5. Will Steger

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.

6. Borge Ousland

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.

Ousland’s 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.

7. Ed Hillary & Tenzing Norgay

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 Evan’s 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.

8. Wilfrid Thesiger

Specialty: Travel writing and photography

Best known for: Spending seven years among the Ma’dān 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 Rub’al-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 Ma’dān 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.

9. Alfred Herbert Joy

Specialty: Arctic travel

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

You likely haven’t 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 country’s 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 Canada’s 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.

10. Nukapinguaq

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 Nukapinguaq’s 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.

11. Doug Scott

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 there’s 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 Shishapangma’s South Face in the purest alpine style, and the ascents on Pakistan’s Ogre and India’s 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.

12. Ed Gillet

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.

13. Neil Armstrong

Specialty: Astronaut

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

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong uttered the words, “That’s 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.

14. Fred Beckey

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 people’s 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 Beckey’s 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.

15. Robert Ballard

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.

One of his submersibles was the Argo. It was a sled that could send live images back to a monitor on the surface, and it was this that he used to find the Titanic. After a month of searching, he recorded the first images of the ocean liner on September 1, 1985. His videos revealed that the famous ship had split in two. He later visited the site himself in another self-designed submersible, Alvin.

16. Jacques Cousteau

Specialty: Underwater exploration

Best known for: Co-inventing the aqualung

Scuba diving changed the face of underwater exploration, and Jacques Cousteau was at the forefront of this. In 1943, with Emile Gagnan, he invented the first fully automatic compressed air aqualung.

He was not a trained scientist but was drawn to the ocean and her mysteries. The aqualung was not his only invention. He also built a number of underwater cameras and a small submarine that could explore the seafloor. Many of his inventions became commonplace tools for oceanographers.

In 1950, he converted an old British minesweeper into a research ship which he named Calypso.

Throughout his life, he was spearheaded ocean research and is credited with popularizing oceanography as a research field, and scuba diving as a sport. He produced a myriad of documentaries that chronicle his life.

17. Yuri Gagarin


Specialty: Astronaut

Best known for: The first person to reach outer space

On April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first person to journey into outer space. The Soviet pilot and cosmonaut spent one hour and 29 minutes orbiting earth in Vostok 1.

Gagarin graduated from the Soviet Air Force cadet school in 1957, and just four years later carried out his only space flight. The journey catapulted him into the spotlight and brought him worldwide fame. Though he never carried out another space flight, he continued to train other cosmonauts. In 1968, he was killed during a routine training flight, when his two-seat jet aircraft crashed.

18. Sven Hedin

Specialty: Central Asia

Best known for: Creating the first detailed maps of the Trans-Himalaya range in Tibet

After being hired as an interpreter for a Swedish-Norwegian expedition to Iran, Sven Hedin knew he wanted a life of travel and adventure. He went on to visit Persia and Turkestan. Then crossed the Ural Mountains and the Pamirs.

Hedin did not stick to one type of expedition. After his initial mountain journeys, he spent three years in the Gobi Desert. In 1905, he returned to higher altitudes to explore the Trans-Himalaya. From his journey, he created the first detailed map of the mountains in Tibet.

His other interest was archaeology. From 1927 to 1933, he carried out research in western China that uncovered 327 archaeological sites. In what is a present-day desert, he found evidence of an extensive Stone Age culture. Many published works detail his findings.

19. Anne Stine Ingstad

Specialty: Archaeology

Best known for: Discovering the only confirmed Viking settlement in North America

In 1961, Anne Stine Ingstad retraced a Viking voyage along the northern tip of Newfoundland with her husband Helge Ingstad. Though Helge is often credited for the discovery of the 1,000-year-old Viking outpost, it was in fact Anne who coordinated and supervised the excavation of the site.

The discovery provided the first conclusive evidence that Vikings made it to North America 500 years prior to Columbus. The couple sailed along the northern tip of Newfoundland and were led by locals to L’Anse aux Meadows, the location of the outpost. At first glance, there was no sign of Viking inhabitancy, but Anne began digging. Once her husband had seen the outline of the old turf wall, Anne completed the rest.

Over several summers, she continued to lead excavation work there. She uncovered the foundations of eight buildings and a stone spinning wheel, suggesting that women had been among the group.

20. Junius Bird

Specialty: Archaeology

Best known for: Being one of the models for Indiana Jones

Whether in Asia, the Arctic, or South America, the energetic Junius Bird seemed to venture everywhere. He specialized in the primitive cultures of the Western Hemisphere. During the 1930s and 1940s, he discovered the earliest human remains found in South America at the time. Bird is recognized as one of the inspirations for the character Indiana Jones, maybe simply because of the rakish fedora, maybe because of his high-spirited approach to field archaeology.

Bird didn’t begin as an archaeologist but as a deckhand to famed arctic skipper Bob Bartlett. In this brief clip, a grinning, bearded Bird, center, playfully nuzzles Bartlett with his chin whiskers.

Bird’s most famous expedition took place in Chile. There, his team discovered human remains, along with skeletons of extinct horses and giant sloths. The discovery indicated that Paleo-Indians inhabited the southern tip of South America by 9,000 B.C., earlier than previously thought. For many years, Bird also curated the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

21. George Mallory

Specialty: Climbing, high-altitude pioneer

Best known for: The quest for Everest’s first ascent and subject of an all-time expedition mystery

George H.L. Mallory is the mountaineering equivalent of a knight in shining armor, galloping on his white horse to face the dragon of Chomolungma.

He was an outstanding Cambridge student, a charming gentleman, a loving fiancee, a bold soldier who survived the horrors of the Somme, and a natural-born climber. When Britain’s Alpine Club organized a reconnaissance expedition to Everest in 1921, Mallory was one of the first names on the list.

That year, Mallory mapped a possible route from Tibet to the highest point on the planet. In the second venture, one year later, he aimed to reach the top. The expedition brought with them cutting-edge technology: supplementary O2. But Mallory and his mates didn’t use it. Still, they reached 8,250m, before eventually being forced back.

On June 8, 1924, Mallory and Sandy Irvine set off from their last camp at 8,100m toward the summit. An expedition member in Base Camp claimed he had spotted them in the afternoon when the clouds broke for just a moment. But that was all. Mallory was lost and a legend was born.

Already popular, the mysterious end of the young explorer turned him into a legend. The uncertainty about whether he might have reached the (first ever) summit of Everest has fed hours of debate, and thousands of pages in books and articles.

Mallory’s body was found in 1999 at 8,155m. It was determined that the cause of death was a fall. Irvine’s body has not yet been found. Mysteriously, the climbers who found Mallory’s remains uncovered several personal items among the rags of his clothes, but not a camera. Mallory departed toward the summit carrying a pocket Kodak camera which he would surely have used to take summit pictures if they had reached that far. Since then, Mallory’s camera, which could be with Irvine’s body, is the most sought-after object on Everest.

22. H.W. Tilman

Specialty: Mountaineering and sailing

Best known for: Mount Everest Reconnaissance Expedition, first ascents of Paldor and Batian’s West Ridge

H.W Tilman fought in World Wars I and II and was an excellent mountaineer. In 1938, he led a reconnaissance expedition to Mount Everest and climbed to 8,290m without oxygen. He also went on several expeditions to the Nanda Devi sanctuary, and made the first ascent of Paldor, a Nepal “trekking peak”. 

“The Major”, as he was known, made a mark on the other side of the world by being the first to ascend the West Ridge of Mount Kenya’s highest peak, Batian. He ascended more African peaks like Kilimanjaro, Speke, Baker, and Mount Stanley. 

In his later years, he sailed his own yacht, the Mischief, on climbing expeditions to Greenland. He vanished at sea near the Falkland Islands, aged 79.

23. Eric Shipton


Specialty: Exploration, mapping, climbing

Best known for: Pioneering light style, Nanda Devi

Eric Shipton was a hard-core traveler, an avid mountaineer, and an explorer, but also a diplomat in the years after the Second World War. He was the first westerner to see places that are now dream destinations for trekkers, such as the Barun and Rolwaling Valleys in Nepal, and others currently closed to foreigners, such as China’s Kashgar and Nanda Devi Sanctuary. He even took the first well-known picture of a “yeti” footprint.

Huge expedition teams were popular at the time, but Shipton believed in small, flexible teams. At 24, he was a member of the team that achieved the first ascent of India’s Mount Kamet, at 7,756m then the highest summit ever climbed. It was only logical that he also took part in several expeditions to Everest.

Shipton was a member of the 1951 expedition which spotted and mapped the route through the Khumbu Icefall on the Nepali side of the mountain. Unfortunately, and much to his dismay, his preference for smaller teams got him kicked off the 1953 Everest expedition, which eventually bagged the first ascent.

24. Walter Bonatti

Specialty: Alpine and high-altitude climbing

Best known for: North faces in the Alps, K2

Aficionados of mountaineering history often pick Walter Bonatti as their favorite climber. The Italian’s allure goes beyond statistics. It’s not just what he climbed, but how. It’s about attitude, honesty, spirit, and his genuine love for adventure.

Walter Bonatti was a gifted rock climber. From age 19, he followed in the footprints of his idol, Ricardo Cassin. He repeated Cassin’s routes in the Alps, such as the Walker Spur of the Grandes Jorasses.

