They Did It
Fourteen people who dreamed big, pushed their limits, and made our year.
Here's to those who went to extremes—and came back with amazing tales to tell. Whether racing from pole to pole or tracing the Amazon from beginning to end, discovering thousands of gorillas in Congo or rescuing fellow climbers when K2 crumbled, here are 14 people who made the world a better place this year.
Who says youth is wasted on the young?
Adventurers of the Year: Rob Gauntlett & James Hooper
Text by David Vann
Photograph by Martin Hartley
Imagine this. You climb Mount Everest by the time you're 19. And that's tame. You want to try something outrageous, something never before attempted. How about traveling from geomagnetic pole to geomagnetic pole in one frantic dash? Start north of Greenland, then ski and dogsled on thin ice, cycle most of the length of the Western Hemisphere, and sail for months into the Antarctic. For Rob Gauntlett and James Hooper, two British teens fresh out of prep school, this sounded about right. A 26,000-mile epic that would take more than a year. Never mind that they had no serious funding, very little time to plan, and no sailing or dogsledding experience. Never mind that they would almost die (twice, it turned out). They had climbed Everest—Mount Everest!—in a similar way, learning skills as they went and paying for it with loans and small corporate grants they dug up themselves. Prudence wasn't necessarily their main concern. They just wanted to throw themselves out there. So on March 28, 2007, they set off—two 19-year-olds running behind dogsleds into a blizzard in northern Greenland—on the most madcap adventure we saw all year.
Snowboarding's fresh take
Spirit: Gretchen Bleiler
Text by Christian DeBenedetti
Photograph by Gregg Segal
Gretchen Bleiler remembers the moment it hit. "After the Winter '06 Olympics, I went to the Daytona 500 and waved the green flag," she says. "Then it was straight to Tahoe for a Vans Cup. I was standing at the top of the half-pipe, but I felt nothing," she says. "Something was wrong." The silver medalist and one of the world's most decorated female snowboarders had lost her passion.
So she did something unusual. She took a year off. Instead of focusing on the 2010 Olympics (and the dozen or so competitions in the 2007-08 winter season alone), Bleiler, 27, ditched the terrain parks to rediscover her sport in the planet's remote backcountry. The first stop was the Japanese island of Hokkaido, one of the snowiest places on Earth. She and a few friends hit hike-in "pillow drops," huge hummocks of snow piled on steep boulders, and tore through avalanche barriers in search of fresh tracks. Then it was off to Krasnaya Polyana, in the Russian Caucasus, where Bleiler (filming segments for Uniquely, a film released this October) built kickers over fallen trees and carved isolated bowls via helicopter. Finally, she landed in the Alberta Rockies to nail a few big-mountain lines.
"It's amazing what happens when you take yourself out of what's comfortable," Bleiler says. By the time she hit the half-pipe again, she was a rider reborn, with newfound confidence and a freshly honed competitive edge. Proof that sometimes stepping away is the best thing you can do.
Going long in the Amazon
Field Science: Maroy Correa Estenos & Sam Stime
Text by Ryan Bradley
Photographs by Evan Abramson
The Amazon River is the largest and arguably most important waterway on the planet. It is also one of the most neglected. Maroy Correa Estenos, 26, and Sam Stime, 29, want to change that.
So on August 16, 2008, they loaded up an open canoe on Peru's Maranon River, the Amazon's headwaters, and started rowing 2,827 miles to the Atlantic. In and of itself, running the entire Amazon isn't particularly helpful. But Estenos, a Peruvian veterinarian, and Stime, a Canadian engineer, had other designs: to mount the world's longest water survey. At every major city, confluence, and pollution point (factory, farmland, mine, or oil well), the pair measured changes in temperature, pH, phosphates, sulfates, nitrates, and chloride to chart the buildup of pollutants from source to sea. Such a comprehensive study could have a great impact on river management. Before they left, Estenos and Stime won endorsements from Peru's National Institute of Natural Resources and the Loreto regional president, Yvan Vasquez Valera, to create a documentary, which they hope to air on national television.
But Estenos and Stime were thinking bigger still. "In the Amazon, people's lives are tied to the water," says Stime. So at every village they encountered, the pair pulled up their boat and got out. They shared meals and homes. They fished beside villagers and botos, the Amazon's pink dolphins. And they explained their findings. "We want to show the interconnectedness of the river," Stime says, "and raise awareness about how inhabitants affect the river they love." It would take Estenos and Stime 86 days to reach their takeout at Belem do Para, Brazil. If only we could all change so much in so little time.
