The Explorer’s Heart – Vanity Fair, 2002

Vanity Fair is better known for its celebrity, showbiz and cultural coverage, but from time to time, the magazine often produced exceptional photojournalism and documentary pieces. Those pieces are still centered around the magazine’s identity focusing on individuals and portraiture.

In 2001-2002, Jonas Karlsson traveled 28,000 miles over eight months to put together a profile of ten great explorers, even as “the modern age of exploration is coming to a clamorous close,” as the magazine put it.

The profile opened with the thrusting portrait of Sir Ranulph Fiennes, the first person to visit both the Poles and to completely cross Antarctica on foot and ended with a short essay by Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to successfully climb Mount Everest. In bettween were men like Thor Heyerdahl, who didn’t let a serious fear of water stop him from getting onto a balsa-log raft for his 1947 Kon-Tiki expedition and sailing 4,300 miles, from the coast of Peru to the island of Raroia in Polynesia, and Wilfred Thesiger, then 92, the grand old man of the Arab and Saharan exploration.

Reprint of the Profiles:

SIR RANULPH FIENNES, 58

STARTREKKER

Parachuting onto Europe’s highest glacier, then canoeing down. Piloting a hovercraft to the mouth of the White Nile. Trekking across Arabia to discover the lost city of Ubar, called the “Atlantis of the Sands.” Completing the first successful pole-to-pole circumnavigation of the globe by boat, Land Rover, ski, and snowshoe. These are the sorts of exploits that once earned the dashing Brit an audition for the role of James Bond. (Roger Moore got the job.)

Doubtful that 007 would have had the temerity to place his frostbitten left hand in a vise and hack off the petrified fingertips with a fretsaw—as Fiennes did two years ago in his Somerset, England, workshop (after an aborted solo jaunt to the North Pole). “The world would be a far duller place without him,” Prince Charles has said of Sir Ran, who in 1993 was awarded an O.B.E. “I have never taken heroin,” says the descendant of Charlemagne and cousin of actors Ralph and Joseph Fiennes, “but I cannot imagine anything as ecstatic as the feeling of returning from an expedition to a hot bath.”

Photographed at Hallelujah Point in Stanley Park, Vancouver, British Columbia, on October 19, 2001.


THOR HEYERDAHL, 87

ANCIENT MARINER

Tom Hanks’s climactic escape in Cast Away was a pleasure cruise compared with Heyerdahl’s epic Kon-Tiki expedition in 1947. Despite a paralyzing fear of water as a youth, the Norwegian set off from Peru on a primitive balsa-log raft. His point: to prove to stodgy scholars his contention that Polynesia could have been settled by South Americans riding westward winds (rather than by Southeast Asians, as history held, paddling east against the current). For 101 days, Heyerdahl and five fellow Scandinavians drifted through perfect storms and schools of sharks, covering 4,300 miles (think Moscow to Chicago) before washing ashore on the reef of Raroia. Heyerdahl’s unflagging belief that the oceans were conveyors, not barriers, for early seafarers prompted him to make several voyages in the 1970s in replica reed boats, including one from Morocco to Barbados. To this day, scientists debate and debunk his thesis. An anthropologist and archaeologist, Heyerdahl is set to embark on a dig in Western Samoa that may unearth further evidence of common origins among civilizations past. He is after nothing less, he says, than proving “the unity of mankind.”

Photographed near his home in the Canary Islands, Spain, on December 5, 2001.


