The most legendary Arctic explorers in history

By: Piper Gourley

These Arctic explorers left hind a legacy of impressive achievements, discoveries, and expeditions

Quick notes:

• Sir James Clark Ross’ exploration of the South Pole helped define the continent we know as Antarctica

• Sir Edmund Hillary was more than a great climber. He led phenomenally successful missions in both the South and North Poles

• Ann Bancroft was a famed female explorer who achieved numerous monumental firsts in the sphere of Arctic discovery

While many adventurers have trekked across the globe, there are none quite so impressive as those who have taken on the stunning and dangerous Antarctic. From the freezing temperatures to the shifting landscape, those who have traversed through the North and South Poles have left incredible legacies of exploration behind. These are a few of history’s most famous Arctic explorers.

Sir James Clark Ross

Sir James Clark isn’t only one of the most famous Antarctic explorers, but also one of the first. He is considered to be the forefather of Antarctic exploration. Ross was an officer in the British Royal Navy during the mid-1800s, providing him the physical means of exploring Antarctica. He was able to establish the landmass as a continent rather than a collection of islands. He also discovered the northern magnetic pole in 1831.

When Ross was merely 18 years old, he began to explore the Antarctic with his uncle, Sir John Ross. These voyages sparked a lifelong passion for Arctic exploration. Eventually, aboard his own ships, HMS Erebus and HMS TerrorRoss was able to find out even more about the Antarctic, which intrigued him since childhood.

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He was the first to establish Antarctica as a continent rather than a collection of islands. He also was able to chart its coastline, as well as uncover the Ross Sea, Victoria Land, the Ross Ice Shelf, and more. He impressively discovered two volcanos, which he named after his shipMount Erebus and Mount Terror. Ross has numerous other impressive achievements he tracked in his memoir, A Voyage of Discovery and Research to Southern and Antarctic Regions.

Sir Edmund Hillary

This explorer isn’t on the Kiwi $5 bill for nothing. Sir Edmund Hillary is, first and foremost, known for his impressive feats in climbing. In fact, in 1953, he became the first man ever to scale the entirety of Mount Everest. However, he is also highly regarded for his exploration of the Antarctic. He became the third man ever to step foot in the South Pole.

“People do not decide to become extraordinary. They decide to accomplish extraordinary things.”

~ Sir Edmund Hillary

From 1955 to 1958, Hillary was a central player in the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition, leading the New Zealand mission. After that expedition, Hillary fell in love with Antarctic exploration. He became deeply invested in recording and admiring the landscape of Antarctica, the South Pole, and the North Pole.

For nearly two decades, he contributed his brilliant mind to the research of spectacular Arctic settings. In 1985, he went to the North Pole with Neil Armstrong, making him the first man to reach both Poles. Talk about being well-traveled!

Ann Bancroft

Ann Bancroft might be a more recent adventurer, yet she is one of the most successful female Arctic explorers in history. Across the course of her career, Bancroft led numerous significant and strenuous missions to the Arctic and Antarctic. Her first considerable achievement came in 1986 when she became the first woman to reach the North Pole via dogsledding.

Bancroft is one of the most successful female Arctic explorers in history

Shortly after, in 1992, she journeyed to the South Pole with an all-female team of explorers. This made her the first woman to reach both Poles. In the same year, she became the first woman to cross Greenland (east to west). In 2001, she became the first woman to ski across Antarctica, accompanied by Norweigian explorer Liv Arnesen.

Additionally, Bancroft has used her expeditionary skills to draw attention to environmental issues. In 2007, she traveled across the Atlantic Ocean to raise awareness of climate change and global warming. In 2017, she traveled down the Ganges River to advocate for clean water, which kicked off a series of worldwide river trips for the same cause.

A deeper dive — Related reading from the 101:

• It’s not a myth! Sea monster fossil found in Antarctica | Science101

The latest great Antarctic discovery? The bones of an elasmosaur.

• Voyage, discovery, and the ultimate Antarctic expedition |Science101

These historic explorers lost their lives trying to traverse across the South Pole.