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From Mountains to the Moon | A Brief History of Epic Firsts

Exploration is as old as humankind. Ever since we stepped outside our cave and first set our eyes on the horizon we've been asking "what's over there then?" From Marco Polo's travels in the East, to Columbus' discovery of the New World, all the way to the surface of the Moon, history is a long winding narrative of epic first journeys.

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong's 'One Giant Step for Mankind', we've put together a brief history of modern exploration. Here are the men and women who went to the furthest, highest and deepest places on Earth . . . and beyond.

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Lewis and Clark's Journey to the West, 1804-6

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark led the first American expedition to cross the western landmass of the United States. The US had acquired the vast and unmapped West in the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. President Jefferson commissioned an expedition to navigate a route from St Louis (in the eastern centre of the country) all the way to the Pacific coast.

Lewis and Clark embarked in May 1804, with approximately 40 men. They followed the Missouri River in small keelboats into the Dakotas, where they would wait out the brutal winter at Fort Mandan. In the spring they continued onward in canoes, navigating the complex river systems all the way to Oregon and the Pacific. They arrived in mid November 1805.

In the spring they began the return journey, splitting up to more comprehensively map the country. They eventually reunited back on the Missouri River and returned to a hero's welcome in September 1806. In total the expedition travelled nearly 8000 miles, discovered hundreds of species of flora and fauna, and vastly improved the knowledge of native peoples in the West. Along the way they lost only one man.

One figure whose legacy rivals that of Lewis and Clark is Sacagawea – a native woman of the Lemhi Shoshone tribe. She joined the party in North Dakota and travelled all the way to the Pacific. Along the route she helped establish contacts with native populations and gave key advise at various forks in the journey. She died in 1812 but was later adopted as a symbol of female independence and empowerment.

Lewis and Clark and Sacagawea

Map of Lewis and Clark's Journey

Lewis and Clark Kayaking

Matthew Henson, Arctic Explorer

The North Pole, 1909

Throughout the nineteenth century many people tried to reach the North Pole. All met defeat. It wasn't until 1909 that Robert Peary, Matthew Henson and their Inuit guide, Ootah, would successfully make the 400-mile journey across the frozen wastes.

It was a mammoth journey to get to the starting line. They left New York in July 1908 by ship (The Roosevelt) and steamed to their winter base, Cape Sheridan, well inside the arctic circle. From there they sledged overland to Cape Columbia, accompanied by another three Inuit men: Ooqueah, Segloo and Egigingwah.

Cape Columbia was where they stepped off land and onto the frozen ocean. They crossed the chaotic tumble of ice-formations, travelling in relay to maximise speed and distance. Though Henson claims he was actually the first to arrive at the Pole on April 6th, Peary was adamant in taking credit for the feat.

Henson was an African American adventurer and Peary's anger may reflect his racism or, more generally his reputation as "the most unpleasant man in the annals of polar exploration'. Nonetheless, the Peary expedition still stands at the first successful voyage to the North Pole, despite the persistent doubts of fellow adventurers and polar experts.

Peary Expedition to the North Pole

South Pole, 1911

At the other end of the planet, a titanic contest was underway. The British Explorer Robert Falcon Scott and his rival, the Norwegian Roald Amundsen, were racing to claim the South Pole.

Scott had tried before; an earlier effort had been thwarted by health issues, but the explorer had vowed to try again. He recruited many of the same crew for this second attempt and set sail in June 1910 aboard the Terra Nova. Meanwhile, the seasoned Amundsen had kept his own ambitions very quiet. He initially posed his expedition as an Arctic journey but dashed south from the America's rather than turning north.

Once they both made land the race was on in earnest. Amundsen set out from the Bay of Whales a full 3 weeks before Scott. Both men would reach the pole but, much to his disappointment, Scott found the Norwegian flag already flying, Amundsen having arrived over a month before.

Even worse was to come. Whilst Amundsen travelled home to global acclaim, Scott's party succumbed to weakness and cold during the 800-mile return journey. A search party discovered the bodies of Scott and his companions in November 1912.

His diary was discovered and used to construct a narrative of the expedition's final days. One note stated: Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman.

