Meet Mike Horn, the greatest living explorer
While shooting the photographs for our Mike Horn feature, Brinlee Jr got an assist from Mother Nature. “Once we hit 60-70 degrees of latitude, the ‘golden hour’ lasted eight hours because the sun stayed so low in the sky,” says the Los Angeles-based snapper and budding adventurer. The roiling seas were less accommodating, however, and he spent most of his first day on Horn’s ship, Pangaea, bent over a sick bucket.
Two years ago, Chris Brinlee Jr had a desk job at an advertising agency in Santa Monica, and would dream of another life – a life like Mike Horn’s, in fact. The South African explorer had built a career out of adventure, accomplishing feats like swimming the Amazon and circumnavigating the Arctic Circle by foot and sail.
Brinlee Jr hadn’t yet met Horn. In fact, he hadn’t even heard of him. All he knew was that the day job wasn’t going to cut it any more. So he sold all his belongings, moved out of his loft in downtown LA, and went backpacking in northern Europe, then climbing in the Himalayas, followed by mountaineering trips throughout the country. Pretty soon, he was making a living on the road with little more than a camera and a savvy Instagram strategy.
“I think a lot of people – especially millennials, which is my generation – feel trapped and under this pressure where they have ideas of things they want to do, but not necessarily the courage and know-how to go out and get them,” he says. “Even taking little steps, anything that pushes you out of your comfort zone, can give you the courage to do more.”
Those little steps eventually led Brinlee Jr to an ice-climbing expedition in Alberta, Canada with Horn, courtesy of a local tourism board. Six months later, he flew to Cape Town to meet Horn, and tagged along for the explorer’s three-week voyage to Antarctica – where he would attempt to be the first man to cross the continent unassisted.
“Pole2Pole is simply everything I’ve done in my life as an explorer, in one expedition,” says Horn. “To rewrite history in polar exploration was maybe the main idea. I always wanted to cross Antarctica solo and without support. And to do that as just part of a massive expedition where you’re not only crossing Antarctica but crossing the North Pole, crossing deserts in Namibia, in Botswana… I’d like to look into a mirror and see what I’m doing now. That’s important in life; when you really feel that you’re doing something that you want to see, it makes it natural. And when it’s natural, it becomes easy to do and the obstacles just fall away.”
Horn grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa and spent much of his youth outdoors; he later joined the military and followed this with a sports science course at university. However, at the age of 24, bored with what was shaping up to be too conventional a life, he decamped to Switzerland, where he learned to ski and paraglide and committed to a life of adventure.
The list of Horn’s subsequent accomplishments is simply jaw-dropping. It includes travelling the length of the Amazon – a distance of almost 7,000km – in 1997, fishing and surviving off the environment, with only a glass-fibre flotation device known as a hydrospeed, or riverboard, to cling onto; and then there was that 20,000km solo circumnavigation of the Arctic Circle five years later, dragging a sled and using a kite to propel him forward. He has also trekked to the North Pole with a Norwegian explorer, using nothing more than skis in the deep heart of the Arctic winter; completed in 2006, that was a first.
Horn is a living, breathing motivational speech, possessed of a bounding energy and death-grip handshake that makes younger men wilt. He’s a survivalist who can draw on a deep well of experience in the most extreme conditions – like the time he barked like a dog in his tent in the middle of the North Pole to discourage a curious polar bear. Most revealing, however, is what his expeditions have taught him about the impossible. Namely, that it might not exist – at least not in the context of exploration.
“My philosophy in life is that once I have an idea, I plan it,” says Horn. “And once I’ve done the planning of the expedition, I go out and do it. And once you go out and do it, that creates the momentum and inspires people. You can just start planning something and then get on and start doing it.”
Once people are inspired, the sponsors come on board, and the financing of it becomes easier. Mercedes-Benz has been a big supporter of Horn, as has the watch company Panerai. The financing culminated in his most ambitious venture: Pangaea, a 35m-long, ice-floe-proof sailing boat that he likes to refer to as the SUV of the oceans. To build it, he employed around 200 tradesmen in a São Paolo slum, a method that was not only cost-effective, but entirely gratifying to a man who wants others to share in his passion for pioneering.
