Next: Read about their feats.
Consider this a spirit award, celebrating the sheer pluck that yanks average people out of their humdrum lives and propels them toward the unknown. In this case those folks are Andrea Palos, 24, and Gabor Rakonczai, 26, design students at the University of West Hungary's Faculty of Wood Sciences near the Austrian border. Several years ago, while reading about adventures on the high seas, they fastened on to the idea of rowing across the Atlantic Ocean. And like that, Palos recalls, "We said, Let's just do it!"
To prepare, they took sailing classes, learned celestial navigation, and began building a boat in their spare time. On November 27, 2006, they loaded the mighty Fireant, shoved away from a Spanish dock, and rowed south to Casablanca. From there, in a stroke of bad luck, Palos and Rakonczai paddled straight into a force 10 gale. Thirty-foot (nine-meter) waves battered their homemade craft. When the situation turned desperate, the pair issued an SOS. Word came back that only a helicopter could reach them; their boat would have to stay behind. After months of hard work, that was unacceptable. They decided to tough out the swells.
"It was terrible," says Palos. "The boat moved up and down and in three dimensions, and when the waves hit, the noise was very big." After six harrowing days the storm finally subsided, and from then on out it was clear rowing. When Palos and Rakonczai stepped ashore on Antigua this past March, they had traveled 4,144 miles (6,669 kilometers) in 94 days. Only later did they find out that they had come within four hours of the rowing record between the Canary Islands and Antigua's English Harbor. It made a once-in-a-lifetime experience that much sweeter.
Next: Collen Hardy: Mortal Hero
At first glance, it's hard to picture Colleen Hardy in a disaster zone. From her wide smile and kind eyes, you'd never guess that the 40-year-old field epidemiologist spent seven weeks last spring tearing down dirt tracks in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, dodging Mai Mai rebels and crooked cops, and visiting as many forgotten villages as she could. Her grim goal: to ascertain the death rate in one of the world's most dangerous countries.
As an employee of the International Rescue Committee, Hardy helped pioneer the field of mortality surveys, what she calls "the bridge between the people who are suffering and the outside world." In 1998 she visited the DRC for the first time to gather data and collect people's stories, then returned once more in 2002. When her mortality survey came out, it proved that the Congolese civil war was the deadliest conflict since World War II, taking more than 3.9 million lives at a rate equivalent to a 9/11 attack every three days. "Yet," Hardy says, "it hardly made the news."
It does now. In the years since, partly because of her refusal to quit, humanitarian aid to the Congo has jumped by 500 percent, American aid has increased 25-fold, and similar surveys have emerged as critical tools for humanitarian groups worldwide. Hardy's report from this spring, published in November, is again expected to drive much-needed funds to the DRC. "If we didn't do this work," she says, "no one would know what was happening." For Hardy, that's not an option.
Next: Mike Fay: Wilderness Prospector
"It was like being a gold miner and flat out finding El Dorado," says conservationist Mike Fay, 51. This spring, he, along with three colleagues from the Wildlife Conservation Society—Paul Elkans, Malik Marjan Doka, and Lindsey Holm—made the first recent aerial survey of Boma National Park in southern Sudan, an area so war-torn that most assumed it entirely denuded of wildlife. How wrong. Out the window of the single-engine Cessna, the group spotted hundreds of thousands of antelope and gazelles, along with scores of elephants, waterbuck, ostriches, giraffes, and others. "Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that kind of natural abundance to exist completely unknown to the outside world," Fay says. Indeed, Boma's herds may constitute the largest and richest animal migration on the planet.
For most, finding the wildlife equivalent of the Titanic would be ample enough achievement for one year—but not for Fay. On September 3, 2007, he set out on another equally impressive mission: to walk the entire redwood range of California, which now covers some 700 miles (1,127 kilometers). Living in the woods for months at a time, he hopes to initiate a popular revival of sorts, restoring the logged-out forests to their former glory while still increasing lumber yields. If that's act two, we can't wait for act three.
Next: Børge Ousland + Thomas Ulrich: Polar Pioneers
"We crossed water 20 times a day, jumping from one ice floe to the next, sometimes swimming, or paddling kayaks in long leads of open water," says Norwegian Børge Ousland, 45, one of the world's greatest living polar explorers. For over a decade Ousland has been bagging one milestone after another. But this spring, along with Swiss partner Thomas Ulrich, 40, he upped the ante to capture one of the Arctic's last trophies: a re-creation of countryman Fridtjof Nansen's epic journey from 1895 to 1896.
