Extraordinary explorers: against the tide of social norms

Who is the world’s greatest ever explorer and does gender or ethnicity have a part to play?

Who is the world’s greatest ever explorer and does gender or ethnicity have a part to play? Having recently been in awe of Baumgartners attempt to secure the world’s highest ever skydive, whilst at the same time becoming the first person to break the sound barrier without any kind of vehicle; it got me to thinking about the great explorers of our times, what kind of resolve do you need and which of these outstanding feats is most impressive.

Immediately the names of Cook, Shackleton, Cousteau, Hillary and Armstrong spring to mind, but the more I thought about it, the more these people’s phenomenal achievements became overshadowed by the achievements of Female explorers. I do not for a second mean to detract from the outstanding tasks that these people have carried out, but instead I wish to portray how extraordinary female achievements have been, given that they happened in an era when women were believed to be inferior to men.

Women explorers

Take for example the first woman to circumnavigate the world. Not only did Jeanne Baré have the task of battling raging seas and treturous currents, but at the same time she had to be sure that her false beard remained intact. As a woman aboard the Étoile, Baré had to ensure that her true gender remained a mystery, as women were not permitted to work aboard a sea going vessel in 1766.

Similarly, great American explorers Amelia Earhart and Annie Edson Taylor had to battle female oppression all the way up until the suffragette movement of the 1920’s. Both of these adventurers astound me in that they may not have been as privileged as other explorers. Yes Earhart came from a grand estate, but seemingly her father’s drinking had drained all their wealth and she was forced to work as a stenographer before she was able to save for her first flying lessons.

The later of the two really does astound me, on the 24th of October 1901, at the age of 63, the explorer Annie Edison Taylor climbed into a barrel stuffed with a mattress, the barrel was compressed with air from a bike pump and sent over Niagara Falls. Edison Taylor performed this daring task in order to avoid the poor house!

As Francis Bacon said ‘Prosperity doth best discover vice but adversity doth best discover virtue.’ With the celebrity status of these women must have come a great boost for suffrage which provided massive inroads into bridging the gender gap.

Black explorers.

One gap that has long since remained however is the gap between some races and following the abolition of slavery in America (1865), it will not be until 2003 that a person of African descent, Sibusiso Vilane will reach the summit of Everest, and a further three years before Sophie Danenberg became the first black woman to reach the top of the world. It is inspiring to see how an entire race of people can bounce back from such hardship and some believe that these struggles have made them stronger with Michael Johnson believing that slavery has paved the way for the Afro-Caribbean man to sport a ‘superior athletic gene’.

Your personal Everest

Tom Whittaker speaking on climbing Everest says ‘[it] is the physical and symbolic manifestation of overcoming odds to achieve a dream’. Well if overcoming odds is the mark of a great explorer, surely personal struggles have a part to play in how great an achievement truly is. Next time you spot an outstanding feat, take a moment to look at the person behind the challenge, for their personal struggle may be what makes a phenomenal feat truly amazing!