NORMAN VAUGHAN, 96

INDOMITABLE SNOW MAN

His Harvard studies ended the night he read this headline: BYRD TO THE SOUTH POLE. The next morning, Vaughan, an expert dog musher (who at age 12 had lashed his Flexible Flyer to his German shepherd, Rex), knocked on Admiral Richard E. Byrd’s Beacon Hill door to offer his services, gratis. Byrd’s 1929 mission was to make the first flight over the South Pole; Vaughan’s was to train and care for the 97 dogs that supported the effort. As a gift for that pivotal role on the 14-month expedition, Byrd named a 10,302-foot Antarctic peak Mount Vaughan. Closer to home, Vaughan drove a sled in the 1932 Winter Olympics and during W.W. II led 209 rescue dogs at the Battle of the Bulge. At 68, after falling on hard times, Vaughan moved to Alaska and shoveled snow in exchange for meals. The Iditarod dogsled race saved him. Not only did he marry one of his dog handlers (Carolyn Muegge, 37 years his junior), but the competition rekindled his spirit. He took the reins 13 times, the last at age 86. None of his accomplishments, though, eclipses that of his ascent of Mount Vaughan in 1994—three days shy of his 89th birthday: “I haven’t done anything that anyone else couldn’t have done,” he says. “I just did it.”

Photographed with Spirit, a Siberian husky, in Cooper Landing, Alaska, on October 16, 2001.


BRIAN JONES, 55 & BERTRAND PICCARD, 44

WINDSURFERS

Aviation’s last big “first”—circling the globe nonstop in a hot-air balloon—had spawned a mad dash among millionaires-cum-daredevils. (Virgin’s intrepid Sir Richard Branson failed four times in the late ’90s.) But it took an English balloon instructor and a Swiss physician-pilot to make it around the world in 20 days in 1999. Living aloft in a gadget-crammed capsule the size of an S.U.V., the pair had their share of moments both chilling (at minus 68 degrees) and nerve-racking (losing communications over the Pacific for two days; knocking three-foot ice off their gondola with a fire ax; enduring Piccard’s habit of playing Leonard Cohen CDs—”music to cut your throat by,” Jones asserts). Piccard comes from exploration royalty: in 1948 his grandfather Auguste invented the bathyscaphe, a self-contained submarine, which Piccard’s father, Jacques, rode to the deepest point on the planet in 1960. “It is hard to find another ‘first’ on the same level as we did,” laments Piccard. But Jones is already on the case. Next up, he is directing a hot-air voyage to the near edge of the stratosphere, the band 25 miles up that is too high even for aircraft. “Mystery mixed with freedom” is how Jones sums up ballooning’s allure. “You never know where the wind will take you.”

Photographed inside a hot-air balloon at Maintenon in the Forêt de Rambouillet, near Paris.


SIR WILFRED THESIGER, 92

ARABIAN KNIGHT

Most men would think better of wandering into a country where the head-hunting natives collect interlopers’ testicles… or braving inhumane elements to cross one of the world’s most forbidding deserts, on foot and camel. Twice. And yet Thesiger, one of the earliest explorers to trek among Africa’s Danakil (in 1934) and among the first Westerners to venture so deep into the vast wilderness between the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea known as the Empty Quarter (in the 1940s), was inextricably drawn “to remote places where cars cannot penetrate and where something of the old ways survive.” Thus he wrote in Arabian Sands, his favorite among his nine books, which Thesiger frequently rereads to fill his hours and his gaps in memory. The 1959 chronicle recounts his five years spent living with nomadic Bedouin, when contentment was found in a taste of water untainted by camel urine. Today it is Thesiger’s ticket back to a time, place, and spirit rendered extinct by what he considers the scourge of modern civilization. “The combustion engine,” he says, “is the biggest disaster of our time.”

Photographed at his home in Surrey, England, on November 20, 2001.


