In a world where a GPS can fit in your back pocket, and a satellite image of virtually every nook on earth is just a few clicks away, you would think the age of exploration is over. Yet a number of men and women have managed to tap into their inner Magellan and have made their names charting uncharted territory in an ever shrinking digital world. Some explore the deep, while others climb higher and beyond. In keeping with the spirit of Columbus Day today, here are a few modern-day explorers conquering the unexplored.
Never one to shy away from underwater action, Titanic and Abyss director, James Cameron recently set the record for the deepest solo voyage underwater. In 2012, Cameron plunged into the Mariana Trench, a spot in the west Pacific known to be the deepest part of the world’s oceans. Cameron’s voyage took place inside the Deepsea Challenger—a 12-ton, battery powered sub that took seven years to build. In the end, it took a little over an hour for the filmmaker to reach the ocean floor, a place he called “a very desolate place, very isolated.” Plans to collect deep-sea samples were scuttled due to mechanical problems, but Cameron didn’t return empty handed. Specially designed 3-D cameras captured the entire journey and the director intends to release a film about the dive later this year. “Imagination feeds exploration,” he said. “You have to imagine the possible before you can go and do it.” Reinhold Messner
While some choose to explore the depths of the unknown, in 1978, Reinhold Messner set his sights even higher. His destination: The tip of Mount Everest, the tallest mountain in the world. It wasn’t the first time someone accomplished the feat. In 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzig Norgay famously reached its summit. And since then over 3000 people have pulled it off (while over 200 lost their lives trying). But the Italian was the only one to attempt the feat without bottled oxygen—no small feat where the air has as little as one third the normal amount of oxygen. Although scientists warned that climbing Everest without oxygen could result in severe brain damage, Messner (along with partner Peter Habeler) began their ambitious (some would say “reckless”) ascent in May 6, 1978, and were faced with icy storms, winds of over 125 m.p.h., and even a case of food poisoning. Exhausted and collapsing in the snow, the pair finally completed the ascent on May 8th. Some alleged Messner supplemented his climb with mini-bottles of oxygen. But Messner silenced his critics when he repeated the feat in 1980—this time solo. Elon Musk
He’s not Tony Stark, but he may as well be. In fact, Iron Man director Jon Favreau said his protagonist was inspired by the South African-born Musk: an entrepreneur who co-founded both Paypal and the electric-car company, Tesla. Not one to rest, Musk has also been exploring another area: space. In 2012, his company Space Exploration Technologies (also known as SpaceX) shot a 22-story rocket into space that docked one of its capsules with the International Space Station. He has plans to follow that feat by launching dozens of more flights. By commercializing space flight, Elon may supercharge interstellar exploration with the same ambition he has approached his other projects. “Today it costs over a billion dollars for a space shuttle flight,” he says. “[The cost] is fundamentally what's holding us back from becoming a space traveling civilization and ultimately a multi-planet species.” Will Steger
Will Steger with Richard Branson examining a map for a global warming expedition in 2007. When you lead the first confirmed dogsled journey to the North Pole without re-supply, traverse Greenland, and cross Antarctica over the span of seven months, you deserve the moniker “explorer” on your business card. For over 45 years, Steger has been leading legendary polar expeditions, traveling through places where no one has ever set foot. In March 1990, he famously led a team of five adventurers and 42 sled dogs on a crossing of Antarctica. Traveling by sled, ski and foot, the team would be battered by windchills of -150 degrees and cross mountain ranges as high as 11,400 feet. At times, they saw 24-hour daylight, then blizzards would make their world pitch dark. Seven months later, they reached the end of their journey—a journey that could not be repeated today. Two of the ice shelves the team traveled on for a month no longer exist due to climate change. Much of Steger’s work to date has been informing the public about the consequences of global warming. Jessica Watson
Jessica Watson wasn’t the only person to sail around the world solo, but when she departed Sydney, Australia, on October 18, 2009, she set out to become the youngest person to circumnavigate the globe unassisted. Watson’s boat Ella’s Pink Lady lost a mast early on in her trip. The crash seemed to prove the dire predictions of her critics, who said the 16 year old was too young and inexperienced for the task. But the young Australian repaired her broken ship and continued on her way even more determined than before. Watson’s journey would prove perilous again when, in the Atlantic Ocean, her boat rolled four times during a storm. She recalled being thrown around her cabin while waves smashed against her ship, holding on to anything while standing on the boat’s ceiling. She returned to Sydney 210 days later (her longest trip previous was only 14 days). Critics said Watson didn’t sail far enough into the Northern Hemisphere to set a record, but she won over a loyal fanbase worldwide for her feat. She said, “Before I left, I remember being asked by someone, ‘How can you possibly know what’s going to happen?’ Well, of course you can’t. You do your best to prepare, but it is an adventure. You can’t fully prepare—that’s the point.”