2012 Explorer of the Year and Hubbard Medal Winners

Sections of the following text are taken from an official National Geographic press release.

After four solid days of meetings and presentations surrounding the 2012 Explorers Symposium (and chronicled at #ExplorersWeek), more than 50 world-class explorers and many others from the National Geographic Society gathered last night for the “Evening of Exploration” presented by Rolex, to honor two particularly intrepid and inspiring explorers: the late Swiss oceanographer Jacques Piccard, and Austrian alpinist Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner.

Fifty-two years after he and U.S. Navy Capt. Don Walsh became the first people to descend nearly seven miles to the Mariana Trench, Jacques Piccard, who died in 2008 at the age of 86, posthumously received the National Geographic Society’s highest honor, the Hubbard Medal. Previous winners include Robert Peary, Sir Earnest Shackleton, Charles Lindbergh, the Apollo 11 astronauts, Jane Goodall, Robert Ballard, Don Walsh himself, and Jacques’ son Bertrand, who lead the first non-stop, around-the-world balloon flight.

Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner was named National Geographic “Explorer of the Year” for her extraordinary achievement of becoming the first woman to summit all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks without using supplementary oxygen. Kaltenbrunner completed this achievement when she reached the top of K2, Earth’s second-tallest mountain, on Aug. 23, 2011 (Video: Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner at NG Live!).


Inside the “Evening of Exploration”

The event kicked off with opening remarks by NG Chairman and CEO John Fahey, who was followed by Don Walsh and Explorer-in-Residence James Cameron. Before beginning their presentation of the Hubbard Medal to Jacques’ family, Cameron announced he had some other business to take care of first.

Explorer-in-Residence James Cameron (right) presents NG Chairman and CEO John Fahey (far left, with Don Walsh) with an official NGS flag he brought to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Photo by Becky Hale/NGS

He then unfurled an official National Geographic Society flag, with its bands of brown, green, and blue representing the earth, sea, and sky which people have explored with support from the Society for nearly 125 years. Handing it over to John Fahey, he said he was honored to return this flag, which he had carried under his seat on board the submersible Deepsea Challenger when in March of this year he became the only other human being to visit the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Fahey accepted it and promised to find somewhere other than under his own seat to keep it.

The audience then watched as the lights dimmed and archival film and audio brought Piccard and Walsh’s 1960 dive back to life. While fifty years later Cameron would descend with cutting-edge film equipment, the original aquanauts on board Trieste had only their own eyes to record what they saw. Seeing this footage of the men and their sub at the surface, inside the sphere, and diving at shallower depths made it all the more clear just how far out and alone they were when they reached the bottom. An accomplishment which is hard to imagine because of its veil of depth and years became as riveting and heart-pounding as any adventure undertaken today (Watch a similar film about Trieste from Rolex).


Honoring a Pioneer

Cameron introduced Don Walsh saying that having been to the bottom of the ocean himself, he now has even more respect for what Walsh and Piccard did. All he had needed to do was follow in their path, he said, but “for them, there were no footprints in the snow.”

Jacques E. Piccard pictured in Palm Beach, Fla., several years after the descent which won him the Hubbard Medal last night. Photo by Otis Imboden/National Geographic

Walsh then shared more of the story of the original descent describing exploration as “curiosity put into action,” and presented the Hubbard Award with pride to “my Piccard family,” as he put it. Jacques’ son Bertrand, a Hubbard Medal recipient himself for the first non-stop around-the-world balloon flight, then took to the stage with other family members. He said that some of his first and strongest memories are of hearing Don’s name, and of his father eagerly tearing open the packaging of National Geographic each time it arrived at their home (Read “Man’s Deepest Dive” by Jacques Piccard from the August, 1960 edition). He added that while there was an element of pure adventure to his father’s dive, there was also a major scientific aspect that would have an impact far bigger than the dive itself.

When Piccard and Walsh returned saying they had seen a fish swimming at the bottom of the ocean, it was interpreted as evidence that oxygen and other elements from the surface must circulate to the bottom, he said, and similarly that things from the bottom will someday make their way to the surface. At a time when governments were considering using the abyss as a dumping ground for nuclear waste, this was an important realization, and one that lead to the modern efforts to protect the ocean and all that’s in it.

Bertrand concluded by asking all in attendance to keep in mind that exploration shouldn’t just be for adventure, but that we “should explore the world to make it a better place.”


The Queen of the World

When Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner took the stage, joyful, humble, and grateful, you realized just how many ways there are for someone to make the world a better place.

