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What Does It Mean to Be an Explorer Today?

explorers
In December 2018, a team of six volunteer cave explorers mapped the 200th mile in South Dakota's Jewel Cave National Monument for the very first time. National Park Service

As of May 2020, there are nearly 8 billion human beings on Earth. High-speed jets and vehicles of every kind roam the land, air and sea, sometimes in weather conditions that would've stopped humans in their tracks just a few decades ago. The world is, in essence, getting smaller, leaving few places left unexplored. Given those circumstances, what exactly does it mean to be an explorer today? And why would you even try?

Some people say that exploration is part of human drive, as our curiosity pushes us to seek out new places wherever we live, and even places we don't — like under the oceans' waves, in deep caves and into the depths of the galaxy.

OK, so not all of us. Some people are fine with plush couches and plentiful pizza.

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The Call of the Wild

But for others, the call of the unknown is irresistible, regardless of the hardships and lack of creature comforts. And these restless souls find that even in a shrinking world, exploration is very possible — if you know where to look.

You can start by looking up.

explorers
Explorer Eric Larsen.
Eric Larsen

"There are a variety of peaks in areas like Nepal, Pakistan and China that have yet to be climbed," says Eric Larsen, a polar explorer and mountain climber, in an email interview. He says untouched peaks also await in Antarctica, Greenland and on Ellesmere Island. "Exploring the depths of the oceans would be one of the larger 'tracts' of undiscovered 'terrain' (if you can call it that). I know there are probably some areas of the Pacific Ocean that remain somewhat untouched and definitely parts of the Amazon rainforest as well."

Larsen has launched some major expeditions. In 2009-10, he journeyed to both the North and South Poles and the top of Mt. Everest, all within 365 days — the only person ever to achieve this feat in under a year.

It was a grueling, though, and took a drastic toll on his mind and body. So, why does he do it?

"I really enjoy the physical and mental aspects of big expeditions. From the planning and preparation to the decision making and stress involved in executing these adventures," he says. "I also really enjoy human powered travel and being along in vast untracked wilderness. I like blazing my own trail as well and being in places that I know no one has traveled previously."

These kinds of adventures cost some people their lives. Take Percy Fawcett, who in 1925 disappeared trying to find a legendary city in the Amazon rainforest. Or Sir John Franklin and Francis Crozier, who met the same mysterious fate in the 1840s when they tried to find the fabled Northwest Passage.

Larsen himself has almost died multiple times.

"I've had several very close encounters with polar bears. In 2005 off the coast of Siberia (on the Arctic Ocean), we had one jump on our tent while we're sleeping in it," he says. "We also were in some pretty sketchy situations in 2015 when trying to climb Jabou Ri [a peak in Nepal]. It took us three different attempts and we were in several situations where a wrong step would have meant death."

explorers
Eric Larsen crosses a crevasse on the climb to summit Mt. Everest.
Eric Larsen

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The Expense of Exploration

As if near death isn't bad enough, there are expeditions bills to be paid. Those kinds of journeys are expensive, and Larsen searches for sponsors to defray the costs.

"Sponsorship is an ever-evolving process. Back in the day it was more about just getting a logo on a jacket and maybe a newspaper story or two," Larsen says. "Now it has evolved into more of a business with measurable ROI (return on investment) for companies."

That means Larsen is an active part of the business model.

"Today, I have sponsors where I am specifically involved with product development, writing (blogs), photo and video shoots, social media, events and more. Quite honestly, (Ernest) Shackleton had to do (something) very similar to secure sponsors for his expeditions (minus social media)."

But that's not enough to support him. Larsen also does guiding and polar trainings as well as speaking, photography, and some other odds and ends. "It's a crazy puzzle where you don't have a picture to guide you and the shapes of the pieces are undefined," he says.

Financial issues aside, Larsen says that the nature of exploration is changing, and that, yes, as of 2020 most of the Earth has already been witnessed by human eyes.

"However, the leading edge of exploration today is more about pushing personal limits — trying to do adventures in new, unique and challenging ways. For example, while people have skied to the South Pole many times, in 2012 I tried to bicycle to the South Pole."

He didn't make it.

He calls out another example — the steep pitch of El Capitan's Dawn Wall in Yosemite National Park. It's been climbed many times, but Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson were the first to free climb it. Or Alex Honnold, who took things to a nerve-shattering extreme when he climbed the Dawn Wall without any ropes whatsoever. His climb, which is considered as one of the greatest athletic achievements of all time, was documented by National Geographic in the film, "Free Solo."

Now, you don't have to take on these kinds of extreme adventures if you don't want to. You can leave it to the experts and witness their bravery (and insanity) from afar. But no matter how small the world gets, it's clear that there will always be people willing to push exploration just a little bit further.

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