As the first decade of the 21st century comes to a close, today’s adventurers have discovered that there are still plenty of previously unchartered territories and firsts left in the world, whether they are unclimbed mountains, rivers that haven’t been run – or by pushing the boundaries of human possibility.
This last decade has shown that adventure and exploration are no longer the preserve of tough men, but also of the young and the old of both sexes.
Even celebrities have become aventurers and explorers, David Walliams swam the English Channel, Cheryl Cole climbing Kilimanjaro and Eddie Izzard running the length of Britain.
With fears of retreating glaciers and melting icecaps, old-school explorers seeking scientific knowledge have found themselves suddenly relevant again. What clearer way to prove that there is still very much a point to exploration in the 21st century.
The Telegraph has charted the best action-packed adventures of the last ten years, from the bold and brave, to the frankly crazy, but courageous.
Sir Ranulph Fiennes kick started the decade, coming back from personal and physical misfortune by attempting to become the first person to ski unsupported and alone to the North Pole. Unfortuntaley it ended in disaster when, just days into the journey, his 300lb sledge fell through the ice and he put his left hand in the water to retrieve it. The subsequent frostbite ended his polar ambitions and he later famously sawed the blackened fingertips off himself. The incident could have finished the explorer’s career. Instead he took up climbing, proving that they just don’t make people like that anymore.
During the summer of 2000, Jason Lewis, the army officer’s son became the first person to pedal across the Pacific Ocean as part of his epic circumnavigation of the globe. During the 178-day journey he developed septicaemia, nearly went mad and had to fight off a huge saltwater crocodile before he could beach safely in Australia.
Jason was not the only circumnavigator, on September 6, 60-year-old grandmother Jennifer Murray flew around the world, solo, in a helicopter.
Circumnavigations were still the big theme for 2001. 24-year-old Alastair Humphreys set out on his bicycle from his home in Yorkshire, on what Fiennes called “the first great adventure of the 21st century”. Humphreys pedalled south across Europe and had reached Egypt by the year’s end. He would eventually return four years later having cycled around the world via Africa and the Americas.
The climbing community was gripped by the incredible ascent of Ama Dablam’s north-west ridge by two young British alpinists, Rich Cross and the late Jules Cartwright. In 10 days, they made the first ascent of this coveted line up the 6,812m mountain without oxygen or Sherpa support. The ascent involved more than 5,000m of climbing that had previously defeated 11 teams.
Nearby, a guided American schoolteacher called Eric Weihenmeyer climbed Mt Everest. Nothing extraordinary about that – except that Weihenmeyer was blind.
On the oceans, Former SAS soldier Peter Bray crossed 3,000 miles of the Atlantic by kayak. He arrived on Ireland’s west coast on September 5, after a journey of 75 days.
In the winter of 2002 Ann Daniels, Caroline Hamilton and Pom Oliver attempted to ski to the North Pole. Their trip was thwarted when they were hit by a three-day storm. Unable to put up their tent, all they could do was huddle under a tarpaulin as temperatures dipped below -58F (-50C), causing all members of the team to suffer frostbite, back problems and carbon monoxide poisoning. After 47 days Oliver was evacuated with wet gangrene, leaving Hamilton and Daniels to battle the remaining 300 miles to the Pole, which they reached on June 1.
Conditions were similarly difficult for the alpinists Paul Ramsden and Mick Fowler who, in April, made the first ascent of Siguniang’s north face in China. The 1,500m ascent, much of it on vertical ice and at altitude, took seven days to climb and two to descend.
Bad weather put paid to another climbing adventure in the autumn. French “Spiderman” Alain Robert attempted to climb Canary Wharf in East London but was thwarted by the notorious British drizzle.
However in the Turks and Caicos islands in the Caribbean, free diver Tanya Streeter plunged to a depth of 161m on a weighted sled to break the outright “no limits” record.
This was the year one of the last great polar firsts fell — the goal to reach the North Pole solo and unsupported from Canada. Pen Hadow, had failed twice, but he’d made a vow on his father’s deathbed and wasn’t going to give up easily. He set off on the 500-mile journey on March 17. Despite losing a ski one month in, he reached the Pole on May 19.
A fellow Devonian explorer Simon Chalk rowed the Indian Ocean solo. He covered the distance of 4,027 miles in 107 days.
Sir Ranulph hit the headlines again in 2003. First he suffered a massive heart attack that nearly killed him, then he ran seven marathons in seven days on seven continents as if nothing had happened.
His exploits prompted the London Marathon’s medical director to warn cardiac patients: “Running a marathon causes much greater stress to a normal mortal than to Sir Ranulph.”
On November 6, British alpinists Ian Parnell, Kenton Cool and American John Varco completed the first ascent of the south-west ridge of Annapurna III - 7,555m in a 10-day push. Two years later, Cool would be the man charged with teaching Sir Ranulph to climb.
In April, Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman set off to motorcycle the “Long Way Round” the world.
Earlier, Jamie Andrew, who lost both hands and feet to frostbite, was part of an all-disabled ascent of Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain, together with Paul Pritchard, who suffers from severe paralysis, and two others.
In the Arctic, 26-year-old Ben Saunders became the third person to trek solo to the North Pole. At 640 miles, it was the longest solo Arctic journey yet undertaken by a Briton.