His skill led to a position on Ardito Desio’s expedition to K2, which aimed for the first ascent. But the expedition did not go well. Bonatti was accused of using O2 meant for the assigned summiters, Laceddelli and Compagnony. It was also suggested that he neglected the Pakistani Madhi, with whom he spent a night in the open at 8,000m. In fact, the opposite was true. It took Bonatti years, two books, and a lawsuit to prove his innocence. He never forgave his climbing comrades.

After K2, he climbed more strongly than ever, as though driven by rage. He soloed the Dru’s Southwest Pillar in 1955 and bagged the first ascent of the hyper-difficult Gasherbrum IV in 1958. In 1965, he soloed the North Face of the Matterhorn in winter.

And then he quit. He simply gave up climbing, though he did continue to lead a life of adventure as a magazine journalist. He died peacefully in 2011 at age 81. But the mountaineers of his and subsequent generations have not forgotten him.

25. Richard Bangs

Richard Bangs. Photo: Lisa Niver Rajna

Specialty: Expedition whitewater kayaking

Best known for: Adventure literature and films

In college, Richard Bangs spent his summers as a Colorado River guide in the Grand Canyon. Soon, he was on to bigger and better things. In 1973, he and a crew successfully ran Ethiopia’s Awash River. The expedition solidified his reputation as one of the world’s best river guides.

Soon, the group founded Sobek Expeditions, which helped Bangs and his partners rack up 35 first descents.

He went on to a prolific career in writing and film directing. He has published 19 books, including The Lost River: A Memoir of Life, Death and the Transformation of Wild Water, which won the National Outdoor Book Award. In 2005, he co-directed the IMAX film Mystery of the Nile, which chronicles the 114-day first full descent of the Blue Nile from source to sea.

26. Peter Freuchen

Peter Freuchen hamming it up later in life, with his second wife. Photo: Irving Penn

Specialty: Arctic exploration

Best known for: Arctic exploration, researching Inuit culture, popular writing

Danish explorer and writer Peter Freuchen stood a hulking two metres tall, made himself a fur coat from a polar bear he killed, and amputated his frostbitten toes with pliers. A famous storyteller, he once claimed to have fashioned a dagger from his feces to cut his beard free from a piece of ice on which it was stuck. He also won the $64,000 Question game show.

After dropping out of university, he traveled to Greenland where he and Knud Rasmussen established a trading post in far northwest Greenland. He studied Inuit culture and joined Rasmussen on the famous Fifth Thule Expedition.

He eventually had to stop exploring when he lost his toes and one leg on his last expedition in 1926. This did not stop him from founding the Adventurer’s Club of Denmark or joining the Danish resistance during World War II. 

27. Ned Gillette

Specialty: Skier, climber, adventurer

Best known for: The first single-day climb of Denali

Ned Gillette is best known for his outlandish, dangerous, and quite brilliant 19-hour climb of Denali with photographer Galen Rowell in 1978, but he had many strings to his bow.

He and his party were the first Americans to climb the remote Muztagh Ata (7,509m) in China and completed its first ski descent to boot. Gillette’s adventures included a 500km ski traverse of the Brooks Range, a three-month sledding adventure on northern Ellesmere Island, and a 1978 circumnavigation of Denali, the first in 70 years.

In New Zealand, he traversed the southern Alps with Jan Reynolds, Allan Bard, and Tom Carter. Their 200km trip, estimated to take 10 days, eventually took a month, including a brutal seven-day stint in a snow cave.

Gillette sailed an enclosed rowboat across the Drake Passage between Chile and Antarctica, often referred to as the most dangerous stretch of water in the world.

A good climber, adventurer, and charismatic character, he was murdered at the age of 53 in the Karakoram. In their Base Camp at Laila Peak, he and his wife were attacked in their tent one night, presumably during a robbery attempt. His wife survived.

28. Junko Tabei

Specialty: Alpinist

Best known for: The first woman to climb Mount Everest

Japanese climber Junko Tabei topped out on Mount Everest in 1975, becoming the first woman to summit the highest mountain on Earth. Earlier, in 1970, she climbed the difficult Annapurna III without bottled oxygen. Tabei was also the first female climber to complete the Seven Summits.

She also worked to reduce the environmental impact caused by climbers. A mountain range on Pluto is named after her.

29. Freya Stark

Specialty: Arabian travel

Best known for: Travel writing

Freya Stark forged a career as a respected travel writer. The Parisian had a particular fondness for exploring the Middle East and Afghanistan. She was one of the first non-Arabs to cross the Southern Arabian Desert and completed three adventurous treks into the wilderness of western Iran. During World War II, she spent two years in Iraq assisting the British regime.

In her 25 books, Stark described repressive government systems and detailed abuse in places where travel was forbidden. Stark’s great courage and language skills supported a lifetime of travel to dangerous destinations.

30. Francis Chichester

Photo: Chichester Archive/PPL

Specialty: Sailing and aviation 

Best known for: First person to sail solo around the world, west to east

Francis Chichester set out from Portsmouth in August 1966 aboard Gipsy Moth IV. Over 266 days, he broke three records: the fastest voyage around the world by a small vessel, the longest passage by a small vessel (25,000km), and the third true circumnavigation by a small vessel via Cape Horn.

As he sailed back into Portsmouth, over a quarter of a million people and 300 boats, horns blaring, greeted him. The historic event was televised globally.

In 1931 he became the first person to fly solo across the Tasman Sea. He also planned to become the first person to circumnavigate the globe by plane but his hopes ended when he crashed in Japan.

In the Second World War, he pioneered fighter pilot navigation, then turned his sights to the sea. Before the Gipsy Month IV, the Gipsy Moth III won the first solo transatlantic sailing race with Chichester at the helm. More impressive still, he did so while recovering from cancer.

31. Dougal Haston

Specialty: Climbing

Best known for: First ascents on new routes

A Scottish climber who started with rock climbing before moving on to mountaineering. Together with four German companions, he opened the Direttissima John Harlin route on the North Face of Eiger.

In 1970, Dougal Haston and Don Whillans made the first ascent of the South Face of Annapurna. He often climbed with Chris Bonington, and Haston was in the group that made the first ascent of Changabang in the Indian Himalaya. In 1975, Haston and Doug Scott summited Everest via a new route on the Southwest Face. It was the first time anyone had ascended the highest mountain in the world by one of its faces. That night, they made the highest-ever bivouac at the time, in an ice cave at 8,750m.

He was also a member of the team that made the first ascent of the Southwest Face of Denali.

He died at the age of 36 in an avalanche in Switzerland.

32. Chris Bonington

Specialty: Expeditionary mountaineer

Best known for: The first ascent of Baintha Brakk (The Ogre) in 1977, together with Doug Scott

He made and led a lot of expeditions to the Himalaya. In 1963, together with Don Whillans, he made the first ascent of Torres del Paine in Chile. In 1974, with Don Whillans, Doug Scott, and Dougal Haston, he climbed Changabang and he led another successful first ascent of Kongur Tagh in the Pamirs.

But it’s his climb on The Ogre with Doug Scott that is best known, thanks to one of the most epic descents in the history of alpinism.

Bonington is one of the most influential mountaineers ever.

33. Gaston Rebuffat

Specialty: Guiding, climbing

Best known for: The six North Faces of the Alps

The paradigm of a Chamonix mountain guide, Gaston Rebuffat was the first person to climb the six great North Faces of the alps: Grandes Jorasses, Piz Badile, Cima Grande de Lavaredo, the Matterhorn, Petit Dru, and the Eiger.

A leading light in the French climbing scene of the 1940s and 1950s, Rebuffat was so good that he became a certified mountain guide at 21, two years before the minimum age for certification.

Rebuffat was a member of the 1950 French team that summited Annapurna, the first 8,000m peak ever climbed.

His book, Starlight and Storm, inspired a generation of climbers.

34. Lionel Terray

Specialty: Guiding, climbing

Best known for: The six North Faces of the Alps

Like Rebuffat, his good friend and climbing mate on Annapurna, Lionel Terray was a full-time guide, a passionate climber, and an enthusiastic explorer. His book, The Conquistadors of the Useless, is an action-packed biography that takes the reader from Chamonix to the Andes, the Himalaya, and Patagonia.

One of the best guides in Chamonix, his strength was speed, which he applied in a visionary way on the great North Faces of the alps. In many of his highly difficult, fast ascents (including the second ascent ever of the Eigernordwand), he partnered with Louis Lachenal, who reached the summit of Annapurna in 1950 with Maurice Herzog. Lachenal returned with serious frostbite that put an end to his climbing career. Terray and Rebuffat, who didn’t get to the top, resumed their guiding and climbing careers.

Terray bagged some dream first ascents: Makalu (with Jean Couzy) and Jannu in the Himalaya, Chakraraju in the Andes, Mt. Huntington’s Northwest Ridge in Alaska, and Fitz Roy in Patagonia.

35. Amelia Earhart

Specialty: Aviation pioneer

Best known for: Her disappearance during a 1937 world circumnavigation

During aviation’s early days, Amelia Earhart piled up numerous flying records. In 1928, she became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic as a passenger. Then in 1932, she took the controls herself, becoming the first woman to make a solo, non-stop, transatlantic flight.

