How Explorer Mike Horn Has Built the Fortitude to Thrive in Extreme Environments

Man trekking along trail with hiking pole
Horn famously did an unmotorized circumnavigation of the globe at the equator in 2001.Dmitry Sharomov

South African-Swiss explorer Mike Horn has conquered both poles and the Amazon. Here’s how he’s cultivated an imperturbable resolve. — As told to Charles Thorp

Choose Your Idols Wisely

My father was a rugby player in South Africa. I was there in the locker room for the last game he played, and watched younger players show admiration. I was just a kid, but I thought if I could live a life where people talked like that about me, I’d succeeded. He woke up to go on a run every morning at six o’clock. As soon as I could, I went with him. He never slowed his pace to make it easier for me to keep up. The only option was for me to run faster. When I hit the point where I couldn’t keep up, I’d draw a line on the pavement. The next day I’d try to beat that line. That’s where my obsession with making goals started.

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Learn to Live

My country has compulsory military service, and I was selected for the South African Special Forces. I spent two years at war, mostly fighting Russian insurgents who were crossing the border to cause terror. The mental and physical challenges of guerrilla warfare are extreme. I discovered two kinds of people—the ones who want to fight and the ones, like myself, who had a desire to survive. The will to live didn’t mean I didn’t accomplish the mission. It made me think more tactically. I brought those experiences into my adventures after, where winning the day meant coming back alive.

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Man wearing fur hood and head lamp with frost covering face
“It’s discipline that gets me to pull a heavy sled in the Arctic where polar bears can eat me.” Dmitry Sharomov

Remove Doubt

During my first true expedition to navigate the Amazon River, I had an opportunity to train with the instructors at CIGS [Brazil Jungle Warfare Center]. The training was incredible, but at the end they handed me a bunch of reading material, and one of the most unnerving books described what snakes could and couldn’t kill me. I flipped through the pages and found there were poisonous and nonpoisonous species that had the same exact coloring with slight head differences. I tore out the pages with the nonpoisonous species, because when it comes to those critical moments, you don’t want to be questioning yourself. I start my expeditions in the same way, by tearing the option of failure from the pages of my mind.

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Find Your Discipline

I believe people put too much worth on finding motivation. Instead, I’ve found pursuits that draw me in, then I focus on being as disciplined as possible. It isn’t motivation that gets me out of the tent to pull a heavy sled when I’m in the Arctic where there are polar bears that can eat me. It’s discipline. Even when not on an expedition, I practice that discipline every day by getting into a tub of water that’s [35 degrees Fahrenheit] for at least 20 minutes.

Get to know Mike Horn more by reading how the explorer found his way after losing his wife, here.

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