How Explorer Mike Horn Found His Way After Losing His Wife

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Mike Horn has made a career out of getting out of difficult situations. In 1997 he spent six months on a solo crossing South America where he followed the Amazon River from its beginnings to the ocean. A few years later he became the first person to solo circumnavigate the equator with no motorized support, and in 2006 he and his partner Borge Ousland became the first, and only people, to ever ski to the North Pole in the Arctic winter. But in 2015 he was faced with his biggest challenge of his life: the death of his wife, Cathy, from breast cancer. His family’s way of dealing with the loss? “We did what we do best, we embarked on an expedition.” We caught up with him during his stop on his Pole2Pole Expedition, where he is attempting to be the first person to circumnavigate the world via the two poles.

Where did you and your wife meet?

In the early 1990’s both of us were slowly traveling around the world, each of us following our own path. Fate happened to put me in a bar wanting a beer. I could not speak a word of French, but I heard this beautiful woman next to me speaking it. I leaned over and asked her if she would not mind helping me out. One thing led to another and within a few months we were a couple; our two daughters arrived shortly later.

What was her role in your adventuring career?

She was everything. I did not realize until after she was gone how much she did in planning all the logistics, support, and promotion. But her biggest role was pushing me to always dream bigger. Much like my father when I was younger, she encouraged me to chase my dreams, to never say never. Even when she was nearing the end she made me go to the Himalayas’ to climb Makalu. She told me not to stop just because of her.

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When she was diagnosed with cancer how did the two of you deal with it?

I found out about the diagnoses in 2008 when I was in Antarctica on the way to the South Pole. I wanted to come home immediately, but she told me not to. I will never forget her words “All you can do if you come home right now is hold my hand, and I don’t need that right now. This is my journey. When I need you to hold my hand, I will tell you.” That was a pretty powerful thing for her to say. The diagnosis was not very good. For the next six years life consisted of expeditions, doctors appointments, and raising our daughters. Toward the end, when she was dying, my daughters and I sat down with her and told her we would be fine. In fact, we would thrive; things would be ok. It was the greatest gift we could give her. Peace of mind. People who are dying are most worried about those they are leaving behind, not themselves. We were able to allay those fears for her.

Once she passed away what did you do?

I decided my place was home in Switzerland with my daughters Annika and Jessica. For most of their lives I was either away on one long-term expedition or preparing for another. Kathy was the one who was there for them every day; I was the father they came to visit all over the globe. With my wife’s passing we all realized we needed to spend some time together redefining our relationship. Both of them took a break from college, and the three of us hung out in the apartment. I realized that I had the biggest expedition of my life to undertake, one that would make every other one I had ever undertaken pale in comparison. It would be much less physical than what I was used to, but much more of a mental and emotional journey. After a couple of weeks I realized something had to change, sitting around feeling sorry for ourselves was not helping.

What did you do?

We did what we do best, we embarked on an expedition. Nine weeks after my wife passed away, we left Switzerland and started to drive across Europe and Asia to the basecamp of K2 on the Pakistan-China border. I had attempted to summit it the year before but had been turned back by weather. I thought we could honor my wife’s legacy by the three of us doing something extraordinary together. It was a bonding experience; we found ourselves and we found each other. Instead of focusing on the fact that we had no wife/mother at home, we had to deal with daily challenges. By working together we came closer, we became a team. When you are thrown out of Russia or are trying to find your way across Kyrgyzstan, you realize you can overcome anything.

Is adventure an effective form of therapy?

Yes, I think it is the best form. I have dealt with a lot of loss in my life. My father [died] when I was quite young. My wife and sister passed within weeks of each other. Plus, numerous friends have died over the years either on expeditions or by natural causes. As an explorer the wilderness has taught me how fleeting life is, how quickly it can end. If you live until you are 82 years old, then you will have 30,000 days on this planet, so you owe it to yourself to live each one to its fullest. Life is fragile, and death is inevitable, so I don’t dwell on it much. Instead I move on to the next adventure. When you are away from civilization, cut off from others, you learn to adapt. You don’t have the luxury of looking over your shoulder worrying about things behind you, you must keep moving forward. If the path heads in a different direction than the one you planned, so be it.

Did you ever think about abandoning long-term expeditions?

After she passed away I did reassess my plans. I want to be there for my daughters, so I passed on attempting K2 again; it was just too risky. For awhile I was a bit lost about what to do next, but that’s when my daughters stepped up. They told me hat we would figure out what to do. They told me to head back out, to go back to doing what I love to do. They took over the logistical part of the operation their mother had done for so many years. It was an incredible moment. It was when I realized we were a family again. Over the years they had travelled the world with me and seen me at my most vulnerable — that’s what binds us together. We work together to honor the legacy of my wife by educating the world.

Any advice you would offer to others dealing with loss?

Be thankful for the years you had together, not the ones that you won’t have. I don’t cry about the fact she is gone, but instead I remember the smiles we shared together. Look up and see the sun, see the light, see bold new projects. Don’t sit down and feel sorry for yourself. Instead, get up, find the light, and start moving forward as soon as you possibly can.  

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