Roald Amundsen and his dog sled

Piccard and Walsh inside the cabin

Bottom of the Ocean, 1960

The Mariana Trench is the deepest part of Earth's ocean. It lies in the Pacific Ocean, 2000km to the south of Japan. At over 36,000 feet, or 10.6 kilometres deep, it would easily accommodate the entire height of Mount Everest.

On January 23, 1960 two men left the surface world in a bathyscaphe, heading for the Trench's unexplored depths. This 150-ton submersible, the Triest, was shaped like a compact submarine and constructed from steel, and it had been built by the father of one of the men inside. The Triest sank fast, at four feet per second, yet it still took over five hours to reach the bottom of the Mariana Trench.

Inside a cramped 6-foot cabin, Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh watched as the pressure upon their craft rose to a massive eight tons per square inch. They finally touched down at a record depth of 35,800 feet where they discovered that, amazingly, life could still exist. Through the window (by this point a worryingly cracked window) Piccard and Walsh saw a creature on the ocean floor. It was later identified as a sea cucumber.

Since Piccard and Walsh's descent, four other expeditions have reached the floor of the Mariana Trench. The film director James Cameron set a new record in 2012 in his vessel Deepsea Challenger. Altogether, however, humanity has only spent 3 hours at the bottom of the ocean, much less than the time we have spent in space.

The Moon, 1969

In 1962 President Kennedy laid down a challenge to the newly established NASA. "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard."

By the end of the decade Kennedy was dead but his challenge very much alive. On July 16, 1969 Apollo 11 launched from Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, with three men onboard. Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins travelled for 3 days and 239,000 miles to be the first of all humanity to set foot on another celestial body.

Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the moon in a smaller module, The Eagle, whilst Collins remained onboard the Apollo. Whilst the two lunar explorers are more famous today, it is perhaps Collins who showed the most bravery in his solitary lunar orbit. Each time he passed behind the moon's 'dark side' Collins would lose all communication and become temporarily 'the loneliest man in the universe.'

Meanwhile Armstrong took his "one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind' as he stepped out of the landing module to begin his two-and-a-half-hour exploration of the alien surface. Together with Aldrin he collected samples, and reflected a laser back to earth, helping determine the accurate distance between the moon and home.

They also planted the American Flag. It still stands as a testament to our species' insatiable desire to go further, to carve new trails, and chase new experiences. Fifty years later it remains the furthest boundary of human exploration . . . so far.

Apollo 11 moon launch

Apollo 11 moon landing

Looking at the stars

Where Next?

The world's mountains have all been climbed and we have circled the planet in every kind of vehicle imaginable. There remain very few blank places on the map. The question arises: is there anywhere left to explore?

The simple answer is yes. Already our attention has gone beyond the moon, with NASA setting their sights on Mars and a possible manned expedition by 2033. The hurdles are numerous and substantial but that has been the case for every expedition ever mounted. Only the scale changes.

Closer to home, the oceans still offer scope for exploration. We have mapped the surface of other planets more comprehensively than we have the depths of our own. Quite literally, there could be anything down there.

Equally, huge cave systems still cut through the earth like swiss cheese, awaiting exploration. In 2018 the world's largest flooded cave system was discovered in Mexico. It contains a wealth of geological and archaeological data. In the UK, the Three Counties Cave system is the 27th longest in the world and connects caves in Cumbria, Lancashire and Yorkshire. It was only discovered in 2011.

It seems that, whether we are looking up at the stars, or down at our feet, our hunger for adventure and exploration has yet to find a limit.

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Neil used to be a bookworm, an "indoor" type if ever there was one. After finishing a PhD he writes short stories about spooky places and odd people. Living in Switzerland, the Canadian Rockies and the north east region of the USA convinced him that there was something to be said for this whole outdoor thing. Now he runs everywhere he can, competing in races most weekends and endlessly planning the next great adventure to some far flung part of the world. Recent trips include Costa Rica, where he tried and failed to surf; Vietnam, where he almost got stuck in an underground tunnel; and back to Canada, where he came face-to-face with a bear. Watch this space for further updates on Neil's global bumblings and the occasional athletic success.

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