Mike Horn: 21st-Century Explorer
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the final frontier is a lot farther away than you thought.
They say life begins at the end of your comfort zone. For some, that means trying a new Japanese restaurant. For Mike Horn, it’s surviving in a little tent on the North Pole at -60ºC, surrounded by polar bears. This is just one of the many feats that have made this 48-year-old South African an icon of modern adventure.
From the depths of the Amazon to the top of the Himalayas, Horn has spent 25 five years trying to prove that “the impossible exists only until we find a way to make it possible.”
When he is not setting world records by jumping off waterfalls or walking to the North Pole in total darkness, Horn runs Pangaea Expeditions — an initiative that has already given 144 teenagers, in groups of 12, the opportunity to join him at different stages of his five-year global sailing odyssey. The aim of the project — free for all participants — is to familiarize young adults with nature and encourage them to create sustainable projects around water management and biodiversity.
OZY spoke to Horn by phone in Brazil, where he moored to run an event for insurance company Generali Brasil Seguros — one in a long list of sponsors that includes Mercedes-Benz, Geberit and Wenger.
“I don’t think you become an explorer,” he says in his soft Afrikaans accent. ”You’re born one.” Yet looking at this sturdy, tanned, tough-looking man, it is difficult to imagine him as a child, devouring Shackleton’s and Scott’s tales of discovery.
Turning around might be seen as a failure by others, but true failure is dying.
Growing up in South Africa, Mike spent most of his childhood outdoors climbing trees, cycling for miles and fishing with his three brothers and sisters. Both of his parents were university teachers, but his father was also a professional rugby player.
From him, Horn learned to challenge himself, but it was the Army that taught him about survival. “I hate war but I think it prepared me for what I do today,” he says, remembering his days in the military service when he was sent to Angola and first witnessed death. “I was only an 18-year-old kid when I discovered one will do anything to stay alive.”
He first felt the call of the wild at 24. He quit his comfortable sports science job, gave everything away and moved to Switzerland. From there, he embarked on a series of adventures, including descending by delta plane from a 22,000-foot mountain and riverboarding the world’s deepest canyon.
Feat after feat, Horn began raising his profile until, in 1997, he made headlines worldwide by becoming the first man ever to make the extremely dangerous descent of the Amazon River — from its source to the Atlantic Ocean — on hydrospeed.
After that, he needed an ever bigger challenge. For his next expedition, “Latitude Zero,” he chose to circumnavigate the world along the equator without motorized transport. It took 17 months and included several death scares. “When I was crossing the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a rebel group thought I was a spy. I was already in front of a death squad when a police officer saved me.”
When he was gone, Horn’s wife, Cathy, and their two daughters traced his daily progress on a map.
Danger comes with the job but Horn is not reckless. “Turning around might be seen as a failure by others, but true failure is dying.” Last year, he chose to descend from K2 when he was already at 23,600 feet because it became too dangerous. An avalanche killed the teams that carried on.
In 2002, his solo crossing of the North Pole was also cut short because of severe frostbite. But one month after having the tips of his fingers amputated, he set off on his biggest adventure: the circumnavigation of the Arctic Circle, alone, without vehicle or dogs.
During the two years and three months he was gone, Horn’s wife, Cathy, and their two daughters traced his daily progress on a map. “My family is very supportive and actively involved in what I do,” he says. Cathy takes care of his expeditions’ logistics, and their daughters often join them “at work,” whether that means skiing in Alaska, sailing up the Amazon or diving in the Pacific.
Horn uses these experiences to motivate not only his family but also many international athletes. Between 2010 and 2011, he gave physiological coaching to the Indian cricket team that then went on to win their first Cricket World Cup in 28 years.
Now Horn wants to inspire us to care about the environment. “I’ve seen the playground change. Polar bears being killed by grizzly bears, massive chunks of the Amazon being cut out. We only think about what we can take, not give.”
2014 promises to be his busiest year yet. He will set off again on a solo tour of the world via the two poles — it will take him one and a half years — but first he will swing by Nepal to climb the 26,246-foot Makalu. “Every time I think I need to slow down, a new idea pops into my head.”
But what about the pain, the solitude, the danger. Is it all worth it? “Well … when I was in front of a death squad in Congo, their guns pointing at me, I asked myself, ’If I die now, would I have done all I wanted to with my life?’ And the answer was yes.”
This piece was orignially published Dec. 21, 2013, and updated as of Nov. 9, 2014.