Mike Horn, South Africa–bred and Switzerland-based, may be the world’s greatest living explorer. He is certainly the most versatile. This past January, he completed the riskiest phase of his monumental Pole2Pole expedition: a 57-day unsupported solo traverse of Antarctica. It was just Horn and a very heavy sled, which was attached to a kite that allowed him to soar across the undulating sea of ice and launch himself over deep crevasses. “If you miscalculate the speed,” he says, “you’ll break a snow bridge and fall in the middle. Then you’re gonna lose your life.” When the wind wasn’t right, he put on skis and towed the sled himself. And he had to move fast, finishing before temperatures dropped to their postsummer –80 degrees Celsius. Horn made it in time, with just some frost nip and a bum shoulder, courtesy of too many rough kite landings.
His next adventure (assuming his permits come through): tackling three unclimbed, unnamed, and highly technical peaks tucked away in India’s eastern Himalayas. He’ll finish off Pole2Pole in August, by heading to the Northwest Passage in the Pangaea, a 115-foot go-anywhere boat of his own design. When the boat can penetrate the Arctic no farther, he’ll hop onto the ice and head for the North Pole on a sled that can convert to a kayak. This trip has a different kind of urgency: “The ice floes are breaking up,” Horn says. “That’s going to make things real interesting.”
Horn considers himself to be “following in the footsteps” of Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian who pioneered fast-and-light in the first successful attempt to reach the South Pole in 1911. But Horn is the first to pull off feats in locations as diverse as the poles, the high-altitude Himalayas, and tropical jungles — including a six-month solo trip down the length of the Amazon on a hydrospeed, a boogie board–like vessel designed for creeks and rivers. “Mike has the mental strength to find solutions to problems that come up, no matter how bad,” says Norwegian polar explorer Børge Ousland, who accompanied Horn on the first-ever winter North Pole crossing in 2006. “And he can take a lot of pain.”
Horn, 50, developed his survival skills serving in South Africa’s special forces in the 1980s, fighting in a U.S.-subsidized proxy war against the Soviet-backed guerrilla troops in Angola.
“I learned what snakes are poisonous, what you can or can’t eat, how to orientate,” he says. “And I learned the difference between staying alive and dying.” That relentless focus has served him well as an explorer.
If you find that inspiring, you’re not alone: Horn also has a side career as a motivational speaker, sharing his story with groups like the German World Cup champion soccer and India’s national cricket teams. Says Horn: “Maybe I’ve inspired people to climb their own 8,000-meter peak or reach their own South Pole in their own way.”
After skating the edge of self-destruction in
Antarctica, Horn has lately allowed himself to wonder if “it is time to
back off.” And yet, with the possibility of another Antarctic traverse,
this time with Ousland, and a return trip to K2 penciled in on the calendar (he’s
failed three times without oxygen), his answer, over the next few years anyway,
would seem to be no. “I’ve been home 32 days in five years,” he says.
“I’m often asked what I’m running away from, but I don’t think that I am
running away. If anything, I’m running toward what makes me happy.” –Joe Hooper