Here they are. The 20 most extreme, hair-raising, legendary adventures on the planet, daunting even for the world's elite athletes. If you've got the mettle, add these to your lifetime to-do list. Not quite ready? Check out the 20 next-best adventures—and start planning. —Kate Siber

Most Extreme Adventures
The Next Best

X Close

  • Summit Mount Everest
  • Wingsuit Fly Off the Eiger
  • Surf Shipstern's Bluff
  • Hike the Triple Crown
  • Ski K2
  • Free Climb the Nose on Cap
  • Cross the Sahara Desert
  • Set a Kayak Waterfall Record
  • Descend Into an Active Volcano
  • Climb, Swim, or Surf the Poles
  • Ski the Hahnenkamm Downhill
  • Megatransect the Amazon
  • Climb the Seven Summits
  • Explore the Bahamas Blue Holes
  • Road Bike from Alaska to Argentina
  • Solo Sail Around the World
  • Swim With Great White Sharks
  • Run the Mont Blanc Circuit Ultramarathon
  • Paddle the Bashkaus River
  • Complete the Patagonia Wenger Expedition Race
close button

Photograph by Jimmy Chin

Summit Everest

Himalaya, Nepal, China

Ever since Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay first proved in 1953 that standing atop the world's tallest peak was possible, the mountain has been synonymous with challenge and adventure. Now, each spring, despite the storms, avalanche hazard, bitter cold, and challenging technical climbing, dozens of people–from 13-year-olds to the blind and amputees–clamor to reach the summit and clinch a new record. Despite the hubbub, the mountain remains the pinnacle of mountaineering achievements, and standing on the top is indeed, quite literally, standing on top of the world.

Photograph by Corey Rich, Aurora

Wingsuit Fly off the Eiger

Switzerland

"Eiger" translates to "ogre" in German, which seems a fitting moniker for the 13,000-foot (3,962-meter) beast of limestone, gneiss, shale, and ice that towers over the resort town of Grindelwald in the Swiss Alps. Its unpredictable weather, loose rock, and steep slopes have claimed the lives of more than 60 climbers, and yet its iconic 5,905-foot (1,800-meter) north face still proves irresistible. Now a new set of adventurers, wingsuit fliers, are not only climbing it but launching off it. Dean Potter (pictured) clinched the most heralded descent in 2009: After free soloing up the north face, he stepped into thin air for a four-mile, 9,000-vertical-foot (2,743-vertical-meter) flight that took two minutes and 50 seconds. The extreme sport is unquestionably one of the most dangerous on Earth, but perhaps that's the allure: It's the closest humans can get to true unadulterated flight.

Photograph by Stuart Gibson

Surf Big Waves at Shipsterns Bluff

Tasmania, Australia

On the far southern coast of Tasmania, jutting into one of the Earth's most unpredictable and tempestuous seas, lies a point break so remote and isolated it's reachable only by boat or an hour-long wilderness trek. This is Shipsterns Bluff, a cold and dangerously unpredictable break where waves start crashing at eight feet (two meters) but can top 20 feet (six meters). The waves' characteristic steps trip even expert surfers–recently such as Kelly Slater and Ryan Hipwood (pictured)–and swing perilously close to rock fields, but the rush of lassoing the goliath of all waves beneath the coast's dwarfing black cliffs keeps surfers returning. "The scariest part is seeing the wave and committing to catching it," says local surfer Charles Ward. "But once committed, it all tends to feel surreal and I forget about everything except what's right in front of me."

Photograph by Kip Evans

Hike the Triple Crown

United States

The length of the United States' three longest trails combined–nearly 7,700 miles (12,391 kilometers)–is enough to stretch nearly a third of the way around the globe, which might explain why fewer than a hundred people have clinched this Triple Crown. Walking the Pacific Crest, Appalachian, and Continental Divide Trails generally takes years and multiple pairs of boots, as hikers hoof over some of the country's grandest features, from the Appalachians to the Rockies and Cascades. But the payoff is a rare intimate knowledge of unfathomably diverse and wild parts of the country. Between the Atlantic and Pacific, hikers take in wave-battered coastlines, primordial forests, snowcapped peaks, volcanoes, rain forests, the otherworldly geology of the desert, and, above us all, huge skies that change like moods, such as this one above Bishop Pass in California's Sierra Nevada.

Photograph by Dave Watson

Ski K2

Karakoram Range, China, Pakistan

In comparison to Everest, K2–the world’s second tallest mountain at 28,251 feet (8,611 meters)–is more remote, has more unpredictable weather, and is statistically more deadly. Naturally that makes it one of the world's most coveted prizes for top pro ski mountaineers, who in recent years have raced to tag the summit and jump-turn back down. Still, the hazards are fierce: furious winds, avalanches, and inadvertent falls are just the start. American high-altitude ski guide Dave Watson (pictured) skied from 820 feet (250 meters) below the summit in 2009 and Swedish mountaineer Fredrik Ericsson died trying in 2010. The full feat has yet to be accomplished.

Photography by Jimmy Chin

Free Climb Yosemite's El Capitan

California, United States

Two times the height of New York City's Empire State Building, El Capitan towers over California's Yosemite Valley like a fortress. It was precisely this taunting impressiveness that lured early climbers and established Yosemite as the birthplace of climbing in the United States. One of the most storied routes is The Nose, a beautiful schnoz of rock that has become a prize for avid climbers. Warren Harding's first ascent of the route took 45 days in 1958, and Lynn Hill cemented her legendary status with the first free climb, previously thought impossible, in 1993. Now, speed climbers race up it in hours, but most mortals take between three and five days to sweat up the 30-plus pitches of up to 5.14. They come for the hard granite, some of the most beautiful cracks in the world, and, perhaps most of all, to follow in the footsteps of legends.

