Mike Horn, explorer without limits
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. was sitting at a desk job at an advertising agency in Santa Monica dreaming of another life—a life like Mike Horn’s, in fact. The South African had built a career out of adventure, a modern day explorer who did things like swim the Amazon and circumnavigate 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 anymore. So he sold all his things, moved out of his loft in downtown L.A. and took off to go backpacking in northern Europe; and then climbing in the Himalayas; and then on 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, my generation—feel trapped and under this pressure and 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, South Africa, to meet Horn, invited to tag along for a portion of the explorer’s ambitious Pole2Pole expedition—his bid to circle the planet vertically over the course of a single year. During this three-week segment, Horn would attempt to become the first man to cross Antarctica completely solo and without assistance.
“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 without support and solo. And to combine only that small part of the expedition in a massive expedition where you’re not just crossing Antarctica but crossing the North Pole, crossing deserts in Namibia, in Botswana … If I look into a mirror, I would like to 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.”
Growing up in Johannesburg, South Africa, he spent his youth outdoors, eventually joining the military before going to university to study sports science. Bored with what was shaping up to be a conventional life, he decamped to Switzerland at 24, where he learned to ski and paraglide and committed to a life of adventure.
The list of his accomplishments since is jaw-dropping. It includes navigating the length of the 4,300- mile Amazon River in 1997 with nothing more than a fiberglass flotation called a hydrospeed, as well as that first-ever 12,500-mile solo circumnavigation of the Arctic Circle (2002-04), sans motorized transport and dragging a 400 lb. sled with food and supplies behind. He also trekked from Siberia to the North Pole, along with Norwegian explorer Borge Ousland, using nothing more than skis in the darkness of the Arctic winter— another first, completed in 2006.
He 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,” he says. “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 that inspires people. You can just start planning something and then you can 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 Horn’s most ambitious venture: Pangaea, a 115-foot, 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 Paulo slum, a method that was not only cost-effective but entirely gratifying to a man who wants others to share in his passion of the pioneering.
Which brings us to Cape Town, on November 19th, where Brinlee Jr. joined Horn and a crew of 10 others to document part of his Pole2Pole trek. One of the burning questions Brinlee Jr. had: Why not just fly over there?
“I wanted to get to the Antarctic like [Ernest] Shackleton did, like [Robert Falcon] Scott, like [Roald] Amundsen. That makes expeditions risky. But not just risky because you can’t get to where you want to go, but because other people’s lives are involved in what you do,” says Horn. “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 that you gather, you have the power of decision.”
They spent the next three weeks sailing through the Roaring 40s, the Furious 50s and the Screaming 60s (referring to the degrees of latitude). Every marker more than earned its name, with squalls and 20-foot swells buffeting the boat. Brinlee Jr., who had never been on a sailboat 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 would just vibrate through the whole ship,” says Brinlee Jr. “I had the foremost cabin and the bow would raise up to 10 feet and would shake as we were in there trying to sleep.”
About a week into their passage and some miles off the Antarctic continent, Horn and the crew began the slow process of navigating the heaving, cacophonous floes that squeezed and rolled around the boat. They’d use a pike to shove ice off of vital systems, like the rudder. It 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.”
His travels in the Arctic have brought him firsthand exposure to the warming of our planet, 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 he spent some time 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, the Pangaea reached the continental shelf and a euphoric crew began the preparations to send Horn on his way. He experimented with the kite that would drag him and his sled across the glacier, along with enough food and fuel for three months; Brinlee Jr. and crew helped him pick out the grub he’d take along by doing a taste-test night. By the time you read this, he’ll have completed his solo, kite-powered crossing of the Antarctic—more than 3,100 miles. And he’ll have been the only person to ever accomplish that feat.
Then it’ll be off to Greenland via a route that takes him through New Zealand, India, Indonesia and Kamchatka on Russia’s far east coast. All the way, he’ll be guided by a drive that recalls another age, one of wild curiosity fueling 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 which motivates me.”
Before he set off on skis, Horn told Brinlee Jr. about an ice cap in Patagonia, and another in Greenland, that could provide the photographer a good starting point to train for something similar. The 28-year-old took notes. “I put myself in his shoes,” he says, “and it galvanized what I want to achieve, and the type of experiences I want to keep pushing myself to do.”
In the coming months, he plans to traverse, via ski, Denali National Park in Alaska, before climbing Mt. Denali—the highest peak in North America at 20,310 feet—in the spring. But he also plans 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.”