Their awfully big adventures: Teenage globetrotters

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What is driving children to take on ever-more risky expeditions across oceans and polar ice caps? As another teenager sets out on a record-breaking trip, Simon Usborne investigates

More people have climbed Mount Everest than have skied to the North Pole. If everything goes to plan, about a week from now, Parker Liautaud will join their ranks.

But if he wants to complete his gruelling 70-mile journey to the top of the world, he will have to withstand ferocious winds and temperatures that can plummet to -50C. When cracks appear in ice that can shift faster than a man can walk, he will be forced to wear an immersion suit and swim through the frigid waters of the Arctic Ocean, working fast to avert frostbite or hypothermia. If he can drag his sled all the way from the start of his expedition at 89 degrees north to 90 degrees north, he will follow in the great tradition of polar exploration and plant a flag. And then, exhausted but triumphant, Liautaud will go home, phone his mother, put on his school uniform – and sit his GCSEs. Because he is 15 years old.

"When you're in the Arctic, in the space of a very short amount of time, your entire dream can be swept away," says Liautaud, who, a few days before his adventure, is sitting in the geography department at Eton, where he has been a pupil for three years. If the schoolboy is successful, he will become the youngest person in history to ski to the North Pole. "I'll be hugely privileged and proud if I can make it," he adds.

What is it with little people and big adventures? For Liautaud, who has joint American and French nationality, the Pole is the goal, but he is among dozens of teenagers pushing themselves to the limits. Each month seems to bring news of fresh assaults on Everest, solo circumnavigations of the globe, or superhuman feats of rowing or running. And, increasingly, the stars of these expeditions seem not to be the heroes whose lined faces populate the annals of exploration, but fresh-faced youths with half an eye on their homework.

Yesterday, 16-year-old Hector Turner began his bid to become the youngest Briton to complete the Marathon des Sables, the notorious 151-mile race across the Sahara desert. On the same day, Geordie Stewart, a student at St Andrews University in Scotland, set off for Everest, where he expects to celebrate his 21st birthday on his way to the summit. He began his bid to become the youngest Briton to climb the "Seven Summits" – the highest mountains on each continent – when he was 18.

Two 16-year-old girls from the US and Australia are now trying, separately, to snatch the record for the youngest solo circumnavigation of the world from Mike Perham, the British sailor who completed the 30,000-mile voyage last year, aged 17. Laura Dekker, the 14-year-old Dutch girl who was grounded by a children's court when she tried to set sail aged just 13, will try once more to break the same record when the court order expires in July. The list goes on: young people with big ambitions and a thirst for adventure achieving feats that would challenge seasoned explorers twice their age. Who are these precocious voyagers, and what motivates them? Why are they multiplying, and what's the big rush?

*****

At 53, David Hempleman-Adams would struggle to qualify as a young explorer. But he knows a thing or two about adventure. In 1998, the British father of three became the first of only a dozen people to achieve the "explorers' grand slam". By reaching the geographic North Pole after a 600-mile trek, he completed a list that also includes a hike to the South Pole and climbs of the Seven Summits. He also holds a clutch of hot-air-ballooning records.

But after all those dangerous adventures, Hempleman-Adams says the hardest thing he's done was his bronze Duke of Edinburgh's Award. "I was up on the Brecon Beacons in Wales and it was the first time I'd been away from home – the first time I'd left my teddy – and it was scary as shit," he recalls. "I was 13 and to me those mountains looked pretty big." Eventually progressing to genuinely large mountains, Hempleman-Adams says he "used to scrimp and save and hitch-hike to the Alps to go climbing. I'd spend the summer there. Now young people are looking for three grand just to go on a gap year. They don't think anything of it."

Hempleman-Adams believes rapidly improving technology is opening up expeditions to a wider – and younger – audience. "Gone are the days when Shackleton went away for three years and nobody heard a thing," he says. "Young people are watching the Discovery Channel and when you can use a sat-phone at the top of Everest or send photographs from the Pole, these kinds of expeditions get into people's psyches much more quickly."