While the Hubbard Medal is the Society’s oldest award, “Explorer of the Year” has only been given once before, in 2011 to cave divers Kenny Broad and the late Wes Skiles. Kenny, a favorite at NG events for his enthusiasm and humor, was on hand to do the honors. “When they gave this award out last year,” he said, “they set the bar really low.”

After an appropriate pause he clarified that he was referring literally to the altitude at which the explorations were done. “This year, they’ve raised it about as high as it can go.”

Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner delivers thanks and inspiration as she recieves the title of "Explorer of the Year." Photo by Becky Hale/NGS

The physical conditioning, the mental stamina, and the overall perseverance it took to do what Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner did are an inspiration. After successfully summitting all the other 8,000-meter peaks without supplemental oxygen, K2 was still holding out on her. Still, after six unsuccessful attempts and thirteen years of climbing, she did it. Her spirit and success “inspires hundreds of thousands of youth,” he said, “in which I include myself.”

After a breathtaking film showing Gerlinde during her K2 climb and looking out from the summit, the rest of the audience seemed to agree. With the second standing ovation of the night, they welcomed her to the stage.

All week during the Explorers Symposium, many people have been discussing the challenges we face in the world today. Several of the new class of 2012 Emerging Explorers are working on exciting grass-roots strategies for protecting animals, helping others in time of crisis, solving complex puzzles, and getting kids healthier and more engaged in learning. Throughout all of this, there has been an overarching theme that we can do far more together than we can do individually. The catch though is that it only works if all those individuals (or at least a few) go out and act boldly. Seeing Gerlinde standing there so joyful and appreciative after completing one of the most physically and mentally difficult tasks on Earth gave a pretty good shot in the arm to anyone wondering whether they could accomplish their own goals.

“With enthusiasm and will-power,” she told everyone, “you can reach your dreams.”


Bertrand Piccard and Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner after the awards ceremony. Bertrand holds the Hubbard Medal awarded posthumously to his father in its wooden case. Photo by Becky Hale/NGS


Learn More

  • The “Evening of Exploration” was the culmination of the National Geographic 2012 Explorers Symposium, an annual event at which National Geographic Explorers-in-Residence, Fellows, Emerging Explorers, grantees and others affiliated with National Geographic gather to share findings of their research and fieldwork and take part in panel discussions.
  • Relive highlights and join the conversation on Twitter at #ExplorersWeek.
  • Dig in to the stories of the Hubbard Medal recipient and Explorer of the Year below:


Jacques Piccard

It was Jan. 23, 1960, when Piccard along with ocean explorer Don Walsh climbed aboard the Navy bathyscaphe Trieste and plunged to the floor of the Pacific Ocean’s Mariana Trench, the world’s deepest location, some 200 miles southwest of the island of Guam. Their destination was the trench’s lowest point, Challenger Deep, some 35,800 feet below the ocean surface. The only other individual to dive to this depth since then is filmmaker/explorer James Cameron, who reached Challenger Deep on March 26, 2012.

The Hubbard Medal will be presented to Piccard’s family by National Geographic Society chairman and CEO John Fahey, assisted by Don Walsh — who received the Hubbard Medal in 2010 — and James Cameron.

“Jacques Piccard was one of the first two pioneers to visit Earth’s deepest place,” said Fahey. “His accomplishment ranks alongside those of other Hubbard Medal recipients, like Charles Lindbergh, Louis and Mary Leakey, Jane Goodall and Robert Ballard. The passion and commitment of intrepid individuals like Piccard continue to inspire new generations of explorers.”

Piccard chronicled the dive for an article in the August 1960 issue of National Geographic magazine. He wrote: “Like a free balloon on a windless day, indifferent to the almost 200,000 tons of water pressing on the cabin from all sides, balanced to within an ounce or so on its wire guide rope, slowly, surely, in the name of science and humanity, the Trieste took possession of the abyss, the last extreme on our earth that remained to be conquered.”

Piccard and Walsh had to sit on small stools for the nine-hour trip down and back; they spent the hours keeping records of temperatures of water and the gasoline (used for buoyancy), amount of ballast released and water pressure. They kept in contact with the surface for most of the journey via a sonic telephone. When, after four-and-a-half hours, the bathyscaphe finally landed on the ocean bottom, Walsh and Piccard spied a fish, thereby answering a question about the presence of sea life in the deep that thousands of oceanographers had been asking for decades. By proving the existence of life where nobody expected it, the dive pushed governments to ban the dumping of toxic waste into the deepest trenches.

After that historic dive, Piccard went on to build four mid-depth submarines — called mesoscaphes — including the first tourist submersible, which took 33,000 passengers into the depths of Lake Geneva in 1964. He then built another mesoscaphe for Grumman and NASA to explore the Gulf Stream during a one-month drift mission in 1969.

