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Peak Leaders

We pay tribute to the men who made living life on the edge (and looking good while doing so) very appealing indeed

  • Italian alpinist and explorer Walter Bonatti at Lindeman Lake, Canada, May 1965. Photograph Archivio Bonatti/Contrasto/eyevine

When Mr George Mallory was asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, his legendary three-word answer – “because it’s there” – came to stand for an explorer’s quixotic credo. In the never-knowingly-unconnected age of satellite phones and GPS, it’s hard to overstate the gnarly individualism and sheer bloody-mindedness of those who lit out for the wilderness – from mountain peak to ocean floor – equipped with little more than a compass and a burning desire to boldly go where few, if any, men had gone before. MR PORTER salutes a few of these pathfinders who conquered summits, crossed frontiers and captured imaginations – in consummate style.


  • Mr Walter Bonatti in Courmayeur after climbing Mont Blanc, August 1964. Photograph by Mr Giorgio Lotti/Mondadori Portfolio

Mr Walter Bonatti was the very Italian-matinée-idol picture of an old-school mountaineer, as ruggedly handsome and craggy as the peaks he conquered, which included the south-west pillar of the Aiguille du Dru, the sheer red granite of Le Grand Capucin, and the north face of the Matterhorn. His can-do, lone-wolf attitude – “I used to head off with just a few wooden pitons, some old hemp ropes and a bivouac” – continues to inspire others to ascend, as he once put it, “over your own human frailty”.

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  • Captain Jacques Cousteau (right) with his son Mr Philippe Cousteau, 1975. Photograph by AP/Press Association Images

“In ze waters, life flourishes beyond ’uman intervention…” Many people’s introduction to coral reefs and marine ecosystems came via The Undersea World Of Jacques Cousteau, the pioneering 1960s and 1970s TV series fronted by the French explorer who tangled with sharks and sported with dolphins as he navigated the oceans on his research vessel Calypso. Co-inventor of the aqualung and rarely seen on dry land without his iconic red beanie, Captain Jacques Cousteau’s exploits inspired Mr Wes Anderson’s film The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou.

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  • Mr Howard Hughes in a Northrop Gamma, Newark, New Jersey, circa 1936. Photograph by New York Daily News Archive/Getty Images

Not for nothing was Mr Martin Scorsese’s 2004 biopic of Mr Howard Hughes called The Aviator. He may have been many things – tycoon, entrepreneur, movie mogul, lover of Ms Katharine Hepburn and latter-day recluse with scarily long fingernails – but he once said he wanted to be remembered only for his contribution to aviation. As with much else in his life, Mr Hughes went rogue when it came to planes, breaking almost every air-speed world record in craft of his own design in the 1930s, bringing him the dash to match his cash.

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  • Mr Hiram Bingham III near the end of the 1911 expedition that led to the discovery of Machu Picchu. Photograph by The Granger Collection/Topfoto

Buccaneering American adventurer Mr Hiram Bingham III led an expedition to Peru in 1911 in search of the “lost city” of Vilcabamba – with his wife Ms Alfreda Mitchell, an heiress to the Tiffany jewellery fortune, picking up the tab – and stumbled across the ruins of Machu Picchu instead. He’s had a moon crater named after him (perhaps for his services to Peruvian tourism), and has served as inspiration for the character of Indiana Jones as well as, judging by this picture, more than a few recent heritage-workwear collections.

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  • Dr Hans Hass in the Red Sea with his Siemens Model BII camera housed in a self-made watertight case, 1950. Photograph by Hans Hass Archive HIST

He may have been from landlocked Austria, but Dr Hans Hass was a trailblazing diver. He produced 105 commercial films between 1948 and 1961, showcasing rays, barracudas, jellyfish, wrasses, sharks – he claimed to have been in easy-prey range of more than 2,000 of the latter in his career, warding off the majority of the “cowardly” creatures with a blow to the gills – and his wife Ms Lotte Hass, who dived alongside him. He also had a healthy rivalry with Captain Cousteau, dismissing the Frenchman’s greater fame magisterially: “Why should I be bitter? The sea is so big.”

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  • Mr Thor Heyerdahl sources logs for his raft in Ecuador, 1947. Photograph by The Kon-Tiki Museum, Oslo, Norway

The lean, leonine Mr Thor Heyerdahl, Norwegian anthropologist and adventurer, was cast in a suitably Viking mould, and he certainly put his krone where his conjectures were, bolstering his theory that the Polynesian islands could have been settled by prehistoric South Americans by crossing a 4,300-mile stretch of the Pacific Ocean on a 14m-long raft named the Kon-Tiki in 1947, and later crossing the Atlantic in a papyrus boat to show that the Egyptians could have passed on pyramid-building tips to pre-Columbian Americans.

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  • Commander Neil Armstrong (front) and pilot Mr David R Scott prepare to board the Gemini-Titan VIII, Florida, 16 March 1966. Photograph by REX/Shutterstock

“One small step for man…” Commander Neil Armstrong, the quiet son of an Ohio state auditor, certainly rose to the occasion of the first moon landing in 1969, but he was always imbued with the right stuff, from steering the Apollo 11 craft away from some boulders before touchdown, to jamming a pen into a broken ignition switch to achieve lift-off. The previous year, he’d ejected in the nick of time when the lunar training vehicle, aka the Flying Bedstead, crashed and burned. His response? To brush himself down and head back to the office to complete some paperwork.

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  • Mr George Lowe during the 1953 Everest expedition. Photograph by Mr Alfred Gregory/© Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)

Sir Edmund Hillary might have taken the plaudits for reaching the summit of Everest in 1953, but the affable, modest New Zealander Mr George Lowe has been hailed as the forgotten hero of the expedition. He brought a Thermos of soup to Sir Edmund as he was descending from the peak, and was greeted with the immortal words, “Well, George, we knocked the bastard off.” Mr Lowe’s film of the undertaking, The Conquest Of Everest, was nominated for a Best Documentary Feature Oscar in the same year.

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