Our world today is dominated by satellite feeds and sonar technology that can detect and pinpoint objects anywhere in the world at the drop of a hat or push of a button. One could argue that there are very few areas on the surface of our planet still left unexplored, especially compared to what little we knew about the Earth outside of Europe just 500 or so years ago.
So, think for a second, what it would have been like to be an explorer; just some dude with a boat—or a few boats—pushing off from the coast of your home country, a land with which you’re intimately familiar, where you know everything there is to know about it, and heading out into the unknown, in search of God knows what, while hoping to avoid trouble from God knows who.
By any measurable standards, it takes some serious cajones to go out and explore the unknown. Whether it was Vasco da Gama sailing his crazy ass around the tip of Africa and over into India, Lief Erikson planting Nordic flags in modern-day Canada, or Hugh Glass, crawling literally 200 miles through the American frontier after being attacked by a grizzly bear.
But of all the explorers we know of throughout history, who were the world’s most bad ass? Well, let’s have a looksee.
We’ve all seen that movie The Revenant. You know, the one where Leonardo Dicaprio gets raped—erm, mauled—by a grizzly bear? Well, that bad ass movie was based on a very real bad ass person, and even for as bad ass as all the hype was, Leonardo Dicaprio’s depiction of Hugh Glass doesn’t come close to the real Hugh Glass.
Glass was a frontiersman who joined up on an expedition with General William Henry Ashley to help set up a fur trade venture west of the Missouri River. While on a hunting mission for the rest of the expedition one afternoon, Glass came upon—and surprised—a grizzly bear and her two cubs. The massive grizzly attacked Glass, and despite eventually killing the massive bear, was mortally wounded in the fight—or so his group thought. His men tried to carry him for a couple days, but eventually decided Glass was slowing them down too much. General Ashley’s expedition partner, Andrew Henry, instructed two volunteers to stay with Glass until he died, after which they were to bury his and then go find the group.
What happened next is contested, but the two men tasked with burying Glass, John S. Fitzgerald and a man named “Bridges,” claimed they were attacked by Arikara natives and were forced to flee. However, it’s largely believed that there was no attack, and the two just took Glass’ belongings, figuring he was good as dead.
Well, Glass eventually regained consciousness—with zero weapons or equipment, festering wounds, a badly broken leg, and cuts on his back that were so deep, his bare ribs were exposed. Unwilling to give up, he set the bone in his leg and allowed maggots to eat the festering flesh in his infected wounds. He crawled for miles until fashioning a makeshift raft on the edge of the Cheyenne River, then used it to float downstream to Fort Kiowa, approximately 200 miles away. Not only did he survive, but he even tracked down the men who betrayed him and got his stuff back.
It’s impossible to have a conversation about the world’s most bad ass explorers without mentioning the one and only Neil Armstrong. Forget being mauled by bears, dodging pirates and discovering new continents. This guy was literally the first person to walk on the moon.
Think about that for a second. Neil Armstrong was the first person—in the history of people—to walk on land that wasn’t in some way physically connected to Earth. He literally traveled nearly 240,000 miles away from Earth to go step foot on the moon, just because he felt like it.
What’s even crazier is that most people only remember Neil Armstrong for his work on the Apollo 11 moon landing, but he was a bad ass his entire career. He made his first flight into space as the commander of the Gemini 8 in March of 1966, which made him NASA’s first civilian astronaut to fly in space… Ever. And on that same mission, he prevented a catastrophe after a thruster got stuck, causing the Titan II rocket to spiral out of control, and forcing him to shut down the computer and re-dock their ship to the unmanned Agena target vehicle. Armstrong, without any computer assistance, manually re-docked the ship, saving the lives of everyone on board.
Oh, and before that, Armstrong was a fighter pilot in the Korean War, where he flew 78 combat missions, evaded capture after being shelled by anti-aircraft artillery behind enemy lines and earned himself three Air Medals in the process.
The early explorers of the 20th Century are some of our favorites, because it seems like no matter what, those guys were on some next-level, “we don’t care about anything” type stuff. Among the men who gave least fucks of all was Roald Engelbregt Gravning Amundsen or, as we like to call him, Roald “Humungous Testicles” Amundsen.
Amundsen started his exploration career in 1903, after he set sail on a small ship to successfully travel the frozen waters of the Northwestern Passage (A small but extremely dangerous stretch of sea between Arctic and Northern Canada that, at the time, was considered impassable). Well, Amundsen made it happen—and with a crew of just six people, no less.