Five years in bondage
Journalism: Benjamin Skinner
Text by Ryan Bradley
Photograph by Alessandra Petlin
It was near the front lines of the Sudanese civil war, in 2003, when journalist Benjamin Skinner met his first slave. His name was Muong Nyong, and he had run barefoot for two weeks across the burning desert to free himself. As Nyong told his story, Skinner decided to do what few had done before: uncover what it was like to be a slave in the 21st century.
For five years, across 12 countries, Skinner, 32, tracked down more than a hundred slaves, slave dealers, and former slaves. He traveled to distant stone quarries in forgotten hamlets in India and infiltrated illicit trafficking networks in Bucharest and Dubai. He went undercover, posing as an interested customer or a potential dealer. Often, his life was in danger. In Haiti, he had guns pulled on him while following the child slave trade from the back alleys of Port-au-Prince to the hills far beyond. Through his work he learned that slavery, though illegal and universally condemned, is as widespread as ever, and much more complex and difficult to combat. Astoundingly, there are 27 million people enslaved today—more than at any other point in human history.
By the end of his journey, Skinner knew that he could never understand what it was like to be a slave, but, he says, "I could show what their slavery meant." In March of this year, he released a book that chronicled his experiences, A Crime So Monstrous. More than a devastating look at modern slavery, it is an inspirational demand for justice.
The savior and the storm on K2
Heroism: Pemba Gyalje Sherpa
Text by Christian DeBenedetti
Photograph by Daniel Pepper
On August 1, 2008, at just about 8 p.m., a massive serac cleaved from a glacier near the summit of K2, the world's second highest mountain, and barreled down a section of the Cesen climbing route called the Bottleneck. In an instant, one climber was dead, key safety lines were swept away, and 17 climbers were trapped above 27,000 feet with little chance of escape.
In the days ahead, the disaster on K2 would become one of the deadliest mountaineering incidents in history, leaving 11 victims in its wake. The tragedy would shake modern mountaineering to its core. And it would yield a hero, Pemba Gyalje Sherpa.
Pemba, 34, and three members of his Norit K2 team—leader Wilco van Rooijen, Marco Confortola, and Gerard McDonnell—reached the Bottleneck minutes after the serac fell. Rather than face a dangerous descent in total darkness, Pemba's three teammates decided to bivouac for the night. At 27,000 feet the temperatures would reach minus 40ºF. Pemba, a seven-time Everest veteran, knew the dangers of the death zone. He chose instead to descend the Bottleneck alone, without oxygen, picking his way down the 60-degree couloir guided by a single tattered safety line that had survived the avalanche. He reached Camp IV by 1 a.m. His teammates, he assumed, would be down at first light.
By daybreak on August 2, chaos reigned. More than a dozen climbers were missing or dead, and the weather had worsened considerably. Van Rooijen had staggered away from the team, desperate to get down by a different route, and soon became hopelessly lost. McDonnell had wandered back uphill, apparently confused. Frostbitten and delirious, Confortola had climbed partway down the Bottleneck, unable to remember how he'd done it. Just before he passed out from altitude sickness, a second avalanche swept toward him carrying McDonnell's mangled corpse.
With his team in shambles, Pemba had to act fast. He heard over the radio that Confortola had been spotted midway up the Bottleneck. "I thought, OK, if we are lucky, I can rescue Marco," Pemba says. So he began to climb, soloing through swirling snow up the couloir. "It was very scary, but I knew Marco was still alive," he says. "I could not turn back."
When Pemba reached Confortola some hours later, the Italian was in bad shape, unconscious and suffering from severe altitude sickness. Somehow Pemba managed to revive him with oxygen and guide him to the base of the Bottleneck. At that moment another slide roared from above, this time carrying the bloodied bodies of two Sherpas and two Korean climbers. A chunk of falling ice blasted Confortola in the back of the head. Dazed, the Italian began to slip. "I was falling," he told a reporter. "The avalanche would have taken me away. But Pemba grabbed me from behind. He was holding my neck. He saved my life."
By the time the pair made it to Camp IV, Pemba was shattered, collapsing into his tentfor a few hours' sleep. When he woke that evening, he got word that van Rooijen, the lost Norit K2 leader, was still alive. He had to go out again.
After a night alone in the open with no water and no ice ax, van Rooijen had been presumed dead. Then, unexpectedly, he called his wife on his satellite phone. Using the call data, the Norit K2 team fixed his location on the mountain's South Face, far from any known routes.
