Mike Horn has never signed a liability waiver. Ever. That’s what he tells us, and I have to believe him. So when Will Gadd, mountain guide and one of Canada’s premier adventure athletes, produces one as we venture out to scramble in the Canadian Rockies, the look on Mike’s face is one of, well…
“What is this piece of paper?” he says, waving it in the crisp mountain morning air the way I would a parking ticket. After some haranguing, Horn finally submits his signature while we fill our mugs at a coffee shop in Lake Louise. “That’s a first,” says Gadd with a chuckle.
I’ve joined the South African-born explorer while he is in Canada to promote his latest adventure, dubbed Pole2Pole, an epic expedition that will have him following the meridians by sailboat, kayak and skis, and circumnavigating the planet via the poles for about two years.
Horn has skied to both poles, circumnavigated the equator self-propelled and sailed solo around the earth.
In the modern realm of exploration, Horn is a household name in Europe. He has skied to both poles, circled the equator self-propelled, sailed solo around the earth, swum the Amazon and brought youth from around the world on expeditions to engage them with conservation projects. He was named the Laureus World Alternative Sportsperson of the Year in 2001, and lists among his confidants and supporters Prince Albert II of Monaco. As a sports trainer he gets paid to inculcate a winning attitude in athletes, and was hired to help propel the German national team to victory at the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. That’s just a snapshot of his vast resumé.
When I first met Horn in Calgary, he gripped me with a metacarpal-crushing handshake. He was eating a manly meal of smoked lamb ribs and bison tartare garnished with a raw egg yolk. “That’s what food eats,” he said, nodding at my mixed salad greens sprinkled with hemp hearts.
With a compact muscular frame that looks like it could take a tiger to the mat, intense dark eyes, chiselled square jaw and neatly trimmed black hair specked with silver, Horn is telegenic in a rugged James Bond manner. He speaks with an ambiguous pan-European accent and clearly enjoys an audience, hence his decision to host a French adaptation of the reality TV series Running Wild with Bear Grylls, in which he shows city slickers how to survive off the land.
Waivers finally signed, we pile into the Mercedes-Benz G-Class SUV that will be our ride throughout the trip and let Horn’s lead foot propel us along the Icefields Parkway to Saskatchewan River Crossing. Two hours later we pull into a dusty parking lot at the foot of Mount Stelfox. Gadd gives us a brief introduction on using climbing harnesses and carabiners to move safely along the via ferrata, a network of rebar drilled into the rock like ladder rungs and linked together by a steel cable to assist with climbing. The rock is warm to the touch and as coarse as 50-grit sandpaper. Anxious to move, Horn leads off. But rather than follow the rungs, he opts to scale the bare rock next to them. Via ferrata is, after all, pretty tame stuff for someone who, during his Pole2Pole journey, will haul a 200-kilogram sled solo across the South Pole for four months before rejoining his 33-metre sailboat, Pangaea.
Born to be wild
Horn’s restless spirit is partly a function of his roots. He was born into a comfortable, sporting Afrikaner family in South Africa. Early on his father recognized the innate thirst for adventure that burned within his young son, and gave him freedom to explore the natural world around Johannesburg. Horn wandered creek beds, looked under rocks, peered over cliffs and biked dirt roads.
“My father never asked for details, he just required that I be home at six o’clock,” Horn recalls.When he hit his twenties, it seemed a life of ease and affluence awaited him. After graduating from university, Horn took a job in a family food-import business. He was making good money, playing cricket and rugby, and owned a house. “One day I woke up and asked myself, ‘Is this what the rest of my life will look like, importing cabbages and fruits?’” Horn tells me this as we relax on a rocky ledge midway up the via ferrata, Abraham Lake’s emerald surface sparkling far below.
Following this life-disrupting epiphany, he phoned his uncle on a Friday and told him not to expect him on Monday. Or any Monday after. He gave away most of his possessions and bought a plane ticket to Switzerland. During apartheid, it was one of only a handful of countries that issued visas to South Africans. “I had no plan, I just knew that I wanted to see the world,” says Horn, still on the ledge. Then, abruptly he stands up and is off again on the via ferrata, our conversation curtailed.
Action is his modus operandi. But only after monkeying around on Mount Stelfox one day and ice-climbing in Jasper’s Maligne Canyon the next, would I have the opportunity to sit in the passenger seat next to Horn for the three-hour drive south to Lake Louise. And that’s when he sheds the bravado, revealing a more contemplative side.
His life story, following the decision at 28 to abandon South Africa, seems as unlikely as a Mission: Impossible screenplay. At first, life in Switzerland was less than forgiving, with gainful employment hard to acquire for citizens of a then-pariah nation like South Africa. Running out of options, he decided to hitchhike from the Swiss Alps to Israel in the middle of winter to find work as a mercenary soldier. Fate intervened in the form of a sympathetic traveller who pulled over when he saw Horn shivering next to a mountain road. The driver was incredulous when the young South African told him he was planning to thumb his way to the Middle East. He offered Horn a bed in the hostel he managed, allowing him to work off his lodging in the dish pit. The guy liked Horn and asked if he’d step in to manage the hostel for a spell. Horn happily accepted. That was in Château-d’Oex, the Swiss town where Horn still lives today.
That is, when he’s not on expedition. The Swiss Alps shaped his life. Swimming rushing rivers and jumping off waterfalls gained him local notoriety. Eventually, Horn captured the attention of the Italian watchmaker Sector at a time when brands began realizing the marketing cachet of extreme sports. He joined the Sector No Limits team of athletes, and from there began to conceive of bigger, bolder and longer adventures. Mercedes-Benz signed on, sponsoring both his use of G-Class SUVs for land journeys as well as his sailboat.
Though Horn has achieved fame through adventure, he has also suffered great personal loss. His father, the most influential person in his life, succumbed to cancer before his 60th birthday. His older sister also died from the disease. But perhaps the greatest loss was his wife of 25 years, Cathy, who passed away in 2015 after a multi-year battle with breast cancer. They met when he was a young South African doing crazy things in the rivers and mountains of the European Alps, she a Kiwi working at a Swiss ski resort. Cathy was, Horn tells me, the backbone of his adventures – the one beyond the spotlight, handling logistics and media, taking their two daughters to school and helping with their homework, while he battled polar winds and savage seas.
“You don’t meet people like that every day. Pole2Pole is our expedition. We planned it together and now I’m just executing it,” Horn says. “That’s why it may be my last expedition – I don’t have that support anymore.”
The late afternoon sun glances off the peaks of Athabasca and Andromeda as we drive along a deserted highway past the disintegrating edge of the Columbia Icefield. It’s the sort of epic landscape that inspires awe. Horn is quiet, without words for the first time since we met.
It’s hard for me to imagine what would come next if he decided to stay home for good. A cushy appointment to some board of directors? A full-time gig with a sponsor? A retirement of armchair speaking engagements? Not likely. I ask him what occupies his mind on those lonely polar treks or ocean crossings.
“I think about the next adventure,” he replies, without hesitation. Clearly, some wild animals can’t be tamed.