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Published Sep. 27, 2005

A new generation of adventurers cut from the same cloth as Columbus and Sir Edmund Hillary has launched a modern era of exploration, with the help of sponsors.

The crickets were roasted to perfection. Baby scorpions adorned points of savory toast. And the saddle of beaver simmered gently in a decorative silver tureen.

Oceanographer Sylvia Earle glided across the room in a shimmering red gown and golden shawl. She'd rather have been in her wetsuit. She'd rather have been diving to the darkest corners of the abyss. Instead, "Her Deepness," as Earle is known, was busy in her role as honorary president of the Explorers Club, charming the cocktail crowd with her latest exploit: dancing a solitary dance with a giant octopus at the bottom of the Pacific.

Across the room, tuxedoed archaeologist Johan Reinhard clutched his wineglass and chatted about his latest find _ a 500-year-old Inca mummy unearthed atop a remote Andean peak. Next to him, Bertrand Piccard, first man to circumnavigate the earth in a balloon, engaged in intense debate about the future of solar-powered planes.

All around were people who have bushwhacked through jungles, trekked across deserts, floated in space. Dripping medals and jewels and tales from afar, they gathered in the ballroom of Waldorf Astoria hotel for the annual Explorers Club banquet. Once a year they come here, to mingle with sponsors and troll for support, to nibble on loin of kangaroo and explain to the world that there are still far-flung parts waiting to be discovered.

"There is a popular illusion that all corners of the Earth have been explored," says Earle. "The greatest mountain ranges on the planet are underwater, where there is a whole continent waiting to be explored."

In the past two years alone, Ian Baker reported discovering the fabled Shangri La waterfall on Tibet's mighty Tsangpo River; Reinhard recovered three frozen Inca mummies from an Andean volcano; the body of English climber George Mallory, who disappeared in 1924, was discovered on Mount Everest; and Robert Ballard located the world's oldest shipwrecks_ two Phoenician cargo vessels in the Mediterranean. The same trip led him to uncover evidence of a giant flood about 7,000 years ago _ perhaps the biblical flood of Noah.

Explorers still scale peaks that have never been climbed, crawl through caves to the insides of Earth, hurtle into space to walk among the stars. They find ancient tribes and ancient cities. They dig up dinosaurs. They journey to places where no one has reported being before: the jungles of central Congo, the Amazon and Peru, the deserts of Tibet and China, vast underwater caves in Mexico and Belize. They are only beginning to probe the ocean, which covers 71 percent of the planet, although only about 5 percent of it has been explored.

All of which makes Earle say, "I think the great era of exploration has just begun."

"It is still not hard to find a man who will adventure for the sake of a dream, or one who will search for the pleasure of searching, and not for what he may find," wrote Sir Edmund Hillary in 1958.

Meet John Hare, just back from a lush, hidden valley in the Desert of Lop in China, a place he says is "not even on the satellite map." The 62-year-old Briton seems a caricature of an old-fashioned explorer, marching off to hot dusty lands with little more than a Tilley hat and a fierce confidence that he will triumph over the giant white mosquitoes, violent sandstorms and water shortages that inevitably come his way. Among other exploits, he persuaded the Chinese government to establish a huge desert preserve for the wild Bactrian camel. But, while the endangered species offer a purpose for his expeditions, Hare admits that something deeper drives him.

"There is a great thrill going someplace and knowing you are leaving the first footprints in recorded history," he says, months after returning from the ruins of the ancient desert city of Lou Lan, abandoned in 350 A.D. "There is a still a great thrill in filling a blank on the map."

Hare shuns cell phones, thinks laptops are madness and often travels without a radio. True explorers, he says, don't need someone "at the end of a radio or an e-mail to rescue them."

But Hare's brand of exploration is dying. These are the days of satellite calls from Everest and robots on Mars, of tourists diving to the Titanic (for $35,000 each) and a $10-million competition to get the first civilians into space. And anyone with a computer can tag along.

