“How does it feel to be alive? ” That’s what I have asked upfront to Mike Horn, saved last December in extremis from his Pole2Pole expedition in the Arctic. It is the first time in 23 years of expeditions that he almost died. Only luck and discipline saved his life. Explanations.
“Until 3 years ago, I never thought I would have been able to cross the North Pole. Moreover, to even think I had the experience to go there… I always try to push my limits furthermore. Today, I do things at a much slower pace because I have less strength than I used to” and so begins the man who almost broke two of my ribs when he gave me a hug to limit the spread of COVID-19.
The interview hasn’t started yet, but he continues, “When I go on expeditions, the only option is to go all the way, otherwise I’m dead. It’s a personal commitment, where the mind has to be 100% involved. I call it The Rubicon, that point of no-return, the moment the boat leaves to go to the other side of the earth to find you when you’ve walked all the way across unless something happens…”
Sitting in front of him, listening carefully to each of his words, like a coach gently hammering inside your head that you are the only master of your movements and acts. At that specific moment, all I can think of is when I am going to climb the Mont-Blanc next July… which for him must seem like a small hill to walk up to freshened by a summer breeze.
He continues, “You must have the balls to say to yourself: yes I can do it. You know that if you make a mistake, you’re dead. You also have to take responsibility for the fact that all the way up the hill, no one can help you! And you know that right from the beginning. Of course, upstream, we put all the information in a balance and weight the pros and cons of each one to know if we’re going to make it or not.”
HOW DO YOU KNOW YOU WERE GOING TO MAKE IT?
– Mike Horn: Preparation, experience and mental: what seemed impossible at first can now be possible. For example, you know that if you take a thicker sleeping bag you’ll sleep better so you’ll burn fewer calories. If your tent is a bit bigger you will be more comfortable so you will catch up with your fatigue faster. You know that you need 12’000 calories a day, of which 2’000 are needed to pull your sledge (a normal human being needs 3’000 on average). You take 15 days of food in reserve – that’s 20 kg of additional food in case you have a problem. But even taking this margin into consideration, our reserves had been largely underestimated.
YOU ASSUME THAT YOU’RE READY AT EVERYTHING UNTIL YOU’RE NOT. AT WHAT POINT DO YOU REALIZE IT?
– Mike Horn: It was not sudden… only as we went along. On day 36 when we arrived at the North Pole, my teammate Borge Ousland and I realized that we were 10 days behind schedule, which meant that we had already used up 10 of our 15 days of food reserve, and that was going to make all the difference between getting there alive or not.
THE SOLUTION TO SURVIVING?
– Mike Horn: It’s two of us, so we have to think together and against our instincts. That’s when we find solutions, by talking to one another, but with very little words because it burns calories. At this point, we had to find a vital solution. If we decide to halve our rations, we become weaker faster, but if we eat almost twice as much, we go faster and we stop a little longer. During Pole2Pole, the temperatures were dropping, it was dark 24 hours a day, so we decided to change our biological clock. We switched to 30-hour days so that we could gain a day’s worth of food every 4 days. Your knowledge, experience and know-how make you think that you can go further and that you can do it. It’s only when you get to the end that you realize that you were a complete idiot to begin with. It’s only through luck that we have managed to arrive alive. I thought I had the experience to make this expedition. But it fact, I didn’t.
WHAT WAS THE MOTIVATION TO SURVIVE?
– Mike Horn: I’m a disciplined man. When you run out of options, your only choice is to walk or die. I don’t believe in the concept of motivation. Positive thinking is what Americans have invented to motivate people to go to work. Just because I’m motivated doesn’t mean I’m going to get the tent out, I just have to do it. It’s a discipline.
SO… TECHNICALLY YOU’RE A ROBOT.
– Mike Horn: Hmmm yes, I’m a robot! Except a robot doesn’t always decide for itself. I’ve always had this same discipline of waking up at 5 a.m. to train. At -50 degrees C°. I wake up 10 minutes earlier, because at that temperature, putting on my gloves, tying my shoes, folding the tent takes much longer… this discipline allows me to do things. When I arrive outside the tent and I hang up the sledge and realize that I’m 10 minutes early, I win! Others will still be in their tent sleeping because it’s cold. That’s how I manage to motivate myself in the most difficult moments. Happy to win one little battle at a time.
WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT WHEN YOU WALK AT NIGHT AT -60°C. ?
– Mike Horn: We live near death all the time but we never think about dying. After all, you have two life options. The one where you choose to walk away from the edge, but the adrenaline is not the same as the one where you walk permanently on the edge of the cliff. Every mistake, if not fatal, is a lesson in life. If you make the same mistake again, you haven’t understood! Unfortunately the mistake you pay for it with your life. In the Arctic, if you put the tent in the wrong place, if the ice breaks, if you fall down and it closes: you are dead. If you move forward and you don’t know that the thickness of the ice changes all the time and if you are not sure that the ice can support your weight and the weight of your sled, it is a mistake so you die.
WHY THIS LAST EXPEDITION WAS THE HARDEST OF ALL?