As the Ousland of his own era, Nansen spent two years on a grueling quest for the North Pole. In the end, he and a partner reached 86° 14' N, the northernmost point attained at the time, but then bad weather set in and they were forced to overwinter on a deserted island in a hut they built themselves. Not until the following summer, when the pair was on death's doorstep, did they happen across an English expedition at Cape Flora, in northern Franz Josef Land, that sailed them back to safety.
Ousland and Ulrich's odyssey began with a flight to the North Pole this past May and involved an 870-mile (1,400-kilometer) triathlon of skiing, kayaking, and swimming in their dry suits. Heavy waves and howling winds pinned them in their tents for days; at one point they had to share a small cape with two hungry polar bears. The crux of the trip was crossing Franz Joseph Land, an Arctic archipelago that has been effectively sealed off by the Russian military since the 1930s. Gaining permission only days before reaching the border, Ousland and Ulrich made their way to the exact spot where Nansen was saved by the English. Like Nansen, they were picked up by a sailboat. But unlike Nansen, who was content to see his journey end, Ousland added his own modern twist: In Bodø, Norway, he hopped on his bike and rode 930 miles (1,497 kilometers) back home to Oslo.
Next: Angelika Brandt: Sea Scout
For years scientists thought biodiversity in the oceans was distributed like biodiversity on land: dense in the tropics and less so at the poles. But that was before Angelika Brandt took a good look around Antarctica. A zoology professor at the University of Hamburg, in Germany, Brandt and her team made three expeditions to the Southern Ocean between 2002 and 2005 aboard the icebreaker Polarstern. Sending instruments as low as 20,826 feet (6,348 meters) and dragging enormous trawling nets while battling Antarctic winds and swells, they brought up tens of thousands of specimens, a haul of unbelievable proportions. "I could see the happy faces," Brandt, 45, says of her colleagues. "This was spectacular!"
When Brandt and her team published their results this past spring, they presented the world with 700 previously unknown life-forms, including exotic carnivorous sponges, bizarre crustaceans, and worms that swim free in the icy deep. They also made the startling announcement that biodiversity in certain Antarctic waters is similar to that of the tropics, and that new life-forms are being continually exported worldwide on the deep-sea currents that emanate from Antarctic ice shelves. "For me the polar areas are so remote and so peaceful and wonderful in terms of wildlife," Brandt says, "that they are the most fantastic regions in the world."
Next: Sarah + Eric McNair-Landry: Arctic Royalty
When you grow up with renowned Arctic guides for parents, with all of Baffin Island as your playground, a team of sled dogs at your disposal, and a tangle of snow kites in the garage, you are bound for big things. So when Sarah McNair-Landry, 21, and her brother, Eric, 23, along with their friend Curtis Jones, 30, decided to snowkite some 1,500 miles (2,414 kilometers) across the Greenland Ice Sheet—that's Boston to Miami on an uninterrupted sea of ice—no one was surprised. In awe? Now that's another matter.
As the children of Paul Landry and Matty McNair (who herself was an Adventurer of the Year in 2006), Sarah and Eric were practically raised on expeditions. By the time they set out for the Ice Sheet this summer, Sarah had already been to two poles, Eric to one, and both were veterans of two previous trips to Greenland. But this time, says Eric, "We wanted to do something that was long and challenging and would really push the limits." Try hiking four days from the ocean up mountains and across crevasses, dragging 220 pounds (100 kilograms) of equipment apiece. And that's just to where the team could start kiting. Then it was six weeks of whipping across the ice at speeds of up to 20 mph (32 kmh). In one amazing run they covered 256 miles (412 kilometers) in 24 continuous hours. "Our stomachs hurt from the vibrations," says Eric.
To most, such a remarkable journey would be a means to equally remarkable ends, a "first" of sorts. But Sarah and Eric claim not to be motivated by records (though, incidentally, they did grab two: They're the first brother-sister team to cross the Ice Sheet, and Sarah is the youngest to do a south-to-north traverse). Instead, Sarah insists, the goal was to inspire the next generation of explorers. "You get youth outside and get them active and they start to appreciate the environment and care for it," she says. There is no record more worthy than that.