Photograph by Joerg Modrow, laif/Redux

Cross the Sahara Desert

North Africa

The world's great sea of sand, the Sahara Desert, stretches 3.3 million square miles (8.5 million square kilometers) across North Africa, nearly 3,000 miles (4,838 kilometers) long from the Atlantic to the Red Sea. A great challenge, it has lured many explorers, who have braved dust storms, hostile tribes, thirst, and intolerable heat to experience a frontier of epic proportions. Nowadays, the bravest of adventurers cross it on foot, camel, or 4-by-4 vehicles, outfitted with plenty of emergency survival gear, but there is still little help out there if something goes wrong. Only a handful of outposts and nomads punctuate the dunes, and explorers can go days without seeing anyone or anything but desert.

Photograph by Lane Jacobs, Aurora

Set a New Kayak Waterfall Record

Washington, United States

Attempting a new waterfall record in a kayak requires a lot of scouting, an acceptance that you'll probably get at least a little hurt, and, perhaps most important, an unquestionable belief in one's own immortality. And yet, in recent years, waterfalls have proven an irresistible, if dangerous, frontier for young-gun pro kayakers seeking eternal bragging rights. "The motivating factor for all of this was just that I thought it was possible," says Tyler Bradt, who clinched the record in 2009 with a 3.7-second freefall over 186-foot (57-meter) Palouse Falls in eastern Washington (pictured). "I wanted to do it, I guess, because I can."

Photograph by Bradley Ambrose

Descend Into an Active Volcano

Vanuatu, South Pacific

As a general rule, lava is best seen from a great distance. That is, of course, unless you're a group of daredevils who, led by Kiwi adventurer Geoff Mackley, descended 640 feet (195 meters) into Vanuatu's Marum Volcano to witness the explosive bowels of the Earth firsthand in 2010. The resulting video, in which a man in a heatproof suit came within 300 feet (91 meters) of a viciously boiling lake of lava, went viral. It's pretty clear that live volcanoes are unpredictable and their craters offer all sorts of inhospitable challenges: toxic gas, extreme heat, tumbling rocks, and unwarranted explosions. Just because it's insane doesn't mean that it's impossible.

Photograph by Yassine Ouhilal

Climb, Swim, or Surf the Poles

Arctic, Antarctica

In an age of dwindling frontiers, seeking new territory to explore has spurred more adventurers to the extremes of the Earth–and in particular, the Poles. In recent years, a six-person expedition explored the huge winter waves off Norway's Lofoten Islands by surfboard (pictured), cold-water swimmer Lewis Gordon Pugh freestyled a kilometer across the North Pole in nothing more than a Speedo, and pro skier Chris Davenport took a team of athletes to ski unnamed peaks in Antarctica. These are places where an explorer must chart his or her own course and goals. What drives them is something immaterial. Perhaps it's the thrill of braving some of the world's coldest places, the heady feeling of isolation, or simply the innate human love for accomplishing what hasn't been done before.

Photograph by Wolfgang Rattay, Reuters

Ski the Hahnenkamm Downhill Race

Austria

Nowadays, liability lawyers would never let a race like the Hahnenkamm Downhill happen. But in 1931 race organizers paid no heed to potential lawsuits when they created what would become arguably the most hair-raising downhill course on the planet. Over two miles, the run drops 2,800 vertical feet (853 vertical meters) with gradients of up to 85 percent and off-camber turns that buck even the toughest racers. Those who stay upright have been clocked speeds up to 87 miles an hour (140 kilometers an hour). Of course, qualifying is one of the hardest parts–the race now attracts the world's top skiers–but spectating is an extreme sport unto itself. Some 85,000 Swiss and Austrian fans, waving flags, blowing horns, and ringing cowbells, crowd the course and, come evening, compete for beer in one of Austria's most storied winter bacchanals.

Photograph by Peter McBride

Megatransect the Amazon

South America

Despite its obvious perils–from jungle-borne diseases to leeches, jaguars, baseball-size tarantulas, and prehistoric river creatures–the Amazon has attracted a who's who of luminous adventurers, such as Percy Fawcett, Theodore Roosevelt, and, of course, Indiana Jones. It continues to do so today: Brit Ed Stafford, who finished his more than 4,000-mile (6,437-kilometer) trek along the length of the mighty river in 2010, was the most recent. Nowadays, it's perhaps not so much the lure of Inca treasure or the lost city of El Dorado that draws adventurers, but the promise of pure adventure that lies in one of the last great frontiers.

Photograph by Jonathan Chester, Lonely Planet/Alamy

Climb the Seven Summits

All Continents

Humans are perhaps the only species that self-impose challenges, and standing at the highest point on every continent, such as Russia's Mount Elbrus (pictured), has long been a coveted one to conquer. Accomplishing this requires serious mountaineering skills, time, money, and guts. But those who succeed share the honor with a few hundred people, depending on which seven peaks you consider the highest, which is debated with regard to Oceania. Still, since the first titles were clinched by Dick Bass and Pat Morrow in 1985 and 1986, respectively, the Seven Summits have attracted climbers from all walks: 17-year-olds and 73-year-olds, skiers and climbers, Japanese and Latvians, Kuwaitis and Chileans. Perhaps the lure of mountains is indeed universal.

Photograph by Wes Skiles, National Geographic

Dive the Blue Holes

Bahamas

When vacationing divers dip into the upper levels of Bahamas' blue holes–flooded inland caves formed originally from limestone–to take a look around, they are unwittingly close to some of the world's most dangerous diving. Farther below lies a kingdom of passageways that holds fossils and ancient formations. The very few who pass through the layer of toxic gas to reach these lower levels find pinhole passageways where a technical failure or wrong turn could spell doom and one errant fin could obliterate 10,000-year-old rock structures. But those who do venture into the watery veins of the Earth discover whole ballrooms full of tightly packed stalactites, prehistoric human remains, and fossils of now extinct crocodiles and tortoises. These caves are, quite literally, another world.

