14 of History's Greatest Polar Explorers

Black and white photo of a group of explorers
Photo: Edgeworth David/Wikimedia Commons

It takes a thirst for adventure and a brave spirit to venture into the harsh landscapes of the Arctic and Antarctic, but courageous men and women have been doing so for more than a century. Some of the explorers on our list set out for the poles in the name of science, others for the thrill of adventure or a taste of fame, but they all hold a place in history.

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Colin O'Brady

Colin O'Brady (Beyond 72).

While there have been several explorers who have conquered Antarctica, Colin O'Brady is the first person to trek across the continent all by himself without any support or with any help from the wind. The epic journey took O'Brady 54 days to complete across 932 miles, and he pulled all his supplies on a dogsled that weighed nearly 375 pounds. During several long stretches, he battled near-blind conditions due to the snow. However, he didn't call it quits. During the final push to reach the end, O'Brady trekked 77.5 miles in 32 hours without taking a break to sleep.

"Something overcame me," O’Brady told The New York Times. "I didn’t listen to any music — just locked in, like I’m going until I’m done. It was profound, it was beautiful and it was an amazing way to finish."

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Sir James Clark Ross

Photo: Stephen Pearce/Wikimedia Commons

This British naval officer took part in numerous Arctic expeditions and located the position of the North Magnetic Pole in 1831. From 1839 to 1843, James Clark Ross commanded an Antarctic expedition with two ships, the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror, and sailed farther south than anyone before. During the voyage, he charted much of Antarctica’s coastline and discovered the Ross Sea and two volcanoes, which he named Mount Erebus and Mount Terror after his vessels. Ross was knighted when he returned to England, and published an account of his expedition in “A Voyage of Discovery and Research to southern and Antarctic regions,” which included one of the first references to the continent as Antarctica.

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Robert Peary

Wikimedia Commons.

Robert Peary was an American explorer who made several expeditions to the Arctic, exploring much of it by dog sled, but he's most famous for his claim to have been the first person to reach the geographic North Pole. Peary said he reached the pole on April 6, 1909, but Frederick Cook, an American doctor who had accompanied Peary on previous expeditions, claimed to have reached the pole a year earlier. A 1911 congressional inquiry resulted in Peary being declared the first man to reach the North Pole, but doubts remain, even today. Peary differed in style from most polar explorers; he studied Inuit survival techniques and built igloos, used sled dogs and dressed in furs. Despite his preparations, he still lost eight toes to the Arctic’s freezing temperatures.

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Sir Edgeworth David

Wikimedia Commons.

Sir Edgeworth David was an Australian geologist who led the first expedition to reach the South Magnetic Pole. David, Dr. Alistair Mackay and Douglas Mawson supplemented their diet with penguins and seals as they trekked across the frozen continent, and on Jan. 16, 1909, they arrived at the pole and raised the British flag. David was also the first person to reach the top of Mount Erebus, Antarctica’s only active volcano.

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Nobu Shirase

Wikimedia Commons.

This Japanese army officer led the Japanese Antarctic Expedition from 1910 to 1912. Shirase and his seven-man crew explored the Ross Ice Shelf and were the first people to make landfall on the King Edward VII Peninsula. At one point during the voyage, Shirase’s team unexpectedly ran into Roald Amundsen during his South Pole expedition.

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Roald Amundsen

Wikimedia Commons.

Roald Amundsen is one of the most famous polar explorers. He led the first successful Antarctic expedition to the South Pole, he was the first man to fly over the North Pole, and he was the first to traverse the Northwest Passage. Although Amundsen’s voyage to the South Pole was difficult, his team was well-prepared. His team had a much smoother journey than Robert Falcon Scott and his crew, who were also attempting to be the first to reach the pole. After trekking hundreds of miles through unexplored Antarctic territory, Amundsen and his men reached the pole on Dec. 14, 1911, and named the area Polheim, or “Home at the Pole.”

Amundsen left a note for Scott that read, “Dear Captain Scott — As you probably are the first to reach this area after us, I will ask you to kindly forward this letter to King Haakon VII. If you can use any of the articles left in the tent please do not hesitate to do so. The sledge left outside may be of use to you. With kind regards I wish you a safe return.” Scott and his entire crew died during their expedition.

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Robert Falcon Scott

Wikimedia Commons.

Scott, a Royal Navy officer, made his first Antarctic expedition in 1901, but he and his crew had to be rescued by relief ships. In 1910, he attempted to become the first man to reach the South Pole and he set out with a new ship and the knowledge that this voyage was now a race since Amundsen had also left for the pole. Despite bad weather and being poorly equipped for the trek, Scott and five of his men made it to the South Pole pole on Jan. 17, 1912, only to learn that Amundsen had preceded them by a month. On the return journey the men encountered blizzards, dehydration, starvation and hypothermia. They died just 11 miles from a major supply depot.

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Douglas Mawson

Wikimedia Commons.

