Learn more about the North Pole Crossing expedition in this exclusive interview with Explorer Mike Horn.
1. For those who haven’t been following along, could you explain the feat that you and your team accomplished?
The expedition was called Pole2Pole. The Pole2Pole expedition was a circumnavigation of the world crossing the South and the North Pole. So the latest expedition we did was the North Pole crossing and we left Alaska in Nome with a vessel that I built to go into the ice. A sailing vessel. We managed to get to 85°N. That’s the highest that any sailing vessel has ever gotten up into the Arctic Ocean.
We needed to get to 85°N to be able to cross the polar ocean that was a distance of 1,557km with 85 days of food. To be able to do it unsupported without assistance. So it was very important to make our way to the dropoff point- that was the first part of the expedition. The second part of the expedition was to get to the north pole that was 500 and 50-odd km away from our dropoff point and that part of the expedition we calculated would take us about 15 to 35 days and after the 20th day we would be in complete darkness on the polar ocean because of the sun moving south of the equator and no light actually gets into the Arctic Ocean. And then the third part of the expedition would be to leave the South Pole and then head down towards Svalbard, Spitsbergen, there to be picked up by another vessel, a boat as well. And then to be able to sail back to civilization.
So it was an ambitious expedition simply because there were so many moving parts. You needed boats. We weren’t heading to a landmass where we know it’s the end. We were heading towards the ice edge that breaks off and floats into the Atlantic Ocean. So that’s what makes the expedition first of all, quite dangerous because there’s no land.
Ice breaks up when you have big storms and massive wind and once you get onto that ice edge, the ice becomes fragile and thin, so the chances of actually falling into the water and not being able to find freshwater or camping sites to pitch your tent becomes problematic. And that’s why the pickup had to happen very fast. So we thought that having the boat there and we going to the boat would solve our problem of not hanging around on the ice edge but being able to go to a specific point because even the boat is drifting because the ice is forever drifting and if we have massive big storms, that makes the ice drift and for us to walk against the drift becomes extremely difficult. So those were the parameters that we had to deal with before actually, you know, even attempting the expedition.
2. How far north did you get? Could you elaborate on the significance of that?
We managed to get to 85° 30′ N and we followed ice charts that were updated twice a day by a satellite and that was analyzed by the Norwegian Polar Institute and they would look at the ice charts and according to the wind and the ice drift, would more or less guide our boat into the leads that we cannot really see because we’re only at sea level, in a way. So they guided us through the ice to get us as far as possible north and due to global warming and a little bit of the change we are experiencing in the climate today, there’s less and less ice in the summer months in the polar ocean. And this year was towards the Bering Strait, Alaska, and Russia. There wasn’t a lot of ice. So last year when we wanted to do this expedition there was too much ice there and we couldn’t get to where we wanted to go. So this year it opened up, but now the ice has moved and it was sitting on the other side of the pole that created different complications for us.
3. What were your intentions going into the North Pole Crossing expedition? Was there a personal reason for crossing it or was it to observe the changing climate?
I’m an explorer and I love pushing my own boundaries and limits and tasting my knowledge and my experience with a project that not a lot of people have tried. With a project that maybe nobody else would try because you need 25 years of experience and that is how Børge and myself kind of got together. Børge had the experience of the ice because he’s most probably one of the world’s greatest polar explorers. But I had the knowledge on navigation during the night. And that becomes very important.
So if you combine those two elements, it’s when you can align the stars to be able to even think of going to do a crossing like the polar ocean. Although a lot of people would like to attempt an expedition like that, it becomes nearly impossible to do if you don’t have the vessel, if you don’t have the experience, and if you don’t- if you value life too much at the end of the day on the other side, so much can go wrong that, you know, it’s a massive risk that you take. Even that is a way that people would say no, the risk of failure is too big.
4. Can you explain a bit about what your day-to-day looked like?
We started off from the boat after being on the vessel for nearly one month. So we had to start slow because the weight of the sled…you know, the sled’s weighed 185kg and that’s nearly I think 320-odd pounds. So the weight of the sled actually determines the amount of hours that you can be out there working. With sleds being so heavy, you can pull them for maybe 6-8 hours a day and then you need to get into the tent, rest, eat…because you cannot cook meals or eat hot food when you’re out there basically skiing and pulling the sleds.
So the day would start by waking up 2 hours before we would leave the tent. We would sleep an average of you know, depends when we get back into the tent, 5-8 hours a day. In the beginning, we slept more because we were extremely tired of pulling the sled simply because there was a lot of open water. So open water means each time you get to where the ice cracked and drifted apart, these open leads formed. And for us to cross these leads, we can’t ski on them, we can’t swim across them. So we had to paddle across them. And when you have to paddle across them, you have to pull the sleds behind you through the water and that had its own complications.
Then, as well, the moment you get out of the tent, you basically do 2 hours straight and then you would stop and have a ten-minute break where you would eat and drink.
We would eat oatmeal mixed with olive oil mixed with butter and nuts. And it was all in a paste that we would eat. So we would eat a paste of dried food and we had 2L of hot water in thermoses because when it gets cold, the water actually freezes in a thermos and you must be able to drink the water before it turns into ice, otherwise, you die of thirst, obviously, in the arctic.
