He’s stared death in the face on Everest, seen someone get shot in front of him in Angola and braved -36C temperatures in a frozen wilderness.
Meet UK explorer Johnny Ward, who has become the first person in history to complete the Ultimate Explorer’s Grand Slam – climbing the ‘Seven Summits’, visiting the North and South Pole, and setting foot in every country.
Johnny, 40, who has 916,000 followers on Instagram, said his world travels were ‘all about freedom’ and wanting ‘to see the whole world’.
The travel blogger, from Kilkeel, Northern Ireland, crossed off his first country as a teenager and by the age of 33, he had visited all 197.
Instead of hanging up his travelling boots, he decided to take his adventures to the next level and aim for the Ultimate Explorer’s Grand Slam.
Johnny Ward has become the first person in history to complete the Ultimate Explorer’s Grand Slam – climbing the highest mountain on every continent, the Seven Summits, visiting the North and South Pole, and setting foot in every country. Here, he is pictured completing the overall challenge at the South Pole
LEFT: Johnny at the summit of Mount Everest. RIGHT: Johnny at the top of Mount Vinson in Antarctica
This required him to climb the highest mountain on every continent, the Seven Summits – Everest (29,030ft/Asia), Kilimanjaro (19,340ft/Africa), Denali (20,310ft/Alaska), Aconcagua (22,840ft/Argentina), Elbrus (18,510ft/Russia), Puncak Jaya (16,020ft/Oceania) and Vinson (16,050ft/Antarctica).
On January 12, 2024, Johnny completed this extraordinary mission at his final destination – the South Pole.
‘It feels wild,’ he told MailOnline Travel. ‘I always said I wanted to say I’ve seen the whole world and, while of course, I haven’t seen the whole world, I gave it a pretty good shot! I’m delighted and proud to have done it.’
He described himself as ‘a normal guy who decided to do something cool’ and said his achievement has taught him that ‘people who do amazing things aren’t any different’.
‘The only difference is that I committed to something,’ he added. ‘We can do anything. Just take action.’
Johnny, originally from Galway, Ireland, grew up in Northern Ireland in a single-parent household where ‘money was tight’ meaning he didn’t travel much as a child.
‘We were on welfare for over a decade so I didn’t leave the country until I was 14 or 15 when my mum went back to work and we finally got our first car and drove to a campsite in France,’ he said.
‘I remember arriving off the boat and being hit with a wave of heat and thinking, “Wow, this isn’t like Ireland.”
The travel blogger, from Kilkeel, Northern Ireland, crossed off his first country as a teenager and by the age of 33, he had visited all 197. Pictured: Johnny rowing across the Atlantic
Among his travel highlights, Johnny named the ‘quirkiness of Turkmenistan’ and its ‘huge burning gas crater called the Gates of Hell’. Here, he is pictured at the site with a group tour organised through his blog, One Step 4Ward
‘Then, it was just excitement. New foods, new currencies, new shapes of buildings. I loved it. I always wanted to be free, both financially and from time or holiday constraints – and this just confirmed it all.’
With no money to his name, Johnny took part in a five-week medical trial at a hospital in Belfast. He used the money he earned to kick-start his global jet-setting – a trip to Thailand, where he set himself up as an English teacher.
‘From there, my life felt like an adventure,’ he said. ‘I had truly fallen in love with living overseas and feeling alive.’
The first travel goal Johnny set himself was to visit 100 countries before the age of 30, which he ‘almost accidentally did’ with the five years of backpacking that followed – despite earning a modest £500 per month.