Photograph by Gregg Bleakney

Road Bike from Alaska to Argentina

The Americas

Between Alaska's Prudhoe Bay and Argentina's Tierra del Fuego, there's some 20,000 miles (32,000 kilometers) of highway, two of the world's steepest mountain ranges, and more than a dozen countries. Biking such a distance takes upwards of two years, making it not so much a trip but a lifestyle. The challenges are formidable, from flat tires in remote areas and wild South American drivers to long, lonely stretches of Alaskan highway. But the upshot is that riders gain an intimate knowledge of scenery across North and South America, from the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco to the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia (pictured), and meet a remarkable diversity of people along the way. "I knew this challenge would be tough, I knew I would see incredible places. I knew I would experience fear, sadness, loneliness and sometimes delirious happiness," wrote Dominic Gill, who rode a tandem, picked up passengers, and filmed his experience for the documentary Take a Seat. "What I didn't expect was to have my faith in humanity so massively reinforced over two years of trusting in people."

Photograph by Abner Kingman, Aurora

Solo Sail Around the World

Magellan didn't at first intend to circumnavigate the planet; He was simply looking for a shortcut to the Spice Islands. Now the journey is taken in its own right, and, most recently, by a growing number of teenagers competing for the title of youngest solo circumnavigator. Still, the seas are just as tempestuous as they were centuries ago, with the ever present danger of unexpected storms and 100-foot (38-meter) rogue waves capable of snapping masts like crostini. Done alone, the experience verges on spiritual, offering an intimate understanding of the true vastness of the world and the minuteness of our humanly existence. That is perhaps why a successful solo sail feels less like a conquest and more like an allowance of passage by the grace of the sea.

Photograph by Jeb Corliss

Swim With Great White Sharks

South Africa

Thanks to the Jaws movie franchise, entire generations of otherwise adventurous people mortally fear great white sharks. Except for a few brave souls, that is, who have swum with them cageless and unharmed, such as adventurer Jeb Corliss, whose team is pictured off Mexico. Those few have figured out that even though the apex predators are some of the world's largest sharks, humans aren’t their natural prey. "We swim less than a foot away and it just passes by," says Amos Nachoum, a big-animal photographer who runs trips to see megafauna in the wild. Swimming with great whites takes patience, vigilance, the humility to retreat quickly, and, perhaps above all, guts. But, says Nachoum, "it is a spiritual experience. It's the unbearable lightness of being, seeing the beauty of such a creature."

Photograph courtesy Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc

Run the Mont Blanc Circuit Ultramarathon

France, Italy, Switzerland

Running 100 miles (161 kilometers) anywhere could be called superhuman, but the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc between France, Italy, and Switzerland adds a few mind-fraying twists to the challenge. Be prepared for more than 30,000 feet (9,144 meters) of total climbing, hour-long scrambles up dishwasher-size boulders, and knee-busting descents. But there are reasons runners keep going; among them, the views of Mont Blanc and heartening cheers from villagers at every turn. "At the finish, they were stacked six people deep on the fence lines, leaning in, taking pictures, high-fiving," says Seattle-based runner Krissy Moehl, who won the women's division in 2003 and 2009. "I felt like a baseball or football star."

Photograph by Bernhard Mauracher

Paddle the Bashkaus River

Siberia, Russia

Even in a land known for extremes, Siberia's Bashkaus River stands out. In a remote backwater near Mongolia, it tumbles 32 feet (8 meters) per mile for 130 miles (209 kilometers). (By comparison, the Colorado River drops eight feet (2 meters) per mile through the Grand Canyon.) The gradient churns up a maelstrom of rarely run rapids, jagged rocks, and traps known as siphons, all sandwiched between stunning but inescapable gorge walls. "It was the toughest and most rewarding experience that I have ever been through," says pro kayaker Sam Sutton, part of a 2010 Adidas-sponsored expedition (pictured). Of the few who attempt it, those who succeed reach the fabled riverside memorial built for six expert kayakers who perished there in 1976. Inside lies the Book of Legends, inscribed with the names of those who've faced one of the world's most difficult rivers–and lived to tell the tale.

Photograph by Mark Watson, Wenger Patagonian Expedition Race

Complete the Wenger Patagonian Expedition Race

Chile

The Wenger Patagonian Expedition Race is much more of an expedition than a race. Often stretching more than 350 miles (563 kilometers), it takes teams of four up to ten days to travel through some of the roughest and most remote corners of Patagonia. Here, there are no topographical maps, and racers use satellite images to navigate as they trek, climb, mountain bike, and kayak on a course that changes every year. The clock never stops and many teams net just a few hours of sleep. But along the way, they see places few humans have seen: skyrocketing peaks in the Torres del Paine, vast expanses of the Southern Continental Ice Field, and the raw, turbulent waters off notorious Cape Horn.