Ambitious and charismatic, she achieved celebrity status as the American princess of aviation. She was an early promoter of commercial flying.

In 1937, the world was stunned when Earhart vanished during a circumnavigation of the globe. Her plane’s signal disappeared somewhere over the Pacific. Although many have searched, the wreckage of her plane has never been found.

36. Percy Fawcett

Specialty: Mapping the Amazon

Best known for: Disappearing without a trace

One of the first foreigners to explore the Amazon, British explorer and archaeologist Percy Fawcett was instrumental in mapping the region. Fawcett first entered the Amazon in 1906. He uncovered new animal species and previously unknown tribes. During subsequent expeditions, he focused on locating ancient ruins described in a manuscript he found in the National Library of Brazil. Fawcett dubbed these fabled ruins the Lost City of Z.

Eighteen years after his first expedition to find the city, Fawcett set off with his son and son’s friend on a final expedition. Fawcett left a note behind, explaining that if the party failed to return, no rescue attempt should be made. They did disappear, and two years later, they were officially declared dead.

37. Beryl Markham

Specialty: Aviation pioneer

Best known for: First person to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean (E-W)

In 1936, Beryl Markham made the first solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean from England to Cape Breton Island, Canada.  She had intended to fly non-stop to New York, but after 20 hours flying, the vents of the fuel tank froze. She had to crash-land in Nova Scotia. After diving into a peat bog, she crawled out of her battered plane and walked for hours to get help.

Markham made a habit of being the first to do things. At 18, she became the first woman in Africa to get a racehorse trainer’s license. A few years later, she was the first female commercially licensed pilot in East Africa. As a commercial pilot, she delivered mail and transported people to remote regions. She also worked as an aerial game spotter for hunters. Her memoir, West With the Night, was so well written that Ernest Hemingway said he was ashamed of himself as a writer.

38. Rune Gjeldnes

Specialty: Polar Travel

Best known for: First and only unsupported crossing of the Arctic Ocean from Russia to Canada

Like his compatriot Borge Ousland, Rune Gjeldnes served in the Norwegian Special Forces before beginning his expedition career. The first major success for Gjeldnes was a remarkable 2,900km length-wise crossing of Greenland with Torry Larsen in 1996. The two precocious Norwegians were only in their early twenties at the time and had parachuted onto the ice with their equipment.

In 2000, Gjeldnes and Larsen went one better and snatched one of the last remaining polar firsts — an unsupported land-to-land crossing of the Arctic Ocean. Gjeldnes and Larsen covered 2,100km in 109 days. They lost a total of 53kg and had just one liter of water left when they finished. The pair later titled the expedition, Dead Men Walking. At least 17 international expeditions have attempted a similar land-to-land crossing of the Arctic Ocean. A couple of them have succeeded, but only Gjeldnes and Larsen did it unsupported.

Among other notable adventures, Gjeldnes completed a three-month, 4,800km unsupported kite-ski crossing of Antarctica.

39. Mike Horn

Specialty: All-rounder

Best known for: First unsupported full-length trek to the North Pole in winter

South African-born Swiss explorer Mike Horn is irrepressible, both in his energetic personality and the range and number of adventures he has undertaken over the past three decades. After binning off a conventional career, Horn went big with his first expedition in 1997: a solo traverse of South America, including a 7,000km descent of the Amazon river by hydrospeed.

Building on this experience, Horn spent the next decade ticking off long-distance journeys. At the turn of the millennium, he made the first solo circumnavigation of the world around the Equator. He traveled unaided, on foot and by sailboat. On the same latitudinal theme, he then circled 20,000km around the Arctic Circle via boat, kayak, kite-ski, and on foot.

Perhaps his most impressive expeditions have come in colder climes with the great Norwegian, Borge Ousland. In 2006, they made the first unsupported full-length trek to the North Pole in winter. Then, in 2019, Ousland and Horn crossed the Arctic Ocean by boat and ski (1,500km) in autumn/winter. Horn has also climbed Broad Peak, Makalu, Gasherbrum I and II without oxygen. On his most impressive solo, he kite-skied 5,100km unsupported across Antarctica.

40. Hermann Buhl

Specialty: Alpinist

Best known for: One of the first climbers to use alpine style in the Himalaya

Considered one of the best of all time, the Austrian-born Buhl made the first solo summit push in history, and on a first ascent at that! That was on Nanga Parbat in 1953. Buhl even climbed without bottled O2. The ascent took him 41 hours. Buhl started his solo climb from 6,900m and had to make an emergency bivouac at 8,000m.

He also made the first ascent of Broad Peak in 1957, together with Kurt Diemberger and Markus Schmuck.

Hermann Buhl died young, at the age of 32, on Chogolisa.

41. Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner

Specialty: High-altitude climbing

Best known for: The first woman to complete the 14×8,000’ers without O2

A full-time mountaineer since she was a teenager in her native Austrian Alps, she was the first (and so far, only) woman to climb the 14 8,000’ers without supplementary O2 and no Sherpa assistants. Kaltenbrunner stands out as a world-class alpinist, regardless of gender.

Throughout her career, she has opted for small expeditions far from the crowds, a light style, and self-sufficiency. She climbed many of her peaks with her ex-husband Ralf Dujmovits, but also teamed up with Hirotaka Takeuchi, David Gottler, Maxut Zhumayev, and Vassilyi Pivtsov.

Most remarkable was her relentless will to climb K2 without O2. It took her seven attempts. On her sixth attempt, she joined forces with Fredrik Ericsson, who fell to his death on the way to the summit. Yet she found the courage to try again and succeed. The following year, in grand style, her five-person team climbed the rarely visited North Pillar, from China, and summited in August 2011. It was her last 8,000’er.

Previously, Edurne Pasaban had bagged the first female ascent; but Kaltenbrunner was never too interested in joining a race to be first. Instead, she focused on climbing the way she wanted on the mountains she loves.

42. Alexi Leonov

Specialty: Astronaut

Best known for: First person to spacewalk

The protean Alexei Leonov was a cosmonaut, a high-ranking army official, a painter, and a writer. He beat the Americans to a major first, becoming in 1965 the first person to walk in space. In 1975, he led a meet-up with American astronauts, as a Soyuz capsule docked with an Apollo capsule in a historic display of cooperation. He also became the first artist in space, thanks to the drawing pencils and pieces of paper he brought on his missions. 

He was tapped for several other missions, including a flight to the Moon, but these were scrapped. However, he became a hero of the Soviet Union and was well-liked by his American counterparts. 

43. Jon Muir

Specialty: Harsh climates

Best known for: Solo walk across the Australian Outback

The relentless Australian Outback didn’t stop Jon Muir. In 2001, Muir spent 128 days walking alone and unsupported across the Outback. He was already a seasoned mountaineer, long-distance kayaker, and adventure veteran, but it was his self-imposed isolation in the Australian Outback that proved legendary.

To survive, he drank from polluted puddles and dined on carcasses. When he returned, having crossed three mountain ranges and four deserts in baking 45˚C temperatures, Muir had lost a third of his body weight.

44. Yvon Chouinard

Specialty: Rock climbing, alpinism

Best known for: Equipment innovation

American Yvon Chouinard was one of the leading climbers of the Golden Age of Yosemite. With early pioneers such as Tom Frost and Royal Robbins, Chouinard made numerous first ascents on El Capitan or improved upon the style of previous ascents by using no fixed ropes. As well as a remarkable rock climber, Chouinard was a strong alpinist who put up new routes in the Rockies, Patagonia, and Kenya.

But it was in equipment innovation and outdoor clothing that Chouinard will be remembered. In his own second-hand forge, he made rock pitons and invented (with Tom Frost) other protection devices such as stoppers and Hexes. He also redesigned crampons and ice axes to perform on steeper ice, and with it kick-started modern ice climbing.

Chouinard went on to found the outdoor clothing company Patagonia, which is now a billion-dollar business, as well as being an important advocate for environmental activism.

45. Rob Lesser

rob lesser

Photo: International Whitewater Hall of Fame

Specialty: Expedition whitewater kayaking

Best known for: Paving the way for lifestyle adventure kayakers

Rob Lesser pushed the limits of exploratory Class V kayaking throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Descents of the Grand Canyon of the Stikine (1981) in British Columbia, and the North Fork of the Payette (1977) in Idaho, highlight his career.

He was also one of the first kayakers to widely travel the world, recording descents in Chile (Bio Bio, 1979), New Zealand (Nevis Bluff, 1982), Mexico, Costa Rica, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, and Norway. Besides his resumé, his approachable demeanor and obvious enthusiasm for multiple aspects of the sport made him one of its first ambassadors. Lesser eventually pioneered some of the earliest whitewater festivals in the United States and spearheaded river conservation efforts.

One of the first to turn whitewater into a career, Lesser broke ground for the many lifestyle kayakers to come.

46. Jean-Marc Boivin

Specialty: Climbing and skiing

Best known for: First paraglide descent of Mount Everest

An extreme sports pioneer during the 1970s and 1980s, Jean-Marc Boivin racked up a seemingly impossible list of world firsts. Every year, he upped the ante, pushing the boundaries of what people thought possible.