The Seven Summits – Everest (29,030ft/Asia), Kilimanjaro (19,340ft/Africa), Denali (20,310ft/Alaska), Aconcagua (22,840ft/Argentina), Elbrus (18,510ft/Russia), Puncak Jaya (16,020ft/Oceania) and Vinson (16,050ft/Antarctica)
Once Johnny had completed this life goal to visit every country, he felt ‘a bit lost’ and ‘went into a bit of a tailspin’, eating badly, drinking too much, putting on weight and ignoring his business. ‘So I started running ultramarathons and climbing mountains and it snapped me out of it and back into loving life,’ he said. Pictured: Johnny running the North Pole Marathon
LEFT: Johnny pictured outside the Taj Mahal, India, with Mudita Adventures co-founder Josh Henry. RIGHT: Johnny and his mum Maura on the Yemeni island of Socotra, which he says ‘should be a world-famous tourist destination’
Johnny said his favourite country to live in is Thailand, where he currently resides with his wife Jaa. Here, the pair are pictured visiting Egypt
These trips included overlanding from Cape Town to Cairo, Korea to Australia by boat and bus, and Bangkok to Belfast overland.
‘So once I got close to the 100, I set the new goal of being the first Irish person to visit every country and – at that time – one of the youngest to do so,’ he said.
For five years, Johnny ‘worked continent by continent’, living off £10 per day.
To save costs he would share beds, sleep in bus stations, hitchhike and travel on trains and on top of public buses.
He avoided taking a plane where possible, flying from one continent to another and then spending 10 months travelling around it on the ground.
‘Slowly I ticked off all my continents,’ he said.
‘I’d skip really scary places, or really expensive places, hoping that as I got older, I would have more money.
‘Then when I was coming near the end, my blog One Step 4Ward was making me money and I went back and picked up all the ones I was missing.
‘I really wanted to feel free, so I was trying to average two or three weeks a country, rather than spending an hour or two across a border and moving on. That’s why it took me 11 years, I guess.’
Pictured: Johnny spending time with the Mundari Tribe South Sudan
LEFT: Johnny and his mum pictured at the Serengeti marathon in Tanzania. RIGHT: Turning his attention to the Seven Summits, Johnny decided to start with ‘the easy summits’ and found a budget climb up Kilimanjaro, which he thought would be ‘a gentle start’. Here, he is pictured at the top of the volcano in Tanzania
Among the last countries Johnny ventured to were Somalia, Congo, Chad and Yemen – where he encountered a ‘huge’ setback, which involved him travelling for four days on an Indian cargo ship.
And the final country left to visit to complete the 197-strong set in 2017?
‘It was Norway,’ he said.
‘I had been saving it from when I was on about 150 countries as I wanted a place in Europe where my family and friends could come and celebrate with me at the end.’
Among his travel highlights is Mauritania in West Africa, where ‘they have a wild iron ore train that you can hitchhike on from the depths of the Sahara desert’ and the Yemeni island of Socotra, which he says ‘should be a world-famous tourist destination’.
LEFT: Johnny marathon training in the Sahara. RIGHT: Johnny pictured sailing along the River Nile in Egypt
He also loves Nepal due to Mount Everest and the ‘quirkiness of Turkmenistan’ and its ‘huge burning gas crater called the Gates of Hell’.
His favourite country to live in, meanwhile, is Thailand. He currently resides there, in Chiang Mai, with his wife Jaa, and is in the process of building a home for his mum there, too.
While his travels have mostly been a joy – Johnny had some ‘scary encounters’ along the way.
‘I saw a guy get shot in front of me 10 minutes after arriving in Angola,’ he recalled, adding that he was ‘arrested twice in Ivory Coast during the Ebola crises’, witnessed a ‘terrifying’ prison break in Conakry, Guinea, and heard ‘gunfire each night’ in Mogadishu, Somalia.
But despite the challenges, he said there is no country he is not willing to return to as ‘you never know what experience you might have the next time’.
Johnny, pictured above in Italy with his wife Jaa, said: ‘I recently turned 40, so it’s time for kids I hope’
Once Johnny had completed this life goal, he felt ‘a bit lost’ and ‘went into a bit of a tailspin’, eating badly, drinking too much, putting on weight and ignoring his business.
‘So I started running ultramarathons and climbing mountains and it snapped me out of it and back into loving life,’ he said.
‘I figured if you’re going to run, run the hardest race in the world. And if you’re going to climb mountains, set your sights on Everest. So I honed in on that as a kind of mid-term plan.’