Armed with only rough coordinates, Pemba, along with another survivor, Cas van de Gevel, struck into terra incognita, picking across avalanche-prone terrain at night. After searching for hours, the pair decided to resume the next day. They finally found van Rooijen in the late afternoon by following the sound of his ringing cell phone. The three men staggered into Camp III well after dark, on August 3, exhausted but alive.
In the weeks after the tragedy, Pemba returned to his Kathmandu home, far from the horrors he'd just witnessed. You'd think that after such an experience, he would never want to climb again, soured forever. But Pemba has no such plans. He'll be back in the mountains, he says, by the time next season rolls around. Thank goodness. Climbing needs more heroes like him.
Adrenaline: Francois Bon
Text by Christian DeBenedetti
Photograph by Wesley Mann
When his guides asked why he was climbing Argentina's 22,834-foot Aconcagua, Francois Bon had an unusual response: silence. "I tried not to tell them," he says. After all, they might not have helped him reach the summit if they'd known he was planning to jump off.
Speed riding is the sport (if you can call it that) of rapid descent. Adherents leap from mountaintops and fly down sheer faces at near-free-fall speeds, guided only by a small, specialized paraglider. When the grade flattens, they touch down briefly to ski ridiculously fast before taking off again over the steeps. Bon, 36, is the grandfather of the sport. In 2006, he leapt off the Eiger and Mont Blanc. In 2007, he made some riotous runs in New Zealand's Southern Alps (shown above). But on March 31, 2008, he nailed his biggest prize yet.
"I never flew so fast before," he says. After an 11-day slog to Aconcagua's summit, the highest in the Western Hemisphere, Bon strapped on his chute and skis and rocketed down a near-vertical slope. He was almost instantly airborne. Thanks to thin, dry air, he came close to a hundred miles an hour, descending at a rate of nearly 31 feet a second. On the way, he dodged rocky spires, sailed over gaping chasms, and arced across virgin snowfields. By the time he skittered to a halt, he had plunged 9,000 feet in four minutes and 50 seconds. Bon's flight electrified the adventure world, and his video, which can be seen at acro-base.com, has received more than 16,000 hits. At press time, however, he was already on to his next challenge: Mount Everest.
Discovery: Emma Stokes
Text by Greg Melville
Photograph by Wesley Mann
By most standards, 2008 was not a banner year for wildlife conservation—unless you talk to Emma Stokes. In August, she dropped the equivalent of a neutron bomb on the scientific community: the existence of 125,000 lowland gorillas in a nearly untouched region of northern Congo. In one bold stroke, Stokes, 34, doubled the known population of the critically endangered apes.
A biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, Stokes has worked in the Republic of Congo since 1999. In that time, she has dodged forest elephants, sung ABBA songs to fend off silverback charges, and carried her tracker out of deep jungle after he fell unconscious froman infected machete wound (inflicted by his angry wife). But she had never really explored the "green abyss," an almost impassable 7,000-square-mile patchwork of uninhabited jungles and tree-filled swamps at the country's northern tip. "We knew the swamps were important for gorillas," she says, "but had no idea how important."
Or how hard they would be to survey. "Our guys would slog through waist-deep water for days at a time, hanging their hammocks above the swamps," she says. But after three years of counting gorilla nests, Stokes and her team got the results. There was fanfare, of course, and just as much caution. The green abyss is prime gorilla habitat because of its impenetrability. However, Stokes says, loggers are encroaching on the area, and recent Ebola outbreaks have devastated nearby primate populations. The Congolese government has already announced plans for a new national park, Ntokou-Pikounda, which will cover part of her survey area. Meanwhile, WCS has tasked Stokes with a new mission: to protect Asian tigers. They, too, are on the verge of disappearing—unless, that is, she discovers a few thousand more of them.
Culture: Deia Schlosberg & Gregg Treinish
Text by Lucas Pollock
Photograph by Lynn Donaldson
Two years. 7,800 miles. No roads. That was how Deia Schlosberg, 28, and Gregg Treinish, 26, vowed to trek the length of the Andes. They had no idea what they were getting into. Beginning in Papallacta, Ecuador, the two Montana-based wilderness educators cobbled together a route of llama tracks, old Inca roads, and forgotten trade paths down the spine of the world's longest mountain range. It was an Andes few outsiders had seen before. For good reason: "We were lost the entire time," Treinish says. "Every time we wanted to quit, we were so far in the middle of nowhere that it wasn't even an option."