  • Hike to Everest Base Camp
  • Get Airborne in Queenstown
  • Surf the North Shore
  • Hike the Appalachian Trail
  • Ski Denali
  • Climb the Tetons' Cathedral Traverse
  • Camel Trek Morocco
  • Kayak or Raft the Zambezi
  • Climb Java's Volcanoes
  • Dive Glacial Meltwater
  • Ski the Dave Murray Downhill, Whistler
  • Trek the Salcantay Route to Machu Picchu
  • Climb Aconcagua
  • Dive the Yucatán's Cenotes
  • Bike the Baja Peninsula
  • Skipper Your Own Boat
  • Dive With Hammerheads
  • Trek the Mont Blanc Circuit
  • Self-Guide the Grand Canyon
  • Complete the Explore Sweden Adventure Race
close button

Photograph by Jake Norton

Hike to Everest Base Camp

Himalaya, Nepal

Making it to the top of Everest requires serious fitness, willpower, good luck, and $60,000 for a guided trek to the summit. For those of us who'd like to witness the mountain but prefer to keep our cash–and our fingers and toes–there's an appealing alternative option: hiking to Everest Base Camp. The trip is still no stroll: Over ten days, trekkers travel more than 60 miles (97 kilometers) at muscle-crippling altitudes of over 17,000 feet (5,182 meters). But walking is the only way to see the legendary backdrop behind the world's greatest climbing feats: Himalayan villages tinkling with temple chimes and yak bells, remote shrines strung with multicolored prayer flags, and cedar and pine forests under the shadow of 20,000-foot (6,096-meter) mountains.

On a 19-day trip with National Geographic Adventures trekkers also ascend 18,100-foot (5,517-meter) Kala Pattar, which offers views of the loftiest peak on the planet illuminated by sunrise alpenglow. In spring, trekkers may also meet mountaineers at Everest Base Camp. Regardless, walking in the footsteps of such greats as Hillary, Reinhold Messner, and Ed Viesturs and personally witnessing the unmistakable hulk of the world's tallest mountain offers an intimate and humbling understanding of its power. Locals believe, after all, that these peaks are the home of the gods. National Geographic Adventures Everest Base Camp trek starts and ends in Kathmandu and includes guides and tent/room accommodations (from $4,295, plus an estimated $240 flight from Kathmandu to Lukla; www.nationalgeographicexpeditions.com).

Photograph by Graeme Murray

Get Airborne in Queenstown

New Zealand

Perhaps it's New Zealand's wild terrain or its isolation at the foot of the world that explains why Kiwis have a disproportionate affinity for adventure. They helped pioneer sports like bungee and BASE jumping, and now offer more concentrated opportunities to try them than any other place on the planet. The epicenter is Queenstown, a small resort in the Southern Alps of the South Island where the menu of activities is pages long. Bungee jump 140 feet (43 meters) off Kawarau Bridge, site of the first commercial bungee operation. Or learn to tandem hang glide, sky dive, or ride a hot-air balloon over some of the green-blanketed mountains, forests, and lakes that served as the backdrop for The Lord of the Rings.

Arguably the ultimate air sport is BASE jumping. To prepare, it takes hundreds of sky dives and the private tutelage of a professional BASE jumper. For those unwilling to devote the time and assume the risk of hurtling through the atmosphere, Queenstown guide service Pure Adventure offers a rare taste of the experience. Pilots helicopter guests up to a remote cliff to watch as pro BASE jumper Chuck Berry prepares for a death-defying leap. Finally, in one mind-bending moment, Berry steps out into nothing and plummets below. "The learning curve in BASE jumping is especially steep, and the consequences of mistakes are dire," says Berry, but "it's a beautiful release from the bond of the Earth."

Bungee jumping with AJ Hackett costs $137 per jump at Kawarau Bridget (www.bungy.co.nz). Sunrise Balloons offers 90-minute hot air balloon flights, including transportation, for $300 (www.ballooningnz.com), and SkyTrek runs tandem hanggliding flights for $168 (www.skytrek.co.nz). Pure Adventure’s BASE jumping experience starts at $2,290 per person (www.pureadventure.co.nz). Queenstown Tourism lists resources and guide services for other sports and activities, such as hiking, mountain biking, rafting, and skiing (www.queenstown-nz.co.nz).

Photograph by Hugh Gentry, United States Environment Sport/Reuters

Surf the North Shore

Hawaii, United States

Hawaiians know that riding the ocean requires the rare combination of calm, confidence, and utter respect for the power of the sea. That's how the best surfers in the world ride down the face of waves that, every now and then, reach 40 feet (12 meters) at the mother of big-wave breaks: Waimea Bay (pictured) on the North Shore of Oahu. It's warmer and more predictable than other breaks of its size, which makes it a favorite among pro surfers. But it also forms a perfect stadium for aspirants looking for a glimpse of some of the world's biggest rides.

Surfing was born on these shores, and many of its biggest competitions, like the Triple Crown, still feature here, which is why Oahu is perhaps the one place where surfers of all levels pilgrimage. It has breaks of every shape and size and offshore winds that create perfectly shaped and unusually long rides. Local surfer Bryan Suratt, whose family has ridden these swells for four generations, coaches such greats as Andy Irons but also offers lessons for all levels. Suratt's laid-back aloha vibe helps even first timers feel the high that every surfer, at one point, feels: a humble gratitude for the timeless power of the ocean.

Sunset Suratt Surf School offers surf lessons on many of Oahu's North Shore breaks ($100 for two hours, including equipment; www.sunsetsurattsurfschool.com).

Photograph by Pat and Chuck Blackley, Alamy

Hike the Appalachian Trail

East Coast, United States

The Appalachian Trail doesn't just traverse the forests, meadows, swamps, and peaks of 14 eastern states; it's also a window into the cultural and historical heritage of the longest settled part of the country. It is the oldest of the great long-distance hiking trails, traveling through farm country, centuries-old towns, and storied battlefields, and yet it's one of the most rugged, blazing straight up and down ancient mountains as if they were anthills. That's why, for any avid hiker, the Appalachian Trail is the ultimate badge of honor, and some 11,600 people have done the whole thing. A storied trail culture has formed, in which thru-hikers earn trail names and local residents and supporters offer "trail magic"–free food, gifts, and other unexpected kindnesses–at many points.

