Kris Tompkins, on her husband, the legendary North Face founder and environmentalist:
“Doug climbed and skied and kayaked all over the world, but his greatest adventures came later, when he devoted himself to saving wild land in South America. Doug was a great bush pilot who spent thousands of hours in his single-engine Husky, looking for places to protect. He saw a beautiful landscape as a masterpiece, so he protected natural habitat the way you would protect a Picasso — by putting it in a museum. Over the years, we set aside more than 2 million acres in Chile and Argentina, in what will eventually become 10 national parks. We lived in a lot of these places while we worked on them, so daily life was an adventure by itself. But Doug kept doing adventures of his own — like the trip with Yvon Chouinard and Rick Ridgeway on Lago General Carrera in Chile in 2015. His kayak capsized, and he died of hypothermia. But Doug’s death has only made me more fierce in pursuing our conservation dreams. We lived like gypsies down here together, going from project to project, but I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
“I have never been a tourist,” Werner Herzog says. Instead, he adds in his sonorous Teutonic accent, “I travel when there’s a deep existential quest behind it. I do not stroll.”
If you’re at all familiar with Herzog’s work, this won’t be a surprise. The 75-year-old director and screenwriter is intense — often hilariously so — and relentless in his pursuit of truth and humanity in all its savagery, glory, and ridiculousness. He’s a man drawn to extremes: geographical, physical, emotional. Over a swashbuckling half-century-plus career in film — some 75 movies and counting — the steely-eyed Bavarian has pursued one thing above all: “For me,” he says, “filmmaking is about a sense of awe.”
Herzog started out making mostly fiction movies: fantastical narratives about obsessive conquistadors and anarchic dwarfs who were often most famous for the grueling circumstances of their creation (e.g., 1982’s Fitzcarraldo, in which the director forced his crew to drag a 340-ton steamship over an Amazonian mountain). But for the past 25 years, he’s been mostly a documentarian on a quest, as he puts it, to “know the hearts of men.” He’s plumbed the darkest depths of the human soul (2011’s death-row documentary Into the Abyss) and chronicled those perched on the edges of existence (Encounters at the End of the World, about Antarctica, and Happy People, on the Siberian taiga). In some cases, such as 2005’s unforgettable Grizzly Man — the tragic story of a bear enthusiast killed by his beloved animals in the Alaskan wilderness — he did both at once.
Herzog has been a seeker since he was a teen, striking out from his native Munich to wander through Greece, Albania, Egypt, Sudan. “The world reveals itself to those who travel on foot,” he says. “And when I say ‘travel on foot,’ I do not mean with a backpack, where you have your tent, your sleeping bag, your cooking utensils.” He made his first film in 1962 with money he’d saved working the night shift as a welder in a German steel factory. Since then, his work has found him in landscapes most people never dream of: the ice fields of Patagonia, the mountains of Tibet, the jungles of Thailand, the burning oil fields of post–Gulf War Kuwait. Now in his eighth decade, he’s as dauntless as ever: His latest two films — Queen of the Desert, a biopic starring Nicole Kidman about archaeologist and explorer Gertrude Bell; and this month’s Salt and Fire, a drama about surviving an erupting volcano — were filmed in the deserts of Morocco and the Bolivian salt flats, respectively.
Throughout his travels, Herzog has been beaten, jailed, threatened by armies, nearly killed by volcanoes, and shot. Herzog insists he’s always careful. “I do sometimes do risky things, but I’m not a daredevil,” he says. His proof? “In the 70-something films I’ve made, not one actor was ever hurt.” How about the crew? “Some of them were hurt,” Herzog allows. “But normally, I am the first one.”
Indeed, Herzog does not consider himself to be a particularly adventurous person. He has little use for adrenaline addicts like free climbers (“Frivolous with the gift of life,” he says) or wingsuit pilots (“It’s suicidal. Those who do it will probably perish”). But whether he admits it or not, he shares more than a little of their intrepid DNA. “There have been quite a few moments where I was very, very close to losing my life,” he says. “But I wouldn’t say I’ve ever experienced such a thing as fear. Death is hereditary. The universe is completely uninterested.
Asked when he is the happiest, Herzog replies, “I don’t really care about this concept happiness. It’s a very American concept.” He laughs that perfect, dry German laugh. “Other things,” he says, “are more important.” –Josh Eells
When things go south for the biggest egos in climbing, it’s often unknowns like Gurung, chief pilot for Nepal’s Simrik Airlines, who come to the rescue. Gurung learned to fly in the Nepalese army, honed his rescue skills with Air Zermatt in the Swiss Alps, and has since logged more than 7,000 hours pushing helicopters to their limit in the most dangerous conditions on Earth. When his friend and fellow pilot Sabin Basnyat died in a 2010 crash on Ama Dablam while trying to save two climbers at 21,000 feet, Gurung flew up after Basnyat, collected the body of his friend and one climber, then rescued the survivor. Gurung has since saved trekkers in the infamous Annapurna blizzard of 2014 and ferried injured Sherpas off Everest after the catastrophic 2014 avalanche that took 16 lives. “We’ve just scratched the surface of heli-operations in Nepal,” he says. “People don’t even understand yet what we can do.”
