Can the world's two greatest living solo explorers share a tent without driving each other crazy—or worse, getting each other killed? Børge Ousland and Mike Horn are about to find out on the first-ever trek to the North Pole in the pitch black 24-hour dark of polar night. They depart around January 15.
Five minutes outside Château-d'Oex, a pitched-roof hamlet of 3,100 tucked in Switzerland's Vaudoise Alps, there's a swatch of woods running down the flanks of one Mont Chevreuils. Unlike the surrounding cow pastures, which are so well groomed they could be golf greens, these woods are unkempt. But their thicket of exposed tree roots, downed branches, and mossy rocks suits Mike Horn just fine. This shady and eventually quite steep stretch of forest comprises the 39-year-old South African explorer's training grounds. It's here that he has prepared for several incredibly long and demanding journeys, and it's here that he is preparing anew for what could prove his most intense expedition yet.
Typically he comes with a 55-gallon (208-liter) oil drum or a stripped tree trunk and, for up to six hours at a time, he rolls or simply lifts and hauls these unwieldy, potentially toe-crushing objects as far uphill as he can muster. Or he clips into a harness roped to three tractor tires and drags them up into the pines, high stepping through the ferny underbrush as if clearing hurdles on a track. He doesn't run straight uphill, but takes a wide detour around each tree. "The idea is to run on a diagonal up to a point even with the tree you want to pass, but out from it, so the tires'll swing clear of it," Horn says.
Being reasonably fit and curious, I give it a try. Within 50 yards (45 meters), I am cartoonishly whipsawed a half dozen times. When the tires snag on a tree root, I jerk stiffly upright, as if shot in the back in an old spaghetti western. Then, a split second later, the eyelet securing the rope to the tires rips out of the rubber tread, and I lurch forward with both hands out to prevent a face-plant in the mud.
"Does this ever get fun?" I ask, incredulous.
Horn smiles. A muscle-bound six-footer (two-meterer) with alert brown eyes set in a lantern mug, Horn has an avid, avuncular manner. My mistake, he explains, was sticking to the trail. "Often," he says, "the best way to get where you're going is to first go out of your way. That's what exploring has taught me. The path of least resistance is the one most likely to get you killed."
"He took the path of greatest resistance" might one day make an apt, if cheeky epitaph for Horn, one of the most revered explorers in Europe. In the past decade, he swam the length of the Amazon River with little more than a boogie board, circled the globe along the Equator without motorized transport, and completed what has to rank as one of the most incredible feats of endurance for this generation: a 12,400-mile (19,956-kilometer) continuous circumnavigation of the Arctic Ocean by foot, ski, mountain bike, kayak, monohull sailboat, and catamaran. He did it alone, and, lest he wonder if he was cheating himself of a more authentic challenge, he traveled against the prevailing winds and currents. When it was all done, it had taken him 808 days. That's two years, two months, and 17 days, or, in other words, more than two years of nights during which he was on his own below deck or in a tent as the temperatures plummeted to minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 45 degrees Celsius).
One night, camped at the edge of the Gulf of Boothia in the Canadian Arctic, Horn's fuel bottle exploded, igniting and burning his tent, all his warm clothes, and his sleeping bag. He was left with his GPS, a satellite phone, the food in his sled, a carbon-fiber shovel, and a candle or two. He rescued himself by quickly digging an igloo and warming himself inside it with a candle. Two miserable days later, a pair of Inuit who'd been alerted to his predicament found him and brought him back to their village. There he recovered, waited for new gear to arrive from his wife (and logistics coordinator), Cathy, and set out again into the white wastes. By his own best estimate, he went 57 days without seeing another living creature. "I don't remember being lonely, although I know I was," he reflects. "My every thought was, How am I going to survive?"
When on October 21, 2004, Horn at last reached the place he'd begun, Nordkapp, Norway, he had an emotional reunion with Cathy and their two young daughters. Nevertheless, in his 2005 account of the journey, Conquérant de l'Impossible, a best-seller in France, Horn confesses that, for him, "le moment fort d'une expédition ce n'est pas l'arrivée mais le départ—the strongest, most important moment of an expedition is not the finish, but the departure."
"Because that's when, after all the planning and preparation, you're like a racehorse at the gate, banging into the rail," Horn says, planted on a sofa in the barn he and Cathy recently converted into a home for their family. His body rocks as he speaks, doing the restive stallion at the starting line. "It's at that moment all you've dreamt is about to become real," he says. "You've only imagined it, but now it is in your grasp!"
As we sat talking last fall, Horn knew he was a mere 13 weeks from recapturing that excitement, as he'd accepted an invitation from Børge Ousland, arguably the most accomplished polar explorer alive, to join him on a trek to the North Pole. The catch—and this is what made the offer irresistible to Horn—was that Ousland wanted to do it beginning in January 2006 in the 24-hour-a-day dark of the Arctic winter. If they succeed, it will be a true first, because no one has ever trekked to the North Pole in winter. Then again, no one has ever been insane enough to try.
"When Borgie calls you, you can't say no," Horn says, aware that he's making Ousland sound like a mafia don. While a proper Norwegian might pronounce his name somewhere in the vicinity of BURR-dee-uh or BURR-ga, Horn says it, with great affection, BORE-gie, to rhyme with "Porgy." "It's a great honor to be invited by Borgie," he says. "How often do you get to work with the very best?"
Though just becoming known in the United States, Ousland, 43, is a national hero in Norway, where he's admired for not only his achievements but also the values he promotes: meticulous preparation, self-reliance, an appreciation for the natural world, and humility.
But don't mistake that humility for a lack of competitiveness; Ousland likes to be first and has been an awful lot. His expedition CV includes the first unsupported trek to the North Pole (1990); the first solo unsupported trek to the North Pole (1994); the first solo unsupported crossing of Antarctica (199697); and the first solo crossing of the Arctic Ocean (2001). After that record crossing, however, Ousland promised his wife, Wenche Spange, and son, Max, now 17, that he would no longer go out alone, the single riskiest way to travel in the wild. He resumed recruiting expedition partners, such as Swiss photographer Thomas Ulrich, who joined him for a 2003 trek over the Patagonian Ice Field.
"Some wonder why I haven't chosen an apprentice," Ousland says, "but I want to choose an equal. I want to go with someone who can take care of himself." Horn, Ousland says, has proven he can.
But while Ousland has readjusted to companionship on groundbreaking expeditions, Horn has not—or hasn't yet. Joining forces with Ousland will put him, a man clearly used to abiding by his own schedule and rules, in uncharted territory. Will he be able to set aside his ego and follow "the master," as he calls Ousland? Will Ousland be patient with Horn if he can't? The two have never traveled together before, and yet here they are, committed to a grueling slog in an environment where the slightest hesitation could cost them their lives.
"I don't know why anyone would want to go in winter," says Canadian explorer Richard Weber. "It just seems completely unpleasant." With his Russian partner Mikhail "Misha" Malakhov, Weber trekked 123 days to the North Pole and back in 1995. The two departed in the polar night, on February 12, but still a month closer to sunlight than Ousland and Horn plan to leave. "If there is anyone who can do it, it's Børge," Weber says. "It's his partner I'm not sure of. I don't know Horn. He could be the weak link."
Continue: Page 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | Next >>
Pick up the February 2006 issue for 36 amazing Hawaiian adventures, the most spectacular treks in Australia, 11 weekend escapes near you, and more.
Subscribe to Adventure now for just $1.20 an issue!