Continental Drift: Once-Solo Explorer Mike Horn Takes Young Adventurers on a Four-Year World Tour
Text by Andrew Burmon
Photographs by Lisa Cates
Mike Horn spent the afternoon of September 5th surveying North Cove Marina from the spitshined deck of his 115-foot arctic schooner, the Pangaea, and watching a crowd of businessmen point excitedly at her gleaming aluminum hull. The South African explorer looked out of place in front of Manhattan’s smooth glass buildings, his thousand-yard stare abbreviated by the Financial District’s 50-foot views. No matter. New York was the last thing on his checklist—a few hands to shake, a few bolts to tighten.
Two days later, Horn sailed out of the marina and onto the Hudson, beginning a four-year journey around the world that will take him across oceans, through jungles, up mountains, and across deserts—a journey he’s imagined for himself for the better part of the last decade. His first stop will be in Punta Arenas, Chile before he heads further south towards Tierra del Fuego and Antarctica.
For a man who has swum down the Amazon, reached the North Pole in the dark of winter, and traced the Equator without motor power, spending time aboard a state of the art ship like the Pangaea—with its built-in espresso machine and wheel house that is equal parts Mercedes and Star Trek—might seem like a vacation. Horn sees it differently. He views his PANGAEA Expedition, which will take a revolving crew of 144 handselected young adventurers and scientists to seven continents in an attempt to show them to the beauty and delicacy of the Earth, as the capstone to his career as a professional adventurer.
ADVENUTRE: Where did the idea for the PANGAEA Expedition come about?
Mike Horn: Eighteen years ago, I decided I wanted to do an expedition that would embrace seven elements—oceans, jungles, mountains, the Poles, deserts, rivers, and atmosphere. But before I did it I wanted to make sure I could handle all of those elements. Last year when I climbed the Karakoram and became comfortable in the mountains, I finally felt like I was ready. I’d given myself 15 years to get ready, but it took 17. I went to the North Pole twice and I did the Amazon twice, once on the board, once swimming, so it took a little longer.
A: Can you tell us about the boat’s construction?
Horn: I actually started building the boat myself. I had a guy in Sao Paolo who said he would give me 60 tons of aluminum. We agreed that if I couldn’t pay in six months, he would take the boat. So I we hired guys, and they went to work. But it wasn’t going very fast, so we moved the boat to the men’s favella. We agreed that they’d work two six-hour shifts a day on the ship. I wanted to increase productivity. We did, and they took so much pride in the quality of the boat.
Once a few sponsors got involved, it got easier. Now the boat is so beautiful and comfortable. The hull is so tough it can slide onto ice. We have turbines for wind power and solar panels. We will keep making changes as we go, but the boat is nearly perfect. It was great to have Mercedes, Wenger, and Officine Panerai involved, but I don’t think I have much to offer them. Maybe an opportunity to test some new green technology, but it is a better deal for me.
A: Why did you name the boat and the expedition PANGAEA?
Horn: Pangaea came to my mind as I was going to the North Pole with Borge [Ousland]. I was thinking about how all the world used to be one. That is what this boat is, everthing brought back together. Perfect, like it used to be.
A: There are a number of photos of explorers throughout the cabin of the boat. Who are they?
Horn: Those photos are of me. My wife thought I ought to personalize the boat and show the previous things I’ve done. I thought it seemed a little bit egotistical to decorate with my face, so I put up photos where it is hard to tell it’s me. There is always too much ice in my beard or a big parka obscuring my face. I don’t really want to trumpet my own achievements anymore. Those days are over. I think that, as we get going, I’ll replace those pictures with pictures of our destinations. That will give the boat the atmosphere I want.
A: You have always been a solo explorer. Clearly this expedition will be more than a little different. What made you want to be a part of a group endeavor?
Horn: Traveling around solo all the time has been good because I have seen what I am capable of doing. Now I want to let these kids see the world as it is. When I was alone my perspective was always changing because of my moods and needs. Now I want a more objective perspective. I want to take kids from six continents out onto the ice and have them write down what they think. I want them to keep diaries. Different kids from different cultures will react to different things. I think it will help to show how different cultures see the world and what their needs are.
A: Unlike your other expeditions, the PANGAEA Expedition will not attempt to do something that has never been done before. This trip seems less glory oriented. What made you change direction?
Horn: As I kept exploring I did begin to ask myself, What am I trying to do? I remember coming back from my two years circumnavigation of the Arctic. Everyone was going on about Al Gore and An Inconvenient Truth. I found that frustrating because it just made people scared. They should be scared, but they should also see the beauty of the place. My Arctic wasn’t just a cautionary tale, it was beautiful. People need to see that. People need to have more hope.
I will always be an explorer. I just want help from specialists to see the world better. I can take them out there to see the beauty of the planet—that is my skill—I can help them see why the Earth is so important. They will come away with hope, and so will the kids.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
A: In the past you have been open about the fact that you did not undertake expeditions to raise awareness or for charity. Are you saying that has changed?
Horn: I had a bit of a revelation last year when I was climbing in the Karakoram with Jean Troillet. We had summited Gasherbrum II, and I was looking back the way we came. Over a cornice I can see this little orange speck, our mess tent from base camp. I could see people moving around down there. It occurred to me that as these people are going about living, I was high enough that I could barely breath. I realized that I slowly dying.
It is such a narrow place where we can live, above water but under a certain altitude—one little piece of an onion peel. The days of wild exploration are over. Our world isn’t big enough. I can see that now. So I’m more interested in knowing about that space where we can live than I am in standing at the summit.
A: The PANGAEA Expedition will take you the better part of four years. Are you nervous or reluctant to embark on such a long trip? What is the upside of such a long expedition?
Horn: On that same trip, as we were coming down Gasherbrum II, we passed a group of three Czechs. They went past us a little ways and then they slipped. The fell and they took Jean with them. I climbed down and found them. Two of the Czechs and Jean survived. I gave one of the Czech climbers my ice ax so he could make his way down. That night, he made it back to camp about six hours after Jean and I had started cuddling together in our tent. In the morning I asked him for my ice ax. He looked at me like I was crazy and told me it wasn’t mine.
It is not that I care about the ice ax, but this is a good example of a common trend. The nice thing about being in danger, and climbing with other people, is that it makes people work as a team. It is hard to come back out of the danger zone and see people lose that team mentality. If we want to change things and help the planet, we need to act like we are sharing danger every day. People who share danger with others treat others with respect. The people around me will be acting like that for four years!