Do you remember what you wanted to be when you grew up? What your wildest dream as a child was? For most of us where we are now is nowhere near what we dreamed we would be as kids. For Mike Horn, where he is, is exactly where he dreamed, he’d be.
As a young child growing up in South Africa, Mike was obsessed with tales of explorers. He dreamed of growing up as an explorer, venturing into lands no man had ever gone before. He grew up to be a world-renowned explorer, and in February 2017 reached one of his wildest childhood dreams. He crossed the Antarctic. Alone.
In his new book, Dream of a lifetime: Crossing Antarctica, Mike details his record-breaking expedition across 5100km of uninhabitable land, alone, unsupported, using his body and a kite ski to propel himself and a 250kg sled filled with supplies forward. He ventured into parts of the world untouched by humans. Places covered in mounds of snow, ice fields, ice mountains and temperatures so cold, no human can live there. A place he at one point describes as feeling hard to believe he’s still on Planet Earth, so devoid of any sign of life it was. It was an expedition where success meant life and failure meant death.
To understand his exploring ways and choice to put himself into situations that could be fatal, you need to know that Mike was 18 years old when his father passed away. At 19 he served in the special forces, placed in Angola during the war where he would witness the battle between life and death daily. He lost both his wife and sister in the prime of their lives. “Being able to see first-hand the difference between life and death made me respect life so much more”, Mike said to me during our telephone call. “I always thought that our time on earth is so little. One life only has 30 000 days [if you get to age 82]. I don’t want to waste one of these days. I want to live it to the full capacity. I want to benefit from each day I’m alive. I can’t think that I will do things tomorrow, I want to do things today. To live in the present is very important. Sometimes we live too much in the past or we project our lives into the future by saying we’ll do things later in life. But life is today, it’s now and that is what I realised a little bit at a very young age”.
Sometimes we live too much in the past or we project our lives into the future by saying we’ll do things later in life. But life is today, it’s now and that is what I realised a little bit at a very young age
It’s an ethos Mike has lived by and the reason why he felt compelled to finally set out to accomplish his most ambitious childhood dream of crossing Antarctica. At the end of 2016, after months of prep and tearing down red tape, he left the shores of Cape Town on his boat – the Pangaea. With him was a small support team, who would set out to sail as close to the Arctic as possible, before dropping Mike off and turning around, leaving him completely alone.
When asked what it feels like to do something so unknown and so filled with danger, Mike explained how it’s the unknowns in life that prevent us from progressing. Instead of fearing the unknown he embraces it, making fear his home. “The fact that I’m not sure what’s going to happen, that the results of the day are completely uncertain is the space that I allow myself to go into. This space becomes a lifestyle”.
The fact that I’m not sure what’s going to happen, that the results of the day are completely uncertain is the space that I allow myself to go into. This space becomes a lifestyle.
For most of us, control is key, we want to control everything and when things go wrong, we struggle to cope. But when your life revolves around dealing with the unknown, the unknown becomes home. The unknown, Mike says “creates adrenaline and awakens your senses. [It allows you to use] all your natural talents. Often we forget that we can go much further than we thought we could go; but no one pushes their bodies and their minds to that extent”.
Mikes whole life had been a preparation for that moment he would say goodbye to his team and begin his solo trek. He started out doing smaller expeditions, which grew to become bigger and bigger. “I use my life as a platform to be able to give me enough knowledge and experience to do the next expedition”. Physically, he explains the training happens not just before, but during the expedition – the first 1000km form part of the physical training. “You can’t get to the ice completely in shape and fit and ready to go because you’ll never cover the distance [in training]. If you can use part of the expedition as part of your training and get to the middle of the training and peak in your performance and then slowly break down, that would be the ideal way to attack an expedition like this”.
Often we forget that we can go much further than we thought we could go
It was at that moment, when he left his crew and boat behind, when the expedition had finally begun that he experienced his most memorable high. “There’s so much preparation and red tape you have to go through, and finally, you get to the starting point. I didn’t take a plane to Antarctica, I sailed to Antarctica. If you take a boat, you risk not getting to the place you want to be. When you fly in you know you land in that spot and can start the expedition.”
His lowest low would come around the halfway mark. “It was just before Christmas when I lost my travel pot. [I] had travelled over 200km [that day]. I didn’t know if I should walk back. Did I lose it 10km ago or 100km or 200km ago? That uncertainty to where I lost my cooking pot was a low point. It was something I knew that if I didn’t find a solution, the expedition [would be] over before it really got started”.
When he told me that, I was momentarily taken aback. I had expected his low to be the day he all but broke his shoulder, or the one where he spent hours looking for his runaway kite, or any of the times when he came within inches of facing his mortality. But no, it was losing a pot. It made sense to me when I asked him about his high pain threshold. He seems to have an ability to be in severe pain and discomfort and shrug it off, mend what he can and be on his way. He told me pain is part of what he does. “The mental fatigue and stress often over-powers the body being tired. When I dislocated my shoulder or damaged my ankle, [those are things that] in a normal life environment would stop you from going to work or moving around quickly, because we are living close to hospitals and people who are willing to help you. In Antarctica there is nobody ready to help you. You need to deal with these things alone and that’s why you can push yourself to do more before you start complaining. If you have no options people can deal with pain better”.
