The world of exploration was remarkably divided this year: In media, Yeti tracks and the Everest highway ran straight past the first human-powered world circumnavigation and the world's first ascent of K2's west face.
Even jaded explorers jumped to their feet however at the Best of 08' Adventure award given by National Geographic Adventure to Richard Branson. We should have guessed though - after Grylls - last month Outside mag's cover was crowned by Branson exactly.
The real Kings
Among mainstream biggest headlines last year were Paris Hilton and Anna Nicole Smith. Funny we came to think of them, but not so strange at all.
Branson is sometimes dubbed the rebel billionaire. To us, the world rebel means folks like David Bowie.
Contrary to Sir Richard Charles Nicholas Branson; Bowie turned down a British knighthood saying he would never accept such a thing, "I seriously don't know what it's for," he said.
In New York, where Bowie is resident, you either are a King or you are not - and if you are; a knighthood is kind of a step down.
And here comes the connection: Would a real King go on a suborb space ride with Virgin Galactic, Victoria Principal and Paris Hilton? Rumors he had already booked his seat on the maiden Virgin Galactic flight, are "total tosh," Bowie said, "this must be Branson going for some cheap PR."
Richard is most known for Virgin Records and Virgin Air. As for adventure, Branson's first speed attempt to cross the Atlantic Ocean led to a capsize and a rescue by RAF helicopter. His final attempt, in a 72-ft powerboat co-captained by veteran race-skipper Charles Blyth took three days and was disqualified due to refuels made against the rules for the Blue Ribbon (a Maritime organization in NY).
Next, Branson financed and joined Swedish balloonist Per Lindstrand on the first hot air balloon crossing of the Atlantic. The two repeated over the Pacific Ocean, but the attempt for the first world circumnavigation of the globe by balloon was finally bagged by Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones.
Richard got the National Geographic adventure award for a one week tour on Baffin Island guided by Polar veteran Will Steger. "For our Best of Adventure 2008 cover story, we review the year's top achievements in the larger-than-life world of adventure," writes NGA.
Richard won over the K2 west face climbers, Hannah's SP solo speed record, Jason Lewis 13 year long world circumnavigation and Gnaro's lifetime quest to become only the sixth person in the world to scale all 8000ers without oxygen.
About the polar trip
"We start with a story about the environmental efforts of our Lifetime Achievement honorees, rebel billionaire Richard Branson and polar explorer Will Steger," NGA write in their intro.
Aha - environmental efforts! Here's the problem though: Branson was not awarded "the world's most energy sufficient guy," or "the sharpest PR-person" or "the world's best dad." Richard Branson was awarded Best of 08 Adventure!
In their article, NGA admits Steger, 63, and Branson, 57 had not even met before. "Has your dad ever traveled in cold weather like this before?" Steger asked Branson's son Sam according to the accompanying journalist. "I'm not sure," comes the reply. "He did ski down a mountain naked once."
Branson arrives via chartered jet from Chicago, with a personal photographer to document his first day on the ice. Suffering a badly sprained arm from flipping an ATV on a recent holiday in Mallorca, Branson can barely shake hands, extending a pinkie to the journalist instead. "So sorry," he says. "I know it looks sooo British, doesn't it?"
Fitted in his dog-mushing gear: a one-piece Virgin-red suit, with fur-ruff hood - has he done any research on Arctic travel before arriving? "Not really," he admits to the reporter. "But I have been reading about my relative, Sir Robert Scott. He was my grandfather's cousin. Of course everyone knows him for being the second to arrive at the South Pole, but did you know he died attempting to become the first man to walk to Antarctica?"
The mayor of Clyde River is there, and so is Ed Viesturs, reportedly pitching Sam on an Everest climb. Would Richard? "I'm afraid the days of big mountain climbing have passed for me," is Branson's reply.
"If Steger is the prototypical methodical old-school adventurer, Branson is the very model for the modern onerich, daring, and easily bored," states the NGA reporter for a fact. "Branson's next major project will be his most audacious," the journalist finally ends, going on about Virgin Galactic.
At the National Space Symposium this year, attended by generals and aerospace, Branson was invited to speak about grassroot space travel. Virgin representative Alex Tai introduced Branson's records and then he advertised Branson's private tropical island, available for rent at $300 K per week. "Too bad Richard couldn't be here," he said, "but he is currently out on a polar adventure."
ExWeb had met the Virgin Galactic management team already last year, on the ISS space gathering in LA. The guys presented their 100 "Founders" (first 100 full paying clients) of whom they'd brought a good number to the conference. Who'd be "the first in Space?" they challenged from stage. Buzz Aldrin (Apollo 11 Astronaut) sat in the row below, smiling.
While Burt Rutan thundered "We need breakthroughs we can't imagine today, this is not only about money, it's about getting people into space," the Virgin Galactic team showed another picture of Branson's iris (the company logo) and one of a female flight attendant in a sexy outfit. "Poor Rutan," someone muttered.
Rutan's Scaled Composites, with the backing of Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen, won the $10 million Ansari X Prize (and an ExWeb award) with SpaceShipOne in 2004. Branson came onboard, and the two companies formed a joint venture. That's when space headlines all of a sudden switched from Mars rovers and unknown frontiers to Victoria Principal and Paris Hilton buying tickets to low orbit.
This July 5, Northrop Grumman Corp. agreed to increase its stake in Scaled Composites from 40 percent to 100 percent. That's right, Rutan was sold by Branson to the very industry he was supposed to change. "Both Northrop Grumman and Scaled Composites felt that Scaled would benefit from the broader resources that Northrop Grumman can bring," was the word.
Alex Tai, chief operating officer of Virgin Galactic and the very guy who pitched Richard's summer house to us, declined to comment when asked by Space.com how the acquisition would affect his company's dealings with Scaled Composites. "I'm afraid I can't provide you with any comment at this stage and I don't think [Scaled Composites] can either," Tai said.
When ExWeb discussed human Mars travel with a space engineer, he said "You should talk to that Richard Branson."
"About what?" we asked. The space engineer thought about it for a while and then fell silent.
The importance of exploration
When Columbus opened the New World he changed everything. Historians agree that his discovery gave Europeans new land and riches leading to centuries of advantage. Without Columbus's voyage, our lives would look very different today.
Mankind desperately needs the courage and pioneering spirit of skilled explorers. The real deal doesn't need a good cause or other excuses. Exploration alone has saved the human race.
Today's true explorers are neither rich nor easily bored. They bet everything on their quest, including their life. It's adventure media that have lost connection with reality; their awards and foolish articles a disgrace to our greatest explorers' sacrifice. Because of this, ExplorersWeb has left the National Geographic Advisory Board.
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