Mike Horn: The iceman cometh

In an abandoned town, deep in the Arctic Circle, lives an old man the helicopters left behind. Next week the explorer Mike Horn, who came across him on his last polar trip, is due to set off for the North Pole - and rescue him. Simon de Burton reports on an incredible journey
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The Independent Online

Gambling is not one of my vices, but here's a bet I'm prepared to lay: if you know a man who thinks he's hard, I'll wager you anything that I know a man who's harder. His name is Mike Horn and next week he's going for a walk - to the North Pole.

Horn and another explorer, the Norwegian Borge Ousland, hope to become the first people to walk to the Pole through the bitter cold, driving winds and sunless days of the Arctic winter. The journey is expected to take them more than two months and the pair have made a pact almost as chilling as the conditions they will encounter - they have agreed that if one man can't hack it, the other will leave him behind and carry on alone.

Many would say that electing to set off in the middle of winter is a recipe for disaster, but Horn's masochistic attitude to life means that he only believes in doing things one way - the hard way.

"If I did things the easy way, I know I would never be satisfied because I would always wonder whether or not I could have done it in more difficult circumstances," the 39-year-old told me. The South African-born Horn - who made a small fortune selling cabbages during his 20s but who now cites his job as "professional explorer" - already has a formidable record of thumbing his often frost-bitten nose at the elements. He has circumnavigated the world at Latitude Zero - the Equator - in less than 16 months without motorised transport, and swum the Amazon, all 4,100 miles of it, assisted by nothing more technical than a glass-fibre float.

Yet perhaps the most remarkable aspect of his winter walk to the North Pole is that it is little more than a year since he returned from an expedition which must rank as one of the most physically and mentally gruelling that man has ever achieved.

Between August 2002 and October 2004, Horn, a married father of two, travelled alone around the entire circumference of the Arctic Circle, a 20,000km journey that he completed in 10 stages, four by sea and six on land. To make it as difficult as possible, he always travelled above the tree line and against the prevailing winds and currents, using non-motorised transport ranging from a sailing boat to a giant kite. Mostly, however, he walked. And walked.

At 5ft 8in, Horn is not the man-mountain one might expect of someone who spends his time tackling the earth's extremes, but when he shakes your hand you get a good idea of how James Bond must have felt when he was in the clutches of Jaws. There's the odd bit of him missing - such as a finger-end lost to frostbite - but other than that his exploits appear to have left him remarkably unscathed. And when he starts telling you what he's been through it becomes extraordinary that he's alive at all. The circumnavigation of the Arctic saw him encounter temperatures down to minus 70C, and winds of up to 250km/h. In order to cover as much distance as fast as possible, he altered his days from 24 hours to 30, during which he walked for 20 hours solid, slept for six and ate for four - and all the time he was walking, he had to drag a sledge-full of equipment weighing up to 400lb and containing sufficient provisions to last him for up to four months.

He took 11,000 photographs along the way, around 200 of which, he says, are good enough to illustrate his lectures - they include one which shows his nose and fingers so blackened by frostbite that, at the start of each day, he had to insert a syriinge into the flesh to check the extent of decay.

"It's just a matter of pushing the needle in and seeing how far it goes," he said blithely. "If it hits cartilage, you know you're in trouble. The needle doesn't really hurt - that's the great thing about the Arctic, it's so cold that it numbs the pain and when you cut yourself it never gets infected because there are no bacteria."

The physical challenges started, though, even befoire that, with his training regime - which involved drinking two pints of pure olive oil each morning to acclimatise his body to accepting the 12,000 calories per day he would need to give him sufficient energy to function in the extreme cold.

"When you put the olive oil in your mouth and it comes straight out of the other end the same colour, that's when you know you're ready to go," says Horn, whose daily intake during the expedition comprised more than 4lb of chocolate, several pounds of nuts and a large quantity of "non toxic grease", which included a quarter of a pound of butter - eaten neat. Horn's limits of mental and physical endurance are clearly of super-human proportions. He spoke of a snowdrift he encountered in Greenland - not the type of we are used to here, but blocks of snow and ice piled higher than a house and stretching as far as the eye could see.

"The only answer in that situation was to unload the sledge and carry the equipment over the top to the other side - it took about four hours."

Even Horn admits such an event could be "a bit demoralising", as the days were when he walked for 20 hours on a giant ice floe moving in the opposite direction from where he wanted to go, leaving him almost back where he started.

