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Adventurers of the Year: Elites and Iconoclasts
Ten of 2005's best-of-the-best athletes and explorers  Text by Geoffrey  Norman

Adventurer of the Year: Download an interview with legendary alpinist Ed Viesturs >>


1. Matty McNair
Toppling the North Pole's most precious record

When Matty McNair started out for the North Pole last spring, she was out to settle a score. Ever since the American explorer Robert Peary first reached the Pole in 1909, his feat had been questioned. Skeptics argued that no one could make the 475-mile (764-kilometer) dash there from the east coast of Ellesmere Island in a mere 37 days. And indeed for the next 90 years, no one could. 
But as the guide for British explorer Tom Avery's five-person expedition, it was McNair's mandate to beat Peary's time.

On April 26, mushing in Peary's mythic tracks, using the same kind of wooden sleds and carrying the same 500 pounds (227 kilograms) of supplies, the Nunavut, Canada–based polar guide did just that. Avery's team broke Peary's record by five hours.

"I'd always felt this bond with Peary," McNair says. "He and I had both spent 20 years in the Arctic before we made it to the Pole. He was 52 years old when he got there. I was 53. Our record proves that he could have done it."

2. Juré Robic
Coast-to-coast on 12 hours' sleep

Last summer, Juré Robic rode to his second consecutive victory in the Race Across America (RAAM), pedaling the 3,052 miles (4,912 kilometers) from San Diego to Atlantic City in nine days, eight hours, and 48 minutes. It was a towering victory, with Robic, 40, a soldier in the Slovenian Army, finishing 17 hours ahead of his competitors. How? During the race, he logged only 12 1/2 hours of sleep; that's 21 minutes of sleep per century ride.

"My life is 100 percent devoted to this," Robic says. "All I do is train, eat, and sleep."

And as part of that training, he pedals for 48 hours straight once a month. His ambition is to be the first person to win four consecutive RAAMs. As long as Slovenia remains uninvaded, his chances look good.

3. Ellen MacArthur
Around the world in 71 days

On February 7, aboard a 75-foot (23-meter) Australian-built trimaran called the B&Q, Ellen MacArthur reached an invisible line in the Atlantic, off the French coast near Île d'Ouessant. She had been at sea for 71 days, 14 hours, 18 minutes, and 33 seconds, and when she crossed that line, MacArthur became not merely one of five people to circumnavigate the globe solo by sail (31,244 miles or 50,282 kilometers), but she finished the feat in the fastest time. And she'd beaten a record that most considered impregnable, by a whopping 33 hours.

Throughout her entire journey, the only sleep she'd gotten had been in 30-minute catnaps orchestrated between watches on deck. As well, the B&Q, which had been custom built to the skipper's five-foot-two-inch (157-centimeter) frame, dealt with some terribly unpredictable seas.

At one point MacArthur, who has been sailing for 25 of her 29 years, hit a storm so bad, her boat, she says, "was literally being thrown across the water . . . sliding down the face of one wave before being tossed onto the next. There was nothing I could do other than sit and wait for something to break."

She dodged icebergs, climbed the mast to make repairs, and, 63 days out, had a near miss with a whale. All this alone, except for the occasional friendly albatross. MacArthur's accomplishment made her a celebrity in her native England. In recognition of her achievement, she was dubbed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (she's the youngest woman ever to be awarded the title), an honor that recalled the knighthood of another notable British sailor, Sir Francis Chichester, one of her childhood heroes.

"There are lots more records out there," she says, almost wistfully. "I'm not going to end my connection with this boat . . . we've shared a lot of miles."

4. Josune Bereziartu
Climbing where no woman has gone before

On May 9 professional climber Josune Bereziartu, 33, started up Bimbaluna, a 65-foot (20-meter) limestone well in Saint Loup, Switzerland, to do what no woman had ever done: climb one of the world's few 5.15s. The rating is so difficult it didn't even exist until four years ago, and since then, only 12 people had managed it, all of them men.