Piccard, born in Brussels in 1922, studied in Switzerland and worked as a university economics teacher. He left teaching to help his father, Auguste (a physicist and the first man to take a balloon into the stratosphere), design the bathyscaphe, a submersible able to take humans to great depths below the ocean’s surface. It was in the bathyscaphe Trieste that Piccard and Walsh reached the bottom of the Mariana Trench.

Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh emerge from the bathyscaphe Trieste following their successful descent to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean’s Mariana Trench in January 1960. Piccard, who died in 2008, was posthumously awarded the Hubbard Medal on June 14, 2012. Photo by Thomas J. Abercrombie/National Geographic


Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner

Reaching the top of K2 on Aug. 23, 2011, to become the first woman to summit all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks without using supplementary oxygen was the culmination of a 13-year quest for Kaltenbrunner, who scaled her first 8,000-meter peak — the secondary summit of Pakistan’s Broad Peak — ­ in 1998 at the age of 23.

Kaltenbrunner, supported by grants from the National Geographic Society, was one of a team of four climbers to reach the summit of K2 on Aug. 23, 2011; the others were Maxut Zhumayev and Vassiliy Pivtsov of Kazakhstan and Darius Zaluski of Poland. Kaltenbrunner’s husband, Ralf Dujmovits, of Germany and photographer Tomas Heinrich of Argentina had turned back to base camp on Aug. 19, judging the threat of an avalanche too great. Heinrich documented the expedition for an April 2012 article in National Geographic magazine.

In the days approaching the summit, the team waded through waist-deep snow and battled high winds, with avalanche conditions that for several days made the attempt at the summit look implausible.

Kaltenbrunner and her team began the march to the K2 northern base camp from Xinjiang, China, on June 17. A group of camels ferried the team, their equipment and supplies to the Chinese base camp about 3,900 meters high, crossing the wild Shaksgam Valley in the process. The team then ascended the peak via the North Pillar, a direct line to the summit, first climbed in 1982 by a Japanese team.

According to alpine record-keeper Eberhard Jurgalski, before the achievement of Kaltenbrunner, Zhumayev and Pivtsov, only 24 people in the world had made it to the top of all 14 tallest mountains. Only 10 of the 24 made the ascents without supplementary oxygen.

K2, located on the Pakistan-China border, is 8,611 meters (28,251 feet) high and part of the Karakoram Range. It has a reputation of being the hardest of the 8,000-meter-high mountains to climb, due chiefly to its steepness and the resulting technical climbing challenges as well as unpredictable weather conditions. Since K2 was first summited by an Italian team in 1954, about 300 climbers have stood atop the mountain, but many have perished trying. Kaltenbrunner’s attempt to summit K2 in 2010 ended with the death of team member Fredrick Ericsson.

The Explorer of the Year Award was presented to Kaltenbrunner by environmental anthropologist and 2011 Explorer of the Year Kenny Broad. Kaltenbrunner also received a specially engraved Rolex Explorer timepiece.

Maxut Zhumayev (left) of Kazakhstan, Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner, originally from Austria, and Vassiliy Pivtsov of Kazakhstan just after reaching the top of K2. Each of the three alpinists has summited all of Earth’s 14 major peaks without using supplementary oxygen. Kaltenbrunner is the first woman to do so and was named NG Explorer of the Year 2012. Photograph by Dariusz Załuski


Andrew Howley is a longtime contributor to the National Geographic blog, with a particular focus on archaeology and paleoanthropology generally, and ancient rock art in particular. In 2018 he became Communications Director at Adventure Scientists, founded by Nat Geo Explorer Gregg Treinish. Over 11 years at the National Geographic Society, Andrew worked in various ways to share the stories of NG explorers and grantees online. He also produced the Home Page of nationalgeographic.com for several years, and helped manage the Society's Facebook page during its breakout year of 2010. He studied Anthropology with a focus on Archaeology from the College of William & Mary in Virginia. He has covered expeditions with NG Explorers-in-Residence Mike Fay, Enric Sala, and Lee Berger. His personal interests include painting, running, and reading about history. You can follow him on Twitter @anderhowl and on Instagram @andrewjhowley.
  • maheep sharma

    Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner is an inspiration for me. I also want to be a mountain explorer. I have climbed till 20,000feet last year on my own without any prior experience, guidance or training. I am 28.5yrs old. I was so much attracted & fulfilled with my experience that I can not take those scenes out of my mind. Now i want to get professional training. I am working as a bank Asst. Mgr. I would like to leave my job & be associated with NG. Any guidance….

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