Shane McConkey (1969–2009)
Skier JT Holmes remembers an innovator who changed his sport forever:
Shane was a dominant force in the world of free-skiing throughout the 1990s. He had a pro mogul tour win, and he was in dozens of ski movies as both himself and his goofball alter ego, Saucer Boy. He and I always wanted to leave a mark in skiing’s history books, and the way we did that was with ski BASE jumping — skiing off cliffs and then pulling a parachute. In a regular BASE jump, you just step off a cliff and have the sensation of falling down an elevator shaft. Ski BASE is more like getting shot out of a cannon. Then we started skiing off cliffs, releasing our skis, and opening up wingsuits to fly. That’s like getting shot out of a cannon and then transitioning into flying an F-14 — a pretty cool combination.
Shane’s final jump was in 2009, in the Italian Dolomites. Before I dropped, I said something totally meaningless like, “Mind if I go first?” I skied off this cliff, released my skis, and started flying, but was surprised that the ground came up so quick. I landed and looked up for Shane, who never came. He followed right after me with a perfect double back flip. Then one of his skis didn’t release and he went into a spin and by the time he got the ski off it was too late to pull his parachute.
Shane did all this stuff because he had a creative mind and the drive to follow through on seemingly wild ideas. Back when skis were long and skinny, he started wondering why we couldn’t carve and slide turns through powder like snowboarders. He bolted some bindings onto a pair of water skis and almost single-handedly brought about the invention of modern reverse-sidecut ski. So if you’re ever skiing powder and your legs get sore at 1 o’clock, thank Shane — because they would have been cooked at 10:30 without him.
Driven by a mission to surf bigger swells, Hamilton was among the first to harness horsepower to catch monster waves. His experimentations with Jet Skis kicked off surfing’s most iconic, and dangerous, revolution, immortalized in the 2004 film Riding Giants, which showed Hamilton being flung into a five-story–high barrel at Teahupoo. The wave is still considered one of the heaviest ever ridden. A fall would have been “like getting driven through a cheese grater by a steamroller,” he once said. Hamilton continued his experimentation over the years, attaching a hydrofoil to the bottom of his board (in order to ride above the waves), and in 2003, helping introduce the world to SUP. But his name will be linked to giant swells forever. “Most surfers see Laird as either an influence or hero,” says champion rider Greg Long. “He pushed the sport by showing it was possible to survive waves that were once thought impossible.”
Fashion photographer. Music-video director. Arctic explorer. Maybe the only person on the planet who can claim those three jobs is 53-year-old Copeland. After making a name for himself in the New York and L.A. photo worlds, Copeland turned his attention to Earth’s shrinking ice caps. “I realized I could combine adventuring, photography, and activism — the three things that define me as a person,” he says. Since then he’s survived frostbite while walking 430 miles to the North Pole; harnessed the wind to kite-ski across Greenland in 43 days; and become the first person, along with his expedition partner, Eric McNair-Landry, to make a 2,500-mile east-to-west crossing of Antarctica. In 2016 he swapped the Arctic for the desert and pulled a 400-pound cart 404 miles across Australia’s Simpson Desert to shine a light on water issues. But his primary focus will always be the poles. “There’s the famous quote about climbing Everest: ‘Because it’s there,’ ” says Copeland. “Well, in the case of the Arctic, it’s because it won’t be there.”
Dean Potter (1972–2015)
Cedar Wright on his fearless climbing buddy and wingsuit pioneer:
“Dean changed the face of Yosemite climbing in the ’90s and early 2000s with his gladiator approach to soloing big walls. In fact, it’s fair to say that when Dean broke the Half Dome speed record in 1998, it changed everyone’s idea of what was possible. Same for his free-BASE climbs, where he climbed without any rope at all, just a parachute for protection. Then he wound up making wingsuit flights off just about every major feature in Yosemite, despite the fact that it was illegal, and off big walls in the Swiss Alps.
Dean will also be remembered as an antihero — always flipping the bird to authority. But it was Dean’s disregard for convention that made him compelling. He was bold to the point of being a little crazy, but if you were lucky enough to climb with him, incredible stuff would happen.