Technology has also made it easier to explore. In 2006, at the age of 67, the celebrated sailor Sir Robin Knox-Johnston became the oldest yachtsman to complete a solo circumnavigation of the globe. He first sailed round the world in 1969, becoming the first man to do so solo and non-stop. He had changed a bit in the intervening years – slightly slower with the rigging, perhaps – but his modern boat was something else. "It was the difference between a biplane and Concorde, says Knox-Johnston, who is now 71. "I had no satellite communications or navigation systems and there were no emergency services I could alert. I had a sextant to find my way and if I couldn't see the sun I was working on dead reckoning – guesswork. With modern GPS you can update your location every three seconds to within two metres. I was navigating the same way as Captain Cook."

That isn't to say these two elder statesmen of exploration regret the phenomenon of the teenage explorer. In 2008, Hempleman-Adams took his daughter, then 15, on a "last degree" trek to the North Pole of the kind Liautaud is undertaking. Knox-Johnston, meanwhile, says he's "absolutely delighted" that so many young people are inspired to take on such endeavours: "It goes to show there is still a thirst for adventure, and that's something to welcome, in my view."

But both men have concerns. Hempleman-Adams cites the boom in commercial outfits that sometimes take people on big adventures despite having only minimal experience, as well as the modern preoccupation with records, which, because "there's nothing to explore now except the oceans", must be broken younger or become more contrived. "When I do something, it's not for the record but because I want to push myself," he adds. "That's changing, and before long you're going to see someone going to the North Pole on a pogo stick backwards."

Knox-Johnston, who agreed with the order to postpone Laura Dekker's record-breaking voyage, has more serious worries. "There's a degree of responsibility that I think has to be the priority," he says. "When howling winds and huge waves are battering your boat, and you're tired, you need to be able to draw on strength and experience. I don't think you can necessarily have that as a 15-year-old. Sooner or later, this constant going for younger and younger records is going to end with someone being killed."

*****

Not that these concerns are shared by Liautaud, who talks about his adventure with a remarkably cool head. He's marching in the Arctic alongside the experienced American explorer Doug Stoup, and has been training for months. On Sunday mornings, Liautaud would rise at 6.30am, while his classmates slept in, to drag tractor tyres across playing fields. Stoup is confident the boy is prepared physically as well as mentally for such a demanding challenge.

But why now? Why not wait a few years? Liautaud won't hear it. He's on a mission that he says means more personal glory – and his youth is central to it. Moved by a trip to Antarctica last year, where he witnessed some of the effects of melting ice, he set his new challenge as a way to raise awareness of climate change among his peers. "I decided there couldn't be a better way to show people what was happening than to go there and report back," says Liautaud, who is sending live updates from his expedition via Twitter and Facebook.

Liautaud is being sponsored by the huge corporation General Electric, to whom he wrote a letter begging for support. It's a common route for would-be adolescent adventurers. Trips such as these don't come cheap – it can cost as much as £50,000 to climb Everest – but a willingness among companies to be associated with fresh-faced trailblazers means exploration need not be the preserve of the privileged. In Liautaud's case, General Electric saw an opportunity to promote its environmental work. "It's much easier to connect to someone your own age on Facebook than someone who's 30 years older," Liautaud says.

It displays a remarkable maturity when a 15-year-old seizes a cause, conceives an expedition to raise awareness, finds a man who can make it happen, and writes to company bosses (there were dozens, Liautaud says) in search of sponsorship. And in an age when teenagers are increasingly cast as ignorant, cider-swilling layabouts, the enterprise and dedication of the new generation of explorers is impressive. "It's great that we're getting rid of the awful stereotype that we all just hang around on street corners doing nothing good in our lives," says Rachel Flanders, who, in 2008, as a 17-year-old member of an all-girl team, became the youngest person to row across the Atlantic.

