North and South poles: An explorer’s playground

PHOTO: BELICIA TEO

By Xu Qi Yang

Turbulent waves shattered the glass window of the boat explorer Mike Horn was on. Panic consumed the crew as they clambered on the sinking boat to stay afloat in the middle of the Southern Ocean.

But amid the frenzy, something caught Mr Horn’s eye — an albatross. The large white seabird was soaring above the waves and moving together with the strong winds. The ease of the albatross’ flight was worlds apart from the fear that pervaded the boat, he said.

It was that expedition to Antarctica that made the 52-year-old realise the value and freedom of embracing the challenges of life.

Eventually, they triumphed over the storm after sealing the shattered window, and using weights to balance the boat.

“If you can operate in stormy weather and start liking the things you don’t like doing, then you can live on the full spectrum of life (and) play like an albatross,” he said.

This philosophy is what spurs Mr Horn on during his globetrotting expeditions — he has completed eight thus far — many of which occur in unforgiving environments.

Now, he is more than halfway through the astounding expedition called Pole2Pole — a two-year journey around the globe through the North and South poles.

Speaking to NTU students at the Lee Foundation Lecture Theatre at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information on 8 Nov, Mr Horn stressed the importance of thinking realistically in difficult circumstances.

“The glass is not half full or half empty. It is what it is,” he said.

“When I’m at minus 50 degrees (Celsius) and I have nothing to eat, it’s not as comfortable as 20 degrees with a hot plate of food in front of me,” he added. “But it’s not the end of the world.”

GRAPHIC: REYNARD ADRIANTO

The Pole2Pole expedition

Born in South Africa, the Swiss explorer spent his childhood mostly outdoors. He often climbed the Table Mountain in Cape Town, where he stood at its southernmost peak and gazed towards Antarctica.

Little did he know that he would embark on a voyage there a few decades later on, which would make history as the longest solo north-to-south traverse of Antarctica without the help of motorised vehicles, by walking and using a ski kite.

Pole2Pole began in Monaco, a city-state near France, in May 2016. Mr Horn has been making the 39,000-kilometre journey to the North Pole by boats, cars, skis and kayaks. He plans to conclude his expedition by May in Europe.

But his journey thus far has not been without obstacles. He took a whole month to reach Antarctica, two weeks longer than planned, as his sailboat often struggled to get past icebergs, some of which were as large as islands.

He also had to race against time to cross the continent before winter arrived, where temperatures would plunge to minus 90 degrees Celsius.

As he lugged his 256-kilogramme sled filled with survival supplies, Mr Horn broke his ankle and injured his shoulder en route to the South Pole due to the rocky and jagged terrains. Several times he also fell into crevices, dangling precariously from a harness he had tied to his sled.

But Mr Horn was never deterred. He believes in committing fully to challenges, which to him is easier than turning to simpler alternatives when the going gets tough.

“For anything in life, you need courage,” he said. “The moment you cannot go any further and you think you are completely blocked in, you just have to be patient.”

His patience and determination paid off when he successfully completed the crossing of Antarctica last February.

“People ask me, ‘don’t you get tired?’ No, you don’t get tired because it’s like a playground for adventurers. That’s when you feel alive,” he said.

Family keeps him going

Mr Horn believes in surrounding himself with people who love and care for him — one of whom is his late wife, who died of breast cancer two years ago.

“She was the pillar behind everything that I did. Without her, I couldn’t do anything,” he said.

He has two daughters, who had skied with him to the North Pole 14 years ago when they were just 11 and 12. Mr Horn said his love for his family was the reason he survived the many dangerous encounters on his journeys.

“That bond that I have (with my family) is my insurance policy to dream big and make the right decision to come back home alive,” he said.