Dean died in a wingsuit jump in Yosemite in 2015. I was really sad, but I wasn’t shocked. People die doing this stuff all the time. There’s a mentality in the U.S. that you shouldn’t risk anything — you should die old with a house and kids. But not everyone is meant to live that way, and we need people who live like Dean. His life was shorter because of the risks he took, but his life was epic.”
J. Michael Fay
When civil war broke out in the Republic of Congo in 1997, Mike Fay was working for the Wildlife Conservation Society in the northern part of the country, managing the 100,000-acre Nouabalé-Ndoki national park. “Get out!” implored his boss. “It’s too dangerous.”
Fay, someone who had already spent two decades working on conservation issues in Africa, is famous among his peers for getting big things done under hair-raising conditions; he is not well known for taking orders. He ignored his boss and made his way to the nation’s capital, Brazzaville — where $50,000 in cash and unreimbursed receipts worth $400,000 for the nonprofit were sitting in a WCS office. He hired a gang of rebels to take him there, grabbed the receipts, headed to the airport, snagged the key to an unattended Cessna, and — with tracer fire lighting up the air around him — piloted away from the spreading chaos.
Two years later, Fay was back in Africa, this time to embark on his most legendary exploit, the “MegaTransect” — a 467-day, 3,000-mile hike in a compass-straight line from northeastern Congo to the coast of Gabon. The immediate purpose was to document, record, and measure — via audio recordings, still photography, video, and GPS — the astonishing biodiversity of the central African rain forest. The long-term goal: to make the case for protecting some of the last remaining true wilderness in the world. During the transect, Fay faced down charging elephants, armed poachers, and a near-deadly bout of malaria. “You never know what is going to happen,” Fay says. “But as a conservationist, you are like a preacher. You just gotta believe and keep going.”
After the trip, Fay met with Gabon’s president, Omar Bongo Ondima, who was so impressed that he agreed to set aside nearly 11 percent of Gabon’s land mass for 13 national parks. Then he asked Fay to help manage them.
The MegaTransect provided a template that Fay went on to deploy in future projects, like 2004’s “MegaFlyover” — 70,000 miles of low-altitude flight over Africa, taking pictures every 20 seconds — and a 333-day 2,050-mile hike through the California redwoods. “He is one of the most effective conservationists out there,” says John Robinson, conservation officer at the WCS.
Now 61, Fay is helping oversee another project in Gabon: a giant marine park comprising 23 percent of the nation’s territorial waters, around 18,000 square miles. Dealing with corruption and the devastation wrought by resource extraction isn’t always easy, but Fay seems upbeat. “I just can’t sit idly by and watch industrial processes unfold unfettered,” he says. “I gotta intervene.” –Andrew Leonard
Baumgartner will always be remembered for his stratospheric jump streamed live online, dropping from 128,000 feet and breaking the sound barrier during his four-minute, 20-second free fall. But prior to that, the 48-year-old had reeled off a string of equally mind-blowing jumps. Here are just a few of his unconventional exploits.
Highs and Lows: In 1999, Baumgartner set a BASE-jump record with a leap from Kuala Lumpur’s 1,500-foot Petronas Twin Towers, then the tallest buildings on Earth. Later that year, he climbed to the outstretched arms of Brazil’s Christ the Redeemer statue and launched off, nailing the lowest jump (95 feet).
Going for Distance: In 2003, Baumgartner strapped a chute and a carbon-fiber wing to his back and soared for 22 miles across the English Channel.
Doubling Down: In 2006, Baumgartner skydived
onto the roof of Sweden’s 625-foot Turning Torso building, then cut away from
his main parachute and BASE-jumped from the top. “There are very few of us
who have left such a big mark,” says fellow BASE jumper Luke Aikins. “It’s
that adventurous spirit of guys like Felix that shows us nothing is impossible.”
Alex Lowe (1958–1999)
Conrad Anker recalls his closest friend and climbing partner:
“Alex was the adventure equivalent of a polymath. He burst onto the stage with hard ice climbs in Colorado; he was one of the first to guide Everest; he did new routes on mountains in Alaska, Nepal, and Kyrgyzstan. Plus, he competed in some of the earliest sport-climbing competitions.
The day Alex died, on Shishapangma glacier, we were scouting a route to go up and ski off the summit. An avalanche caught us, and I got blown 90 feet and banged up. We looked for Alex for 20 straight hours and never found him. Later, I became a father to his sons and a husband to his widow. I’ve never stopped missing Alex. Finally, last year, I was in Tibet when the climbers David Goettler and Ueli Steck happened across Alex’s body. We organized an expedition, and at 5,900 meters, I carried his body down. A kind of survivor’s guilt hit: Why him and not me? In America, we glorify death and trivialize it in movies, but we don’t really see mortality. But it was also good to have closure.”