That image can be PR gold for charities as well as for sponsors. Last November, 16-year-old Calum Macintyre from Kinross in Scotland became the youngest Briton to reach the summit of Ama Dablam, a fearsome Himalayan peak once described by Sir Edmund Hillary as "unclimbable". He did it to raise money for the Teenage Cancer Trust. "The last climb, to the summit, was really tough," says Macintyre, whose sister, Esme, was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2006. "The altitude took everything out of me but I was pushed on by thoughts of people who raised money."

For Dawn Crosby, the trust's head in Scotland, Macintyre's support was invaluable. "We deal with a lot of teenagers who are incredibly creative and motivated to help," she says. "And when we're dealing with an age group people don't think gets cancer because it's not talked about, then what Calum has done is even more inspiring to other young people."

For others, the rise of the teenage explorer represents a refreshing subversion of a modern culture that can seem to over-protect our young people. Sir Ranulph Fiennes, the man who cut off his own frostbitten fingers with a Black & Decker saw in his garden shed after one of his many Arctic adventures, is, perhaps predictably, not a fan of health and safety. "It's fantastic that young people are setting examples for other young people to do things they otherwise wouldn't do," he says. "But I'm much more pleased because the alternative is the dreadful overdose of blame-claim culture."

*****

Back at Eton, Liautaud is being photographed in his big orange down jacket and winter boots. At most schools this would be an unusual sight, but the boys walking past in their tail suits and bow ties barely seem to notice. Liautaud is trekking in the footsteps of some storied alumni. Sir Ranulph was a pupil here, as was Bear Grylls, who is depicted on Everest (he was the youngest Briton to climb the peak, aged 23) in a painting that hangs inside the geography department.

Liautaud admits he will have to go a few extra miles before he can match either man – or explorers such as Knox-Johnston or Hempleman-Adams. While not an expedition to be taken lightly, a "last degree" trek to the North Pole is relatively accessible to those without experience. But, among the growing fraternity of young explorers, there are genuine pretenders to those thrones – people who have a passion for exploration that crosses generations and exists independently of any development in technology.

Few names among this new generation are as synonymous with that timeless spirit as Rob Gauntlett. The son of a builder and a caterer, neither of whom was adventurous, Gauntlett started as a cyclist, riding from Land's End to John o' Groat's at the age of 14 and embarking on huge trips across Europe. But his sights were always set higher. While sitting his GCSEs at his school in West Sussex, he and his friend James Hooper decided they would climb Mount Everest. "He'd always bound upstairs and say he wanted to do this or that," Gauntlett's mother, Nicola, recalls. "I'd say, yeah, sure, and let him chat on about it – I didn't want to dampen his spirits – but I rarely believed he would do it."

But Gauntlett underestimated her son's determination. After training climbs in the Highlands, the Alps and in Pakistan, he and Hooper struggled to raise enough money to make an attempt on the greatest mountain of all. Showing precocious but characteristic vigour, they secured the last sponsors only the morning before they set off for Nepal after exhaustive cold-calling to stockbrokers in the City. In May 2006, the 19-year-olds reached the roof of the world. Gauntlett, who was 18 when he started the climb, became the youngest Briton to climb Everest. "I was very, very proud," Nicola says.

The following year, Gauntlett and Hooper took on arguably a greater challenge – a 22,000-mile, human-powered voyage between the poles that saw them take three months to ski, sail and cycle through North and South America. They were the first people to achieve the feat and their achievements made them minor celebrities. They won National Geographic Adventure magazine's Adventurers of the Year award and appeared alongside David Beckham in the 2007 Adidas "impossible is nothing" campaign.

In January last year, a policeman knocked on the door of the Gauntlett family home in Petworth, West Sussex. Rob had been climbing on the east face of Mont Blanc du Tacul, a peak near Chamonix in the French Alps, with another old school friend, James Atkinson. Something had gone terribly wrong – falling ice is suspected, though it may never be known exactly what happened – and the pair had fallen 2,000 feet to their deaths. Rob Gauntlett was 21.

