- Used Books
- Staff Picks
- Gifts & Gift Cards
- Sell Books
- Stores & Events
- Let's Talk Books
Special Offers see all
More at Powell's
Recently Viewed clear list
This item may be
Check for Availability
Conquering the Impossible: My 12,000-Mile Journey Around the Arctic Circle
Three Frozen Fingers
In 2000 after my trip around the world following the equator, I began to look around for my next challenge with three conditions in mind: it had to be something new for me; it had to be at least as difficult as the last challenge; and, most important, it had to be something that no one had ever done before. A physical or athletic exploit is just not enough to motivate me. I need to blaze a new trail, to find my way into new territory. Otherwise, for me, the word adventure loses its meaning.
I quickly settled on the idea of traveling around the earth at the Arctic Circle. In terms of sheer number of miles, the distance is certainly much shorter than along the equator, but the level of difficulty more than outweighed this “handicap.” The extreme cold, the icy waters, the vast ice fields, the crevasses, and the mountains that lay before me, and the ferocious polar bears all create an environment where the techniques of survival differ sharply from those necessary in the tropical jungle. All of it was totally different from anything I had experienced thus far—and that was a fundamental advantage in my eyes. What’s more, many people may have attempted this same feat, but no one had succeeded. Of all the factors that would encourage me to undertake this expedition, that was surely the most important.
The Far North was a foreign landscape to me. But I did have enough experience to know one thing: I didn’t have a prayer of succeeding without the kind of rigorous preparation and training that would make me capable of surviving in that environment.
My friend, the Swiss explorer Jean Troillet, had been dreaming for years of beating the world record for trekking across Greenland. He invited me to come along with him on the adventure along with another Swiss friend of mine, Erhard Loretan, who was the third man ever to have climbed, in succession and without oxygen, every mountain higher than 8,000 meters. I accepted the invitation with special enthusiasm because I had been planning to travel to Greenland to familiarize myself with the equipment, techniques, and every other aspect of Arctic travel. This expedition would serve as an initial preparatory stage for my trip around the Arctic Circle. Moreover, to have as mentors two of the world’s greatest Himalayan specialists was a privilege that I hoped to make the most of.
On this expedition I basically served as a pack horse. I worked and learned. I watched, I listened, and I tried to soak up everything like a sponge. Of the many things that Erhard and Jean taught me, the most important lesson was, unquestionably, patience. In conditions of extreme cold, knowing when to stay in your tent—instead of trying to go on at any cost—can easily spell the difference between life and death. I am by nature impatient and impulsive and have a hard time staying in one place, but I learned the importance of a Zen- like self- control.
That sort of self- mastery is indispensable when, for instance, a blizzard has been blowing for two days, blowing so fiercely and intensely that you could become totally lost just two yards from your tent, the distance at which the tent would become completely invisible. In such conditions everything is a wall of white, there is no earth or sky, no features, no landmarks. Lots of people have died that way in the Arctic: just two yards away from their tent.
That’s what would have happened to us if we had ventured out during the two weeks of terrible blizzard that poured its full force down on us. I couldn’t stay calm. I kept showing my uncontrollable impatience, but Erhard and Jean calmed me down and kept my nerves in check; in so doing, they offered me an example of wisdom and knowledge that would be an important inspiration later on.
Shortly before leaving for Greenland, I learned that I had been named a winner of a Laureus World Sports Award, the prestigious prize given by Daimler Chrysler and Cartier. I was chosen in recognition of my 1999–2000 journey around the world at the equator.
I was invited to spend three days on Le Rocher, the famous rock of Monaco, all expenses paid, of course. Since I am not really comfortable with social occasions or awards ceremonies, I very politely declined the invitation. Erhard and Jean were waiting for me. Given the choice between the luxury of Monte Carlo and a fair likelihood of freezing to death, I didn’t hesitate even for a second.
Back in Greenland, though, I told Cathy over the satellite phone that our food supplies were dwindling. Since the incredibly bad weather was showing no sign of letting up, we were considering turning back. On her end, she told me that the Laureus World Sports Awards representatives were still insisting that I show up for the ceremony; they were saying that I was required to be there. None of which appealed to me in the least. I was happy as a king where I was. If we did decide to turn back, it would be an opportunity for me to trek solo on the ice, giving me a chance to become familiar with that activity. As a joke, I told Cathy that if the people from Monte Carlo were so eager to have me attend their ceremony, all they had to do was come get me on the ice field.
