Mike Horn On Crossing Antarctica, the First Leg In His Round-the-World Record Attempt

Credit: Photographs by Dmitry Sharomov

On February 7, Mike Horn arrived at Dumont d'Urville station, a French research compound perched on the edge of the southern coast of Antarctica. What made his arrival so special was that he had just completed the first ever solo, unsupported north-to-south crossing of the continent. Over the course of 56 days and 22 hours he had covered 3,169 miles using kites and skis. During the traverse he had to deal with temperatures that dipped down to -40° F, winds that reached as high as 187 miles per hour, equipment failures, and injury. To add to that, the Antarctic crossing is part of another audacious first — the attempt to circumnavigate the earth via the two poles. 

Just getting to the starting point was pretty trying...

Well, yes, I could not fly into a base — that defeats the purpose of the whole Pole2Pole Expedition. I had to arrive on Antarctica the way the explorers did in the past, by boat. We spent 25 days on my 110-foot sailboat Pangea sailing from Cape Town to the shoreline of the continent. We originally planned on it taking no more than two weeks, but the sea ice forced us to slow down significantly.

What was it like maneuvering your small boat through the ice?

Exhilarating but terrifying. There are sheets of floating multi-year ice as tall as apartment buildings. We would have to maneuver around these as we picked our way forward. The Pangea is not an ice-breaker, so we could not just plow right ahead, someone would be up in the mast looking for leads and breaks in the ice that we would maneuver towards.

Did you ever get stuck?

Yes, but not usually for long periods of time. If the ice was not too thick, we would rev the engines and rise up on top of the ice — kind of like a seal coming out of the water — then the 120-ton hull would slowly break the ice in two. Other times we would attach ourselves to a thicker chunk of ice and push it forward, kind of like a running back following a linebacker forward.

Doesn’t that cause damage to the boat?

Well, not if it’s done correctly. There were times we would get out and examine the boat. If we heard a loud thump underneath, I would don my wetsuit and gear and go under the boat to look at the hull and props.

So once you got to the continent, what happened?

Well, first off we had a problem. Due to the sea ice, currents, and wind, we were forced to land in an area I had not scouted. I could see the mountains of Queen Maud Land ahead of me, so I decided I might as well get started. I offloaded from the boat onto the ice sheet that extended into the sea and started to ski inland. The Pangea turned around and headed back out through the nearly 800 miles of ice toward the open waters of the Southern Ocean and Australia, where [the crew] would wait until they had to come pick me up.

Once I was on the continent I started to climb. The South Pole is at 9,300 feet high, so to access it from anywhere on the continent you have to climb. I could not use my kites, so it was just me and my 300-pound sled slowly headed upward. I was already behind schedule due to the sea ice, so I knew I had to hurry up. I only had a limited window of time to cross in the Arctic summer; once the sun started to go down, I would be in trouble. It would get to cold.

I spent 11 days climbing the mountains to get to the Polar Plateau, the relatively flat part at the top of the continent.

What was the climb like with a sled?

Well it was very slow going, I had no beta on what was the correct pathway, or what obstacles I might encounter. There were numerous crevasses, steep slopes, and bad snow. Several times I fell through snow bridges while crossing a crevasse, but luckily my sled weighed enough that it acted like a belay device for me, and the ropes would catch me before I fell to far.

You would just hope your sled would catch you?

What else was I going to do? I knew I had to keep going up to get across. The first time I fell through I almost shat myself, it was terrifying knowing that only my sled was keeping me from falling further into the abyss. But once I climbed back up the rope and saw the sled had not moved, I figured it would be okay. So I just kept climbing, switching between crampons and skis with skins on them. Most days I would spend close to 20 hours working my way skyward. It was very hard to stay motivated since I was moving so slowly. I just focused on the next kilometer, the next 100 feet in height. I broke things down into small increments so I could celebrate the successes. The climb was the hardest part mentally of the entire trip.

Once you got up top, what did you do?

Well, I started to see a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel, and I thought that maybe I could actually do this. I was able to deploy my kite, and suddenly I was averaging 125–150 miles per day. But I quickly broke my first pair of skis — I had two sets — ripping over the sastrugi (sharp, irregular groves or ridges formed by wind erosion) up top. They would be the bane of my existence for the entire trip. You have to realize that polar snow is not flat. It’s like skiing across a dirt road filled with potholes, ditches, and uneven slopes. I reached the pole on January 9 after traveling 1,376 miles in 28 days. The worst part was when I lost my cook stove, cooking pot, and spoon when they fell out of the back of my sled through a tear in my cover. So I adapted: I cut a fuel bottle in half and used my backup stove for the rest of the trip to melt snow into water. I have learned that mankind can accomplish amazing things if they remove all opportunities for escape. I knew I had no choice but keep climbing toward the pole; it was that or die, so I persevered.