Next: Tim Cope: Horse Whisperer
On the morning of his fifth day on the Eurasian steppe, Tim Cope, 28, woke to find his horses gone. For someone who had planned to undertake one of the longest equine journeys ever made, crossing 6,200 miles (9,978 kilometers) of harsh, roadless plains in the style of Genghis Khan and his Mongol horde, this was a troubling development. In the distance Cope saw a yurt. As he neared it, he could see three horses suspiciously like his own milling about. He asked the yurt's occupant how he'd come by them. "They arrived by themselves," the nomad replied, and he and Cope settled into a silent stalemate. Then the nomad spoke: "A man on the steppe with no friends is as narrow as a finger; a man with friends is as wide as the steppe." He then gave back the horses. For Cope it was a wake-up call; if he was to survive on the steppe, he needed not only to learn its culture, but to live it.
Over the three years he spent riding from Mongolia to Hungary, Cope stayed with no fewer than 160 families. He ate with them. Shared vodka with them. And whether Mongols, Kazakhs, Kalmyks, Tartars, or Hungarians, he bonded with them over the horse. He crossed mountain ranges in blinding cold and deserts in blazing heat; he was given a dog and bought a camel; and as he approached Hungary, where the rolling steppe withers into the banks of the Danube, he found himself a folk hero. Crowds gathered in every village and horsemen rode beside him. At one point a rider reined up next to Cope and said, "Do you know why everyone is helping you? Because you're honoring our ancestors. You've become a horseman in heart and mind." For Tim Cope there could be no higher compliment.
Next: Trip Jennings: Whitewater Visionary
Google Earth may have shrunk the globe to the size of a computer monitor, but that doesn't mean there are no undiscovered spots left on the planet. Trip Jennings, 25, is determined to find them. This September, Jennings, along with a team of kayakers and scientists, set out for New Britain Island, a 370-mile-long (595-kilometer-long) slab of karst limestone off the coast of Papua New Guinea. Ostensibly they'd arrived to develop a sustainable tourism program to protect jungles that, as Jennings says, "have never been explored by people, or chain saws, or anything like that." But the former pro kayaker had more than one agenda: New Britain is whitewater's perfect storm, lousy with impossibly rugged relief and raging torrents. Yet, says Jennings, "No one had ever kayaked there."
The most enticing of the possibilities was the Pandi River. On maps it seemed to appear out of nowhere, welling inexplicably from the ground with no tributaries or side canyons. And indeed, when Jennings and his team arrived, after days of hacking through nearly impenetrable jungle, they found the river pouring straight from a yawning cave into a gorge. Then, says Jennings, "it drops off the face of the Earth."
He and his team dropped with it. For two days they churned through Class V waters with no idea what lay around the next bend. "You're in a gorge that you can't scout and you can't portage," Jennings says. "You just have to commit." Vines from the forest canopy snaked down a hundred feet through the air to touch the surface of the river. At one point the team was confronted with a 55-foot (17-meter) waterfall. The road was days away, and a hospital much farther. Still, Jennings says, "To take that paddle stroke out of the eddy and over the falls—it was freedom."
The entire run on the Pandi was four days and 40 miles (64 kilometers), and in that span they saw only one other person, a member of the Kol tribe standing on a hand-strung bridge. As the man's jaw dropped like he'd seen ghosts, Jennings realized that "no one, not Westerners or locals, had been down the Pandi. It was amazing to be the first person to see it."
Next: Steve Bogaerts, Robbie Schmittner, + Sam Meacham: Cave Champs
Sometimes it's easy to forget that there is an unknown world beneath our feet. Take, for example, Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula, where divers Steve Bogaerts, Robbie Schmittner, and Sam Meacham are fast uncovering the longest underwater caves in the world. The action started last January, when Bogaerts, 43, and Schmittner, 33, proved the Sistema Sac Actun to be a record 95 miles (153 kilometers) long. The title did not last, however. In June, Meacham, 40, and his team capped ten years of exploration in an entirely different system, Ox Bel Ha, with the discovery that it was an astounding 102 miles (164 kilometers) in length. To find such caverns, Bogaerts, Schmittner, and Meacham (who work separately but collaborate) troop out to unmapped sinkholes, strap on scuba gear, and descend into the caves—"some so big you could fly a jumbo jet through," Bogaerts says, "some so small we have to take off our tanks just to fit." The results are always unexpected. One time Bogaerts had a passage collapse behind him, while Schmittner once surfaced only to come face-to-face with a jaguar. Each diver has found the bones of woolly mammoths, along with piles of Maya relics; the most extraordinary find was a human skeleton dating back 13,600 years, possibly the oldest in the Western Hemisphere. The beauty of this project is that the discoveries will keep on coming: According to Meacham, "We now think that one day these two cave systems will join."