My wife passed the message along, as positive as I had been that no more would be said about it. But the organizers of the Laureus World Sports Awards were not easily discouraged. They sent up a helicopter to get us: it picked up Erhard, Jean, and me at Angmagssalik, on the east coast of Greenland, and ferried us to the military base of Kulusuk. From there, a private jet that had come all the way from Europe just for us flew us back exactly as we were, fairly gamey, with all of our equipment, but without “civilian” clothes. Our civvies were still on the west coast of Greenland, where we were planning to pick them up after our trek, and, of course, we never did reach the other side of the country.
During the last stage of my trip, flying business class, I smelled so bad that the woman sitting next to me asked to be moved to another seat. I was embarrassed and could only mumble my apologies. Sweating like a pig in my polar gear and my thermal underwear, totally unsuitable for the May climate of the Riviera, I landed in Monaco, where I was informed that “my” car and “my” driver were waiting to take me to “my” hotel. I found myself in a palace where, since I had no money with me at all, I was forced to gobble down the energy rations that I was still carrying in my pockets. And since I had no clothes except what I was wearing, my hosts took me shopping, and I bought some casual clothes to wear around during the day. The following day, Cathy brought me my formal clothes, a dark suit that I refer to as my “papal costume.” It was actually a suit that the Vatican had bought me, so that I would be decently attired for my audience with His Holiness.
Despite all the attention and care that was being lavished on me, I still felt ill at ease. Twenty- four hours earlier I had been on the ice field, and there was a part of me that kept wondering what exactly I was doing here. But all that changed pretty quickly when the big night arrived. A crowd of living legends showed up to pay me their respects, including Michael Jordan, Alberto Tomba, Ernie Els, Edwin Moses, Juan- Pablo Montoya, John McEnroe, Boris Becker, and Jennifer Capriati. My head was spinning! They knew who I was because, as members of the jury, they all had read my file.
I received my “Oscar” in the category of Alternative Sports, but that was not the only good thing that happened to me that night. Of the major sponsors of that event, a considerable number would become sponsors of my future expeditions, as well. For instance, my fellow South African Johann Rupert, president of the Richemont watchmaking group, which owns Cartier, offered me a sponsorship. He would also become my good friend.
Despite the terrible weather and the relative failure of our undertaking, the Greenland expedition was a special and wonderful time for me, and I learned a great deal from it. That experience would prove invaluable to me on my second preparatory expedition for the journey around the Arctic Circle: a solo trip to the North Pole.
Objectively, I can say that I possess two main assets as an explorer: a rock- solid temperament and a solid capacity for physical endurance. But I wondered if those qualities would be enough to ensure my success without the support of Erhard and Jean, alone for the first time in the Arctic environment.
I was pretty sure that I could find the answer by going to see the Norwegian explorer Børge Ousland. He was the first man ever to reach the North Pole solo, as well as the first to cross Antarctica alone. I saw Børge as the world’s foremost specialist in solo polar expeditions. Since I considered him to be an absolute master, I decided to visit Norway so that I could apprentice with him. I wanted to learn everything I could about his way of life, his personality, the way he works, his attitudes and his reactions to events—and to life in general. I even wanted to know about his everyday routines. Then I would have a better idea of whether I could match his accomplishments.
I moved in with him in his house overlooking a fjord on the coast of Norway. Børge is very, very Zen. He operates like a cold- blooded animal and conserves every last bit of energy. There are times when I think his heartbeat must slow down to about one pulse per minute, like the heartbeat of the great masters of breath- hold diving. Two solid hours could go by between the time he offers you a cup of coffee and the time you finally receive the hot beverage.
I watched and learned.
Because he had decided that my motivations were honorable— perhaps because we have a sponsor in common—Børge offered an unlimited fund of generosity to me, a South African who had never set foot on the polar ice fields.
“I want to help you become the second man ever to reach the North Pole solo,” he told me. In the course of just a few days, he imparted to me the entire body of knowledge he had accumulated in all his years of experience in the Far North, and he made it clear to me that the physical condition I had needed to make it across the Amazonian jungle was nothing compared to what would be required for a polar expedition.
I returned home with the invaluable wealth of knowledge and a very busy calendar ahead of me. I needed to have shoes, a sled, and a tent custom built for me according to his specifications. Such cutting- edge equipment is expensive, and you can’t buy it at the local sporting goods store. But I was lucky enough to have the financial and technical support of generous sponsors. I was all the more grateful to them because, unlike a soccer or tennis star, I could offer them only the most meager returns in terms of media attention.