For Bereziartu, a 15-year rock veteran from the Basque region of northern Spain, finishing Bimbaluna was a real coup. What had taken the route's first ascensionist three years took her just five weeks of dogged determination.

"Bimbaluna," says Bereziartu, "is the highest point of my career." And to female climbers, it is one more step toward closing the sport's shrinking gender gap.   
—Kasey Cordell

5. Greg Hill
A million vertical feet (304,800 meters) in a year 

Greg Hill skis mountains the sovereign way: no lifts, no helicopters; only the power from within. Using skins on his skis for traction, the forester and ski guide climbs a peak only to ski back down it. In 1999, his first year of serious backcountry skiing, 4,000 or 6,000 feet (1,219 or 1,828 meters) of vertical gain and loss would have been a big day.

But that was just a start.

"Ruedi Beglinger [a famous guide in the Canadian Rockies] claimed to have skied nearly a million verts in a year, and that made it one of those benchmark deals," says Hill. "Nobody had done it, and nobody was expecting anybody
to do it. So I started trying for it."

Last year, Hill, 30, a native of British Columbia, did 40,000 feet (12,192 meters) under his own power in a single day. (It would take a slower, shuttle-dependent heli-skier two days to match that number.) Over this year, Hill summited 40 separate peaks in central B.C. and put in 37 days of 10,000 or more feet (3,048 meters).

He got "pushed around a couple of times by avalanches," but reciting the mantra "Breathe and believe," he kept going. On May 19, in the MacKenzie Mountains, after 145 days of skiing, he got the millionth foot (304,800th meter). He was tired, but, he says, "I was sorry it was over."


6. John Ackerman

Opening caves at any cost

The farms in the rural corner of Minnesota where John Ackerman lives sit above limestone bedrock. "And where there is limestone," he says, "there are caves. And what I'm good at—and known for in the caving community—is discovering caves."

Generally speaking, this involves finding a sinkhole, excavating it with a backhoe, and blasting a way in using explosives—methods that have elicited criticism from caving purists. "With John it's quicker for him to blast in than find another way," says Blaze Cunningham, secretary of the Minnesota Speleological Survey. To be fair, he adds, "there is a way of justifying some of it."

Fair or not, there is no disputing Ackerman's passion for discovering and preserving caves. Since the early 1990s, Ackerman, 51, has been buying up property in Fillmore County, where one small town, Fountain, Minnesota, bills itself as the "sinkhole capital of the world." Last year Ackerman opened the 27th cave on the 500 acres (202 hectares) he now owns. "You never know when you open a cave just what you are going to find," he says. "I once found a raging river and, another time, a room big enough to hold a house."

"One of my caves," Ackerman says with paternal pride, "goes for more than five miles (eight kilometers); two-thirds of that is large passageways."

And though he's had his share of close calls—Ackerman nearly drowned when a passage he was scuba diving became blocked—nothing has diminished the thrill of being first to enter a secret world that he, alone, discovered.

7. Michael Reardon
Tackling the toughest routes—without a rope 

Last summer, the buzz in climbing circles was Michael Reardon's ascent of Romantic Warrior, in the California Needles near the Nevada line. Everything about the climb is challenging: From the base, you look up almost a thousand feet (305 meters), all vertical or overhanging granite. There is no warm-up; first pitch, you are into 5.10, an expert-level climb. By the fourth, it is an even harder 5.12, with the kind of exposure that makes nonclimbers feel weak simply looking at the photographs. The only break comes on the ninth and final pitch, a 5.9. For the sport's finest talents, Romantic Warrior is a long and hard day's climb, but Reardon, 35, a movie director from outside of Los Angeles, sent it in less than two hours—and he did it without a rope.

Reardon is a free soloist, one of the very few who climb entirely without protection. Without it, of course, any mishap could be lethal. The unexpected wet spot on the rock, the unseen fracture that gives under pressure, the momentary loss of concentration after hours of intense focus—all fatal.

The question, then—so obvious you want to scream it—is, Why?

"You get so cluttered up with gear and tools that you lose the purity of the experience," Reardon says. "Climbing is all about going until you get too scared to go any farther, like when you were a kid climbing trees."

