A century ago, a majority of the planet's residents never managed to make it further than a few hundred miles from their birthplaces. Now, with one billion international arrivals a year, travelers are spreading into the last unexplored corners of the globe. The demand for bigger, better, and more adventurous experiences is skyrocketing. "There's an accessibility that there never was before, and people can do things that were once unimaginable," says Shannon Stowell, president of the Adventure Travel Trade Association. "If you can think of it and Google it, there's probably someone who can take you."
Here are nine of the most extreme trips on the planet - and the outfitters that take adventurers over the edge and back again.
Ski to the North Pole.
No one would call skiing to the South Pole a cop-out, but a far more challenging prospect awaits on the other end of the axis. Whereas the South Pole journey is a long, hard, and boring slog over a frozen continent, the approach to the North Pole is an infuriating maze of ever-shifting pack ice.
"That's what we call the polar treadmill," says Annie Aggens, a guide with Polar Explorers, which pioneered commercial polar skiing expeditions in the nineties. "You're actually drifting with the currents and the wind. Overnight, you may have drifted one mile or even up to 10 miles and frequently you're moving away from the pole."
The upside? With the changing scenery, skiers don't usually get bored. They do, however, get tired. It can take upwards of 50 days to ski from Resolute Bay, Canada to the pole, dodging polar bears, enduring temperatures that rarely peek out of the minuses, and driving into bone-freezing winds. But for those who learn cold-weather skills and develop the mental and physical stamina to pull a 150-pound sled every day for nearly two months, there are unspeakable rewards, like seeing rare, silent landscapes that few people will ever have the strength or resolve to see.
"Today, there aren't a lot of challenges where you can put yourself in a whole different realm," says Aggens. "For a lot of people, it's like stepping back in time and re-creating the footsteps of explorers they've read about since children."
More Information: Full North Pole expeditions with Polar Explorers start at about $100,000 and include a five-day training program and all group equipment, skis, and sleeping gear. The company also runs shorter expeditions to the North Pole, such as dogsled trips and a 14-day ski trip, including a flight onto the pack ice (from $47,500), as well as expeditions to the South Pole.
Credit: Polar Explorers