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Why The World’s Greatest Explorer Prefers To Go It Alone

Every adventurer stands on the shoulders of giants, but Mike Horn, perhaps the greatest of his generation, does his walking alone, giving him a new focus on preserving his potentially-deadly ‘playground’

Ask any other expedition leader who they most respect in the world of exploration, and the name Mike Horn won’t be far from the top of the list. Horn became famous in 2001 after completing a solo journey around the equator without any motorised transport – then, in 2004, he followed up with a two-year solo circumnavigation of the Arctic Circle, conducted under similar ‘rules’.

He’s traversed South America and climbed to the source of the Amazon River, summitted four 8,000-metre peaks without additional oxygen, and walked (with Norwegian Borge Ousland) to the North pole during winter, walking for months without daylight. From 2008 to 2011 he recruited a group of young explorers to travel the planet’s oceans on his vessel, Pangea – but for much of his career, he’s done things completely alone, with minimal support and even fewer options if things go wrong. Here, he explains why travelling solo can be, perversely, safer – and why we all have to band together if we want to be able to continue to explore...

Human greed is driving our interactions with nature – the environment is not our first priority but it should be

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Q: Most of your biggest expeditions have been done solo. What is it that appeals to you about travelling alone?
A: ‘Well, partly it’s difficult to find people who have enough time and knowledge to participate in the kind of trips I’m interested in. But also, I have control issues – I enjoy that feeling of total commitment. Being one hundred percent engaged is a little more interesting than being part of an expedition.’

‘Solo expeditions become a habit – once you start relying on yourself, it’s difficult to stop. But also, there are different pressures to consider when you travel as part of a larger expedition. Other people might be stronger, fitter, more experienced, and encourage you to take more risks; push yourself beyond your comfort zone. So in a way, working with others can be more dangerous, not less.’

Q: How difficult is it to prepare for the kinds of trips you prefer?
A: ‘It’s 80% mental and about 20% physical, with a little knowledge and experience alongside those things. The will to win is more important than the fear of failure. There’s something about an experience when your only option is success – it’s present in adventure, but also in other spheres. If you look at the German national football team in the 2014 World Cup, they simply didn’t regard losing as an option.’

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Q: You’re doing more work with young people and groups currently – what’s changed?
A: ‘Well, the question is, as I get older, can I use what I’ve done to actively participate in the conversation around climate change? There’s a lot of human greed driving our interactions with nature; the environment is not our first priority, but it should be. For me to be able to see my own playground changing in the way it is – we’re seeing polar bear attacks in the arctic, slash and burn in Indonesia – it’s a disturbing trend. Nature is seen as something that regenerates, but we can’t sustain a living pace with the way things are going right now.’

Q: What do you see as the solution?
A: ‘There are no easy answers. Cutting trees in the Amazon, for instance, is a living for many local people there – but it needs to be done in more sustainable ways. Today there’s a positive movement towards change, which is evident in a lot of little ways – there are efforts being made to clean the oceans, to replant coral, to make things sustainable in small ways. I’d love to believe there’s hope, but I’m not a politician, I’m an explorer. I often think of what I can do on my own, and I think it comes down to sharing my own experiences.’

‘Later next year I’ll be sailing into the Arctic Ocean via the Bering Strait, to see if I can make my way back to the Northern tip of Svalbard. That’s something that my previous expeditions have given me – I’ll be able to see the [ice] drift firsthand, to gauge what’s going on.’

Q: What’s the best thing an individual can do?
A: ‘It starts with a respect for nature. These days, everything is done virtually, watched on video or TV. We shelter ourselves, and nature has become something that we don’t respect. You have to engage, you have to go out and experience nature – go look at a river, get out in a boat, climb a hill or a mountain. You have to get your hands dirty.’

Find out more about Mike Horn at Mikehorn.com

Words: Joel Snape

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