"We've become a nation of armchair explorers who want to communicate with our heroes, be part of their immediate experience," says Jeff Blumenfeld, who runs a consulting company that pairs sponsors with expeditions.

The filing cabinets in Blumenfeld's Rowayton, Conn., office are bursting with proposals, from searching for the lost treasure of Genghis Khan to "biking" the Atlantic on a pedal-boat, from retracing the route of Marco Polo to hunting for Bigfoot. Most are looking for funding. The successful ones, Blumenfeld says, are those that can promise a great marketing opportunity from the top or the bottom of the world.

"Just because you are at the North Pole," Blumenfeld says, "you can't forget your sponsors. You have to go back to your tent and call them."

It's a dilemma Ann Bancroft understands all too well. The 44-year old Minnesota woman, along with her Norwegian partner Liv Arneson, plans to hike across Antarctica later this year. Setting off in November, they will lug 250-pound sleds across the ice for 100 days, using skis and specially designed sails. Each night, after up to 16 hours of skiing and sailing, they will pound out their thoughts on laptops and transmit them to fifth-graders around the world.

Bancroft feels a bit uncomfortable about the intrusion of technology, but she knows it's inevitable if she wants financial support. She learned a bitter lesson from her 1993 trek to the South Pole, which left her disillusioned and broke. For the Antarctic expedition, she set up her own marketing company, dedicated to raising an estimated $1.5-million for her trip. A Web site, updated daily, tracks her progress.

Exploration, or pure adventure? Bancroft, who has studied the journals of her heroes _ Cook, Scott, Shackleton _ insists that the spirit of personal exploration is the same. So, she points out, are the dangers.

"Regardless of Gortex and laptops," Bancroft says, "in the middle of Antarctica, you can't just ring up and get out."

"Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success." Ernest Shackleton's 1914 advertisement for crew members for Endurance.

The ship was aptly named. Though Shackleton failed in his quest to cross the Antarctic, his journey became one of the great epics of survival. Marooned for months on an ice-floe, his ship crushed by pack-ice, Shackleton managed to sail a lifeboat 800 miles, scale an unmapped mountain range, reach a Norwegian whaling station and return to rescue every single one of his men.

Seventy-five years later, Robert Ballard wants to dig through the ice and find his hero's ship.

Ballard is one of the most famous living explorers, and not just because he discovered the world's most famous shipwreck. Long before the lights of his little roaming robot lit up Titanic's ghostly bow in 1985, the former naval officer and oceanographer dedicated his life to exploration. Bismarck. USS Yorktown. Lusitania. Ballard has explored them all.

"When I die," Ballard says, "I want one word on my tombstone: "Explorer."

He is standing in his Institute of Exploration in Mystic, Conn. in a replica of the control room from which he discovered Titanic. The institute, which opened last year, is packed with videos and displays from Ballard's finds. On one wall, a large chart details his plans: searching for ancient wrecks in the Black Sea, the lost ships of the Franklin expedition in the Canadian Arctic, Shackleton's Endurance.

"A lot of people do adventure," Ballard says. "They retrace Hannibal's route in a Winnebago. They take a helicopter to the North Pole and have cocktails. That is not exploration."

True exploration, he says, is about having a vision and following it, about going where no one has dared go before, about bringing back scientific information and publishing it in journals.

"It's about having the heart to push on when you want to turn back," he says. "That is what sets explorers apart."

Ballard belongs to the Explorers Club, launched in 1905 as a meeting place for gentlemen-adventurers. Members have included Cook and Peary, Scott and Amundsen, Hillary, Hyerdahl, Lindbergh, Yeager and Armstrong. From the walls of the club's New York City headquarters, their portraits challenge today's adventurers to match their daring. The building itself, a stately Tudor mansion on the upper east side, is their shrine. Peary's sledge sits on the third floor, a stuffed cheetah graces the trophy room, narwhal tusks and petrified dinosaur eggs are crammed into every corner.

This is where explorers share stories, sip cocktails, and drum up support for new expeditions.