After Romantic Warrior, Reardon attempted the Palisades Traverse, a 160-pitch route across 13 peaks in the eastern Sierra. Previously, a pair of climbers had done it in 12 days. Reardon did it in 22 hours.

"People think I must have a death wish," Reardon says. "I don't. I have a wife and an 11-year-old girl." He explains, "There are just two kinds of relationships in this world, parasitic and reciprocal. I'm trying for a reciprocal relationship with the rock."

And that explains everything . . . or does it?

8. Daniel DeLaVergne, John Grace, Tommy Hilleke, and
    Tobin MacDermott

Paddling the impossible—in a day

For kayakers, the Grand Canyon of the Stikine River in northern British Columbia is the pinnacle of North American white water. Coursing through a remote gorge, the 50-mile (80-kilometer) run is rated a ferocious Class V+, the highest survivable rating for a river. Since it was first descended in 1981, fewer than 40 paddlers have braved its fusillade of kayak-swallowing rapids, each more difficult than the last. And, of those who did, all took three days to complete it, stopping to scout rapids and gather their wits between particularly hairy sections.

On September 21, four North Carolina kayakers, Daniel DeLaVergne, 28, Tobin MacDermott, 22, Tommy Hilleke, 28, and John Grace, 29, shocked the white-water world by running the Stikine in nine hours and 50 minutes. It's an achievement paddlers liken to climbing one of Yosemite's big walls in a morning.

"Running at such an intense level for that long takes a toll," says Stikine veteran Aaron Pruzan.

Adds expedition member Grace, "It was the most brain-scrambling time I ever had on a river."   
—Frederick Reimers

9. Andreya Wharry
Going the distance on wind alone

On September 7, after eight hours and six minutes of braving the surf and fog of the Celtic Sea on a kiteboard, Andreya Wharry, 34, finally approached dry land. She was three miles (five kilometers) off the coast of Ireland and 132.7 miles (214 kilometers) from her native Cornwall, England, where she'd started that morning. It was a jubilant moment, and, though she was forced to pull up short because of bad weather, she says, "One hundred thirty-two miles [212 kilometers]—I'm really stoked with that!" She should be; her ride captured the record for the longest continual kitesurf.

Wharry, who runs an online custom print shop, is on the vanguard of distance kitesurfing, a niche sport in which the goal is not dazzling acrobatics but simply gaining lots of ground. For Wharry the thrill is "stepping off one shore and landing on another." She is not alone. In 2001 three Americans kitesurfed from Miami to Cuba, and in August of this year, Dutch kitesurfer Stef de Jong clocked 115 miles (185 kilometers) between England and the Netherlands.

Will Wharry's record stand? Probably not, but it may be Wharry who breaks it.    
—Clay Kaminsky

10. Kristijan Curavic
Looking for the true North Pole 

There's an argument out there that no one has really been to the North Pole. Deep under the Arctic pack ice, the real Pole, terra firma, still lies unvisited, and probably rightfully so. But last April, Kristijan Curavic, 31, went a little way toward getting there.

Outside Camp Barneo, the Russian polar base at latitude 89° N, one degree below the North Pole, Curavic cut a hole in the six-foot-thick (two-meter-thick) ice and, outfitted in a wet suit, made a freedive to 168 feet (51 meters) in the 28ºF water, the deepest ever in the Arctic (though still a very long 14,000 feet [4,267 meters] from the bottom).

Though he admits the chill was a challenge, Curavic, who is a professional freediver from the island of Krapanj, in Croatia, waxes rhapsodic when he describes the "dark, clear water in those very cold places. It is like nothing you'll see anywhere else."

And the rest of the world, no doubt, will take his word for it.

Adventurer of the Year: Download an interview with legendary alpinist Ed Viesturs >>

Pick up the December 2005/January 2006 issue for our annual coverage of the best of adventure, your guide to everything cool with 15 sports trends, 14 astonishing adventurers, and 45 gear picks that rock.

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