As soon as my first polar tent was ready, I contacted Mercedes–AMG and asked for permission to test the tent in their wind tunnels in Munich. I needed to feel confident that it could withstand the nearly hundred- mile- per- hour winds that are commonplace on the ice field.
My Italian tentmakers brought me two or three sample tents. The shelters, made of synthetic materials, all collapsed under the powerful gusts. The test was spectacular and conclusive, and so it was back to the drawing board!
I ordered all of my clothing from the designers at Eider, the French specialist in outdoor apparel. To start with I ordered a thigh- length anorak, with huge pockets that would hold both medicine and food, and a zipper that would neither freeze nor break.
Last of all, Salomon produced skis and boots that met my specifications.
I was especially demanding because, during this expedition, my survival would depend even more than usual on my equipment. I would have to rely upon it completely because I wouldn’t be able to carry a backup version of anything.
Some of the equipment I ordered was encountering delays. Organizational problems began to emerge and, three weeks before my scheduled date of departure for the pole, I was still a long way from being ready. I admitted this to Børge Ousland when he called to ask how things were going.
“If you’ll pay for a plane ticket,” he said, “I’ll come down to your house this weekend.” I accepted, and two days later Børge was walking into our little family chalet in Les Moulins, near Château d’Oex. It was hard to miss the gigantic duffel bag that he dropped casually in a corner of the kitchen. He asked to review all my equipment, and he issued a rapid series of judgments, “That’s okay; that’s no good. That might work, but that definitely won’t.” He asked me what I still needed, and I told him that I was waiting for my boots. Without a moment’s hesitation, he opened the huge duffel bag and exclaimed, “Here are your shoes!” They were his boots, the ones he wore all the way to the North Pole. The same model that the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen, the first man to explore the polar ice caps, wore on his early polar expeditions! Deeply moved but uncomfortable with Børge’s generosity, I said I couldn’t take them. “I want to see you back here with all your toes!” he insisted, handing me the thermal linings that went with the boots.
The question of whether Børge’s feet and mine were the same size never came up: the boots in question were a few sizes bigger than the running shoes or loafers that I usually wear around town. They were built to accommodate the many overlapping layers of insulation in which I would wrap my feet before slipping them into the boots.
The first rule of fighting extreme cold is this: it’s not the clothing that keeps you warm; it’s the warm air that circulates between the layers. In other words, it’s not the clothing that warms the body but the body that warms the clothing. That was why tight clothing was to be avoided at all costs, and why roomy, flowing clothes were ideal.
When I showed him my mittens, Børge pulled out his knife and cut the elastic fastenings at the wrists.
“Nothing, absolutely nothing, should cut or restrict your circulation, however slightly,” he said, “or your fingers could freeze. You should fit into your mittens the way that a car fits into a garage.”
He fastened strips of synthetic cloth to the tabs of my zippers, so that I could grip them easily in all circumstances.
He took a look at my tent and asked me how long it took me to pitch it. I replied innocently that it depended on the day, the weather, the wind, and how tired I was.
“Twenty seconds!” he broke in. “At forty degrees below zero, you have exactly twenty seconds to set up your tent. Any longer than that and you’re dead. Start training now, and do not stop until you can set up that tent in no more than twenty seconds, however bad the weather is or however tired you may be.”
“Inside your sleeping bag,” he went on, “you need to be wrapped in an insulating sheath that will keep the quart of water that you will lose through exhalation and perspiration each night from freezing inside your sleeping bag. Otherwise, the bag will be two pounds heavier every successive day, and you will go to sleep at night and wake up in the morning inside an icebox.”
On top of the insulating sheath for my sleeping bag, Børge gave me a pair of ski poles that he guaranteed were unbreakable. The man who once told me that he had spent his whole life perfecting his equipment had suddenly turned into Santa Claus, and he had flown down from the Far North with a bag full of gifts, all for me!
And there were still gifts to come. The great multistar chef Philippe Rochat, who presides over the kitchen at Crissier, near Lausanne, Switzerland, is one of my warmest supporters. In his words, I am a “latter- day Christopher Columbus.” He had already placed on his menu a delicious—and filling—Gâteau Mike Horn (a cake with fruit, Armagnac, sugar, and syrup), and he had handed out copies of my first book to all twenty- five of his employees, as well as to two hundred other friends and acquaintances. Now he insisted on personally preparing—for free—the entire array of foodstuffs for the expedition. It’s not the kind of offer you can easily turn down. So Philippe immediately busied himself preparing and individually vacuum- packing my next one hundred “specials of the day.”