If you have no options you deal with pain better.
A hurt shoulder, twisted ankle or freezing body he could troubleshoot. Losing his pot used to heat up food and melt ice for water (key for survival) somewhere in a 200km stretch of snowy dessert? Not so easy to troubleshoot.
The moment you lose, you won’t come back alive.
Despite that setback, he improvised with what he had and pushed on. Out in the middle of Antarctica, there is no choice. “We cannot afford to lose”, Mike told me, “because the moment you lose, you won’t come back alive”. He went on to explain that in those situations you’re forced to find a solution. Unlike in normal life, where you have the option to bail when things get tough, out there you don’t have options. That lack of options makes it easier to find a solution. “The more choice you have, the more difficult your life becomes and the easier it is to stop when things become difficult. If you have no choices, life becomes very simple.”
What kept him going day after day, despite setbacks and pain was simple discipline. “Discipline is more important than thinking positive or being motivated. Discipline is something that makes you get up and out of the sleeping bag even though you’re nice and warm and comfortable in the tent. [It’s what gets you through] the uncomfortable parts of the expedition – pulling the sled and covering big distances.” In Mike’s mind there was no other option but to get up every day, hook up his equipment and pull forward. Making that decision and accepting what he had to do to get to where he wanted, gave him the discipline to make it through. Discipline, he told me is key if you want to go out and explore.
Discipline is more important than thinking positive or being motivated. Discipline is something that makes you get up and out of the sleeping bag even though you’re nice and warm and comfortable in the tent.
Discipline, I would later learn from Mike must be paired with a positive mindset. It’s not technical abilities or physical strength of an explorer. It’s an attitude, that makes an explorer successful. “The skill of seeing the bright side of life a little bit”. In the book he speaks about the human inclination of always wanting more, never being satisfied. He had to view each kilometre as progress. To see each step as a positive move towards success.
Another key to being an explorer is being ok with being completely alone, something Mike revels in. Mike differentiates between loneliness and being alone. On expeditions he is alone but never lonely. “When I arrived in London, I went to a bar and I knew nobody there. Although there were thousands of people around me. I felt lonely. I never had that feeling of loneliness in the tent because I know I’m alone and accept the fact that I’m alone. Loneliness doesn’t exist on the Polar Ocean. You are alone. I like being alone because it gives me time to develop ideas. Freedom and having time for myself are reasons I leave to these remote places”.
Loneliness doesn’t exist on the Polar Ocean. You are alone.
And nowhere is as remote as Antarctica. The arctic is not a place suited to life. It’s a continent belonging to no-one, devoid of humans or infrastructure. While Mike was able to contact the outside world via email during his rest breaks, they had no way of tracking him or getting to him if disaster struck. He covered 5100km using human and wind power. Small planes or helicopters don’t have the capacity to fly for over 5000km, and big planes require infrastructure, landing strips and fuel. His chosen route meant no one was coming to rescue him. His only point of help would be at the South Pole, at the Scott Base where there is a doctor who could help if need be. But explorers like Mike aren’t welcome there. To get the go ahead, he had to show he wouldn’t be causing any environmental damage to the continent, something he’s well aware of and makes sure not to leave any litter behind. Still many believed what he was doing was too dangerous, but as the continent belongs to no one, there’s little they could do to stop him.
Back home, waiting for him was his two daughters, who had encouraged and supported his latest expedition. They, together with his friends and loved ones, are his biggest support system. Being away from them, he says was his biggest sacrifice in achieving his dream. His reward, however, was sweet. “knowing you’ve done something you’ve wanted to for a long time. That feeling of accomplishment after a day’s work are all amazing moments of an expedition”. It’s more than just the accomplishment for Mike, it’s in those moments alone where no one can call you, ask questions or disturb your mind, where you and you alone are the conductor of your life. “That is a luxury to have that amount of freedom, to make decisions and choices in my life are things I value a lot. Just to be able to say today my mind was mine and I shared it with no one is a highlight of my career as an explorer.”
And by achieving his childhood dream he showed his girls that you’re never too old to dream and nothing is to crazy if you want it bad enough.
To be able to say today my mind was mine and I shared it with no one is a highlight of my career as an explorer.
In the beginning of his book, Mike shares how he reached out to one of his childhood heroes but never heard back. He decided then that he would one day have a boat that would take him exploring and that he’d welcome young explorers. As we reached the end of our conversation, I wanted to know what Mike would tell the little boys and girls who are where Mike was 40 years ago. Who are looking at him and what he did with a sense of awe, inspiration, and a dream of following in his footsteps. His advice to the young is just as applicable to the grown-ups, and the ones who think their dreams are too far gone.
Once you start living your life, you’ll see how easy it becomes.
“The only difference between kids and adults is that kids dream, and adults lose their dreams. I Would encourage kids to keep on dreaming and keep on thinking about what they want to become and what their interests are. You need to follow those dreams in life. You mustn’t let people dictate your life because they’re not living it for you. They can tell you how to live your life, but you must be the master of your own life. Take responsibility. Do things that take courage. Go out of your comfort zone. just live life. Once you start living your life, you’ll see how easy it becomes.”
Images of Mike Horn courtesy Mike Horn Facebook Page