The challenge of walking, on average, 8 to 25 miles (13 to 40 kilometers) a day and five million footsteps over five to six months isn't for everyone, and, thankfully, it isn't necessary. Many tick off the trail in chunks and others glimpse the most beautiful parts, such as this spot in Virginia's Shenandoah National Park, on day hikes. One of the greatest sections is the very last of the 160,000 white blazes that lead up Maine's Mount Katahdin. There, in August, if you're lucky, you might spot a few shaggy-haired, bearded thru-hikers taking the last few steps of their journey from Georgia, glimpsing, for the first time, the signposted terminus of the trail. They're almost always in tears.

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy offers information and guidebooks on thru-hiking the trail (www.appalachiantrail.org).

Photograph by Alasdair Turner

Ski Denali

Alaska, United States

Denali's pedigree as the tallest mountain in North America makes it an obvious target for high-shooting mountaineers, but it also has sheer visual impressiveness: From the surrounding lowlands, it rises more than three vertical miles into a monster of rock, glaciers, and snow. The only novice-friendly route, the West Buttress, becomes an international party of climbers in May and June, but despite the crowds, few ski it.

Skiing, of course, is more technical than walking, and only expert skiers with backcountry experience need apply. A select few bring their planks to the summit to ski 55-degree no-fall zones like the Messner Couloir and the Orient Express. But most leave them at 14,000 feet (4,267 meters), while they tag the summit. After 21 days of approaching the remote peak, acclimatizing, leapfrogging up steep slopes, and finally viewing the sparkling Alaska Range from the summit, the greatest reward is a long, fast, looping ski descent off the roof of North America.

Alpine Ascents offers guided climbs and private ski-descent trips of Denali to qualified clients (from $6,300 from Talkeetna; www.alpineascents.com).

Photograph by Greg Von Doersten, Aurora

Climb the Tetons' Cathedral Traverse

Wyoming, United States

From the grassy valley below, the dark, ragged teeth of the Tetons can seem impenetrable. But climbers are a breed that relishes impossible challenges, and the Tetons have attracted an A-list of mountaineers and climbers. The mountains, as it turns out, have plenty of routes that intermediate climbers can ascend, among them the 13,770-foot (4,197-meter) Grand Teton (pictured) that juts up like a shark fin. For both locals and visiting climbers, an even greater rite of passage is connecting nearby peaks Teewinot and Owen with the Grand Teton in what's called the Cathedral Traverse, one of the country's most classic alpine linkups.

Though some local hot shots bag the Cathedral Traverse in one epically long day, most bivouac overnight and clinch it in two. Climbers must have prior technical climbing experience, but the real challenge lies less in individual moves than in their accumulation. "It is an endurance fest," explains Rob Hess, chief guide and owner of Jackson Hole Mountain Guides, which leads very fit clients on the route. Climbers scramble up jagged boulders, scale vertical cliffs, and tiptoe along knife ridges, but topping out on three classic peaks offers a perspective few earthly creatures see.

Jackson Hole Mountain Guides offers two-day guided climbs of the Cathedral Traverse for qualified clients ($1,500 or $670. depending on difficulty; www.jhmg.com).

Photograph by Joanna B. Pinneo, Aurora

Camel Trek Morocco

Morocco

Morocco may be best known for its ancient cities–Fes, Marrakesh, Tangier–which burst with the colors, smells, sounds, and textures of market life. But arguably Morocco's most impressive landscapes are its vast expanses of desert, and the traditional way to see them is by camel, which offers an unparalleled look at a beautifully monochromatic land.

Outfitter Mountain Travel Sobek has guided tours in Morocco for more than 30 years, and on their 13-day trips, guests camel trek along an ancient caravan route through the desert. The experience is straight out of Lawrence of Arabia: You'll visit giant, crumbling casbahs, see the high snowy peaks of the Atlas Mountains, and wander suqs spilling with pungent smells and colorful wares. In this landscape of coral dunes, cobalt skies, and volcanic mountains, there are few people save the occasional Berber village and group of nomads. At night, trekkers camp in canvas tents and stare up at stars spilled like sugar across the sky, marveling at the profound silence.

Mountain Travel Sobek offers 13-day camel trekking trips through Morocco from $3,995 (www.mtsobek.com).

Photograph by Marcio Rodrigues

Kayak or Raft the Zambezi

Zambia

Famed explorer David Livingstone was certainly impressed by Victoria Falls when he reached it in the 19th century, but the rapids of the Zambezi? He thought British steamers would one day sail smoothly down the river. More than a hundred years later, the waters remain untamed. And the Zambezi's 23 rapids, which roil with waves as high as 30 feet (9 meters), are famed as the best commercially run white water in the world. But they aren't the river's only thrills.

"On our last trip, our group was paddling as fast as possible away from a male hippo only to come around a small island and surprise a 25-foot (8-meter) croc," says Duke Bradford, owner of outfitter Global Descents. "He hit the water three feet off our boat so hard he soaked us all." Most trips travel a 15-mile (24-kilometer) stretch in a day, but Global Descents offers eight-day 70-mile (113-kilometer) trips for rafters and experienced kayakers. From the toes of Victoria Falls, boaters buck through half a dozen rapids larger than the single largest in the Grand Canyon, each mercifully followed by a stretch of calm water. After the first day, few people, except for a handful of fishermen, share this raw, wild corner of Africa, frequented by baboons, vervet monkeys, and eagles. Along the way, dark basalt cliffs soar hundreds of feet into the sky, waterfalls thunder into the gorge, and white-sand beaches beckon kayakers and rafters with the promise of a soft spot to sleep.

Global Descents offers eight-day trips on the Zambezi once or twice each fall ($2,800; www.globaldescents.com). Kayakers who wish to paddle independently should bring all of their own equipment.