So they kept going, two regular folks on a really long hike. They battled through bamboo forests, crossed trackless deserts, and humped over 16,000-foot mountain passes. They met people who had only heard about gringos and who still remembered the old paths, those of their ancestors, that wove through the Andes.
By the time they reached their final destination, Cabo San Pio, the southernmost tip of Tierra del Fuego, they had seen pretty much everything. Then Treinish got down on one knee and proposed, solidifying a bond that typhoid fever, Patagonian bamboo, and tens of thousands of feet in elevation change could not break. The first item on the registry: moleskin.
Humanitarian Work: Ashley Clements
Text by Lucas Pollock
Photograph by Justyna Mielnikiewicz
The cyclone-ravaged Irrawaddy Delta in Myanmar. Iraqi refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon. Georgia after the Russian invasion. These are not destinations most people seek out. But Ashley Clements is not like most people.
As an emergency coordination specialist for U.S.-based World Vision, Clements, 27, is the aid world's equivalent of a first responder. He shuttles into emerging disaster zones, often ahead of other humanitarian groups and mainstream press, to scout situations, drum up global support with photos and video, and get aid flowing in the right directions. Then he rolls up his shirtsleeves.
In Myanmar, Clements arrived to a land leveled by storm, with an estimated 130,000 dead or missing. Among the ruins, he interviewed orphaned children and fought to reunite them with relatives, however distant, before they were placed in the state's corrupt and squalid facilities. In Jordan, he photographed Iraqi refugees, specifically children, for CNN and the BBC. "I reached 125 million people with[a single] image," he says—an effort that helped integrate thousands of refugee kids into Jordanian schools. In Georgia, Clements touched down before the bullets stopped flying, to assist the 80,000 or so Ossetian and Georgian refugees who had fled to Tbilisi. There he prepped them for winter, handing out blankets and helping to establish cooking facilities, which delivered food to some 25,000 people. There were other disasters in 2008, of course—Darfur and China, to name just two—and other aid workers doing miraculous work. But in terms of sheer global reach and tireless advocacy, few can match Ashley Clements.
Athleticism: Kelly Slater
Text by Ethan Stewart
Photograph by Branden Aroyan
It's early summer in California, and a west wind swell is running along the cobblestone point breaks off Santa Barbara's coast. Several surfing luminaries have paddled out just before sundown, a not uncommon occurrence here on this semisecret beach just east of Ty Warner's billion-dollar Beanie Baby compound. Among them: Shaun Tomson (1977 world champ), Tom Curren (three-time world champ), and Jack Johnson (no introduction necessary). Locals gawk and grumble slightly. One 12-year-old grom looks toward shore, sees a blue-eyed man with a shaved head walking toward the point. "Dude," he says, "there is no way Kelly Slater is surfing my spot."
At 36 years old, Slater has spent the better part of 2008 simply confirming what we already knew: that no one rides a surfboard better than he does. With an unprecedented eight world titles to his name (the next highest is Australia's Mark Richards with five), he entered the 2008 contest season with little to prove.
Yet midway through the World Championship Tour, Slater clinched world title number nine, making him the Tour's oldest champion ever—a nice bookend to his first world title in 1992, when he was crowned the youngest champ. He has rung up more contest wins than any other professional surfer in history, had time for a stint on Baywatch (regrettable), and this year formed a foundation in his name that has already raised more than half a million dollars for cancer research and ocean-minded nonprofits like Surfrider and Reef Check (admirable). "My foundation gave me the opportunity to really focus on the things that matter the most to me," Slater says.
As the groms watch on, Slater paddles out toward the luminaries but doesn't join them just yet. As if on cue, a wave peaks up in front of him. The Champ paddles twice and jumps to his feet, exploding down the line of the shoulder-high wave. He turns, lightning fast, and again, leaving buckets of roiling water in his wake. The groms are in awe. Then one of them breaks the silence. "Wow," he says, "he's shorter than I thought."
ADVENTURE takes a paraglider ride above Africa with aerial photographer George Steinmetz.
Text by George Steinmetz
Photograph by George Steinmetz
Most photographers pride themselves on being able to see the big picture. George Steinmetz actually straps himself into a motorized paraglider and hovers hundreds of feet above the world's most spectacular scenery to create his signature panoramic images. Time and again he has returned to Africa, where his "flying lawn chair" has enabled him to capture some of the best known photos that National Geographic has published of that continent