He had climbed and skied since he was a child but as a teen, he began to take on riskier lines. Over his short life, he pioneered 200 ice climbing routes, made the first north face ascent of Aiguille Verte, made the first descents of Frendo Spur, the south face of Huascaran, and the east face of the Matterhorn. He also linked the four principal faces on Mont Blanc.

Not content with just skiing and climbing, he began to add more extreme sports to his repertoire. He hang-glided from Camp IV on K2. In 1986, he set the world record for deepest sub-glacial dive. Then in 1988, he made the first paraglide descent of Mount Everest. He died in a BASE jump off Venezuela’s Angel Falls at the age of 38.

47. Jeff Lowe

Specialty: Alpinist

Best known for: His masterpiece on the North Face of Eiger, “Metanoia”

One of the most important American alpinists, Jeff Lowe made several first ascents in the U.S., the Canadian Rockies, the Alps, and the Himalaya. A true believer in pure alpine-style, small teams, and minimal gear.

His greatest hits include the first ascent of Moonlight Buttress in Zion with Mike Weiss; the first winter ascent of the West Face of Grand Teton; the second ascent of Ama Dablam (solo); and the North Face of Kwangde Ri with David Breashears.

But his greatest achievement was Metanoia on the North Face of Eiger, a new direct line, solo, and without bolts.

48. Vladimir Arseniev

Specialty: Russian Far East

Best known for: The classic book, Dersu the Trapper

Vladimir Klavdievich Arseniev was a polymath who explored Russia’s Far East between 1902 and 1930. Arseniev made 12 major scientific expeditions, collating geographical, ethnographic, and botanical data as he went. He was the first to catalog much of Siberia’s plant life and roamed from the Siberian interior up to the forests fringing the Sea of Japan.

Arseniev turned his expeditions into some 60 works, the most famous of which, Dersu the Trapper, is a classic. Published in 1941, it combines an adventure narrative with Arseniev’s wide-ranging scientific knowledge. The titular character, Dersu, is a member of the Gold tribe and is likely a composite of several guides Arseniev teamed up with during three expeditions into the Ussurian taiga. Real-life experiences drive the book: extreme cold, blizzards, and floods. But the hardships unite the men, across cultural and linguistic barriers.

Posthumously, Arsevniev has become well-known in Russia. In 2018, Vladivostok’s international airport was renamed after him.

49. Steve Fossett

Photo: Chicago Tribune

Specialty: Aviation in all forms

Best known for: First solo world circumnavigation in a balloon

On July 2, 2002, Steve Fossett landed back on Australian soil after 13 days and 33,000km in the air. He had just completed the first solo circumnavigation of the globe in a balloon.

Achieving this was no mean feat. It was his sixth attempt at the record-breaking journey. His first ended after three days. He had carefully planned this attempt, avoiding conditions that could hamper his efforts. Days of good weather were predicted and tailwinds of 300kph pushed him along at some points. He opted for a Southern Hemisphere route to avoid any dangerous airspace.

Fossett filled his life with high adrenaline activities and record attempts. He swam the English Channel in the 1980s, took part in dogsled and car racing, skied, climbed, and flew.

In 2005, he became the first person to fly solo around the world without refueling. His specialized plane carried 13 fuel tanks. The 67-hour journey started and ended in Kansas, in the American Midwest. He died in 2007.

50. Ivan Papanin

Photo: Science Photo Library

Specialty: Arctic

Best known for: Leader of the first expedition to land at the North Pole

In 1937, the Soviet polar explorer Ivan Papanin led the North Pole-1 expedition, which was the first time anyone had actually set foot on the geographic North Pole.

The Soviet government set up the expedition to study ice movement along the Northern Sea route. Their vessels kept getting trapped in the ice and they needed a solution. Papanin led the group of four men. With him were Ernst Krenkel (radio operator), Evgeny Fyodorov (geologist), and Pyotr Shirshov (oceanologist). They set up a mobile laboratory on a 30-by-30-metre ice floe and drifted for 274 days on the Arctic Ocean.

By the time they were picked up on the east coast of Greenland, Papanin had lost 30kg. Over the course of the journey, they took measured currents and discovered an underwater mountain range. At the time, Fridtjof Nansen had a theory that no animal life existed atop the Arctic Ocean. To their surprise, the foursome saw polar bears, seals, and other marine creatures, refuting Nansen’s theory.

51. Yevgeniy and Vitaly Abalakov

Specialty: High-altitude climbing

Best known for: First ascents in the Pamirs and Tien Shan, equipment innovation

The Avalakov brothers were the most outstanding climbers in the former Soviet Union. Yevgeniy became a hero in the USSR after his 1933 first ascent of the highest peak in the Soviet Union. Called Stalin Peak at the time, it was later renamed Communism Peak and today, Ismail Somoni (7,495m). Yevgeniy was the only one from a very large team who made it to the top He was so exhausted that he had to crawl on all fours to reach the summit.

He continued to climb, research, and map the Pamir range until the Second World War when he exchanged the mountains for the terrible Russian front. He met a mysterious end in 1948 in Moscow.

His brother, Vitaly, is considered a pioneer of Soviet alpinism. He made the first ascents of Lenin Peak and Khan Tengri. An engineer by profession, he designed all kinds of climbing gear, from eccentric bolts to ice screws. His most famous creation is the Abalakov “V” anchor. Made with climbing rope, it’s a life-saving method for rappelling on icy terrain. It requires no extra gear and it is still sometimes used in alpine and ice climbing. But all these contributions were not enough to spare him from years of investigation by Soviet security forces, which accused of promoting western alpinism and spying for Germany.

52. Fritz Wiessner

Specialty: Climber

Best known for: Pioneer of free climbing

Reinhold Messner once called German-American climber Fritz Wiessner the most pivotal mountaineer of the 20th century. He influenced sport climbing, rock climbing, and mountaineering. Born in Germany, Wiessner put up routes in the Alps that were grades ahead of anything in North America in the 1920s. After moving Stateside in the late 1920s, Wiessner put up new climbs and first ascents all across the U.S., including the first summit of Mount Waddington.

In 1939, Wiessner led an American expedition to K2 and came within 200m of the summit before having to retreat. The deaths of three of the climbing team, and controversy over Wiessner’s role, dogged the rest of his life. Had they succeeded, Wiessner and company would have been the first to summit an 8,000m peak. Although he did not return to the Greater Ranges, Wiessner climbed well into his 80s around the world, making ski mountaineering ascents and climbing all the 4,000m peaks in the Alps.

53. Lars Holbek

Lars Holbek. Photo: International Whitewater Hall of Fame

Specialty: Expedition whitewater kayaking

Best known for: Pioneering California whitewater

To understand Lars Holbek’s legacy, consider that he wrote a book that’s still considered the definitive guide to whitewater kayaking in California today — in 1984. Of his many first descents, most came in California, giving him the vast knowledge it took to write The Best Whitewater in California.

Holbek started kayaking in an era that may now seem prehistoric. When he paddled whitewater for the first time in 1973, he recalled crashing through Class III rapids with no helmet or life jacket. At the time, the sport barely existed — he and a friend soon built their own fiberglass kayaks and started exploring their local waterways.

Though he logged over 70 first descents all over the planet, including the first descent of the Stikine with Rob Lesser, Holbek’s laid-back attitude anchored his reputation. Outside the whitewater, his conservation work helped save an important Tuolumne River tributary from damming.

54. Louis Leakey

Photo: Britannica

Specialty: Archaeology and human evolution

Best known for: Proving humans evolved in Africa

Louis Leakey changed history by proving that humans came from Africa, not Asia. His most famous discoveries featured animal fossils and crude stone tools which he uncovered in Tanzania during 1931. But a crucial observation in 1955 cemented his legacy. Together with his wife, Leakey pointed out that remains discovered in Africa were older than, and unique from, those previously discovered in Asia.

Although it took years for Leakey’s findings to gain credibility, his work changed how we view human evolution. Later, Leakey encouraged the primate work of several protégés who later became famous themselves, including Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey.


55. Renato Casarotto

Specialty: Alpinist

Best known for: New routes and solo climbs

In 1982, Renato Casarotto climbed the Trilogy of Freney. Three years later, he made the first solo (and first winter) ascent of the Grandes Jorasses.

On the Cordillera Blanca in Peru, he climbed a new line via the northeast ridge of Huandoy East and the south face of Huandoy South. Other notable achievements include the North Pillar of Fitz Roy in Patagonia and Gasherbrum II in 1985, which he climbed with his wife.

Some of his failed climbs were also of note. He attempted Makalu in winter and made two attempts on the Magic Line on K2. The second attempt, in 1986, killed him. Casarotto turned back 300m from the top due to bad weather and died during the descent. His body was found in 2004.

56. Tom Hornbein & Willi Unsoeld

Speciality: Alpinists

Best known for: The first traverse of an 8,000m peak

In 1963, Willi Unsoeld and Tom Hornbein established a new route on Everest via the West Ridge. A very steep, “no return” section of their route has since been called the Hornbein Couloir. They descended via the South Col where they met up with fellow expedition members Lute Jerstad and Barry Bishop. The four, after running out of supplementary oxygen, bivouacked at 8,534m. Tom Hornbein memorably wrote after: “Each one dedicated himself to shivering from the cold until the first light, then the Sun rose over the Kangchenjunga, and the whole world woke up.”