Photograph by Jessy Eykendorp, My Shot

Climb Java's Volcanoes

Indonesia

More than half of the world's subaerial volcanoes lie within the Ring of Fire, a series of volcanic uprisings that line the edge of the Pacific tectonic plate, and one of the most dramatic hot spots is Indonesia's Java, home to 42 volcanoes that have caused untold damage over the millennia. The only way to really understand the power of a volcano is to witness it in the flesh. That's why Germany-based outfitter Volcano Discovery offers 18-day vulcanologist-guided trips through the heart of Java.

Participants visit more than half a dozen live volcanoes, kicking the trip off by sailing up to Krakatoa, which exploded in 1883 and tore the former island to shreds. During the following weeks, they camp on Rakata Island's shores, soak in hot springs, hike up to peer into craters, and, if they're lucky, watch as an active volcano spews glowing hot lava down its shoulders. They also see the lasting effects of these cataclysmic eruptions, including lunar-like landscapes of ash fields, lava flows, turquoise lakes, steaming craters, and simmering mud pools. It's all a distinct reminder of the Earth's internal, ever present inferno.

Volcano Discovery offers 18-day Volcanoes of Java tours from $2,723, including accommodations, transportation and meals (www.volcanodiscovery.com).

Photograph by Rene Frederick, Getty Images

Dive Glacial Meltwater

Iceland

At the cold upper reaches of the Atlantic, Iceland is marked by the fiery wrath of volcanoes and the cool precision of steamrolling glaciers. It's also a spot of remarkable instability, situated right on top of the rift between the North American and European tectonic plates. Dubbed Silfra, the fissure is filled with water that, melted from glaciers and filtered through lava fields, is some of the clearest on the planet, often topping 300 feet (91 meters) of visibility. Though the water barely scrapes above freezing, it's a favorite among divers.

The dive starts on a nondescript platform in the barren tundra of Thingvellir National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. There, divers squeeze into down-lined drysuits and plunge into the water. Few visible creatures live down there other than the occasional trout. Instead, the appeal is the experience of slipping between two of the Earth's great bones, witnessing the fissure's cathedral-like formations, and watching a light show of sunbeams filtering through the rocks and water.

Post-dive, emulate the Icelandic people, who spend much of the 20-plus hours of summer daylight in their wild and sparsely populated wildernesses. Raft the Class III Hvita River, scramble through a kilometer-long cave, hike to remote waterfalls, and discover the perfect accompaniment to cold-water diving in Skaftafell National Park: remote, wilderness hot springs bubbling up from the Earth's internal oven.

Arctic Adventures offers two-tank dives in Silfra for $248, including equipment and transportation from Reykjavik (www.adventures.is) as well as rafting, caving, glacier hiking, mountain biking, whale watching, and canoeing trips. The Iceland Tourism Board can provide information on other activities (www.visiticeland.com).

Photograph by Alexis Boichard, Agence Zoom/Getty Images

Ski the Dave Murray Downhill, Whistler

British Columbia, Canada

Arguably some of the most entertaining parts of watching the Winter Olympics are the wipeouts. In 2010, Whistler's famed Dave Murray Downhill, host of the men's alpine skiing events, caused notably spectacular ones. The second longest downhill course in the world, it drops more than 3,000 feet (914 meters) in less than a mile and has hosted World Cup races since the 1970s. To reach the speeds of 75 miles an hour (120 kilometers and hour) that racers routinely hit, skiers have to literally straight-line it, an approach that on any other day risks a slashed ticket. But cruising down it at less than breakneck speed (as most people do) offers a look at some of the storied features, like the Toilet Bowl, a steep rollover that flushes even elite racers down the hill.

Whistler's allure reaches further than its racing prowess, however. Combined with Blackcomb mountain, the resort has one of the greatest vertical drops–a full mile–of any resort in North America, more than 200 trails, 37 lifts, and 400 inches (10 meters) of annual snowfall. The area is so huge, it has something for every flavor of skier, from steep chutes to mellow groomers, thickly treed runs to a wide-open glacier that stays open through the summer. Come evening, what makes Whistler a world-class ski town becomes abundantly clear: The streets and bars fill with snow lovers from as far away as Chile, New Zealand, Korea, and Switzerland.

Lift tickets at Whistler Blackcomb cost $86 per day or less when buying multiple days (www.whistlerblackcomb.com). Tourism Whistler can help arrange accommodations and travel arrangements (www.whistler.com).

Photograph by Alessandro Della Bella, Keystone/Corbis

Trek the Salcantay Route to Machu Picchu

Peru

The Inca had a knack for pinpointing South America's most dumbfoundingly beautiful places, unlike Western explorers. A case in point: Machu Picchu, a lost city tucked deep in Peru's tropical mountain forests that wasn't "discovered" by Hiram Bingham until 1911. Thousands of trekkers go on pilgrimage along the Inca Trail every year to witness the mountaintop ruins enshrouded in mists, but only a few choose the newer alternative trail: the Salcantay Route. Winding around 20,000-foot (6,096-meter) peaks, along verdant riversides, and through bucolic coffee plantations, orchards, and thatched-hut villages, the 39-mile (63-kilometer) route traverses 15 ecosystems and tops out at over 15,000 feet (4,572 meters). The grand finale is a view of Machu Picchu from the southwest, one that few tourists see. Many backpackers camp along the way, but for those who prefer to travel like Inca royalty, there are remote luxe ecolodges along the trail. There, the answer to sore legs is a hot tub, a goose-down bed, a hearty organic cuisine, and a stupefying view of the Inca's sacred snow-crowned peaks.

Mountain Lodges of Peru runs seven-day trips between four ecolodges along the Salcantay Route, including guides, pack horses, food, and lodging ($2,850; www.mountainlodgesofperu.com).