Exploration has always relied on the generosity of sponsors, from governments and newspapers to kings and queens. And explorers have always relied on gimmicks to attract them. Shackleton raised money through magic-lantern shows. Columbus promised a share of the riches of the new worlds.

These days, explorers must make a different kind of promise: high drama, made-for-television adventure, interactive Web sites _ and plenty of exposure for sponsors.

"Peary didn't have that kind of pressure," says Barbara Moffett of the National Geographic Society, which awards about $4-million a year in exploration and research grants.

Corporate sponsors too, love action. When Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones ballooned around the world last year, they carried the name of their sponsor, "Breitling," emblazoned on the neon orange gondola they lived in for 20 days.

"We were lucky to have a last great adventure, a last great frontier that sponsors could relate to," said Piccard, whose name added to his mystique. The Swiss psychiatrist is the grandson of Auguste Piccard, the first man to reach the stratosphere in a balloon, and son of Jacques Piccard, who descended seven miles into the Pacific Ocean in a bathysphere in 1960, still the deepest dive ever.

"Explorers are foragers," says Anna Roosevelt, curator of archaeology at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago and professor of Anthropology at the University of Illinois. "They will seek until they find."

The great-granddaughter of Theodore Roosevelt spends much of her time foraging in the Amazon River basin, challenging conventional wisdom about early settlements there. She also challenges any notion that she is following in the footsteps of her famous ancestor, whose faded expedition photographs decorate the walls of the Explorer's Club. Teddy Roosevelt, she says, was a great adventurer and a great president, but he wasn't an explorer in the true sense.

"People and animals died on his expeditions," she said of his legendary African safaris and canoe trips down the Amazon's River of Doubt. "They don't die on mine."

Roosevelt was one of the first women inducted into the Explorers Club after it opened its doors to women in 1981. Another was astronaut Kathryn Sullivan, first American woman to walk in space.

Sullivan didn't particularly feel like an explorer when she nudged her spaceship out of the way so she could get a better view of Earth. She was more amused by the whimsy of it all: having trained for this moment so long, it actually felt normal. It wasn't until she got back to Earth that she pondered its meaning.

"I think sometimes we learn more about ourselves and our place in society and in the universe than the places we thought we were going to explore."

Clinging to a cliff in Cameroon, 32-year-old South African climber Edmund February agreed. Sure it's an adventure, he said, in a phone interview from the mountain last December. But it's exploration too.

"When we make these climbs, we are exploring a new dimension, a new theater," said February, who was pioneering a first ascent on the volcanic spires of the Mandara Mountains. "It's not with the same parameters as Scott or Amundsen. But it's more than just a thirst for adventure. It's a thirst for knowledge too."

"A few toes aren't much to give to achieve the pole," exclaimed Peary in 1898.

So what is left for modern-day explorers to achieve, or sacrifice? Plenty, says Bradford Washburn, a 90-year-old cartographer and mountaineer from Boston. Washburn was friends with Richard Byrd. He interviewed for the position of navigator on Amelia Earhart's round-the-world flight, dropping out because he thought the radios were inadequate. In the 1930s he knocked out the door of a Lockheed Vega airplane and tied himself to the opposite bulkhead in order to map glaciers on Alaska's St. Elias Range. Last year, he directed an expedition that led to the discovery of a new altitude of Everest _ 29,035 feet, 7 feet higher than previously recorded.

"It was exciting," Washburn says, "but nothing as exciting as when Ed Hillary got to the top."

Still, Washburn marvels at the technology that hurtles modern explorers toward new frontiers, and at the spirit propelling them. Ballard discovering the Titanic, Reinhard staring into the mummified face of an Inca child, Earle dancing with a giant octopus. All of them, Washburn says, are driven by the same spirit that drove Columbus and Peary and Byrd: to discover new worlds and document them.

At the Boston Museum of Science where he is honorary director and where he still works several days a week, Washburn breaks into a poem.

"Something hidden. Go and find it ... Something lost behind the Ranges. Lost and waiting for you. Go!"

The poem is by Kipling. It's one of Washburn's favorites. It's called The Explorer.