Three years earlier, Willi Unsoeld and George Bell made the first ascent of 7,821m Masherbrum, also known as K1.

57. Harry Saint John Philby

Specialty: Desert exploration

Best known for: Crossing the Rub Al-Khali

Harry Saint John Bridger Philby’s explorations began during World War I but continued well into the 1930s and beyond. The British explorer was a colleague of T.E. Lawrence and did his best to serve both British and Arabian interests, although he had difficulty being impartial.

He was interested in animal life and the landscape. In 1930, he became the first non-resident to traverse the Rub Al-Khali, a 650,000 sq km portion of the Arabian desert.

58. Denis Urubko

Specialty: High altitude climbing

Best known for: New routes on 8,000ers, winter climbs, rescues

Denis Urubko is a 14×8000’er summiter, but much more besides. He has never used or even considered supplementary O2 and has climbed two 8,000’ers in winter — first winter ascents of Makalu and Gasherbrum II, on both occasions with Simone Moro. Urubko has pioneered many new routes: Manaslu, Cho Oyu (from the south side!), Broad Peak, and Gasherbrum II. He is an unbelievably strong climber, both physically and mentally, always leading and, in some cases, continuing when others retreat.

He has also made a habit of rescuing others. In 2008, he flew to Annapurna to help Iñaki Ochoa de Olza, sick on the southeast ridge. In 2018, he left a winter attempt on K2 to help Elisabeth Revol and Tomasz Mackiewicz, stuck high on Nanga Parbat.

For his role in the Iñaki rescue attempt, Urubko earned Spain’s highest honor. Saving Revol’s life resulted in the French Legion of Honor, which he shared with Adam Bielicki and Rafal Fronia.

Recently, Urubko has focused on rock climbing and has tentatively said that he has finished with 8,000’ers.

59. Edurne Pasaban

Specialty: High altitude climbing

Best known for: First woman 14×8,000m summiter

Pasaban belongs to an outstanding generation of climbers from the Spanish Basque Country. Here, mountaineering is more than a hobby, it is an intrinsic part of the Basque culture. She began climbing at 15 and followed an intense progression to higher mountains.

She climbed her first 8,000er in 2001: Everest, the only one where she used supplementary O2. Nine years later, she completed the 14×8000’ers on Shishapangma. Shortly before, Oh Eun-sun of South Korea claimed to be the first female to complete the 14×8000’ers, but her ascent of Kangchenjunga was uncertain. The Himalayan Database’s Elizabeth Hawley never accepted it and instead proclaimed Pasaban as the first woman to climb all 14 8,000m peaks.

Pasaban has always climbed in bigger teams, often including a film crew for Spanish TV, so all her climbs are well-documented.

After completing the 14 8000’ers, Pasaban led a failed attempt to climb Everest without O2 but has not returned since.

60. Wanda Rutkiewicz

Specialty: Alpinism, high-altitude mountaineering

Best known for: The first woman to climb K2

When she was 18, Polish mountaineer Wanda Rutkiewicz was a promising volleyball player. But when her old motorbike ran out of gas, one of the men who stopped to help out was a climber. Rutkiewicz accepted his invitation to climb in the nearby hills. This first taste of the outdoors began a journey to the pinnacle of mountaineering.

In the late 1970s, Rutkiewicz cut her teeth in the Greater Ranges by apprenticing on an expedition to Pakistan, led by Andrzej Zawada. But she found it difficult to gel with the male climbers, who were no doubt sexist toward her. From then on, Rutkiewicz trod her own path as an expedition leader. In 1978, she became the first European woman to summit Everest.

Before perishing on Kanchenjunga in 1992, Rutkiewicz had set her eyes on becoming the first woman to climb all 14 8,000m peaks. She managed nine of them, and in 1986 became the first woman to summit K2. As strong as the best male mountaineers of her era, Rutkiewicz blazed a trail for the next generations of female climbers.

61. Valentyna Tereshkova

Photo: Britannica

Specialty: Astronaut

Best known for: The only woman to go alone into space

Russia’s Valentyna Tereshkova is the only woman to have been on a solo space mission. During the 1960s space race, Tereshkova was selected as a cosmonaut, thanks to her skydiving experience. At 26 years old, she launched into space on board the Vostok 6.

From inside, she radioed down: “I see the horizon; it’s a sky blue with a dark stripe. How beautiful the Earth is…everything is going well.” When she returned to earth, Tereshkova was hailed as a national hero.

The singular event cast Tereshkova into the world of celebrity. She was awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union medal and eventually, she moved into a political career.

62. Walt Blackadar

Specialty: Whitewater kayaking

Best known for: First descents

Walt Blackadar only started kayaking in his mid-40s. He was a middle-aged, slightly stout doctor. His first loves were hunting and fishing, but during one fishing trip, he and a friend rented a rubber raft and ran some Grade 4 rapids on the Salmon River. They then did this every spring from 1953 until 1967, when they decided to tackle the river in kayaks.

Blackadar had fallen in love with whitewater rivers. He was known for his gung-ho attitude and for pushing the boundaries of kayaking. In 1971, he completed a run that threw him into the spotlight — Turnback Canyon on the Alsek River in Alaska. It is a walled-in section of Grade 5 whitewater. Before Blackadar, it had never been attempted and was thought impossible. His success earned him a Sports Illustrated cover story.

His adventures saw him featured on ABC’s American Sportsman multiple times. In his relatively short kayaking career, he paddled the Grand Canyon, ran rivers on the Kenai Peninsula, and made multiple attempts on Sustina River’s Devil Canyon Rapids. He may not have been the most technical kayaker, but he had gumption. Blackadar regularly set off with just a gun and some vodka. He smuggled a handgun and marijuana into Canada, and he pulled Evel Knievel out of Snake River after his failed sky-rocket jump. Throughout all of this, he remained a skilled doctor and surgeon, juggling his career and hobby with apparent ease.

At age 56, he died in his kayak. He took on the South Fork of the Payette, something he had done before, but became pinned under a log and drowned.

63. Marek Holecek

Specialty: Climber, explorer

Best known for: Alpine style

One of the best climbers in the world, Marek Holecek of the Czech Republic is a two-time Piolet D’Or winner. He won it in 2018 for the Southwest Face of Gasherbrum I with Zdenek Hak, and in 2020, for the Northwest Face of Chamlang (7,321m, Nepal), again with Zdenek Hak.

He has made first ascents and opened new routes in Huandoy Norte in Peru, Kyazo Ri in Nepal, Monte Samila in Antarctica, Talung in Nepal, Kohe Uparisina in Afghanistan, Mount Meru in India, Kyashar in Nepal, and Amin Brakk in Pakistan. In 2021, he and his climbing partner Radoslav Groh made a new rouse on Baruntse, with an epic descent.

64. Peter Hamor

Speciality: Alpinist

Best known for: Climbing Annapurna twice, from each side

Slovakian Peter Hamor has experience in the Tian Shan, Alps, Karakoram, and Himalaya. He famously climbed Annapurna via a new route in 2006 with Piotr Morawski and Piotr Pustelnik. In 2010, he firmly established himself as one of the world’s elite climbers when he summited Annapurna again, this time up the North Face. He became the first mountaineer to summit the most dangerous 8,000m peak from both sides.

Another of his greatest achievements was the traverse of Gasherbrum I from south to north, combined with the ascent of Gasherbrum II, in 2008. Hamor has climbed all 8,000m peaks without supplementary oxygen. He continues to explore new routes on the highest mountains.

65. Eugene Smurgis

Specialty: Arctic, long-distance rowing

Best known for: First polar ocean rower, first to row Northeast Passage

Russian rower Eugene Smurgis used to be a phys ed teacher, but he most enjoyed testing his true skills outside the classroom. He took up rowing and became an absolute beast in the water. From the 1960s to the 1990s, he rowed distances like no other rower on Earth, 48,000km over a 26-year period, breaking several records.

He was the world’s first polar rower and navigated Russia’s ice-choked Northeast Passage and most of the country’s major lakes and rivers.

66. Jim Bridwell

Specialty: Big-wall climbing

Best known for: Climbing El Capitan’s Nose in a day

Jim Bridwell was born to be wild, and he lived up to the motto until the very end. One of the so-called stone masters of Yosemite, his name is linked to over 100 routes on the granite big walls of the legendary valley. Together with John Long, he achieved the first ascent of El Capitan’s Nose in a day.

Bridwell’s territory spanned far beyond California. He led great climbs in Alaska and achieved the first alpine-style ascent of Patagonia’s Cerro Torre via the Southwest Ridge. With Jan Reynolds and Ned Gillette, he opened a nice line on Pumori’s South Face.

He was also a rock‘n’roll star, living fast and wild. His last years were hard, mainly due to financial problems. He took many risks on the mountains, but the mountains were kind to Bridwell. Instead, it was life in the lowlands that proved lethal. In the end, he died of hepatitis C that he had contracted while having a tattoo done in Borneo in the 1980s.