ROBERT BALLARD, 59

DEEP-SEA SLEUTH

“I wanted to be Captain Nemo,” says Ballard, an oceanographer best known for finding sunken vessels (such as the German battleship Bismarck) and perfecting tools for exploring the bottom of the sea. Drawing early inspiration from Jules Verne’s valiant skipper and from a spin, at 16, on the submarine ride at Disneyland, Ballard was lured to the ocean’s depths, making his first dive in a real sub as a 27-year-old naval officer. “I sat up all night staring out at the fish,” he says. Seventeen years later, gazing through a porthole two and a half miles beneath the surface of the North Atlantic, Ballard discovered buried treasure: the R.M.S. Titanic, unseen and undisturbed since it sank in 1912. But infinitely more satisfying and significant, Ballard contends, was his 1977 sighting of giant clam colonies and eight-foot worms, red and radiant, flourishing in slender white tubes 8,500 feet deep along the Galapagos Rift. Encountering the first known ecosystem to live off the energy of the earth instead of the energy of the sun, Ballard points out, “completely revolutionized our way of thinking about the origin of life on our planet.” Paraphrasing a favorite Joseph Campbell quote, he says, “Life is the act of becoming. One never arrives.”

Photographed in a camera-equipped submersible at the Mystic Aquarium and Institute for Exploration in Mystic, Connecticut, on August 4, 2001.


SYLVIA EARLE, 66

QUEEN OF THE OCEANS

Titles don’t come much cooler than “Explorer-in-Residence, National Geographic Society.” Especially for a grandmother. The position, says Earle, “is my license to play.” Play indeed. Her record untethered dive, in 1979—to a depth of 1,250 feet, off the coast of Hawaii—still stands. She has descended in a submersible to 3,300 feet, where luminescent fish “flash and sparkle like the Fourth of July,” she says, ever mindful of humanity’s fragile relationship with the oceans. “If the sea is sick, we’ll feel it,” she warns. “If it dies, we die.” Earle has no plans to tarry too long at her spread in the Oakland, California, hills—not with innovations such as this prototype Exosuit, which offers deep-sea divers heretofore unfathomable range of motion. Earle admits that having spent more than 6,000 hours underwater contributed to three divorces. She even acknowledges that she is, in some sense, married to the sea. “The ocean,” she insists, “has never let me down.”

Photographed in Burrard Inlet in Vancouver, British Columbia, on October 20, 2001.


REINHOLD MESSNER, 57

ALPINE PIONEER

“They said climbing Everest without oxygen is not possible,” recalls the man who dared to try. “I said, ‘Who made these rules?'” In 1978, Messner and an Austrian partner had the audacity and nerve to scale the 29,028-foot mountain without the aid of “English air,” as Sherpas call the supplemental oxygen tanks favored by Westerners. Two years later, Messner returned, alone, becoming the first to conquer Everest solo. None before him had enjoyed the view atop the earth’s 14 grandest peaks (each measuring 26,250 feet or more). A too-close encounter with a shadowy beast in 1986 set Messner on a 12-year pursuit of the mythical Yeti, which he ultimately concluded was not the Abominable Snowman but Tibet’s nocturnal snow bear. No less treacherous is Messner’s day job as a member of the European Parliament; an Italian citizen with Austrian roots, he resides in a restored castle in the Tyrolean Alps, where he is a gentleman winemaker and yak farmer. “We are not made for Everest or Antarctica or the desert,” he says. “But step by step we can overcome.”

Photographed in his home, Castle Juval, in South Tyrol, Italy, on November 22, 2001.


SIR EDMUND HILLARY, 82

FATHER OF EVEREST

The humble beekeeper-turned-world’s-greatest-living-explorer recalls sitting in his Auckland, New Zealand, study one quiet day in 1990 when the telephone rang. It was his son, Peter, calling from the pinnacle of Mount Everest. No such amenities were available 49 years ago this month, when Hillary and his Sherpa climbing partner, Tenzing Norgay (who died in 1986), became the first men to set foot on, and return from, the top of the world. Of that moment, Hillary remembers being acutely aware that they had to turn around and head back down. “Well, George,” he famously remarked during his descent, upon greeting his friend George Lowe, “we knocked the bastard off.”

Photographed (with the ice ax from his 1953 Mount Everest expedition) on Kare Kare Beach near his home in Auckland, New Zealand, on March 6, 2002.

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