But at least he always had a cosy night in his tent to look forward to. This was a flimsy, nylon affair which looked as though it had come from a Millett's sale, but which had been designed in a wind tunnel by the high-performance car makers, Mercedes AMG. Despite its feeble appearance, the tent was all that came between Horn and death from exposure. Its aerodynamic shape ensured it bent flat with the wind instead of being blown away by it and, in the most extreme conditions, Horn had just 17 seconds to erect it and climb inside.

"When the temperature drops to minus 40C it is almost impossible to think, so the tent was made with two colour-coded poles, one red and one white, and two colour-coded tabs to fit them in, also red and white," he explains. "But, in order to force my brain to keep working, the design is such that the tent will only go up if the red pole goes to the white tab and visa-versa."

Once inside, Horn could enjoy the luxury of being precisely one degree warmer than outside. Undressing for bed was out of the question, so he would climb, fully clothed, into a plastic membrane (which prevented the damp from his body crystallising on to his sleeping bag and making it wet) before downing five litres of water.

"In conditions that cold, if you go to sleep for too long you simply won't wake up," he says. "Drinking the water meant I woke up every two hours to pee, which I did into a plastic flask. The urine came out at 5C, so I would put the flask between my feet and use it as a hot water bottle. If the temperature in the sleeping bag was minus 39 degrees, it would then, effectively, be raised by 44 degrees."

The cold made usually simple tasks, such as boiling water, into mammoth ones. Eating and preparing a meal took four hours and was done in a home-made aluminium cooking pot which also doubled as Horn's lavatory.

"I could just line it with a plastic bag and dump into it," he gleefully explains. "Once it made contact with the air the shit would freeze solid and then I just had to turn the bag out and that was that." Putting his home-made boots on in the mornings, together with the six layers of socks, inner boots and a plastic bag, took 40 minutes per foot and then, after further 20 minutes unfreezing the zip so he could get out of his tent, Horn would be ready for another day's trekking.

He saw 42 polar bears up close and personal along the way, but describes the sight of one of the 9ft tall creatures rearing up on its back legs before him as "very impressive" rather than "bloody terrifying", which is what most people would call it. One one occasion, a bear thrust its nose into the side of the tent, but Horn managed to scare it off by barking like a dog.

"They can smell for 50km and, because of global warming, they are really struggling to find food," he says. "If you see a bear track heading in a straight line it means it's on a mission to eat. If the tracks of the rear paws are close together, it means the bear is skinny, and therefore hungry and potentially dangerous."

But although Horn survived the cold, the bears, the seas and the ice floes and made it safely back to his family, he still has some unfinished business in the Arctic Circle, because towards the end of his journey he found himself in a remote, abandoned fishing village called Topseda which had once served a long-disused Russian naval station nearby.

Having not seen a soul for weeks on end, Horn was amazed to encounter an elderly man called Vassia who had been away on a lone hunting trip at the precise time that the military airlifted the rest of Topseda's small population and relocated them to civilization. That was in 1989: Vassia had survived entirely by himself in the derelict village for more than 15 years.

"It is remarkable that he has continued to live like that, especially since he has a heart problem," Horn said. "He had a heart attack while I was there and I spent quite a while looking after him, but when it was time for me to set sail on the last leg of my journey, a five-day trip across the Barents Sea, he refused to come because he said it was too dangerous. The Russian authorities will do nothing to bring him back so, assuming he is still alive, so I feel it's my duty to get a team together to go and rescue him." If anyone can do it, Horn can.

Extreme weather, extreme equipment

Mike Horn's New Zealand-born wife Cathy manages the logistics, nutrition and communication for his expeditions from their base at Les Moulins in Switzerland. Horn stays in touch via a satellite telephone, which, during the Arktos expedition, he used to co-ordinate meeting up with members of the logistics team at eight locations to collect different modes of transport and rations.

Horn will wear a specially designed Panerai wristwatch for navigation at the Pole. Conventional compasses don't work because of the high level of magnetism, and electronic navigators become useless at minus 11C because the liquid crystal display simply freezes. The watch has an alloy jacket and an internal iron case to protect the movement from the effects of magnetism, and it is lubricated by a blend of oils that will not clog at extreme temperatures. Using a combination of the time, compass points on the watch, and the occasionally visible winter sun, Horn and Ousland will be able to plot their course. The pair will carry their gear on Kevlar sledges designed by Ousland.

Depending on weather conditions, Horn and Ousland will embark on the 67-day North Pole walk during the second week of January. They will start from Cape Artichesky, the most northerly point in Russia, and will relay information on their progress by satellite telephone. To follow the journey, go to www.mikehorn.com