67. Robyn Davidson

Robyn Davidson. Photograph by Rick Smolan/Against All Odds Production

Specialty: The Australian Outback

Best known for: Her walk with camels across the Australian Outback

Nowadays most people express their political frustrations via online platforms. But in the 1970s, Robyn Davidson chose to withdraw from Australia’s turbulent period of political change by spending nine months in the desert.

With four camels, Davidson walked 2,700km west across the Australia Outback from Alice Springs to Shark Bay. En route, she dealt with dehydration and sick camels. Her dog, Diggity, was poisoned. After the arduous journey, she wrote the book Tracks, which inspired generations of adventurers.

68. Chantal Mauduit

Specialty: Alpinism

Best known for: First female solo ascent of Lhotse

French mountaineer Chantal Mauduit was the fourth woman to summit K2. In the 1990s, she also climbed Shishapangma, Cho Oyu, Manaslu, and Gasherbrum II, all without oxygen. Then in 1996, she became the first woman to solo Lhotse, also without O2.

Despite her high-altitude talents, she did court some controversy along the way. Ed Viesturs and others suggested she was ungrateful while putting other climbers at risk when she had to be rescued on the way down from K2 and after a failed attempt on Everest.

Mauduit and Sherpa Ang Tsering were found dead in their tent on Dhaulagiri in 1998, possibly as a result of a rockfall or avalanche.

69. Misha Malakhov and Richard Weber

Photo: Weberarctic.com

Specialty: Arctic travel

Best known for: North Pole round trip (land-to-land) unsupported

Canadian Richard Weber and Russian Misha Malakhov came from very different backgrounds, but they forged a formidable partnership to tackle a project so daunting that even Borge Ousland thought it was impossible: an unsupported trek from land to the North Pole and back. No one had tried it until Weber and Malakhov pulled it off in 1995. Because historians have now discounted Peary and Cook’s claims, this was the first and only North Pole roundtrip ever.

Weber was a former national-level cross-country skier, who was part of Will Steger’s unsupported, one-way, dogsled expedition to the North Pole in 1986. Malakhov was also a strong skier who had joined a famous group of Soviet polar skiers, led by Dmitri Shparo. Among other expeditions, they skied 500km between floating ice stations on the Arctic Ocean in the dark.

The journey from Canada to the North Pole and back took 108 days. No one has even tried to do it since. Malakhov is now a businessman in Russia. Afterward, Weber led many polar expeditions as one of the early guides, including ski trips to the North and South Poles and elsewhere in the Arctic.

70. Roy Chapman Andrews

Specialty: Paleontology 

Best known for: Discovering the first dinosaur eggs 

Roy Chapman Andrews came from humble beginnings. He worked in the American Museum of Natural History, sweeping and scrubbing floors. Although taxidermy was his hobby, he never would have dreamed of eventually becoming director of the museum and leading expeditions to uncharted corners of the world. 

He worked his way up and became the first person to lead a paleontological expedition into Mongolia’s Gobi Desert in 1920, where he found various dinosaur fossils. In 1923, he found the eggshells of oviraptor eggs, the first dinosaur eggs ever discovered. He was one of several inspirations for Indiana Jones.

71. Kazimierz Nowak

Specialty: Travel reporting, photography, cycling

Best known for: Traveling Africa

In the 1920s, Kazimierz Nowak lost his accounting job. Instead of looking for another, he decided to try something more unconventional. His new full-time job consisted of traveling on his bike and reporting what he saw. He cycled extensively through Europe and North Africa. 

In the 1930s, he traveled Africa only by foot, bicycle, horse, camel, and boat. He refused luxurious modes of transport, even choosing to take his bike through sand dunes. His fascinating tales, photography, and insights into local cultures made him one of the greatest travel reporters of his time.

72. Duke of Abruzzi

Specialty: Mountaineering

Best known for: The first ascent of Mount St. Elias, 1909 K2 attempt

The Duke of Abruzzi, Luigi Amadeo Giuseppe Maria Ferdinando Francesco, was born into a life of luxury but felt called to another. He traveled extensively for political purposes but could not ignore his desire to explore beyond the comfortable realm of the aristocracy. Abruzzi joined the Italian navy at just 11 years old. 

He first became interested in climbing in the Italian Alps. The Duke climbed the Matterhorn via the infamously difficult Zmult Ridge at 21 and gained fame by making the first ascent of Mount St. Elias. He was also the first to explore the summits of the 16 mountains in the Ruwenzori Range. However, his magnum opus is his pioneering climb of K2 in 1909, which explored various routes, including what is now known as the Abruzzi Ridge.

73. Galen Rowell

Specialty: climber, photojournalist

Best known for: First ascents and unique photos 

In 1977, Galen Rowell, together with John Roskelley, Kim Schmitz, and Dennis Hennek, made the first ascent of the Great Trango Tower (6,286m, Karakoram).

Rowell also made the first one-day ascent of Denali in 1978, with Ned Gillette. 

His firsts don’t stop there. He made the first one-day ascent of Kilimanjaro (5,895m), the first ascent of Cholatse (6,440m in the Himalaya), Denali’s first ski circumnavigation, and various first ascents in the Karakoram, Alaska, the Andes, and the Sierra Nevada.

He pioneered a new type of photography in which he considered the landscape as part of the adventure and the adventure as part of the landscape. My first thought is always of light,” he said. 

His 1986 book Mountain Light: In Search of the Dynamic Landscape is one of the best-selling photography books ever. At a time when photographers hid their locations and their techniques, Rowell shared openly.

74. Maurice Herzog

Specialty: Mountaineering

Best known for: The first ascent of an 8,000m peak

French climber Maurice Herzog was a hero for most of his life, though in later years his relationship with the truth has somewhat sullied his name. Herzog was considered to be a reasonable amateur mountaineer in France, but not a leading light like Rebuffat or Terray. Despite this, he was appointed as leader of the 1950 Annapurna expedition.

Although not the finest climber, Herzog nonetheless performed strongly on Annapurna. With Louis Lachenal he reached the summit on June 3, 1950. In doing so, he and Lachenal were the first people to set foot atop an 8,000m peak. However, the descent was an unqualified disaster.

Lachenal lost all of his toes to frostbite, Herzog both his toes and his fingers. While recovering Herzog wrote the best-selling expedition book of all time, although later re-examination of his account found Herzog to be a little loose with the truth and something of a glory hunter at the expense of others.

Herzog went on to become the French Minister of Youth and Sport and mayor of Chamonix-Mont-Blanc. He was also a member of the International Olympic Committee for 25 years.

75. Louise Boyd

Specialty: Arctic exploration

Best known for: Documenting uncharted parts of the Arctic

A wealthy heiress, Louise Boyd used her inheritance to fund critical expeditions for the U.S. government. She supported search efforts for missing explorer Roald Amundsen and documented unchartered parts of the Arctic. The aerial mapping camera she used to record Greenland’s topography contributed to new, detailed maps of the area that are still widely used today.

Boyd is best remembered for her final expedition, during which she became the first woman to fly over the North Pole. The 1955 flight took Boyd 16 hours. She was 68 years old.

76. Casimiro Ferrari

Specialty: Alpinism, big-wall climbing

Best known for: Cerro Torre

He grew up surrounded by mountain beauty (and enough rock walls to fill a climbers’ life) on the shores of Lake Como. Ferrari was one of the elite Italian climbers grouped into the famous mountain club Le Ragni di Lecco (Lecco’s Spiders). He had a promising career as a factory owner, a loving wife…but he gave them all up for the hostile weather, wild nature, and sharp spires of Patagonia. “The Italian Condor”, as Argentinians called him, fell in love with Patagonia at first sight. He made the second ascent, after Maestri’s compressor route, on Cerro Torre. Then came the east face of Fitz Roy, and some years later, Cerro Murallon.

Ferrari eventually built a house at the shore Viedma, 90km from El Chalten, overlooking the Fitz Roy massif. He never left until his death in 2001. His wife divorced him and he became a sort of hermit, exploring and climbing. His last route was on Aguja Mermoz in 1994, after a tumor diagnosis.

77. Antoine de St-Exupery

Specialty: Aviation and literature

Best known for: Writing The Little Prince, airmail pioneer, disappearing

It is hard to put Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in a single box. The Frenchman was both a gifted aviator and an exceptional writer. He joined the French Air Force in the early 1920s but took a brief respite after crashing several times. Despite this, he was persistent in fulfilling his dream and got back into the game as a commercial pilot delivering airmail, a new concept at the time. 

He enjoyed writing about his aviation experiences and these completely different disciplines overlapped. He transmitted his passion into one of the world’s most famous works of literature, The Little Prince. Two of his aviation books, Wind, Sand and Stars and Night Flight, are exquisite true-life adventure accounts.

In 1944, de Saint-Exupéry vanished during a reconnaissance flight over the Rhone Valley. 

78. Sylvia Earle

Specialty: Marine protection

Best known for: Researching oil spill ocean damage

Scientist and marine biologist Sylvia Earle’s contribution to the ocean spans a 50-year career. Among Earle’s notable feats is her research on the environmental damage caused by Iraq’s destruction of Kuwaiti oil wells during the Gulf War.

Earle founded a company tasked with advancing marine engineering; just one of many initiatives she worked on that aimed to create a sustainable marine environment.