Three months later, in February 2002, among the equipment and provisions I brought with me were rations that would have rated a few stars from Michelin, as I set out to try to reach the North Pole alone and on foot.
A crowd of friends from Château d’Oex—“Pipo,” the farmer; “P.A.,” the restaurateur; Corinne, and others—a throng of journalists, a cameraman, a photographer, a representative from my sponsor Gore- Tex, and Daniel de Bonneville from the Geneva bank of Mirabaud, along with Antoine Boissier, one of the bank’s own ers, all boarded a chartered jet along with me, my wife, and my two daughters, Annika and Jessica, to accompany me to the village of Khatanga in northern Russia. This would be my communications base camp, and from there we would travel as far as Cheredeny, a tiny weather station on an island in the middle of the Arctic Ocean.
The only residents of the island were a Russian who had lived there in isolation for the past ten years with his wife and son. For the past decade he had been transmitting weather reports in Morse code—he didn’t even have a fax machine, let alone e-mail—to people who had never met him. Imagine ten years of living there like a light house keeper, forgotten, in the middle of the sea. He told us that a colleague of his was eaten by a polar bear, right between the compound’s two buildings that stand only about fifty yards apart. He showed us a home movie—not of the colleague, of the bear—and generously provided me with all the space I needed to test my tent and the rest of my equipment under the island’s harsh conditions.
When the weather finally allowed, Cathy, Annika and Jessica, my brother Martin, Jean- Philippe Patthey, Sebastian Devenish, my cameraman, two of my sponsors, and a journalist all piled into the helicopter with me, and we set out on the one- hour flight to Cape Arktichesky on the edge of the Arctic ice cap. This was the closest point on the European continent from which it was possible to hike “overland” to the North Pole.
We flew over hundreds of miles of an unbroken icy white surface. When the chopper set down, I was the first one to jump down. The cold gripped me like a vise. It was forty degrees below zero and, standing there on the ice field for the first time, I wondered anxiously whether I really was capable of accomplishing what I came here to do.
Jessica, my younger daughter, hopped out of the helicopter right after me. She walked a short distance, stopped, and stared out into the immense whiteness as if she were trying to understand. Then she turned and walked back toward me with a question in her eyes: “Daddy, what are you doing here?” That pretty much summed up the general feeling in that moment.
I was now fully aware that from here on, I would be totally alone in the face of my challenge. Until now, I had been helped, surrounded, financed, supported, and conveyed by people who believed in me. But once that helicopter lifted off and carried away the last of those people, it would be up to me to play this game—me and me alone. I remembered feeling something comparable, four or five years ago, when the time came to bid farewell to my team and to set out, all alone, to cross the Amazon jungle on foot. That time, I had won the bet.
The helicopter couldn’t stay on the ice field for long because there was a danger it might freeze and be unable to take off. We hurried to unload my equipment and to carry out the brief, traditional ceremony: we drank a glass of vodka and shot a flare into the sky.
Cathy, my brother Martin, and I all clustered together, embracing in a short prayer. The Lord’s help would never be unwelcome.
Nobody said another word. The emotions were beyond words. Everyone knew that what I was about to try to do would define the next stage of my life. The terrible cold, which made it difficult even to breathe, and the maddening drab gray only heightened the sensation of anguish. And now the time had come to say good-bye. My daughters were crying, and so was my wife. Their tears froze on their faces. Everyone climbed back into the he li cop ter, which quickly took off. I turned my back on the aircraft as it labored into the air, to face what awaited me. For the moment, what I most needed to do was to forget what I was leaving behind and focus all my attention on the task at hand.
I attached the sled to my harness. The load I would be pulling was exactly eight feet behind me. That distance was carefully calculated. If it were any closer, I might find that by pulling I would also be trying to lift the sled, but on the other hand, if it were any farther away, I would be expending needless effort trying to drag it over bumps and rises in the ice because the front of the sled would remain flat, glued to the surface. The harness rope was made of a special nylon that would not absorb water, slip, or break from freezing. Last of all, the ski poles had wrist straps that were loose enough that they would not cut off the circulation at my wrists.
I tightened my hood snug around my face. The fur narrowed my field of vision to a very small circle, and I took my first step on the ice field, harnessed like a beast of burden. I realized that the 465 pounds of the sled weighed a ton. The slightest irregularity in the ice would snag my sled and stop me short. And I would have to travel five hundred miles like this! Braced against the load, I pulled with all my strength and finally developed a rhythm of sorts.
