While you were swilling eggnog and sniffing around for mistletoe, two men spent the holiday season crossing the world’s harshest, coldest, windiest continent. American Colin O’Brady and Brit Louis Rudd launched into an unintended, 900-plus-mile “race” for the Holy Grail of firsts—crossing Antarctica solo, unsupported, and unaided. They chose to traverse a route that includes a well-trodden path, called the McMurdo-South Pole Highway, which is a groomed road lined by flags every 100 meters. They did not use kites, which technically would make the feat aided, according to, well, we are not really sure who makes these rules. They also did not cross the icesheets, which cut off significant distance (see map below).
Other polar heavyweights, such as Norwegian Borge Ousland and South African-born Swiss Mike Horn, chose a different approach. They blazed new routes, harnessing the wind to kite ski and forging into the unknown of the “Great White Lady,” as explorers have called her. In spring 2017, Mike completed the longest unsupported crossing of Antarctica in history—57 days alone on the ice. For 5,100 kilometers / 3,169 miles, Mike kite skied through a harsh desert of snow, ice, crevasses, and mountains.
So who does Mike tip his hat to? None other than Borge and his incredible crossing in 1996-97, covering 1,768 miles from coast to coast. Borge posted to Facebook: “A real crossing of Antarctica from coast to coast will have to include the ice sheets—the way I did it on this epic solo and unsupported crossing in 1997.”
Says Norwegian explorer Aleksander Gamme, who has also crossed Antarctica on foot as seen in the incredible film Crossing the Ice: “To be honest, I don`t think Norwegian people in general bother at all [with this],” says Aleks. “Defining Messner-start [Colin’s route] as full-length is questionable… And then following on the paved road. I can only speak for myself, but you can not compare these two trips at all. It’s obvious you can not cover Børges distance without sail within the Antarctic Logistics and Exploration season. But it seems like the urge for media and creative ‘firsts’ have changed the game of adventure into racing, rules, and definitions?”
Here Mike tells us what’s what in this latest polar achievement. Stay tuned for an exclusive interview with Borge coming soon.
American Colin O’Brady just finished the official solo, unsupported, unaided first coast to coast crossing of Antarctica. Have you followed his effort? What did you think of it?
Mike Horn: I did not follow Colin’s trek across Antarctica but was aware of him doing it. I do respect his feat, but it lost the adventure side of exploring the unknown. To me, Borge Ousland will stay the first. He opened a new route with nearly two times the distance and weight in his sled in 1996-1997 before all social media. We all choose how we want to do our adventures, and all adventures add value to the world of exploration. I would like to congratulate both Colin and Louis for their remarkable accomplishments.
What do you think of the reasoning that using a kite means an effort is no longer unaided?
Mike Horn: I do not know who sets the rules, but using kites solo adds a massive challenge as well. The distance I covered across Antarctica—5,100 kilometers on a new route—would not be possible only manhauling. What people do forget is that I spent more days man hauling my sled than using a kite. In very strong winds at the speed I traveled kite skiing became dangerous, and I often preferred to manhaul, less can go wrong.
What happens to you mentally and physically after all those days alone in those conditions?
Mike Horn: In such short expeditions you can stay focused. The distance they crossed is relatively short. Always moving at more or less the same speed skiing not much is unknown. The unknown is what adds enormous stress mentally and physically.
Is being alone the greatest challenge about this?
Mike Horn: For me being alone is an advantage and not disadvantage because you can move at your own speed. Colin being on a route that has been done many times before, with Twin Otter planes flying over you, and tracks to McMurdo, never gave me the impression that I was alone when I did the South Pole return trip in 2008.
What was the greatest challenge of your crossing?
Mike Horn: Sailing to Antarctica getting there on my own steam without taking a plane. Opening a new route where no one has ever been, the sheer distance of the crossing 5,100 kilometers, doing part of it out of season in extremely cold conditions. Kites add a big risk factor due to the speed you can travel at and the risk of injuries. Being completely out of range of pick ups and making it in time to sail back to civilization in one season are what I’m looking for in adventure.
Colin and Louis Rudd attempted the record at the same time. Would that be a positive or negative in your book?
Mike Horn: I think it created a lot of press interest, although exploration is not a competition. The known route they followed held not much danger. From the Pole to McMurdo, it’s almost a road graded, flagged, and crevasses filled in. Traversing under the umbrella of USAP Twin Otter range makes pick-ups possible, so adding a little competition made it interesting for those who followed.
Colin is younger and less experienced. Yet he finished first. What does that say about these quests?
Mike Horn: In this case, age is not really important because you do not need much experience on the route they followed. It changes when you go into the unknown, there experience becomes vital.
Are firsts worth it? Why?
Mike Horn: It’s always nice to be able to claim that you are the first, it opens the way for others to go and explore and use the lived experiences from others.
Are there more firsts you’d like? Can you tell us about them?
Mike Horn: At this stage real firsts becomes very difficult to find. In the mountains, we can still do new routes and there are many unclimbed mountains we can claim as a first. I love the adventure side of exploration getting there on my boat, unknown places, new routes this will be the way we consider firsts in the future.
What’s next for you?
Mike Horn: Sailing to Alaska from Hong Kong, spending a month or two in the Alaskan wilderness, return to try and climb the north ridge of K2 and the the traverse of the Arctic ocean. thats about what I can fit into one year of exploration.