Her 1979 untethered, open-ocean, JIM suit (an atmospheric diving suit) dive to the ocean floor set the women’s depth record at 381m. Her record is yet to be broken.

79. Alison Hargreaves

Specialty: Alpinism, high-altitude mountaineering

Best known for: First female solo ascent of Everest

British climber Alison Hargreaves is known as much for her death as her achievements in life. A pioneering female climber and mountaineer in the 1980s and 1990s, Hargreaves came to wider attention when she soloed variations of the six great North Faces of the Alps in a single season in 1993.

Fiercely ambitious, Hargreaves wanted to push her limits in the Greater Ranges. In 1995, she became the first woman to solo climb Everest, all without Sherpa support or oxygen. Sadly, Hargreaves was cut down in her prime, killed by a storm on K2 a few months later. Continuing the family tradition, son Tom Ballard went on to become the first person to solo climb the six great North Faces of the Alps in a single winter. In a cruel twist, he died on Nanga Parbat in 2019.

80. Anders Svedlund


Specialty: Ocean rowing

Best known for: First to row the Pacific and Indian Ocean solo

Swedish-born Anders Svedlund was always getting lost in his thoughts. He enjoyed solitude and contemplation so much that he decided to row whole oceans completely unassisted. This included shunning navigational equipment. 

He completed the first-ever row of the Indian Ocean in 1971 (64 days), then the Pacific in 1974 (191 days). He was also notoriously secretive: He didn’t tell a soul about his great achievements at first, but his fame eventually spread. 

81. Jack Sheppard

Specialty: Cave diving

Best known for: Pioneering cave diving in the United Kingdom

Caving was not really a thing in the 1930s. Jack Sheppard decided to change that. His desire to explore subterranean worlds was more than a hobby, it was a calling.

Sheppard had to start from scratch. There was no protective, oxygenated equipment, so he designed and built a suit of his own. It was a lesson in trial and error, with several failed attempts. In 1935 and 1936, he conducted successful dives in Wookey Hole and Swildon’s Hole in Somerset. He is credited for creating the first underwater equipment for this unique pastime. 

82. Dervla Murphy

Specialty: Travel writing

Best known for: Cycling overland from Dunkirk to Delhi

In 1963, Dervla Murphy cycled from Dunkirk to Delhi. On a basic second-hand bicycle designed for short city rides, Murphy traveled through Afghanistan and Iran, despite political unrest. She withstood the coldest European winter on record and fended off wolves with a pistol.

The one-of-a-kind Irish woman forged an illustrious travel writing career through such adventures. The first of her 26 titles, Full Tilt: Ireland to India With a Bicycle, details her first big ride. Eight Feet in the Andes tells of a mule journey with her seven-year-old daughter.

83. Rick Stanton

Photo: Genie des Carparthes

Specialty: Cave diving, rescue

Best known for: Tham Luang cave rescue

A former firefighter, Rick Stanton is a prolific explorer of caves. This prompted him to combine his former job and his passion, creating a new role for himself: a cave rescue diver.

He used his skills to conduct rescue operations, notably during the Tham Luang rescue in 2018. He also rescued six British nationals trapped in a cave in Mexico.

In 2010, he and three others penetrated a record 8,800m into the Pozo Azul cave system in Spain.

84. Paul Caffyn

Specialty: Sea kayaking

Best known for: Australia circumnavigation

In 1982, Australian sea kayaker Paul Caffyn completed one of the world’s most remarkable paddles. Caffyn had already paddled around New Zealand and Britain. Then, when a jovial conversation between friends broached the unfathomable circumnavigation of Australia, he found a new goal.

Australia took Caffyn one year to paddle. He was the first to complete the journey. Of the 15,000km expedition, the menacing Zuytdorp Cliffs were the crux. He stayed awake for 36 hours during this arduous section, completing the journey and cementing his place in history.

85. Hannes Lindemann

Specialty: Sea kayaking

Best known for: Solo, unsupported transatlantic crossings

Sportspeople are often motivated by learning precisely how far they can push their body. For Hannes Lindemann, this meant two unsupported, solo transatlantic crossings, one by canoe and one by kayak.

During his 1955, 65-day crossing, Lindemann discovered that the “mind collapses before the body does”. He suffered severe fatigue, sleep deprivation, and altered states. To assist his second crossing, he trained himself in sleep deprivation and practiced meditation and prayer. Lindemann wrote about his two crossings in his book, Alone at Sea.

86. Franz Romer

Specialty: Sea kayaking

Best known for: First person to kayak solo from Europe to the Americas

Way back in 1928, a visionary Franz Romer set off to become the first person to kayak alone from Europe to the Americas. He didn’t know how to swim and only took a sextant, compass, binoculars, and a barometer. Among his miseries, he went five days without sleep and suffered blistering sunburn. Navigating mostly by the stars, Romer averaged 55km per day in his six-metre wood-framed Klepper kayak. He completed the pioneering crossing in 58 days.

87. Katia and Maurice Krafft

Specialty: Volcanos

Best known for: Exquisite volcano footage; dying during an eruption

Katia and Maurice Krafft were connected by a mutual passion for volcanos. During the 1970s, their work proved instrumental in improving our understanding of volcanism.

The couple was often the first to arrive at an eruption. Katia photographed while Maurice filmed. Fearless, Katia often ventured dangerously close to the rim. She obtained measurements, gas samples, and mineral readings that enabled a greater understanding of when and how eruptions occur. For her work, she received many awards.

In 1991, the couple’s luck ran out. While filming Mount Unzen’s eruption in Japan, they were caught in a pyroclastic flow, a dense, fast-moving cloud of lava pieces, hot ash, and scalding gas. They died instantly. Filmmaker Werner Herzog used some of the couple’s astonishingly intimate volcano footage in his documentary, Into the Volcano. The video clips include Katia, in what looks like a tinfoil suit, standing within an arm’s length of a river of molten lava.

88. Jane Goodall

Specialty: Chimpanzees

Best known for: Researching chimpanzees’ close relationship with humans

During the 1960s, 26-year-old Jane Goodall took a ground-breaking journey into the wild. Based in Gombe, Tanzania, Goodall developed a rare connection with chimpanzees. She formed trusting relationships with our nearest primate relatives by immersing herself in their natural environment. She recognized that chimpanzees exhibit similar traits to humans, including tool use and forming long-term bonds.

Goodall became influential on a global scale and is arguably the world’s most famous scientist. Devoting her life to the plight of chimpanzees, Goodall established The Jane Goodall Institute in 1977.

89. Felix Baumgartner

felix baumgartner

Specialty: Skydiving

Best known for: Skydiving from the edge of space

In 2012, Felix Baumgartner opened the door of a cabin suspended from a helium balloon 39km above the earth’s surface. Then he stepped off into thin air.

The harrowing video documents the Red Bull Stratos project, which successfully sought to break skydiving world records. The stratosphere is not technically outer space, yet in the video, the resemblance between Baumgartner’s craft and the escape pods from 2001: A Space Odyssey is uncanny. He simply exits onto the little doorstep, offers a salute, then steps out into the blackness.

Baumgartner disappears in the cabin-mounted camera — fast. He hit a top speed of 1,357.64kph, at the time the highest and fastest skydive ever executed.

Since becoming the first human to break the sound barrier outside a vehicle, the Austrian has made headlines with some controversial statements.

90. Brian Jones and Bertrand Piccard

Specialty: Ballooning

Best known for: First to circumnavigate the world in a balloon

Ever since Jules Verne, adventurers have dreamed of circumnavigating the world by balloon. But it is a lot harder than it sounds, and it wasn’t until 1999 that Brian Jones of the UK and Bertrand Piccard of Switzerland succeeded.

Their balloon was not a simple affair with a blowtorch and a wicker basket. It was a hot-air craft made of carbon and kevlar. It combined a helium inner cell with an outer hot-air balloon. They had six propane burners and a pressurized cabin — necessary, since they flew at an altitude even higher than most jets, nearly 12,000m.

Sometimes they crept along, sometimes they caught the jet stream and flew at almost 300kph. Often they worried about storms, or whether their titanium propane tanks would suffice for the entire trip. Ultimately, they did. After 20 days, a long-imagined dream of human exploration became reality.

91. Freya Hoffmeister

freya hoffmeister

Specialty: Sea kayaking

Best known for: Several mega-circumnavigations, including South America and Australia

A born athlete, Freya Hoffmeister competed in gymnastics until she got too tall for the sport. She then shifted to skeet shooting and later skydiving. After 1,500 jumps, including the first tandem jump onto the North Pole, she took up sea kayaking.

Soon, she started circumnavigating landmasses, sometimes alone. She has since recorded the fastest-ever paddle around Iceland, circumnavigated New Zealand solo and unassisted, become the second kayaker to circle Australia, and the first to paddle around South America.

The book Fearless: One Woman, One Kayak, One Continent documents her Australian trip. She celebrated her 50th birthday in Buenos Aires after finishing the South America trip on May 10, 2014.

Currently, Hoffmeister is trying to circumnavigate North America. The task will require 50,000 kilometres in the kayak, and take eight to ten years to complete. She started in 2017.