– Mike Horn: Difficulty was on all levels but mostly because of the nature that changed too fast! I was taken by surprise…
THIS ICE PROBLEM – HOW WOULD IT HAVE BEEN ANTICIPATED?
– Mike Horn: Impossible … The ice was 2.5 meters in 2006, now it’s 5 cm thick. When you put it on the water with a bit of wind, it drifts… and we who want to walk north, we can walk as fast as we want, we were going backwards!
IF YOU HAD TO DO IT AGAIN?
– Mike Horn: Never!
– Mike Horn: I’ve seen so I know. The ice is melting and drifting faster than you can anticipate or calculate anything.
DO YOU STILL ENJOY BEING IN CONSTANT DIFFICULTY?
– Mike Horn: Not all the time and not often, but the challenge gives me some joy. Specially when you surpass yourself and make the right decision that helps you stay alive. Chance does not apply when it comes to making a decision.
WHAT HAS CHANGED BETWEEN NOW AND 15 YEARS AGO?
– Mike Horn: My physical capacities! I’ve become much weaker because I’m older, even though my last expeditions have taken me much further. I’m doing things at a much slower pace as I have less strength but I’ve become more resilient. The mind has taken over the body.
ARE YOU FULLY AWARE THAT YOU CAN DIE WITH EVERY STEP YOU TAKE?
– Mike Horn: It’s almost guaranteed that I’m going to die on an expedition. I go every time to overcome my obstacles to live something I’ve never experienced before.
HAS TIME EVER STOPPED YOU IN ANYTHING?
– Mike Horn: Very often! I measure my life by the passing seconds, minutes, days and weeks. Life has an average of only 30,000 days. I can’t lose a day. And each one only has 24 hours in it. In expedition, every second is considerably more important than a minute spent at home. I have less to do with time in civilization than when I’m climbing. When I climb to 8000 meters of altitude I know I have 24 hours in this death zone where I have to stay alive the same way that I’ve only got two hours to stay alive without moving by -40°C.
THE WATCH IN ALL OF THIS?
– Mike Horn: It’s my life! Every second tells me whether I’m alive or dead. When I fall into the water, I count. And I know I have five minutes to live. Time is the only direction in life. Time gives the position of the sun and the stars. The watch isn’t just something pretty to adorn my wrist it’s my only functioning tool to navigate.
THE WATCH BRAND PANERAI AND YOU?
– Mike Horn: Our relationship started 20 years ago! They create a watch according to my needs, and only they know how to do it. Panerai takes care of what is pretty, and I give the specifications. In example, the first thing is that it has to be non-magnetic and in recycled titanium because it is light and resistant. As I have to stay alive at -70°C. considering that at this temperature the metal shrinks, and that my watch is my only navigational instrument, they have not other choice than to figure it out!
TECHNICALLY SPEAKING, HOW DID THEY DO IT?
– Mike Horn: To insulate the movement from the cold, they put it in a double box with oil in between like double glazing in a winter house. As for the gears, they subtracted the oil for a kind of dry carbon lubrication inside the watch.
HOW MANY WATCHES DO YOU HAVE?
– Mike Horn: I want to say zero except for my father’s watch… an Omega, that I don’t wear and my Panerai. It connects me to what I do.
HOW DO YOU DEFINE THE WASTE OF TIME?
– Mike Horn: When you’re going around in circles! It’s more like a loss of direction in your life… If you know where you’re going, you’re going to save time.
YOUR NEXT EXPEDITION?
– Mike Horn: It will probably be less time consuming but not necessarily less dangerous and it’s going to be in the ocean. After 15 round-the-world trips above the water … I think it’s time to go under… and not just 100meters, but more so to explore at 11’000 meters deep where you can spend 10 days or even 10 months exploring underwater.
WHAT’S YOUR LIFE ABOUT?
– Mike Horn: It’s 32 days at home in the last 5 years, 11 expeditions in 23 years, 6 months on the ice in extreme conditions, 3 months in altitude and 2 years in the jungle… I have more slept in a tent and a sleeping bag than in my own bed! Otherwise it’s coaching because it’s my job. I have studied sports psychology, I coached the German soccer team for the World Cup in Brazil in 2014, I was with the Indians in 2011 to coach their cricket team, the rugby team in South Africa or the Dakar with the RedBull team. With all that, I’m finally coaching myself a bit. On the other hand, I can’t tell people how they should live because giving directions to someone is a form of responsibility that I don’t want to take.
THE FIRST THING YOU DID WHEN YOU GOT BACK FROM POLE2POLE?
– Mike Horn: Sit on a chair! For 4 months I sat on my ass with my legs at the same level as my butt. I wanted to run the tap water and drink it from the spout because all I did was melt the ice to get water and sometimes it was salty!
THE CONCEPT OF RETIREMENT?
– Mike Horn: Nonexistent! It’s for people who don’t know where they want to go after work.
WHAT IF TOMORROW YOU COULDN’T GO ON ANY MORE EXPEDITIONS?
– Mike Horn: My life experience is the best investment I could make. It’s not something you can buy, but it’s the only thing I can sell.
YOUR DREAM EXPEDITION?
– Mike Horn: To the moon, where there’s no one.