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Record-Breaking Russian Adventurer Says The World Needs More Explorers 

  • Claire Bigg

Russian adventurer Fyodor Konyukhov before beginning his record-breaking solo trip around the world in a hot-air balloon in July.

Russian adventurer Fyodor Konyukhov before beginning his record-breaking solo trip around the world in a hot-air balloon in July.

Fyodor Konyukhov, a Russian adventurer who set a world record this summer for the fastest trip around the globe in a hot-air balloon, says humanity has lost its drive to explore.

The intrepid 65-year-old, an ordained priest who has climbed Mt. Everest twice and been to the North and South Poles, believes the 21st century is off to a "disappointing" start.

"I was 10 years old when Yury Gagarin flew [into space], and soon after that the first men walked on the moon," Konyukhov told RFE/RL in an interview. "At the time, I was convinced that by the 21st century we would already have scientific stations on Mars and settlements on the Moon. But the 21st century came and all we do is wage war, make money, and stuff ourselves."

The Earth's oceans, he lamented, also remain largely uncharted.

"There are seven billion people on this planet but we lack curiosity, we don't seek adventures," he said. "Humans should be more curious -- they should strive to discover new worlds."

Konyukhov made history and headlines in July when he flew solo around the world in a hot-air balloon, managing the feat in just 11 days and six hours. He beat the previous record, set by the late American adventurer Steve Fossett in 2002, by more than two days. He also became the first person to circumnavigate the planet in a balloon on his first attempt; it took Fossett -- the first person to do it without a stop -- six tries to succeed.

Konyukhov, who was born in Soviet Ukraine and was ordained as a priest by the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine in 2010, took a large cross and an icon of the Virgin Mary with him on the 35,000-kilometer journey.

He said he barely ate and slept only a few seconds at a time in order to keep the balloon on course. To keep himself awake, he used a technique he attributes to monks in medieval Russia.

"You hold a key in your hand and as soon as you fall asleep the key falls, clangs to the floor, and wakes you up," Konyukhov told RFE/RL by telephone, saying he had replaced the key with a wrench tool. "Over these 11 days I allowed myself 5- to 6-second stretches of sleep. If I had slept more I would not have made it."

Konyukhov also had to overcome hunger, stormy weather, equipment malfunctions, and temperatures that dipped below minus 50 degrees Celsius (minus 58 Fahrenheit).

Stunning Vistas, Constant Fear

As he flew over the Antarctic toward the end of his trip, the heating systems of his two-meter-wide carbon gondola broke down, depriving him of a way to prepare food and forcing him to use the balloon's burner to thaw his drinking water.

While he enjoyed stunning vistas from his balloon, he said fear never entirely left him.

"I could fall or the balloon could explode at any moment," he said. "The fuel alone weighed 10 tons. I used propane to fly by night and when the sun rose, I switched to helium."

The pilot had a close brush with a lightning storm, hit severe turbulence over the Atlantic Ocean, endured temperatures so cold that both his oxygen masks froze, and once had to climb outside his gondola to physically adjust one of the gas tanks. On the final day, he was forced to make a steep descent, cutting his head during the landing in a field near Perth, Australia, close to the location where he had set off 11 days earlier.

But Konyukhov, who describes himself as a die-hard romantic, says he would do it all over again in a heartbeat.

He said seeing his balloon for the first time as it was inflated on July 12, a few hours before take-off, was one of the highlights of his adventure.

"Everyone was telling me to go and get some sleep but I couldn't; how many times in life do you get to witness such a thing?" he said. "Seeing this enormous machine was a very powerful experience. Such moments are worth living for, they are worth all these years spent working, studying, looking for sponsors, and training night and day."

High-Profile Expeditions

Konyukhov's record-breaking journey was just the latest in a string of high-profile expeditions.

Born in a small Ukrainian village on the Sea of Azov, he crossed the sea in rowboat when he was just 15. He went on to become a maritime navigator and a passionate alpinist. He was the first Russian to complete the Seven Summits Challenge -- climbing the highest peak on each continent.

Some of his other accomplishments include solo treks to both the North and the South Poles, sailing around the world alone on three occasions, crossing Russia by bicycle, rowing across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and completing the world's longest dogsled race -- the Iditarod in Alaska.

Konyukhov is also an accomplished painter, a member of the Russian Arts Academy, and the author of almost two dozen books.

His next adventure? A balloon trip to the stratosphere, planned for 2017.

"My astronaut friends tell me I will see how the Earth curves," he said. "I want to see how our beautiful planet curves."

He also plans to cross Australia on camelback, sail around the globe three times without stopovers, and go down the Mariana Trench, the deepest known point in the Earth's oceans, at more than 10,000 meters. Only three people have done so, in special submarines – most recently Canadian film director James Cameron, in 2012.

"Right now I have expeditions scheduled up until 2025," Konyukhov said with a chuckle. "Then maybe I will retire!"

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    Claire Bigg

    Claire Bigg covers Russia, Ukraine, and the post-Soviet world, with a focus on human rights, civil society, and social issues. Send story tips to​