Two years ago Scottish street trials rider Danny MacAskill was just a guy working a nine-to-five job as a mechanic in an Edinburgh bike shop, crafting his vision of what was possible on a bicycle in the hours after work. In March 2009, he took a risk and left his job to pursue riding full time. A month later his roommate, Dave Sowerby, released a video of MacAskill leaping, flipping, and balancing across Edinburgh’s famous buildings, parks, and back alleys on his bike. No one had seen riding like this before.
The video went viral. First friends and then total strangers forwarded it via email and posted it on Facebook. MacAskill’s audacity, skill, and grace spoke to people, even those who had never heard of the obscure sport of street trials, where bicyclists use existing structures to create physical puzzles that are solved by moving from obstacle to obstacle. Some even chalked MacAskill’s mind-bending moves up to a special effects hoax. The video went on to be viewed 27 million times.
MacAskill could have been a one-hit wonder. But when his 2011 short film Industrial Revolutions—which featured him riding through Scotland’s abandoned factories, leaping between train cars, and riding across two-inch beams suspended 15 feet above concrete—generated three million views on YouTube in a month, he proved he wasn’t. What MacAskill can do on a bicycle, his body shifting, pausing, and then exploding upward in a seamless tangle of man and bike, makes us reimagine our daily environments.
Groundbreaking adventure has always made us examine and then redraw the fine line between the possible and the impossible. Like the great performance artist and tightrope walker Philippe Petit, who captured New Yorkers’ attention with his 1974 walk between the towers of the World Trade Center, MacAskill has taken the the landscapes of his everyday and turned mundane into a physical canvas.
Since 2009, MacAskill has used his newfound fame and monetary support to log over 40,000 miles in an RV, traveling across Scotland looking for the perfect trick in the ideal location.
“I never had the goal of being a professional rider,” says MacAskill. “I just wanted to ride my bike.”
Adventurers of the Year 2012: Mountaineer Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner
In the summer of 2010, Austrian Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner was perched on K2’s infamous Bottleneck couloir 400 meters below the summit. She radioed her husband, Ralf Dujmovits, who was hunkered at base camp far below the 8,611-meter summit of the peak on the Pakistan-China border. Through the radio, Dujmovits could hear the shock in his wife’s voice. Moments earlier her partner, ski mountaineer Fredrik Ericsson, had slipped while unroped, tumbled past her, and fallen to his death.
Kaltenbrunner immediately aborted her summit attempt to look for her friend. It was her fifth failed attempt on the world’s most deadly peak. K2 was the final summit remaining in her 14-year quest to become the first woman to climb all 14 8,000-meter peaks without supplemental oxygen or porters.
In 2011, Kaltenbrunner returned to K2, this time to the mountain’s north side to avoid the Bottleneck, where 11 climbers died in 2008. At 6:18 p.m. local time on August 23, Kaltenbrunner reached the summit. “I have never had a view like that. There were no clouds, you could see to Nanga Parbat. I had the feeling that I was one with the universe. It’s still present in my heart,” says the 40-year-old Austrian.
Her fascination with the world’s tallest peaks began when she was in her early 20s. When she was 23 years old, she reached 8,027 meters but not the summit of Broad Peak, also on the Pakistan-China border, which sparked the idea to climb all 14 peaks more than 8,000 meters tall. In 1998, Kaltenbrunner, a professional climber who trains year-round, reached her first summit, Cho Oyu, and began ticking off the peaks, sometimes two in a year. She became known for her calculated patience.
This year on K2, the reminders of a misstep were always present. “Twenty or thirty meters beneath K2’s summit, you can look down and see the Bottleneck. It felt like Fredrik was near,” says Kaltenbrunner. “He was with us in a good sense.”
Adventurers of the Year 2012: Kayakers Jon Turk and Erik Boomer
“What do you do when a polar bear charges you? We found yelling colorful language was more effective than gentle talking,” says 65-year-old writer and Arctic explorer Jon Turk. “The right tone could communicate, ‘You’re bad. We’re just as bad.’”
Turk and pro kayaker Erik Boomer discovered this when, during the final week of their 1,485-mile circumnavigation of Ellesmere Island, a polar bear ripped a hole in their tent—while five other bears looked on.