This next goal put Johnny on the path of completing the Ultimate Explorer’s Grand Slam, which he did over seven years.
‘I thought, “Imagine if a normal guy like me, from my background, could be the first to do it all – that would be pretty cool.”‘
With no background in mountaineering, Johnny decided to start with ‘the easy summits’ and found a budget climb up Kilimanjaro, which he thought would be ‘a gentle start’.
In the years that followed, he visited the North Pole and worked his way through the remaining Seven Summits, with the penultimate climb being Mount Everest in 2023.
Johnny, pictured here in the North Pole, said he wants ‘to show “normal” people just how many benefits they can get from wild experiences’
Johnny described the 29,030ft (8,849m) peak as his favourite summit but also ‘the hardest thing I’ve ever done by a distance’.
Despite his training and preparation, he said the climb was ‘brutal’ and ‘so, so difficult’ but that it comes with a huge sense of achievement.
‘The deaths on Everest are well documented,’ he said. ‘I thought I was prepared for it but it hit me like a ton of bricks. So many times, freezing in my tent at night, I was full of self-doubt thinking, “What am I doing here?” and, “Is this worth dying for?”
‘I guess it’s a personal choice at the end of the day. Better to live a day as a lion, than a lifetime as a sheep, as they say. But I was scared many times on that mountain.
‘They don’t give those summits to anyone and I’m very proud to have stood atop of the world.’
Once he had conquered Everest, Johnny ‘instantly’ began training for his last summit, Mount Vinson in Antarctica, and said he ‘went broke paying for it’.
‘It wasn’t so hard from a climbing perspective, just bloody freezing,’ he added. ‘Frostbite is more dangerous than falling.’
After summiting on January 7, he continued towards the South Pole, in temperatures as low as -36 degrees, which was the final piece of the puzzle in completing the Ultimate Explorer’s Grand Slam.
Comparing the North to the South Pole, Johnny said ‘they’re quite different’.
Of the North Pole, which he visited first and where he ran a marathon, he described being surrounded by ‘nothingness’ and ‘endless ice’, with only your GPS and compass to indicate when you’ve reached it.
Whereas the South Pole is home to an American base, he said, so there is ‘some infrastructure there’ along with ‘a ceremonial pole’.
Reflecting on the highs and lows of his experience overall, Johnny said one of the main challenges was loneliness. He recalled spending one Christmas ‘alone eating vending machine chocolate’.
But the highlights are plentiful, he said, such as taking his mum, Maura, to 60 countries and his wife to 50, and launching the charity Mudita Adventures, which focuses on building playgrounds, nursery schools and water wells in developing communities worldwide.
Having completed his mission, Johnny said he will ‘absolutely’ keep travelling and plans to make the most of the life he has built, ‘making money online, travelling the world and doing epic stuff’. Here, he is pictured in Nepal on a group trip with his charity Mudita Adventures
Johnny pictured with his mum in Thailand, where he is in the process of building a home for her
And his message is clear: ‘Anyone can do it if they commit to it.’
He added: ‘It doesn’t matter if you’re overweight and unfit now, on a five-year timeline, it can be done. And also, it’s worth it.
‘To suffer, to face fears, to feel that darkness and doubt but to come out the other side and having achieved the goal you set… you can’t beat that. It sets you up for every other challenge in life. Quitting and failing is a habit, but so is pushing through it, however messily, and getting to the finish line.’
Now, having completed his mission, Johnny said he will ‘absolutely’ keep travelling and plans to make the most of the life he has built, ‘making money online, travelling the world and doing epic stuff’.
Revealing his next ambitions in life, he said: ‘I recently turned 40, so it’s time for kids I hope.
‘Then, from an adventure perspective, I really, really, really want to show “normal” people just how many benefits they can get from wild experiences.
‘So I’m creating four yearly endurance events, the first one launches in December this year – the Eye Of the Sahara Ultra Marathon – which is 150km (93 miles) through sand, over three days.’
He added: ‘I never could have imagined a life like this for me. Damn sure, I’m going to make the most of it now I have it.’