Which brings us to Cape Town on November 19, when Brinlee Jr joined Horn and a crew of 10 others to document part of the explorer’s Pole2Pole trek. One of the burning questions Brinlee Jr had was: why not just fly there?
“I wanted to get to the Antarctic like [Ernest] Shackleton did, like [Robert Falcon] Scott, like [Roald] Amundsen,” explains Horn. “That makes expeditions risky – not just because you can’t get to where you want to go, but because other people’s lives are involved. I don’t always think the easiest road is the best road for me. I think that through overcoming obstacles, you gather knowledge, and through this knowledge you gather, you have the power of decision.”
The crew spent the next three weeks sailing through the Roaring Forties, the Furious Fifties and the Screaming Sixties (the numbers refer to degrees of latitude). Every marker more than earned its name, with squalls and 6m-high swells buffeting the boat.
Brinlee Jr, who had never been on a sailing boat before, spent the first day or so puking into a bucket. Crucial parts like hydraulic pistons and rudders failed, requiring repair and maintenance. They eventually hit ice – a lot earlier than planned.
“We would come up to the ice floes and the boat would smash into them and just vibrate through the whole ship,” says Brinlee Jr. “I had the foremost cabin and the bow would raise up to 3m and shake as we were trying to sleep.”
One thousand miles off the Antarctic continent, Horn and the crew began the slow, tortuous process of navigating the heaving, cacophonous floes that squeezed and rolled around the boat.
They would use a pike to hack ice off vital systems such as the rudder. This got Horn thinking.
“You often wonder, ‘What am I doing here? Why don’t I just wait?’ You can’t just wait your whole life,” he says. “That’s why we can do what we want to do –because we’re going out there to find the solution. We’re not waiting for the solution to come to us.”
Horn’s travels in the Arctic have brought him first-hand experience of global warming, from a battle that erupted when a grizzly bear encroached on polar bear territory – possibly driven there by warming temperatures – to chunks of glacier ice breaking off in the North Pole. Among his goals in Antarctica will be to collect water and ice samples for researchers. Before setting off for the South Pole, Horn and his Young Explorers – a programme he hosts on Pangaea – sailed around, tagging sharks.
“In 25 years of exploring, I’ve seen a lot of change,” says Horn, the father of two daughters, who serve as part of his expedition support team from their home in Switzerland. “And that’s a short amount of time. That’s why it’s important to do plankton tests, to take water samples while we go around the world to places where a lot of people can’t go.”
After 21 days, Pangaea reached the continental shelf, and a euphoric crew began preparations to send Horn on his way. He experimented with the kite that would drag him and his sled across the glacier, and Brinlee Jr and the crew staged a taste-test evening to help Horn pick out the food he’d take along. By the time you read this, he will have completed his solo, kite-powered crossing of the Antarctic – a distance of around 5,000km – all the while dragging a sled stocked with enough food and fuel for three months. And he’ll be the only person ever to have accomplished that feat.
Then it’ll be off to Greenland via a route that takes him through New Zealand, India and past Indonesia. All the way, he’ll be guided by a drive that recalls another age, one of wild curiosity fuelling enormous risk-taking. “There’s a chance of failure…that’s what excites me,” he says. “It’s that unknown that we’re all afraid of. And it’s the unknown that motivates me.”
Before Horn set off on skis, he told Brinlee Jr about an icecap in Patagonia, and another in Greenland that would provide the photographer with a good starting point if he began training for a similar expedition. The 28-year-old lensman took notes. “I put myself in his shoes,” he says. “And it galvanised what I want to achieve, and the type of experiences I want to continue to push myself to do.”
In the coming months, Brinlee Jr plans to traverse, by ski, Denali National Park in Alaska, before climbing Mount Denali – North America’s highest peak at 6,190m – in spring. But he also aims to slow down a life of travel and adventure that has included around 200 flights in the last few years.
“There’s the actual unknown, where people have never been before, and then there is the inner unknown, which is what one discovers when venturing into these experiences,” he says. “I think that, for the average person, they don’t have to venture to the South Pole to discover the experiences, because they can discover them internally if they push themselves out of their comfort zone. That’s something Mike is very adamant about, and something I can relate to in my daily life, too.”