The journey around the world’s tenth largest island, which took Turk and Boomer 104 days on skis, in kayaks, and on foot, was considered by polar experts to be the last great unattempted polar expedition, so daunting due to its remoteness and dangerous ice conditions. No one had attempted it before this summer.
For Turk, who pioneered big-wall climbs on Baffin Island and engaged in five Siberian expeditions to study shamanic culture, this was his “retirement party,” his last expedition. For the 26-year-old Boomer, who made a name for himself kayaking into the world’s wildest white water, this was the first of what he hopes will be many journeys to the Great North.
“I’m used to taking risks in short bursts, like in a single rapid or waterfall,” says Boomer. “This trip was so long, the risk so sustained and impossible to plan for. Jon is rare. He’s willing to do something where the outcome is unknown.”
In May, the duo began by dragging their 220-pound, 13.5-foot kayaks 800 miles across flat ice. As the ice broke up with the spring thaw, they were forced to jump over cracks and between unstable ice floes. By midsummer, they were able to paddle through slivers of open water.
Though the bears proved to be an ongoing danger—on one day they saw eleven, nine of which were aggressive—unfavorable winds were the greatest threat. Offshore winds pushed sea ice up against the sheer cliffs of Ellesmere’s rugged coast. Getting trapped between the two would mean certain death.
A text message Turk sent during the final leg of the trip summed it up best: “Bears scare us. We scare bears. The wind scares us. We don’t scare the wind.”
Adventurers of the Year 2012: Hiker Jennifer Pharr Davis
“Records are made to be broken,” says long-distance hiker Jennifer Pharr Davis. “It’s not the number. The method and the approach are what matters more at the end of the day.”
For the last 40 years, men have held the Appalachian Trail record. In the last 20, it’s been confined to an elite club of ultra runners who typically covered the requisite 30 to 50 miles per day in an 11- to 13-hour period. Conventional wisdom suggested that breaking the record would mean running faster with the same strategy. And a new record holder would most certainly be male.
Pharr Davis, 28, took the standard strategy and turned it upside down. Moving from north to south, she covered the trail’s 2,181 miles by hiking for 16 hours a day beginning at 4:45 in the morning and walking well into darkness. To stick to an average pace of 47 miles a day, she slept on the trail or at road crossings to eliminate needless commute times to and from the trail. Her husband, Brew Davis, served as the support crew.
Pharr Davis trained by hiking rather than running—and the novel approach worked. By the time she reached the trail’s southern terminus at Springer Mountain, Georgia, she had trimmed 26 hours off the previous record with a time of 46 days, 11 hours, and 20 minutes.
“Exploration can be twofold. It can be going to a new location or it can mean pushing through a physical boundary,” says Pharr Davis. “We were exploring what people thought was possible, for what was possible on the Appalachian Trail, and what was possible for a woman and a hiker.”
Adventurers of the Year 2012: Climber Cory Richards
After becoming the first American to successfully summit an 8,000-meter peak in winter, climber-photographer Cory Richards and his partners, veteran winter climbers Simone Moro of Italy and Denis Urubko of Kazakhstan, were hit by a massive wall of snow and ice churning down the flanks of Gasherbrum II in Pakistan. “Once the avalanche took us, there was no more fear,” says Richards, who documented the whole experience. “You’re dying. You are trying to swim in the snow, stay on top. All of a sudden we stopped and my face was on the surface.”
Taking advantage of a two-day weather window, the three men had started up the peak with the knowledge that they would be descending in dangerous conditions. They climbed without the aid of supplemental oxygen or porters. They struggled through hurricane-force winds, minus 50ºF temperatures, and unstable snow conditions that led to the massive Class 4 avalanche. Moro was able to dig himself free and quickly helped his partners dig themselves out in a matter of minutes.
Equipped with a small HD camera, Richards turned the camera on himself as he broke down, weeping with terror and relief. The raw, unfiltered images offer a rare glimpse into the perilous mental journeys that high-altitude climbers face.
The footage became the backbone of Cold, a film that provides both a glimpse into one of the most inhospitable environments on the planet and an honest reflection on the risks of climbing the world’s biggest peaks. “Seeing someone that scared makes it real for the viewer. I can’t actually watch the film anymore. It’s a little too much,” says Richards. “I thought I was dying. It’s too harsh to put yourself through over and over again. It was very much the defining moment in my life. Period.”