Meet the adventurer: Mike Horn on risk, polar challenges and caring for the planet

South African-born Mike Horn is a renowned professional explorer and climate change activist, whose latest adventure saw him circumnavigate the globe via the North and South Poles — with millions watching live from home.

Saturday, September 19, 2020,
By Zane Henry
Mike Horn was born in South Africa before moving to Switzerland in his twenties. It was there ...

Mike Horn was born in South Africa before moving to Switzerland in his twenties. It was there that he found his calling as a professional explorer and climate change activist.

Photograph by Mike Horn

What does adventure mean to you? 

I’m a curious person. I want to go out there and not only discover new lands, but my own potential as well. I like to say we have about 30,000 days to live and we can’t waste even one of them. It’s very important to be able to live life to the fullest, although, of course, sometimes things happen that completely demotivate me. Naturally, we take risks — and if we make mistakes our lives as explorers become very short — but the challenge is making fear my home and remembering that I’m living life to its fullest.

You’ve been plotting intrepid expeditions since 1997. Give us an overview of some of your most memorable adventures.

I’ve swum down the Amazon for 4,350 miles, and I’ve followed the Equator around the world for around 25,000 miles. I’ve also climbed three 26,250ft peaks without oxygen in alpine style — which means we carried all our food, shelter and equipment as we climbed.

In 2006, I undertook my first winter expedition to the North Pole, followed by trips to the South Pole in 2007 and 2008. It prepared me for my Pole2Pole Challenge. In 2016, I set off on an ambitious three-year circumnavigation of the planet, travelling overland and across oceans, via the South and North Poles. Just couple of months ago, I crossed the Arctic ocean by boat and ski, completing the journey in 2019.

“The challenge is making fear my home and remembering that I’m living life to its fullest.”

by Mike Horn

What’s your favourite or most important piece of kit, and why? 

On a polar expedition, nobody can rescue you. Every kilogram of food or litre of fuel we take is vital for our survival. If we lose our stove or it breaks, then we won't be able to melt ice for water, and we’ll die of thirst. We don’t take stuff we can’t rely on and we don’t take random items we might not use. We’re living on that fine line between life and death, and we must be able to rely on our equipment and knowledge and supplies. 

In addition to keeping warm, hydrated and fed, the most important kit I take with me is a satellite terminal, because what I do has meaning if I can share what I see and feel with other people. The physical feat of a 100-day crossing of a pole had never been done before. My satellite partner, Speedcast, set up a system that let me push one button and, in seconds, I could send photos and emails and share my location. It’s important to me that others can bear witness.

Of his many polar expeditions, Mike Horn says: "Nobody can rescue you. Every kilogram of food or litre of fuel we take is vital for our survival."

Photograph by Mike Horn

What’s the biggest change we need to make on the planet right now? 

After the Pole2Pole expedition was followed by millions of people around the world, I was invited to Davos to speak to global leaders at the World Economic Forum about the changes in the Arctic Ocean. That’s the power of sharing in real time. All the world’s leaders were in that one room and listened to what I had to say for 30 minutes, simply because the press has been so interested in my latest adventure.

The president of France actually asked me what we can do to make the world a better and more sustainable place to live. The truth is, I don’t have all the answers; I’m just an explorer. But what I do know is that if we all connect and do something together, instead of always looking to politicians to make the right decisions, then we can lead the change.  

In 2006, when I did the first-ever winter expedition to the North Pole from Russia, we ran into polar bears every third or fourth day. This year, I crossed the Arctic Ocean from Alaska all the way to Spitzbergen, more than 1,250 miles on the ice in 90 days, and I didn’t see one. That was until the day before Christmas, when a mother and two cubs visited us. It gave me hope and, because of our technological partners, we were able to share that with millions. People can finally see that if the polar bears are no longer on the ice, then it’s our responsibility to change our habits so they can exist in the future.

Do you collect anything while traveling?

I collect experiences I can share. Not everyone is capable of climbing the highest mountains, crossing the North Pole, swimming down the Amazon or circumnavigating the world in a boat. Connectivity lets you take millions of people along with you and show them what the world really looks like. That inspires people to reach their own North Pole or cross their own South Pole. 

Where are you off to next?

I’m heading up north again to get closer to Greenland now that winter has ended. On my last polar crossing, it was dark 24 hours a day — and that doesn’t send a message of hope. I would like to show life coming back to the Arctic in the summer, with the belugas and polar bears going out hunting. Inspiring people is as important as telling them they have to be careful because the polar ice is melting. And the moment when you show life, that’s when people have hope.

Mike Horn was born in South Africa before moving to Switzerland in his 20s. It was there that he found his calling as a professional explorer and climate change activist. Follow his latest exploits on his YouTube channel

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