92. Scott Lindgren

Scott Lindgren in the North American River, near his Northern California home. Photo: Cayce Clifford

Specialty: Expedition whitewater kayaking

Best known for: Being the best kayaker of a generation

During the 1990s, Scott Lindgren lit up the whitewater kayaking world with wild first descents all over the world. His characteristic edge propelled him through burly first descents in North America, Africa, and Asia. He and his crew captured a lot of it on VHS, producing gritty short films that inspired a generation.

Before all that, he grew up rough and poor in the San Bernadino Valley of California. The resulting trauma took its toll but also drove him through his intense life. Motivated to send harder and harder rapids, Lindgren simultaneously struggled with where to draw the line. Eventually, substance abuse problems wreaked havoc on his career and a brain tumor almost killed him.

The River Runner, released in August on Netflix, chronicles Lindgren’s odyssey through kayaking, inspiration, and personal turmoil. It also follows his mission to paddle the Himalaya’s four biggest rivers, which flow from Mt. Kailash. Now 49, he still paddles at a high level.

93. Ricardo Cassin

Specialty: Alpinist

Best known for: Lecco’s Spiders

An Italian legend, Cassin started working at a very young age, after his father’s death. Cassin began climbing with the Ragni di Lecco, a prestigious group of Italian alpinists, and opened his first routes at the tender age of 22. His long career was full of difficult routes and first ascents, including the North Face of Cime Ovest di Lavaredo in the Dolomites.

In 1937, Cassin led the first ascent of Via Cassin, the Northeast Face of Piz Badile, with Vittorio Ratti and Gino Esposito. One year later, Cassin, Esposito, and Ugo Tizzoni climbed the Walker Spur on the North Face of Grandes Jorasses. Cassin also opened the most technical route on Denali at the time (1961), now appropriately named the Cassin Ridge. In 1958, he led an expedition to Gasherbrum IV, where Walter Bonatti and Carlo Mauri made the first ascent.

Cassin lived to 100 and climbed until the age of 80.

94. Ben Stookesberry

Specialty: Expedition whitewater kayaking

Best known for: Cutting-edge kayaking worldwide

Ben Stookesberry’s kayaking resumé would overflow most river runners’ bucket lists. In his career, he has initiated over 132 first descents on sections of Class V or Class VI rivers in 36 countries. He has taken on difficult missions in Central Africa, Pakistan, Patagonia, and Bhutan.

Stookesberry gravitates toward big projects. On his and frequent teammate Chris Korbulic’s first descent trip to Papua New Guinea, they spent 13 days running 13 gorges on the remote Beriman River. In Norway’s Svalbard Archipelago, Stookesberry ran a 65-foot glacial waterfall into the Arctic Ocean.

His efforts have earned him prestige: the Papua New Guinea expedition landed him and his partners National Geographic Adventure Hero of the Year status in 2007. In 2020, Stookesberry teamed up with Korbulic again to win Whitewater Awards’ Expedition of the Year for their first descent of the Noeick River in British Columbia.

95. Heinrich Harrer

Specialty: Climbing

Best known for: Eiger North Face, Nanga Parbat, Seven Years in Tibet

Many picture the Austrian explorer with the face of Brad Pitt. The movie Seven Years in Tibet revived interest in Harrar, despite old reports of his involvement in the Nazi party. His reputation was later cleared, thanks to the support of no less than Holocaust survivor and Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal.

Harrer’s life, with his lights and shadows, is worth a movie, or a whole series. With Fritz Kasparek, he was one of four climbers who completed the ascent of the North Face of the Eiger in the Swiss Alps. He later recounted the story in one of the best mountaineering books ever written, The White Spider.

Harrer took part in a reconnaissance expedition to Nanga Parbat. On the way back, he British soldiers took him prisoner. After several attempts, he managed to escape the camp, made it to Tibet, met the Dalai Lama, and as the movie title suggests, spent seven years there.

Back in Europe, he cultivated a life of travel, writing, exploration, and climbing, until his death at 93.

96. Wojciech (Voytek) Kurtyka

Specialty: Alpine style, high-altitude climbing

Best known for: Gasherbrum IV’s Shining Wall

Kurtyka was one of the great Polish trailblazers who stunned the world with their endurance in extreme conditions and their capacity for suffering. He went one step beyond in his search for alpine-style purity and commitment.

Kurtyka progressed from the Tatras to Norway’s Troll Wall, to the Hindu Kush, and then to the Himalaya. He had the best climbers of the time at the end of his rope and was a faithful follower of the pure alpine style. His best-known climb, (among the 10 best of the 20th century, according to Climbing Magazine), was the line opened with Robert Schauer on the West Face of Gasherbrum IV, known as the Shining Wall. You can read the full story of that epic climb here.

97. Peter Knowles

Photo: International Whitewater Hall of Fame

Specialty: Expedition whitewater kayaking

Best known for: Whitewater stewardship and guidebooks in the Himalaya

Among whitewater kayakers, Peter Knowles is known for his dirtbag expedition style. While many of his trips resulted in first descents, his approach emphasized finding unique objectives to tackle unsupported.

From the 1980s to the 2000s, Knowles developed a reputation as a kayaking ambassador. On his team-oriented expeditions, he often went out of his way to involve locals. His career spanned over 50 expeditions in the Himalaya, Turkey, Europe, and Mexico.

Knowles also gained lasting notoriety for his guidebooks to areas like Nepal and the European Alps. Many still set the standard for the areas they describe, offering voluminous critical information as well as amusing anecdotes and drawings. He’s seen as one of the progenitors of a growing whitewater tourism industry in Nepal, Bhutan, and India.

98. Howard Carter

Specialty: Archaeology

Best known for: Discovering King Tut’s tomb

Carter’s interest in ancient Egypt started early on when his father painted a portrait of a well-known Egyptologist. Following in his father’s footsteps, Carter, too, became an artist.

Through family connections, Carter took a job making drawings for an archaeologist working at a site in Egypt. In 1891, the 17-year-old Carter arrived in Beni Hassan to begin work as they excavated tombs of the Middle Kingdom. There, he built a reputation as an innovator, using new methods to draw wall reliefs.

By 1914, he was leading the dig at what was thought to be King Tutankhamen’s burial site. World War I soon suspended operations, but Carter’s team resumed work after the war.

On November 4, 1922, a boy laborer who worked on the crew started to dig in the sand with a stick. Finding something odd, he called Carter over. The crew then unearthed a flight of steps that led down to a sealed door and a secret chamber. On November 26 the team breached the tomb, finding a massive array of gold and treasures inside. On February 16, 1923, Carter opened the tomb’s final, innermost chamber and found the sarcophagus of King Tut.

Carter remained on site until the excavation concluded in 1932. Bucking the supernatural rumor that the tomb was somehow cursed, he lived until 1939.

99. Fyodor Konyukhov

Specialty: Everything

Best known for: The world’s most prolific and versatile explorer

To date, the nonstop Russian adventurer has completed more than 50 expeditions: sailing, trekking, rowing, climbing, sledding, cycling, skiing, hot-air ballooning, rafting, and expeditions by camel, horse, sled dog, and four-wheel-drive. We might have missed some.

In the 2000s, Konyukhov sailed 5,500km across the Atlantic in a tiny seven-metre boat, circumnavigated Antarctica by boat in 102 days, completed the first solo non-stop row of the Pacific from East to West (17,408km), and rowed 10,000km across the South Pacific.

Oceans are just part of it, though. He made a solo, non-stop, round-the-world balloon flight in 2016 (in a record 11 days 4 hours 20 minutes) and he is the first Russian to complete the Seven Summits. Konyukhov is also the only person to have reached the five extreme Poles: the North Pole (three times), the South Pole, the Pole of Inaccessibility in the Arctic Ocean, Mount Everest (the alpinist’s Pole), and the Yachtsman’s Pole at Cape Horn (four times).

To top it all off, Konyukhov is an ordained Orthodox priest. And an artist. We don’t know where he finds the time.

100. Zhao Kangmin

Specialty: Archaeology

Best known for: Discovering the terracotta warriors of the Qin dynasty

In 1974, Zhao Kangmin got a phone call from the Yanzhai Commune in Lintong, China. It seemed that people had accidentally unearthed fragments of ancient statues. Unsure what they were, people either threw them away, repurposed them, or gave them to children as toys.

Zhao thought that the traces might be significant. Since 1961, he had led the cultural relics and archaeology department at the Lintong County Cultural Center. Near the ancient capital of Xi’an, the area was rich with archaeological sites. Zhao himself had dug up three life-size statues of kneeling crossbowmen in 1962.

Arranging the logistics for a new investigation might be tricky. During the Cultural Revolution, Mao Zedong had ordered Red Guard soldiers to destroy a similar Qin dynasty statue and forced Zhao to publicly disgrace himself for “encouraging feudalism”.

So surreptitiously, Zhao went to the Yanzhai Commune and began the excavation. Gathering any fragments he could find, he painstakingly reconstructed several more “terracotta warriors” and displayed them at the Cultural Center. Soon, a visiting reporter saw the statues and publicized the finding on his return to Beijing.

The Cultural Revolution was not yet over, and Zhao feared the government would destroy the statues again. Instead, they funded a full excavation. Under Zhao’s leadership, archaeologists unearthed over 500 terracotta warriors within months. The site is now world famous.