He then set his sights on the North Pole, but after realizing that two explorers (Frederick Cook and Robert Peary) already beat him to the punch, he pivoted and decided to head South. On December 13, 1911, Amundsen successfully made it to the South Pole, beating out Englishman and Antarctic exploration pioneer Robert Falcon Scott, who actually died on his return to base camp.
As if that wasn’t enough exploration badassery, Amundsen stunned the world again in 1926 when he became the leader of the first successful air expedition to the North Pole. This, of course, made him the first person to successfully reach both poles.
Amundsen died a hero, while taking part in a rescue mission to save the ill-fated crew of the Airship Italia, which crashed while on an expedition to the North Pole.
Let us preface everything we’re about to say about Ferdinand Magellan by first saying two things: One, he was purported to have filled his boats with more booze than he did weapons. And two, he allegedly took a bunch of criminals to sea with him instead of regular sailors. Historians believe many of the experienced sailors of the time refused to sail with him because of his Portuguese background.
If that's not the most punk rock explorer shit you've ever heard, please tell us now. We'll wait.
Anyway, when Magellan set sail on August 10, 1519, he left with a fleet of five ships and had a crew of 265 men. It was a massive endeavor, and sent quite a large “Fuck You!” to King Manuel of Portugal, who had several times denied his petition to amass a crew and roll out.
Despite the booze and criminals, Magellan managed to make it through the southern tip of South America, discovering what we know today as the “Strait of Magellan.” After cutting through the islands off of what is modern day Chile, Magellan sped straight on through—especially quickly, because the South Americans were not friendly (It’s actually rumored that a few years prior to Magellan, the natives captured a ship and ate another less prominent explorer)—and made it to the Pacific Ocean, which had never been seen by another European explorer. He named it "Mar Pacifico" or, the "Pacific Ocean."
Unfortunately, Magellan’s good fortune took a turn for the worst when he and his crew reached the island of Cebu in the Philippine archipelago. After befriending the locals and replenishing their supplies, Cebu asked them for assistance in fighting a neighboring island. Magellan, drastically underestimating his opponents, rolled up with only 60 lightly armed men, and quickly got his ass beat. He actually wound up getting speared to death. Whoops.
Of the 265 men and five ships to originally leave Spain, only one ship and 18 men made it home. Nevertheless, Magellan is credited with being the first person to ever sail around the world—despite never making it home.
It’d be unfair of us to only note explorers who are no longer with us, because there are still plenty of bad ass people exploring the great unknown. One of those men, for instance, is Tim Severin. Tim Severin is the kind of guy who simply can’t say no to adventure.
When he attended Oxford in the 1960s and he was asked to pick a major, he literally wrote down, “History of Everything,” right before hopping on a motorcycle and following Marco Polo’s route to China on it. No, really. He did that. And that was just the beginning.
A few years later, Severin hand-built a dugout canoe and took it on a 2,400-mile voyage up the mighty Mississippi River, simply for the sake of research. He published the book Explorers of the Mississippi, wherein he wrote about the trails he followed, and the men who paved them first.
In 1976, Severin, wanting to prove (or disprove) the Irish folklore that St. Brendan beat Columbus to the Americas by over 1,000 years, built a replica Fifth Century leather boat and fucking sailed it clear across the Atlantic Ocean. And when he accidentally grazed an iceberg at one point in the journey, he simply sewed a patch over the hole and kept on going.
Severin embarked on several other incredible journeys:
He recreated Sinbad’s sail-less ship and sailed it across the Arabian Sea, down India’s Malabar Coast and onto Calicut, India, through to the coast to Sri Lanka, before arriving at Canton, China eight months later.
Then, he recreated the voyage from the epic poem Argonautica. Not only did he commission the building of a replica Bronze Age galley (Because why not?), but he also gathered a crew of 20 volunteers and then rowed and sailed through the Straits of Bosphorus to the Black Sea, only stopping when he reached the Phasis delta (Known today as the Rioni River).
He also rode with Mongol herdsmen along one of the routes used by couriers in the Mongolian empire, kicked it yurt-style with Kazakhs and frolicked with camels in the Gobi Desert—just to celebrate Genghis Khan’s 800th birthday.
Severin is the king of not giving any fucks and going where only the bravest and toughest souls ever could and at 77 years old, he’s still kickin’. Godspeed.