Australian geologist Douglas Mawson turned down an invitation to join Scott’s South Pole expedition and instead chose to chart the 2,000-mile Antarctic coastline south of Australia, a region that was largely unexplored. At one point Mawson was part of a three-man crew that was collecting geological samples and mapping the coast when one of the men, Lt. Belgrave Ninnis, fell to his death, carrying most of the team’s supplies with him. Mawson and his companion, Xavier Mertz, decided to turn back afterward, but the journey was harrowing and resulted in Mertz’s death. Mawson traveled the remaining 100 miles alone, only to find that his ship had departed without him hours before, so he weathered another year on the continent before returning home. However, not all was lost — Mawson's expedition led to a better understanding of the continent’s geology, biology and meteorology, and he was able to more closely define the location of the South Magnetic Pole.

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Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton

Wikimedia Commons.

Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton made several polar expeditions. During one of his first, he journeyed to the South Magnetic Pole and charted a route through the Transarctic Mountains. In 1914, Shackleton led the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition in which he would attempt to cross Antarctica. However, the ship — ironically named the Endurance — became trapped in ice on Jan. 19, 1915, and when the ice began to break apart in September, the ship began to sink and Shackleton ordered the crew to abandon ship. The group of explorers were stranded on an Antarctica island known as Elephant Island, and for almost a year they lived off seal, penguin and whale meat until Shackleton decided to use the remaining boat to travel to South Georgia Island's whaling station. However, they arrived on the uninhabited side of the island and had to cross the land to reach the station. They arrived on May 20 1917, but Shackleton was unable to rescue the 22 men on Elephant Island until August 30.

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Richard Evelyn Byrd

Wikimedia Commons.

Rear Admiral Richard Evelyn Byrd was a U.S. Naval officer and pilot who was the first person to fly to the North and South Poles — although there is some controversy over whether Byrd actually made it to the North Pole in 1926. Byrd undertook five Antarctic expeditions, and on his second one he became one of the first people to spend the winter on the continent, spending five months operating a meteorological station alone, which is described in his aptly titled autobiography, “Alone.” By the time Byrd died in 1957, he had amassed 22 citations and special commendations, including the Medal of Honor.

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Sir Edmund Hillary

Wikimedia Commons.

He’s best known for being the first man to reach the summit of Mount Everest, but Sir Edmund Hillary also made several expeditions to Antarctica. In 1958, Hilary led New Zealand’s Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic expedition to the South Pole, becoming the first person to reach the pole since Scott and the third person to ever reach the pole. He also commentated aboard several Antarctic sightseeing tours, and in 1957 he accompanied the first plane to land at the Marble Point ground airstrip in Antarctica (pictured).

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Ranulph Fiennes

Chris Jackson/Getty Images.

Sir Ranulph Fiennes is a British adventurer whom the Guinness Book of World Records once described as “the world’s greatest living explorer.” Fiennes undertook numerous expeditions, including many in the Arctic and Antarctic, and he was the first person to reach both the North and South Poles. In 1990, he set the world record for unsupported northerly polar travel, and in 1993 he became the first person to cross the continent of Antarctica on foot, completing the longest unsupported polar journey in history. But all that time in frigid temperatures took its toll on Fiennes when he sustained severe frostbite to the tips of his fingers on his left hand, which he later amputated himself. Still, this didn’t slow him down. In 2009, at the age of 65, Fiennes successfully reached the summit of Mount Everest, becoming the oldest British person to ever climb the world’s highest mountain. In the video below, Fiennes — who incidentally, is also a third cousin to actors Ralph and Joseph Fiennes — describes his travels.

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Ann Bancroft

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Ann Bancroft is an author and adventurer and was the first woman to successfully complete many Arctic and Antarctic expeditions. In 1986, she traveled to the North Pole via dogsled in 56 days and became the first woman to reach the pole on foot and by sled. Bancroft was also the first woman to cross both polar ice caps to reach the North and South Poles, as well as the first woman to ski across Greenland. In 1993, she led an all-woman trip to the South Pole on skis, and in 2001, she and Liv Arnesen became the first women to ski across Antarctica. Bancroft’s amazing achievements led to her induction into the U.S. National Women’s Hall of Fame.

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'Top Gear' team

Podknox/flickr.

In 2006, the hosts of BBC’s "Top Gear" — Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May — attempted to be the first to drive a motor vehicle to the Magnetic North Pole, but the show’s Polar Special was more than just an attempt to set a record. Clarkson and May’s vehicle would also race Hammond and a dogsled team to the pole. More than 240 hours of labor were spent modifying a Toyota Hilux and a Toyota Land Cruiser for the journey, and the hosts were braced for the dangers of polar expeditions when Sir Ranulph Fiennes showed them the remains of his frostbitten hand.

Despite the scare tactic, the group set off from Resolute Nunavut in Canada on April 25, 2007. The voyage had its scary moments — such as when Clarkson and May’s Hilux became trapped when it fell partly through the ice — and its humorous ones, particularly when Clarkson mixed himself a gin and tonic while driving through an ice field and claimed he wasn’t drinking and driving because he was technically sailing. On May 2, Clarkson and May’s GPS system confirmed they’d reached the 1996 location of the Magnetic North Pole, and Hammond and his dogsled team admitted defeat.