Photograph by Daniel Merle, AP

Climb Aconcagua

Argentina

Aconcagua is the siren of the mountaineering world: The tallest peak in South America at 22,841 feet (6,962 meters), her beauty, height, and two nontechnical routes woo even the inexperienced. But don't be fooled. It's a serious climb that is routinely very windy and very cold and requires calculated acclimatization. But among the seven summits, it is one of the most straightforward ascents, and unlike walk-up Kilimanjaro, its shorter season (December to March) attracts fewer crowds.

From Mendoza, Argentina, the entire trip takes about 20 days and offers a survey of South American landscapes. Muleteers pack in equipment, as trekkers travel through high desert, over rocky alpine areas, and past glaciers. All the while, the gargantuan mountain looms in the distance with the hardest section right before the summit block: an impossibly steep, 800-vertical-foot (244-vertical-meter) lung-buster of a gully, Canaleta. The weather and conditions on Aconcagua are remarkably unpredictable–some climbers encounter ice and wear crampons; others snap glory shots on the summit in T-shirts. But it's arguably Aconcagua's mercurial personality that helps place it among the world's great peaks–and offers those climbers who reach the tallest point in South America the rare feeling of transcendence.

Rainier Mountaineering, Inc. offers 24-day climbing trips from Seattle for $4,200 per person (www.rmiguides.com).

Photograph by John Stanmeyer, National Geographic

Dive the Yucatán's Cenotes

Mexico

Beyond its white-sand beaches and beneath its lush forests, the Yucatán Peninsula resembles Swiss cheese. That's good news for divers: The area's cave-pocked limestone, filled with fresh blue water, offers a world of subterranean diving. And because the cenotes around Playa del Carmen are warm, wide, and relatively shallow, certified divers without specialized training can explore them, making the area one of the world's foremost cave-diving locales.

Here, popular holes like Dos Ojos offer a window into the Earth's belly: stalactites formed over millennia hang from the ceiling, fossils hide in the corners, and holes in the rock bring in a laser show of electric blue and green light. Delving deeper into the caves–past the signs with death warnings, skulls, and crossbones–requires an advanced cave diver certification, but no matter. Even within a few hundred feet of the surface, the cenotes offer a glimpse into what the Maya believed were the sacred passageways to the underworld.

Dive Cenotes, based in Playa del Carmen, offers guided two-tank dive tours of cenotes for certified divers ($100; www.divecenotes.com). Divers need special cave diving certification to leave the external cavern to explore the caves.

Photograph by Harry Kikstra

Bike the Baja Peninsula

Mexico

Stretching about a thousand miles south from San Diego like a delicate thumb, the Baja California peninsula has long beckoned bikers with its pleasant weather, minimal traffic, and remote, undeveloped coastline. Here, long stretches of wild desert are punctuated only by views of the coast, cactus forests, and lanky boojum trees sprouting out of the Earth like Dr. Seuss creations. Every so often, a surf shack, stuck-in-time fishing village, or sleepy artist community crops up.

The route, which largely follows Mexico's Highway 1, is not without its challenges: Seemingly suicidal truckers scream down the highways, dust storms kick up in the winter, and if you're heading anywhere but south, headwinds can cause heartbreak. But the thrill of discovery and the utmost feeling of freedom in this still wild land generally outshine the difficulties. And often, it's what lies beyond the bike that is most rewarding, like catching a glimpse of migrating whales right from shore, finding the perfect beach campsite, or enjoying fish tacos and a Cerveza Pacífico next to the crashing sea.

Cyclists wishing to bike the length of Baja are best advised to read reports from others who have followed the route recently; these can be found on www.trentobike.org and www.crazyguyonabike.com. Baja California's website (www.discoverbajacalifornia.com) and Baja California Sur's website (www.turismobcs.com) offer information for tourists. For those with less time, Backroads, a biking outfitter, offers five-day hiking and biking trips along Baja's Sea of Cortez and Pacific coasts for $1,998 per person (http://www.backroads.com/trips/MBJQ/baja-mexico-biking-hiking-tour).

Photograph by Alvaro Leiva, Photolibrary

Skipper Your Own Boat

Worldwide

Most avid sailors share one overarching goal: to skipper their own boat. Beyond that, the similarities end. Some seek to travel an ocean, others along a coast, and still others wish to circumnavigate an archipelago. Meghan Cleary, a former American Sailing Association staffer who is currently sailing from Los Angeles to New York through the Panama Canal, believes every sailor needs to get far enough from shore that she can't see it anymore—at least once. "There's nothing out there–nothing," she says. On the way to the opposite coast, Cleary will encounter migrating blue whales, porpoises, sharks, and ocean sunfish. She'll pass miles of mountainous coast, empty white-sand beaches, and rarely visited fishing villages. She'll stop to visit the Kuna Indians, who live in peaceful cultural isolation on Panama's San Blas Islands, and to see monkeys and iridescent butterflies in Costa Rica. "On a boat, you get to see coastal communities no one ever sees or goes to," she says. "It's the coolest way to see another culture."

A months-long trip requires ample preparation and, likely, a sabbatical, but sailors can get a small taste of such an expedition with a week-long bareboat charter in a windy spot like the Grenadines (pictured). At the helm of one's own boat, the options are limitless: snorkel in glowing turquoise shallows, explore uninhabited islets, stop at deserted beaches, and fall asleep to the gentle rhythm of the swells against the hull.

The American Sailing Association (www.american-sailing.com) lists schools across the country that teach sailors how to skipper their own boats. From St. Vincent in the Grenadines, Barefoot Yacht Charters rents sailboats and catamarans to licensed sailors from $1,050 per week and offers crewed yacht charters from $4,970 per week (www.barefootyachts.com).