The accident shocked the climbing community. Beckham expressed his grief. Nicola Gauntlett wrote a moving tribute in The Daily Telegraph before Mother's Day last March: "Coming back to this house, which Rob used to fill with his friends, is difficult. At first, it felt as if he was just away on one of his adventures, but slowly it is sinking in that he won't be coming back. He loved life so much, I can't help wishing he'd had a little longer to enjoy it."

Gauntlett is confident her son's relative youth played no part in the accident. But what she has only properly realised since his death is how much his age, combined with a great lust for life and an interest in the lives of other people, made him a truly inspirational figure. "After the pole-to-pole trip, he started giving talks in schools," she says on the phone. "I don't think even he realised the power he had. It's quite amazing what youngsters have said about him in letters and emails I've received since Rob died. He went to some of the roughest inner-city schools and they would all be in absolute awe. Just a couple of weeks ago, I heard about a class of girls researching people who had climbed Everest. They found Rob's website, saw what he'd done and raised money in his memory."

It's tempting among those who don't "get" people who put themselves through hell to reach summits, poles or achieve feats of extraordinary endurance to dismiss them as indulgent, privileged risk-takers – a breed apart. It is perhaps especially tempting when they are young. But exploration has always inspired others as much as it has won glory for the adventurer. And, in the case of the young, however risky their endeavours are and however painful it can be when things go wrong, the potential to stir passion is perhaps greater still.

"Kids dream more than adults do," says the record-breaking sailor Mike Perham. Or as Nicola Gauntlett puts it: "Rob was only a couple of years older than a lot of the people he met. He told them they didn't have to do what he was doing – that you didn't have to climb Everest to achieve something great. It could be anything that involved pushing yourself and, most importantly, believing."

Teenage globetrotters: Adventurers in the headlines

Geordie Stewart, 20

Aged 17, the St Andrews student set out to climb the highest peak on each continent, or the "Seven Summits". Now on the way to Everest, Stewart has bagged four peaks and, if he completes his challenge, will become the youngest Briton to do so. "I'm impatient," he says. "When things strike me, I want to do them."

Mike Perham, 18

Last August, the Hertfordshire boy, then 17, became the youngest person to complete a solo circumnavigation of the globe. Aged 14, he set the record for crossing the Atlantic. "Sailing solo is a whole different world not many people can relate to," he says. "It's a great experience because it gives you total control."

Laura Dekker, 14

Last year, the Dutch girl made headlines when courts grounded her bid to sail solo around the globe, aged 13. Dekker is set to try again later this year. Two girls from the US and Australia, both 16, are separately bidding to break Perham's record. Both are sailing non-stop, which is considered a greater challenge.

Hector Turner, 16

Yesterday, Hector Turner began his bid to become the youngest Briton to run the Marathon des Sables, the notorious six-day, 151-mile race across the Sahara desert. Temperatures can reach 50C and competitors have to carry their own food, water and possessions in a backpack. Tents are provided.

Rob Gauntlett, 21

The West Sussex boy became the youngest Briton to scale Everest when he reached the summit in 2006. He celebrated his 19th birthday on the mountain. The following year, he became the first person to complete a human-powered, pole-to-pole voyage via the Americas. He died in a climbing accident in January 2009.

Rachel Flanders, 19

In 2008, the British girl, who was 17, arrived in Antigua after crossing the Atlantic in a four-woman rowing boat. She became the youngest person to row across an ocean. "It's quite cool to be in the Guinness book of records," she says. "Every time someone gets one out, I'll find myself in it."

Calum Macintyre, 16

Last November, the Scot became the youngest Briton to reach the summit of Ama Dablam (6,812), a technically challenging peak near Mount Everest. "I climbed my first Munro when I was five and have always been motivated by a challenge," says Macintyre, who trained with his father.

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