Published: Spring 1999
Explorers for the Millenium
There's a popular idea afoot that the Age of Exploration is over—to which we say: Hogwash. Meet seven explorers who have the creative vision and the audacious curiosity to be unstymied by the notion that it's all been done.
Text by Paul Scott

There’s an idea alive in the land that the Age of Exploration is over: Just glance at the globe! All the blank spots have been mapped! Take a bow, Exploration—and get off the stage. To which we say: Hogwash. Yes—the world has been topo’d off, by all manner of surveyors and satellites. And as the youngest progeny of the National Geographic Society, which has supported groundbreaking, map-filling exploration since 1888, we’re thrilled at all the success our efforts (among others) have wrought.

But here’s the thing: The NGS has a much broader definition of “exploration” than the simplistic “finding new places,” and so do we—and that’s where the been-there/done-that millennial ennui peddlers are indulging in Magoo-like myopia.

Explorers at the millennium just need to be more creative. They need to redefine the nature of exploration itself, casting it, for instance, not as a straightforward search for unknown landscape, but as an emergency investigation of the disappearing species and cultures that live upon it. As a dig for the bones of undiscovered dinosaurs below it. As a slightly quixotic quest for the precise height of the world’s tallest mountains. As a treacherous slog through deep, unmapped, toxic-fume-filled caverns. As an inventory of the world at the bottom of the ocean.

To prove our point, we’ve chosen to spotlight seven explorers who have had the creative vision and the audacious curiosity to be unstymied by the notion that it’s all been done. And because of the human inclination to worship at the altar of First, these explorers, who tend to pursue subtler objectives, understand the need to cultivate their own celebrity, to build a buzz, just to avoid becoming trees falling in the silent (denuded) forest. We applaud them for that. And we’re happy to help.

Read about the Explorers >>

Brad and Barbara Washburn

"[American explorer Vilhjalmur] Stefansson said you never should have an adventure if your planning is good and you pull off every detail; an adventure is when things go wrong."

Cartographers of land that is seemingly unmappable. This husband-and-wife team has employed a variety of tools (theodolite, photomapping, laser photography, and GPS) plus tireless fieldwork, to map such challenging terrain as Everest, the Grand Canyon, and Mount McKinley. They have won numerous honors over the last 60 years, including the National Geographic Society’s 1988 Centennial Award. Brad is a leading expert on Everest, as well as Alaskan mountains and glaciers; Barbara was the first woman to ascend McKinley. Currently, they are working on a project funded by the National Geographic Society to determine Everest’s precise height and the rate at which the shifting of continental plates is pushing the world’s tallest peak ever higher.

Next: Ian Baker >>

Ian Baker

"To me, an adventure means putting yourself in a situation where you’ve opened yourself to the unknown, without fear or hesitation, to extend one’s vision or horizons. In the highest teachings of Tibetan Buddhism, there’s something called Gang Sher Lam Kher, which means, whatever happens, you bring it to the path [of enlightenment]. You open yourself to experience. To me, adventure has something of this quality."

Himalayan explorer, Buddhist scholar, photographer, author. Last year, Baker and Ken Storm became the first Westerners to descend into and measure the famous "Lost Falls" in the heart of one of the world’s deepest canyons, Tibet’s Tsangpo River Gorge. A superior climber, he has long used his skills to uncover places that feed his appetite for mystical knowledge. Baker’s deep immersion both in the landscape of the Himalaya and in Tibetan Buddhism dates to 1982, when, while seeking directions to a beyul, or hidden Tibetan valley, as part of an Explorers Club research grant, he fell under the tutelage of a lama. Since then, he has written a series of books chronicling Tibetan art, culture, and spiritual traditions, based upon his treks to these remote Himalayan valleys that Tibetans consider to be sacred lands.

Next: Paul Sereno >>

Paul Sereno

"Adventure for me means seeking to reveal the unknown and experiencing the trials and tribulations of getting to remote areas and coming back alive."