Meanwhile, in May, British climber Paul Deegan was breathing heavily on the final summit slopes of Mt Everest when something caught his disbelieving eye – a microlight buzzing overhead. Its pilot was Richard Meredith-Hardy on his way to becoming the first – and only – person to fly an open cockpit, soft-winged plane over the mountain. Considering the cold, lack of oxygen and winds that exceeded his airspeed, it was a phenomenal feat.
The year closed with another aviation record falling. The prolific adventurer David Hempleman-Adams set a world altitude record for an open basket hot-air balloon, flying to 21,830ft.
In February, adventurer Tom Avery was determined to “put right one of the great injustices in polar history” by retracing Admiral Peary’s disputed 1909 journey to the North Pole. Using dogs and replica sledges, the team, led by a Canadian guide, raced the 500 miles to the Pole in a record 37 days. Far from settling the dispute, the polar establishment claimed it didn’t prove anything.
After an exhausting 18-hour slog through avalanche-prone fresh snow, Alan Hinkes stood on the summit of Kanchenjunga, at 8,586m. This was the end of an 18 year desire to climb all 14 of the world’s highest mountains over 8,000m for the Yorkshireman. “The final summit push was without a doubt the hardest climb of my life,” Hinkes reported.
On November 20, 32-year-old Dee Caffari set off on her attempt to sail single-handed the wrong way around the world, against the prevailing winds and currents. She became the first woman to complete the voyage on May 18 the following year.
The previous month, Adrian Flanagan also set off on a record breaking round the world voyage from British waters. He was attempting a “vertical circumnavigation” via Russia’s Arctic, but he wouldn’t complete his voyage for another 30 months.
They weren’t the only celebrities taking to water. In July, comedian David Walliams swam the English Channel, raising more than £1 million for charity. Jane Tomlinson, another fundraiser dominated the headlines. In July and August, she cycled 3,800 miles across the United States, raising £250,000. She battled excruciating pain, to complete her last challenge before losing her fight against cancer the following year.
Karen Darke also overcame adversity. Despite being paralysed from the chest down, she traversed the 400 miles across Greenland on a sit-ski.
Earlier in the year, Rob Gauntlett and James Hooper officially became the youngest Britons to summit Mt Everest, at the age of 19.
On January 20, a remarkable discovery was made by the most unlikeliest of explorers – country boys Rory Sweet, Rupert Longsdon and Henry Cookson. The trio walked and kite skiied 1,000 miles to Antarctica’s Pole of Inaccessibility – the furthest point from land. En route, they unearthed a bust of Vladimir Lenin poking out of the snow which had lain untouched since the Russians left it in 1958.
In the jungles of Venezuela, the BBC raised the bar of exploratory adventure to new heights by dispatching wildlife presenter Steve Backshall up the unclimbed tabletop mountain, Upuigma, where he discovered some frogs unknown to science.
Elsewhere, Sara Campbell stunned the freediving world by breaking three world records in three days. Blind British adventurer Miles Hilton-Barber flew from London to Sydney in a microlight (helped by sighted co-pilots).
Sir Ranulph Fiennes also climbed the north face of the Eiger at the age of 62 and Sir Robin Knox-Johnston completed his second solo circumnavigation of the world in a yacht at 68.
In October, Jason Lewis rolled into London after 13 years and 46,505 miles around the world by bike, pedal boat, roller blades and kayak.
Swiss climbing phenomenon Ueli Steck stunned the mountaineering world with an astonishing speed ascent of the north face of the Eiger in just three hours.
Two days later, Scotsman Mark Beaumont rolled into Paris after cycling 18,297 miles around the world in a record 194 days.
In March, Ed Stafford set off to walk the entire length of the Amazon. Almost two years on he’s lost his partner and his sponsor, he’s been accused of murder, run out of food – and he’s currently about halfway!
On May 15, former Royal Marine Phil Harwood began his odyssey to canoe the entire length of the Congo River from source to sea. He encountered rapids, swamps, crocodiles, malaria and rebel soldiers before emerging in the Atlantic, 2,900 miles later, in November.
Rosie Swale-Pope achieved a remarkable feat of endurance. After losing her husband to prostate cancer, she set off to run around the world, aged 57, in 2003. She finally arrived back on August 25 2008 after clocking up 20,000 miles and going through 53 pairs of trainers.
The year kicked off with Pen Hadow’s Catlin Arctic Survey, which measured the sea ice. Down Under, Sarah Outen became the first woman to row solo across the Indian Ocean at just 24, while 17-year-old Michael Perham completed the youngest single-handed sail around the world.
Brazilian extreme kayaker Pedro Olivia raised the bar for loony antics by paddling off a 127ft waterfall. Elsewhere, British engineer Richard Jenkins smashed the world land-speed record for wind-powered vehicles, clocking 126.2mph in Greenbird.
The paraplegic sailor Hilary Lister, who controls her yacht by breathing through straws, sailed alone around Britain. And the indomitable Iraq War veteran Major Phil Packer ran the London Marathon, rowed the Channel and climbed El Capitan, despite severe injuries.
The celebrities also had a go. Cheryl Cole, Fearne Cotton, Ronan Keating and Alesha Dixon all climbed Kilimanjaro for charity, while Eddie Izzard ran a seven-week, 1,100-mile marathon around Britain.
The daredevil rock climber Leo Houlding took adventure to new heights by parachuting into the Arctic, climbing Mt Asgard and then BASE-jumping off the summit. While on Everest it was finally third time lucky for Sir Ranulph Fiennes, who started the decade staring at defeat but ends it with a resounding triumph, proving that nothing brings success like perseverance.