Adventurers Exploring the Unknown

What is left to explore on the Earth? Plenty. Heights, depths, limits — you name it.

"The idea that everything's been discovered and everything's known just isn't true," says Hal Espen, editor of Outside magazine. "A lot of the superlatives, the longest yardsticks and furthest distances have been reached and attained, but there's still plenty of stuff out there."

Espen would know. His magazine helped fund an expedition of kayakers to the notorious Tsangpo River in Tibet, a river that features some of the highest —and fiercest — whitewater rapids in the world. More than a few adventurers have died trying to negotiate the rapids. Until this past April, no one had been known to make it through. But the Outside team picked their way through steep snowcapped mountains to reach the river's edge, slipped their kayaks into the roiling water, and somehow managed to keep from being swallowed up in the thousands-feet-deep rapids.

"Well worth the effort," marvels kayaker Steve Fisher as they completed their journey. He stood on a point of the Tsangpo Gorge high above a backdrop of steep, jagged mountains etched out against a stunning blue sky. "An amazing place."

Fisher and his team are among thousands of professional explorers across the globe who have dedicated their lives, for now, to pushing the boundaries.

Karl Bushby is another such person; his path, however, takes him not along rivers — but along continents. He is "forging the longest unbroken footpath in human history." Bushby started his trek in Chile in 1998. He has made it to Las Vegas — and along the way faced treacherous cold, vicious heat, and more than a few South American warlords. Still, Bushby says he has never thought about giving the adventure up.

'If I Didn't Do It, Someone Else Would'

"I would sit and dream about this," says Bushby of the three years spent planning the trip. "It's an emotional thing," he says, chuckling. "It's about the challenge. This is something that human beings do. It's in our nature. If I didn't do it, someone else would."

Cheryl Stearns understands just what Bushby is talking about. Stearns is a professional skydiver who has broken plenty of records in her pursuits. She has set her sights on another one: the highest jump. She plans to sail in a balloon up to 24 miles above the Earth. Wearing a pressurized spacesuit and parachutes, she will leap from the balloon and soar to Earth.

Crazy? Not to Stearns, or to the two men who are her closest competition: Michel Fournier of France and Rodd Millner of Australia. All three hope to be the first to set the height record for skydiving, set back in the 1960s.

Stearns plans to carry an array of recording instruments as she slips through the atmosphere. "It's more than a record," she explains, "it's a scientific research project."

The 'X Prize' Has Community Buzzing

There are plenty of those, too. The "X Prize" is the result of a private foundation set up to coax researchers, test pilots and adventurers to build a spaceship that can carry three people up to the edge of space — and back — safely. The winner will get a prize of $10 million.

Michael Moyers of Popular Science magazine says the "X Prize" has the aerospace community buzzing. "This is very serious. People are spending their lives working toward this prize."

It may seem a bit eccentric — all these individuals tossing themselves from balloons and into space and onto wild, raging rivers.

But Moyers believes we are all better off for having explorers. "Human civilization has always been shaped by those people who decide to take things farther and higher and faster than anyone else has ever done before," he says.

As for the rest of us, well, it's fun to watch. And, adds Outside's Espen, we are all, to some degree, explorers.

"Adventure at its core is relative," says Espen. "It's relative to what is a huge challenge to you and what's meaningful to you and what you have never done before." Meaning the delights of discovery, on some level, are there for all of us.