The Alpha Class

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Adventure Special, March 1999

The Alpha Class
A few more unrivaled masters

By David Roberts

The Explorer: Borge Ûusland

If any explorer deserves to inherit the mantle of Roald Amundsen ù regarded as the finest polar explorer ever ù it's his latter-day Norwegian compatriot. With less fanfare and smaller budgets than rivals Will Steger and Sir Ranulph Fiennes, Ûusland bested everyone in two great "last challenges." In 1990, he and a comrade became the first to travel alone and unsupported (no supply depots, airdrops, or dogsleds) to the North Pole; four years later, he repeated the dash solo. In 1995, frostbitten thighs forced Ûusland to abandon an effort to cross Antarctica alone, but even in defeat he became the first person to have reached both poles alone and unsupported. And in early 1997, Ûusland pulled off what may be the boldest polar feat ever: Skiing with the aid of a parasail, he crossed Antarctica alone in 64 days. Still only 36, Ûusland believes there's one last polar ultimate, the first unsupported traverse of the Arctic Ocean. "I don't know if I will try it," he says. "It would be very hard, much harder than Antarctica. But I think it's possible."

The Balloonist: Steve Fossett

In less than five years, Fossett has gone from rookie to frontrunner in the race to circle the globe nonstop in a balloon, some 25,000 miles. (Though Jules Verne postulated such a voyage 135 years ago, it was long thought impossible; it wasn't until 1978, after 14 failures and five deaths, that a balloon first crossed the Atlantic ù a flight of a mere 3,500 miles.) In 1995, on only his second flight as a licensed pilot, Fossett notched the first solo crossing of the Pacific, setting a distance record of 5,436 miles. Last August, he tripled that record, gliding 14,235 miles before a storm spilled him into the Coral Sea. And in December, he joined Richard Branson and Per Lindstrand in another attempt, circling half the globe before splashing down near Oahu. Fossett now owns the five longest balloon flights in history. Unfazed by his latest failure, the 54-year-old head of a securities trading firm is planning another go this July with Branson. They hope to circle the globe below the equator, where the vast, lightly traveled oceans make rescue almost impossible. "You have to believe you're going to succeed if you fly the Southern Hemisphere," he says. "Otherwise it's too dangerous."

The Caver: Bill Stone

It's one thing to excel at a dangerous pastime like mountain climbing or single-handed sailing; it's another to combine two high-risk sports and invent a whole new way of exploring some of the most difficult places on earth. This is what Bill Stone, 46, has accomplished during a 23-year obsession with an underground labyrinth in Mexico, as he tries to prove that Huautla is the deepest cave in the world. By 1976, cavers had pushed Huautla to 2,824 feet ù deepest in the Western Hemisphere ù only to be stymied by the San Agustin sump, a huge pool of water that blocked the passage. Cavers had tamed smaller sumps with scuba gear, but this one, Stone discovered, was beyond the limits of existing technology. So Stone invented a "rebreather," which recycles exhaled oxygen, thus allowing a cave diver to spend up to 16 hours 1,000 feet down. In a logistically massive Huautla expedition in 1994, Stone and his crew solved the San Agustin sump, entered an air bell beyond, and reached the shore of a second sump. But the effort cost one team member his life. By the end of the expedition, nearly all of Stone's teammates were too spooked to go on. With his girlfriend, Barbara am Ende, Stone spent six days far beyond the reach of any possible rescue, solving the second sump and forging on past lakes, waterfalls, and dry tunnels. They pushed Huautla to 4,839 feet, fifth-deepest in the world (the deepest is Austria's Lamprechtsofen, at 5,354 feet). Though he has not been back since 1994, Bill Stone will return to Huautla for a four-month expedition next spring. The late Sheck Exley, universally considered the world's best cave diver, on the difficulties of Huautla: "It's like trying to dive on Mars ù if Mars had water."

The Sailor: Isabelle Autissier

Although little-known in the United States, Autissier, 42, is one France's most celebrated adventurers. She's also the first woman to compete on equal terms with the best men in one of the most perilous of all styles of terrestrial voyaging. Around Alone may be the ultimate race: a seven-month competition held every four years, broken into four legs, pitting the world's finest distance sailors in a 27,000-mile circumnavigation. In 1990-91, Autissier finished seventh in her class the first time out. Four years later, she pulled off a brilliant first leg, opening a 1,200-mile, five-day lead. Yet what might have been a record-setting victory collapsed on the second leg, as Autissier was twice dismasted in the violent Southern Ocean. (When another racer was diverted to rescue her after the first incident, she waved him off rather than abandon her boat. "No, thank you! Go away!" she yelled over the storm.) At press time, Autissier ù despite having lost her port rudder when she struck a whale and having been forced to make a nine-hour landfall to repair a mainsail track ù was leading the 1998-99 Around Alone.

David Roberts is the author of such adventure classics as Moments of Doubt and Great Exploration Hoaxes.

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