So for the second part, you were again headed into uncharted territory, right?

Pretty much. I knew I did not want to cross the trans-Antarctic Mountains, so I veered east and headed toward the southern coast 1,792 miles away. That part of the continent is known as the windiest place on the planet, perfect for kite skiing. I knew that I needed to keep the pace high because the further south I got, the shorter the days would become, and colder. Right away I started to run into bad weather — high winds, erratic winds, no wind, and whiteouts.

Physically, how was your body doing?

Not that good, actually. I had adapted my days early in the trip. Instead of a normal 24-hour day, I changed mine to 48-hour days — it’s not that hard in the continual sunlight. I would sleep five hours, cook, and eat for five hours, and spend the rest of my time traveling. It sounds harder than it is. You just keep moving forward wrapped in the task. As I entered into the second part of the trip, my body was starting to get worn down from the workload, minor issues blossomed into larger ones. My feet would get cold due to the long hours spent in the boots; muscle strains would not go away. Then there was my right shoulder.

About a week after leaving the pole, I got caught in a bad windstorm that caught me off guard. The kite started to bounce me up and down off the ice like a bouncing ball. When I finally got things under control, I was wrapped in the lines and I could feel there was something not right in my shoulder. It was in pain and I was struggling to get it to work correctly. Turns out I broke something and tore some muscles. I could barely get my coat on the next day, so I wrapped it up, took some pain pills, and rested for a few days. I knew I could not stop moving toward the coast (I had no backup plan for rescue), so I forced myself to get out of the tent and continue even though it hurt badly. All I focused on was the next mile, the next hour, anything but the pain.

Another issue was that the sled would keep banging into the back of my legs whenever I stopped or slowed down. That bashing was brutal and made standing difficult some days. The second half of the trip became one focused on survival; my gaze narrowed down on doing what I needed to do to survive each day, and all other things faded away. This was what all of my years of exploration had prepared me for. I knew if I ignored the pain I could keep moving toward the coast.

Were there any moments when you thought about quitting?

No, not really, but I almost made a fatal error, that made me nervous about getting home to see my daughters. About 500 miles from the end, I was laying out the kite when it inflated. That is normal if it’s anchored to the sled, to keep it from taking off, but this time, as I was walking back to my sled to clip in, the winds shifted, causing the riser lines to get caught in some sastrugi. The tension on the lines allowed the kite to take off, subsequently pulling the sled free, causing it to rocket across the snow behind the kite. I was about 150 feet away when it happened and luckily managed to jump on my sled as it whipped by. I hung on to the back, fumbling in my pockets to find my pocketknife to cut the lines to free my sled. In the -30° F temps, it was not easy. Luckily I cut both lines and the sled was saved, the kite flew away never to be seen again (I had backups). Once everything was over, the immensity of the situation hit me. Everything was in the sled. If I had not caught it, I would have been stranded in the middle of one of the harshest places on the planet with only the clothes on my back and a sled screaming toward who knows where. I was a bit more cautious after that. I realized I needed to make sure I got off the ice alive. I wanted to see my girls.

So when you finally reached the coast and saw the French station, what were your thoughts?

Actually I was a bit sad. The worst part of any expedition for me is the end; it’s the ultimate anti-climax. I had been dreaming of crossing Antarctica my entire life. It had taken me 28 years to build up the skills to attempt to try it, and now it was over. The dream had become reality, however painful it was, but now it was in the past. I had pushed the envelope to finish, and flirted with death a few times, and was lucky to make it to the end. I was excited to see my daughters and friends again, and to move on to the next leg of the overall expedition.

Any advice you have for other would-be-explorers?

Experience things in your life, continue to push your boundaries, you never know what you are capable until you try it. When you are not afraid of falling down, of failing, that’s when you are in the right mindset to do anything. But it’s also not just about mentally believing in yourself, you also have to be disciplined. There are moments when you are not motivated to get moving, when you cry from the pain, when you are sweating, not knowing what the outcome will be. If you keep at it, then you can make it to the end of anything. There is no difference between mounting a big expedition or dealing with a big challenge in your life. All of them take everything you have as a human.