Pushing the Limits

The Most Extreme Explorers of 2013

From a seven-year journey tracing the history of humans to a man attempting to be the first to walk the entire length of the Nile, meet some of the most extreme explorers of 2013.

Paul Salopek: Following Humankind

Our apologies to all other explorers; journalist and National Geographic Fellow Paul Salopek’s journey tracing the history of mankind is virtually unbeatable. Embarking from Ethiopia, the cradle of civilization, Salopek has undertaken a 21,000-mile, seven-year-long walking tour to trace human migration. His “Out of Eden Walk” will end in Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost tip of South America. Salopek is filing dispatches to National Geographic throughout his trek, which readers can follow in real-time, and, for each 100 miles traveled, he pauses to record the milestone with a panoramic photograph, ambient noise recording, and an interview with the closest person. He started the journey in January 2013 and, with his top day reaching 34 miles walked, still has six years to go and innumerable pairs of shoes to wear through.

Parker Liautaud: Antarctica’s Coast to the South Pole

He may only be a sophomore at Yale, but this 19-year-old has already visited the North Pole on three expeditions. On December 6, Liautaud and his teammate Doug Stoup, set off from Antarctica on a 640-kilometer ski journey to the South Pole. But that’s not the half of it. The first part of the journey was a 1,900-mile drive from Union Glacier to Leverett Glacier in Antarctica, where daylight shines for 24 hours and the temperature drops to minus 40 degrees centigrade. At that point, donning their skis, Laiutaud and Stoup attempted to break the record for fastest unsupported walk from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole, while laden with 180 pounds of gear each. They managed to knock four days of their 22-day goal, making the trip in 18 days 4 hours and 43 minutes. Though he’s now the youngest person to make it to both the North and South Poles, Liautaud isn’t out for personal glory, but to deploy a weather station that will log and transmit data to aid climate change research, a cause for which he is a well-known advocate.

Sarah Marquis: From Siberia to Australia, on Foot

In May 2013, Sarah Marquis ended a three-year, worldwide journey during which she once had to tie herself to a tree in Laos to avoid drowning herself if delirium from dengue fever set in. The 41-year-old Swiss adventurer set out to travel by foot from Siberia to Australia, experiencing temperatures ranging from minus 22 to 124 degrees, facing armed bandits who held her hostage, and dealing with two months of sleeplessness in Mongolia while being harassed by a group of horsemen every night. If this sounds like enough to make you hop on the next flight home, keep in mind Marquis was just 17 when she first crossed the Central Anatolia on horseback, and she has already circled Australia, the U.S., and the Andes. She’s also a woman who claims to be able to smell another human from one kilometer away. “You go through hell, don’t get me wrong. It’s hard, it’s painful, it’s everything. But at the core of it is this unbelievable connection with nature,” she told National Geographic.

Levison Wood: Walking the Nile

The mighty and elusive Nile’s 4,250-mile path has daunted explorers for years, but Levison Wood has plans to conquer it once and for all. On December 3, the 31-year-old explorer began in the Rwandan highlands on a year-long attempt to become the first person to successfully walk from the Nile’s source to its delta. His journey, which will encompass six countries, is being chronicled for a British Channel 4 television series. The undertaking might be even more fraught than Wood had planned: along with facing deadly animals and conditions, his fourth country, South Sudan, has recently plunged into the beginnings of war.

Amy and Dave Freeman: Choose Your Own North American Adventure

What better way to plot an 11,647-mile adventure across North America than by having 85,000 elementary and middle schools help make your navigation decisions with you? Husband and wife exploration team Amy and Dave Freeman undertook the “North American Odyssey” in 2010, spending three years backpacking, paddling canoes and kayaks, and dog sledding from Seattle to Key West, Florida, finally landing on the beach in April 2013. Along the way, thousands of students tracked their progress, learning about the expedition through the Wilderness Classroom, where they would post updates, mileage, videos, and polls to decide their next move. “Do you remember those Choose Your Own Adventure books? It was like that, but with real people,” Amy says.

Graham Hughes: 201 Countries, No Planes

In 2009, Graham Hughes’s passport was stamped in Uruguay. It was the first of 201 new country stamps he’d slowly acquire over the next four years until the 34-year-old had successful visited every country on earth without the luxury of an airplane. At some points he was moving quickly—hitting seven countries a day in Europe—but other voyages were more prolonged: the vastness of Africa caught him by surprise, dragging out for months (it didn’t help that at one point he got thrown in jail for six days). Hughes, a British filmmaker called his voyage “The Odyssey Expedition”, logging updates and hosting a show on the National Geographic Adventure channel. His last passport entry? South Sudan, a country so new it didn’t even exist when he began the journey. “Some may do the same thing in the future, and they may well do it faster, others may scoff and think the whole thing ridiculous, but NOBODY can ever take this achievement away from me,” he wrote after crossing into South Sudan, 1,426 days after the trip began. Instead of hopping on a plane from there, Hughes made his way overland back to Liverpool, arriving just in time for Christmas 2012. (We aren’t heartless enough to kick him off this list for being a week early to 2013.)

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Diana Nyad: An Unprotected Swim from Cuba to the U.S.

This trip may not measure up to the months and thousands of miles others on this list have traveled, but it could be the most high-endurance journey undertaken this year. On August 31, 2013, Diana Nyad became the first person ever to swim the 110-miles from Cuba to the United States without the protection of a shark cage. Fifty-two hours and 54 minutes after leaping from a rock wall in Havana, the 64-year-old marathon swimmer reached Key West. It was her fifth attempt, made a full 35 years after her very first. Admirably, Nyad didn’t rest after her success; she used the following media attention to stage a 48-hour public swim in New York to raise $110,000 for Hurricane Sandy victims.