Photograph by Larry Gatz, Getty Images

Dive With Hammerheads

Galápagos Islands, Ecuador

If it weren’t for Darwin, the Galápagos Islands might have remained in obscurity with their wealth of odd, indigenous, and fearless wildlife. His evolutionary theories helped land the archipelago on the tourist map, but the great scientist missed out on one of the most stunning landscapes of the Galápagos: its underwater realms. The islands, 600 miles (966 kilometers) from the coast of Ecuador, receive both warm and cold currents, with the Antarctic upswelling, sending a smorgasbord of marine nutrients, attracting a gold mine of marine life.

Here divers see penguins next to tropical reef fish, families of sea lions, and the rare red-lipped batfish in the hundreds. Most divers come, however, to see the preponderance of megafauna. During prime viewing season (July to October), divers swim with hundreds of scalloped hammerhead sharks and spot dozens of bus-size whale sharks. (And yes, they're both harmless.) Live-aboard boats are the best mode of transportation, and the Galápagos Aggressor is one of the few that offers both dives and land-based stops. In the morning, passengers spot blue-footed boobies and prehistoric-looking tortoises on these remote islands; by afternoon, they Zen out amid a panoply of sharks, their jagged bodies silhouetted against the glowing blue of the sea beyond.

The Galápagos Aggressor offers seven-night live-aboard boat trips that stop for land visits on three islands and dives off five islands (from $4,495 per person; aggressor.com).

Photograph by David Madison, Getty Images

Trek the Mont Blanc Circuit

France, Italy, Switzerland

A fair warning: While trekking the 100-mile (161-kilometer) circuit around Mont Blanc, it's almost impossible not to break out in The Sound of Music tunes. The scenery is postcard perfect: between gingerbread Alpine villages lie sprawling meadows surrendered to wildflowers, some of Europe's last glaciers, and iconic vistas of one of the continent's most storied mountains and the birthplace of Western mountaineering. It's also one of the few places where trekkers can walk between countries–France, Switzerland, and Italy (pictured)–and through both rugged wilderness and world-class ski towns such as Chamonix and Courmayeur. Do as the European trekkers do; their approach to mountain travel strikes a perfect balance between challenge and comfort. At the end of a day of 4,000 vertical feet (1,219 vertical meters) of hiking, stream crossings, and rampant photo snapping, stay in a mountain hut and relive the adventures with friends over hearty soups, homemade bread, and a spot of Chianti.

Gap Adventures offers ten-day accompanied treks for strong hikers on the Mont Blanc circuit ($1,349; www.gapadventures.com).

Photograph by Corey Rich, Aurora

Raft the Grand Canyon

Arizona, United States

In the Grand Canyon, rafters hear rapids long before they see them. It starts as a low hum, turns into a rumble, and finally grows into a heart-stopping roar echoing off the canyon walls. The sheer ferocity of the rapids, which often hide waves nearly 20 feet (6 meters) high and hydraulics that flip boats like burgers, is just one reason why the Grand Canyon is unanimously the country's top rafting trip. It's also one of the longest commercially run wilderness river trips, winding 226 miles (364 kilometers) without crossing even a dirt road. And it's one of the most spectacular, slicing through two billion years of geology, color-coded in thousand-foot cliffs.

A little known fact is that the rapids are big but forgiving–over three-quarters of rafters' injuries occur on shore–and many experienced rowers propel themselves down the river. Private trips afford the luxury of time–up to three weeks–and choosing one's own company and pace. But they also offer something less tangible: the transformative power of charting your own line down the West's greatest waterway. On these long human-powered trips, rafters discover that the river's real magic is found in the quietest of moments: the discovery of centuries-old Anasazi ruins and rare cactus blooms, the comfort of a campfire flickering off the cliffs, and, when the river calms to glass, the echo of even a whisper off the canyon walls.

It can take weeks or years to secure a permit to self-run the Grand Canyon through the Park Service's weighted lottery permitting system. Sign up at the national park's website (www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/weightedlottery.htm) and keep trying–the system favors the persistent. In the meantime, take a whitewater rowing course such as O.A.R.S.' seven-day clinic on the Rogue River ($1,177; www.oars.com). To help plan a Grand Canyon trip, enlist a river outfitter like Moenkopi Riverworks, which rents rafts and equipment, buys and packs food, and runs shuttles (pricing varies; www.moenkopiriverworks.com).

Photograph by Magnus Stenman, bildozer

Complete the Explore Sweden Adventure Race

Sweden

Sweden makes an ideal adventure-racing venue for many reasons, chief of which is its preponderance of summer daylight. For racers tackling Explore Sweden in July, that translates to nearly 24 hours of nonstop action that can stretch as long as 670 miles (1,078 kilometers) and take between four and seven days. Though Sweden's terrain is mellower than that of other locales, the race attracts a flock of strong international teams, who, in the last six years, have transformed it into something rare: a world-class competition open to anyone.

What levels the playing field is that racers never know what to expect. Each year, the race organizers get creative, coming up with a new route and a new set of activities. In 2010, racers traveled 520 miles (837 kilometers) from Norway's high peaks, down through Sweden's river valleys, and to the Baltic coast, trekking, mountaineering, kayaking, mountain biking, and rappelling along the way. Past races have taken participants canoeing, sailing, and what the Swedes call "coasteering," or traveling sections of dramatic coastline by any human-powered means, such as swimming, paddling, and climbing. The diversity ensures that those who complete all disciplines and limp across the finish line after days of nonstop movement will have some serious bragging rights.

Explore Sweden is open to any four-person team willing to pony up the $3,500 entry fee (www.exploresweden.se).

Search for your own ultimate adventure with National Geographic Expeditions »