Dinosaur-bone digger, University of Chicago paleontologist, theorist on the evolution of dinosaurs. Sereno won a National Geographic Society grant in 1984 that helped fund an eight-month, round-the-world journey to photograph and study previously unseen dinosaur fossils, arranging them in an evolutionary family tree. In 1988 and 1991, he undertook digs in Argentina to learn how dinosaurs came to dominate. In Niger he unearthed a previously unknown species, which he named Afrovenator. Sereno is single-minded in his pursuit of discovery. He once moved six tons of 100-million-year-old bones across the Sahara despite armed guards, death threats to foreigners, and political instability. "You go into town," he says, "and you say, ‘Look, we have to move something heavy.’ You don’t isolate yourself. That, and you learn French."

Next: Louise Hose >>

Louise Hose

"I don’t really consider, say, bungee jumping to be an adventure. To me, an adventure is to put yourself in a situation where there are no pat solutions, where there’s no set of rules telling you what to do, and you have to sort it out as you go."

Geologist, professor of environmental studies, one of a handful of Amer-ican scientists/cave explorers to have descended below 4,000 feet. Hose has journeyed repeatedly to Mexico’s Sistema Cheve, a trip that requires two days, several swims through caverns, and 37 rope drops. With funding from the National Geographic Society, she determined that Sistema Cheve’s drainage system flows more than 8,000 feet below the ground, qualifying it as the world’s deepest cave system. Last year, she led two expeditions to a newly discovered Mexican goo-covered cavern called Cueva de Villa Luz, or Cave of the Lighted House. She found it filled with midges, bats, spiders, bugs, fish, toxic gases, and, everywhere, milky veils of microbial colonies—a veritable window onto the origins of life.

Next: Sylvia Earle >>

Sylvia Earle

"Friends have given me a hard time for taking frivolous risks, but really I don’t. I take calculated risks. When I go down deep in the ocean, there may be a lot of unknowns, but I feel comfortable about the risks. I don’t worry about being eaten by sharks, and I don’t worry about being attacked by giant squid. I do worry about mechanical failure, but that’s something you can do something about—you check and recheck your systems. And then you have fun."

Oceanographer, diver (she holds the women’s depth record for solo diving: 3,300 feet), author, leader of more than 50 underwater expeditions. Known as "Her Deepness," Earle has spent her career chronicling aquatic life, particularly the cataclysmic impact that overfishing, pollution, and neglect have had on freshwater and saltwater ecosystems. Earle, the former chief scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is currently the National Geographic Society’s 1998-2000 Explorer-in-Residence. She also founded DOER Marine Operations, an Oakland, California-based designer and operator of underwater technologies. True confession: She loves the taste of seafood. But she no longer eats it. "Once you see the real cost of it, all the ‘by-catch,’" she says, "you lose your appetite."

Next: Wade Davis >>

Wade Davis

"An adventure can occur on many different planes. There are spiritual adventures, physical adventures, geographical adventures, adventures of the heart. But for something to be adventurous, it has to be unpredictable. There’s a great quote from Kafka in which he says something like, ‘From a certain point onward there is no turning back. That is the place that must be reached.’ I think that’s true of all aspects of life, whether it’s the exploration of a river, a mountain climb, a passage through a jungle, or in journeys of the heart and the mind."

Anthropologist, writer, lecturer, big-game hunting guide, authority on zombies. He spent more than three years in the Amazon and Andes, living with local tribes, accompanying them on hunts, observing their shamanic rituals, learning their native medicinal practices, and collecting some 6,000 plant species. His research of Haitian voodoo led to his 1985 best-seller, The Serpent and the Rainbow. Davis’s recurring theme—"that this century will be remembered for the massive destruction of cultural and biological diversity on this planet"&#is best expressed in his essay collection Shadows in the Sun. Much of his success stems from his ability to win the trust of locals. "It can be as simple as a willingness to eat what’s put in front of you," he says. "If you walk into an Indian village and say, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t eat grubs,’ well, that’s going to create a barrier."