For much of his 80 years, Diamond has traveled into the jungles and mountains of the world — including to New Guinea, home of cannibals — to bring back an explanation of the “broad pattern of human history.” This is to say he’s not an explorer in the ordinary sense, or is he a scientist who gathers incremental evidence to make his case. He’s the Indiana Jones of humankind, heading out to remote outposts like Easter Island to make grand pronouncements in Pulitzer Prize–winning books like Guns, Germs, and Steel. In an age in which embedding with a remote tribe seems like a thing of the past, Diamond has done it repeatedly — and his riveting books may be the only time anthropology has risen to pop-culture status.
Tim Hetherington (1970–2011)
Author and filmmaker Sebastian Junger remembers the acclaimed photojournalist:
“I met Tim because I needed a photographer for a project in Afghanistan, where I was documenting a platoon for a year. Tim had shot brilliant images all over West Africa and Afghanistan, and he’d covered the aftermath of the tsunami in Sri Lanka. He was this amazing combination of incredible technical skills, great physical capability, bravery, and a deeply creative mind. We were in an isolated position with no internet or electricity; it was incredibly boring. One day, Tim was scurrying around snapping photos of the soldiers as they slept. ‘You never get to see soldiers sleep,’ Tim said. ‘Look at them. This is how their mothers see them.’ That’s someone thinking very profoundly about the nature of war, of mothers, and of men.
Tim died in Libya in 2011. He was shooting portraits of rebel fighters but got sucked into the drama of the front line, and went up there, and a piece of shrapnel killed him. I could easily have done the same thing. Afterward, I got out of war reporting for good.”
Age: 38 feats: More than 120 first descents in more than three dozen countries, from Pakistan to Papua New Guinea.
Most terrifying expedition: During an attempt to kayak the Lukuga River in Congo in 2010, Stookesberry’s kayaking partner, Hendrik Coetzee, was attacked and eaten by a crocodile; Stookesberry edited the footage from the expedition into the award-winning film Kadoma.
The talent that keeps him alive: “Stubbornness. For some fucked-up reason, I’m able to stay with the suffering, to deal with the foot-rot, frostbite and keep going until I hit the sweet spot I came there for.”
The explorers he admires: “The kayakers on the fringes, like the Klema brothers, who are doing big routes in Patagonia and putting down in treacherous swells and winds. That’s the soul of my sport, that push for exploration at the end of the road.”
Feats: Decades of setting records (or failing spectacularly) in the air and on the sea, to say nothing of reinventing the airline business. In 2004, he set the record for fastest crossing of the English Channel in an amphibious vehicle. Later that year, he launched Virgin Galactic to shoot paying clients into suborbit; he says he’ll be on the first flight.
His (most) near-death experience: Between 1995 and 1998, Branson launched more than four attempts to fly around the world in a balloon. During one trip with Steve Fossett, they made emergency diplomatic pleas to avoid being shot down in Chinese airspace.
The adventurers he admires the most: “I have a good friend, Nick Jacobsen, who is the best kitesurfer in the world, and just jumped off the tallest building in the world, in Dubai. There’s also a Russian balloonist who invited me on a trip to go higher than anyone’s ever been in a balloon. Sadly, for the first time in my life, I had to say no. I’m all in on exploring space travel — for me, that’s the final frontier. Making sure that, for all of us, the sky’s no longer the limit.”
Feats: Photographed the world’s top adventure athletes on their most out-there expeditions, from Tibet’s Changtang Plateau to the big walls of Borneo to the top of One World Trade Center. Three of his photos are in these pages: Alex Honnold, Conrad Anker, and the opening image.
His (most) near-death experience: Fighting his way out from under 60 feet of snow and debris during a 2011 avalanche in the Tetons. “I never bought into the out-of-body-experience until I had one.”
The talent that keeps him alive: Lungs and stamina. “It came from being a competitive swimmer from age eight — my dad made me swim everything from 50 meters to the 1,500. I’m not nearly the strongest guy out there, but I can sustain pace on the mountain.”
The adventurer he admires the most: “I’m a purist at heart, and look up to guys who carry that torch, like Mike Horn. He’s the classic guy who’s also embraced new tech and is pushing it in ways that weren’t possible before. That guy’s a total animal.”
How We Picked Them
Handpicking 25 men to represent the world’s most adventurous is like trying to determine who’s the best character on The Wire. But we did our best, leaning on the following criteria to justify our picks: We judged worthiness strictly on feats from the past 25 years, which explains why some unassailable badasses like Ed Viesturs or Yvon Chouinard aren’t included. And we placed a premium on consistency and commitment, so it’s not enough to pull off some mind-blowing feat if you just return to your stamp collection. These guys did it time and again, and some died trying. Mainly, each of our adventurers managed to redefine what was imaginable for future generations. Feel free to disagree. Or not.