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An interview with Mike Horn on his recent expedition to Greenland and Svalbard

by David Schmidt 19 Jan 08:00 PST January 19, 2021
Mike Horn in Antarctica © Dmitry Sharomov

Adventure may come in all shapes, sizes and difficulty levels, but, without question, two of the toughest pursuits are high-altitude mountaineering without the use of supplemental oxygen and self-supported high-latitude sailing. While these two pursuits have little in common in terms of technical skills, they share plenty of common ground when it comes to the mental and physical challenges posed by cold, darkness, and remote locales. Just ask adventurer Mike Horn, a man who is well-acquainted with both pursuits, and who has achieved success in the Himalaya, on the high seas, and on both poles.

Some backstory. Horn (54) was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, and studied human movement science at South Africa's University of Stellenbosch. By age 24 he realized that a desk job wasn't enough to satisfy his desire to explore and experience life at its fullest, so he began a series of expeditions, starting first with a six-moth solo traverse of South America (1997).

Many expeditions followed, including (but certainly not limited to) a circumnavigation of the equator via bike, foot, canoe and sailboat (1999-2000), a solo circumnavigation of the artic circle sans motorized transportation (2002-2004), a human-powered trip to the North Pole (2006), crossings of the Artic (2019) and Antarctica (2016-2017), and a two-year circumnavigation of the planet via the two poles aboard his 115-foot purpose-built exploration sailboat Pangaea (2016-2019).

While this tick list would satisfy most adventurers, Horn also turned his attention to high-altitude Himalayan mountaineering, starting with successful climbs, sans oxygen, up Pakistan's Gasherbrum 1 (8,035 meters) and Gasherbrum 2 (8,068 meters) in 2007. Next was Broad Peak (8.051 meters), also in Pakistan's Karakorum region and also climbed without oxygen (2010), followed by an expedition to the Solo Khumbu region of Nepal (2014) where he and his team climbed Makalu (8,463 meters) without porters or bottled oxygen.

Only Pakistan's K2 (8,611 meters), which is widely regarded as the world's hardest and deadliest mountain, has proved elusive (so far), as Horn and his partners were turned back by bad weather.

In 2020, as most of the world entered a coronavirus-induced lockdown (or various stages of quarantine), Horn set off aboard Pangaea in February for Greenland and Svalbard, where he and his team helped conduct some scientific research while also logging thousands of offshore miles.

I checked in with Horn, via email, to learn more.

How did you become interested in high-latitude sailing?

My interest for high-latitude sailing developed as a result of two separate passions, which eventually combined into one: First is my passion for polar regions and second, my passion for autonomous traveling.

I have always been attracted to the polar regions.

As a kid, I followed with much enthusiasm the adventures of Shackleton, Amundsen and Scott; some of the greatest polar explorers of all times.

I knew I would someday find a way to make it to those remote areas of the globe, but there was something about taking a plane to the high and low latitudes that bothered me...to me it almost defeated the fundamental purpose of an adventure. My wish was to travel the way those who inspired me did...by boat!

Can you tell us a bit about Pangaea?

Pangaea is a very special and unique vessel. She was custom-built with the support of my sponsor Mercedes-Benz, to carry out research projects, travel across the globe and be a home to many, notably the younger generation.

She was built in the favelas of Santos in Brazil, not too far from Sao Paulo. It was important for me to involve workers who were in need for income.

The whole [build] process lasted two years.

Can you tell us about your recent expedition to Greenland and Svalbard?

Following the cancellation of all of my events and travels due to Covid-19, I felt an urge for adventure, hope, and progress. While the world was encouraged to stay home due to travel restrictions, I thought I would make the most of the freedom that comes with sailing to go on a little adventure.

As I knew most people were forced to stay home, it was important for me to share this trip through photos and videos, and to contribute to research projects that have been interrupted due to Covid-19.

The biggest challenge was to adapt to this new way of traveling. We sailed from France to Ireland, but couldn't set foot on land in Ireland, same in Iceland and same in Greenland. It was only once we had completed the required quarantine period that we could set foot on land in Svalbard, one month later.

The world is changing drastically and we need to pay attention, act, and adapt!

Can you tell us about the animal and whale observations that you made up north?

Whenever I organize a trip, it is important for that trip to have a larger purpose. I have always loved witnessing the marine activity that takes place when I sail on Pangaea. So I asked a friend of mine who is involved in various marine life research associations to join us and help us collect data to contribute to research that was interrupted due to Covid-19.

His trip request from Australia was unfortunately denied, so we carried on the data collection without him by capturing photos, videos and observations.

What's the best (or most enjoyable) part about high-latitude expedition sailing? And what's the worst part?

Funnily enough the best part of high-latitude sailing is closely intertwined with the worst part.

What's most exciting is when we find ourselves navigating through ice, attempting to make steady progress.

And the worst part, is when you get stuck and the ice surrounding you just won't let you make any further progress...this is when we have to act quickly before the ice closes-in on us.

It is stressful and the consequences can be bad, yet the urge to find a solution brings you adrenaline, uncertainty and excitement, which are things we adventurer's absolutely love!

What's the most dangerous aspect to high-latitude adventure sailing?

Mentioned above. Getting closed-in by ice and freezing in place, making it impossible to move forward or backward.

Last year, in September 2019, we sailed from Alaska as far north as possible towards the north pole in order to start my #NorthPoleCrossing expedition. It was the end of summer, so the ice was quite fragile, but getting frozen-in would have been a major problem because the winter season was already on its way.

What's harder—climbing 8,000-meter Himalayan peaks without oxygen or engaging in serious high-latitude sailing expeditions? Also, what makes one pursuit harder than the other? Also, which do you enjoy more?

Good question! [They are] completely different yet equally demanding challenges.

In climbing expeditions, I have no one to rely on but myself, whereas in high-latitude sailing situations, I have to rely on a team and respect the limits of my boat.

Both pursuits require different physical and emotional needs. I would say, sailing brings me more pleasure because it allows me to travel around the entire world and discover unknown places; but climbing pushes my physical and mental limits a lot more.

What are your plans for future expeditions aboard Pangaea?

I always have A LOT of plans and future expedition ideas for Pangaea. The challenging part however is favoring one option over another.

After spending a decent amount of time in the high-latitudes this past year, my next goal is to head down south towards Patagonia, to explore the Patagonian icefields.

Is there anything else that you'd like to add, for the record?

Thank you to Mercedes-Benz for helping me make my dreams become a reality!

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