Ahead of me, a full day’s march away, there was an opening in the ice field, blown apart by frequent Arctic storms. We had noticed it during the flight in, and now, to help me avoid it, the he li cop ter flew straight over my head, marking the line of the exact course that I would need to follow. This was a welcome pointer, as my navigational tools were limited. At this time of year, in these latitudes, the sun only jumps over the horizon for a short moment like a small, yellow flea. The intense cold freezes the liquid crystals in GPS devices, rendering them useless, and conventional magnetic compasses spin around wildly and are in effective this close to the North Pole. In short, there was nothing to orient myself except for a little bit of sunlight and plenty of wind.
The helicopter made a 180- degree turn and passed overhead one last time, zigzagging a final good- bye. I followed it with my eyes until it was nothing but a dot in the distance, and then it vanished entirely. Nothing remained except the terrible cold, the immense emptiness, and me.
The harsh hostility of the weather I had faced since arriving at these latitudes was nothing compared to the loneliness that I was discovering now. It was a solitude rendered all the more oppressive by the certainty that, in this setting, even the smallest mistake could be fatal.
But my spirits rose again. I had plenty of excellent supplies and equipment, and I had what seemed to be a considerable store of knowledge and skills. I could draw on my endless reserves of energy and determination. The only thing I lacked was experience in this kind of environment; here, everything was new to me. On the ice field it is experience that allows you to judge the direction in which this or that portion of the ice cap is shifting. It is experience that warns you to stay in your tent when conditions become too dangerous to go on, and experience helps you plot the best route possible, despite the shifting landscape and the movements of the pack ice itself, which regularly breaks off of the main ice field and drifts away.
I picked out an ice floe on the horizon that was taller than the others and selected it as my landmark. I headed for it. For three or four hours I made steady progress. Then the wind started to blow harder and harder, becoming increasingly violent. Already my lack of experience posed a first—and serious—problem: I did not yet know at what wind force it would become impossible for me to pitch my tent.
I decided to set up my first camp too early, rather than too late. Then, a second problem: out of the immense variety of equipment carefully stowed under the tarp that covered my sled, I did not know with any confidence exactly what items would be indispensable to me inside the tent.
I set up my shelter half a mile away from the open gap between the ice field and the piece of pack ice I was now on. I did my best to make camp as far as possible from any fissures in the ice, which might very well widen into yawning stretches of open water during the night. On that issue, I had been very clearly and thoroughly briefed; on a recent expedition similar to mine, a Japanese explorer made this very mistake, and he and his tent were swallowed up whole.
During the night, I could hear the ice cracking over toward the open water; it was the sound of blocks of ice breaking off and crashing together. My little “island” was breaking up; it was crumbling like a giant cookie. Without moving at all, I could tell that I was getting dangerously close to the edge. And it was impossible to get out of the tent, repack my sled, and move away. The wind had picked up and was blowing so ferociously that I couldn’t even poke my nose outside the tent.
As long as I was stuck in the tent, I decided to take the opportunity to become familiar with my portable stove, which is not so much a heating device as it is a way of making my food edible. The food packs were frozen to start with, but now they were doubly frozen. At these very low temperatures—once my body heat “warmed up” the interior of the tent, it was still twenty- two degrees below zero—the fuel was much harder to light than under normal conditions. The flame of the lighter had to be held against the fuel for quite some time as it slowly thawed and finally caught fire. Because I did not yet have a practiced hand, I scattered fuel all over the place. I had to be especially careful not to catch my tent on fire! If I lost the tent, I was a dead man.
Finally, once I had a working camp stove, I enjoyed the first of the dishes that were so lovingly prepared for me by Philippe Rochat, a stuffed chicken that was a true culinary delight. And there was an added treat: a note, signed by Philippe’s wife, Franziska, an athlete in her own right who had won the New York Marathon. “Have courage, Mike,” she wrote, “we’re with you!” There were tears in my eyes. With Philippe manning the stove and Franziska keeping up my morale, I suddenly felt much less lonely.
Rolled in my sleeping bag like a mummy wrapped in its ban dages, I spent the next forty- eight hours a prisoner in my fabric bubble, listening to the howling winds and the ice cracking louder and louder, warning of the rapidly encroaching seas.
Copyright © 2005 by Mike Horn. Translation copyright © 2007 by Antony Shugaar. All rights reserved.
What Our Readers Are Saying