So after the first three hours, we’d have a break then would do another two hours then have a break. And because the sleds were so heavy, Børge and myself were constantly changing who would be in the front and who would make the track so we would do 15 minutes each so 15 minutes I would be in the front and make the track and then I would become too tired and Børge would replace me and then I would follow in the track behind him, 15 minutes later I would replace him again and then he would follow in the track. And that was more or less what we did during the day.
During the day we can’t speak with each other either. There’s no conversation. It’s just move forward, stop to eat, to drink every 2 hours. And you’ve got 7-10 minutes to do that and then you keep on going. Because distances are so big and to cover these distances with the amount of food that you have in your sled becomes a little bit problematic because you can’t have a resupply. Nobody can bring you food. The only thing that we can do maybe is find a carcass, a seal carcass that a polar bear killed and the polar bear wouldn’t eat the meat, it’d eat the blubber. And if we could get the meat, we could eat the meat. So the only alternative food source that we could’ve used would have been seal meat. And otherwise, there’s nothing else on the polar ocean. You’ve gotta go with the food that you have and survive with the food that you have. If you run out of food, you’re gonna have big trouble.
So after the 6-8 hour walk, depending on how we feel, we would pitch the tent and in the beginning, Børge put a bearwatch around the tent so we prepare the tent so we can have a comfortable sleep and do not have to worry about bears coming into the tent or to our sleds. But in the 3 months that we crossed the Arctic Ocean, we didn’t see one polar bear. And that might be as well a sign of the changing environment and the climate we are experiencing at this stage in our life.
We would melt ice to have drinking water but what people often forget is that we’re walking on frozen ocean so most of the ice- the young ice- would be salty. To find freshwater becomes quite difficult. To find ice that’s- where the salt is faulted through, you’ve gotta know where to look for it. And that’s what makes this expedition a little bit unique because you’re actually crossing an ocean. It would be like an Atlantic crossing but you’re just walking on a layer of frozen ocean.
5. How was this trip different from your other expeditions?
You know, it was different than the Antarctic crossing that I did solo. So in distance, it was much shorter. It was a third of the distance. The Antarctic crossing, or the South Pole crossing, was 5,100km. This crossing was only 1,557km…
This crossing on the polar ocean, because the ice becomes thin, there’s open water and there’s back ice- ice accumulating. You cannot use kites. So you spend all the time manhole-ing, just with the power of your own body moving forward. What makes this expedition quite difficult is you have a lot of drift. You’ve got ice drifting and you’re walking on a platform that’s forever in movement. And the last degree to the pole from 89 degrees north to 90 degrees took us 11 days. And usually, it should be done in 4 days or 5 days. But because the ice was taking us back every day from where we came from, that’s the complications of the polar ocean. If you want to compare the North Pole with the South Pole, the North Pole is much more difficult simply because you don’t know where the ice is going to drift to. This time I left with Børge Ousland. We did an expedition to the north pole in 2006 where we did the first-ever winter expedition to the North Pole, and we realized in that expedition to cross the polar ocean alone would be suicide and that’s why we decided to put our knowledge and experience together again to be able to do something that other people only dreamt of. To be able, honestly and sincerely, to arrive at the pickup point with only 200 grams of food left and maybe half a liter of fuel left was completely different than all my other expeditions where we always had a big reserve to fall back upon.
We had to extend our biological clock as well because we were running out of food because the ice was drifting and taking us back to where we came from. So it’s like walking on an escalator in the wrong way. You’re walking, but you’re not going anywhere. And that food that you waste- it’s not a waste of food, but that you consume not moving forward, it can be considered as wasted food because you’re not making progress towards the end of your expedition.
We decided not to eat less and not to save any food, but to be able to extend our biological clock meaning that one day has 24 hours normally in our life. If we would add 6 hours to our day then the day would be 30 hours long. And if you add 6 hours to the day that means you can ski longer hours and cover bigger distances and every fourth day, you would gain one day because 6 times 4 is 24, so you gain one day’s food. And that is how we manage to get to the end. With only 85 days of food, we did an 88-day expedition but at the end, we had to walk longer hours and that’s how we managed to save those days of food to get to our final destination where the boat could pick us up. And that’s something that people don’t really understand because usually they think that food’s only for 24 hours because that’s considered as one day’s food but if you just change your biological clock that’s when one day’s food can be 30 hours long as well. You determine the length of your day. And that was the final success of the expedition.
We wanted to be picked up at 82°S. That’s usually where the ice edge would be. And because of a little bit of ice formation early in the season because of the very cold temperatures that we experienced and then it became extremely warm, I was surprised to see that one day it was raining on the polar ocean and it never rains in the polar ocean. Either it snows or it’s just frozen, you know, the air freezes because there’s a lot of humidity and it feels more like frozen air than snowflakes that we know. You know, it’s not like real snowflakes because snowflakes form at warmer temperatures but because it’s extremely cold in the polar region it’s not like a snowflake it becomes like sand, in a way, but frozen. And when that snow falls onto the ice, on the sea ice that’s frozen, it becomes very difficult to pull the sleds because it becomes like sand and sandpaper so the sled’s got a lot of friction and it becomes very difficult to pull them. That’s why our progress was so slow as well.
The second thing is there was very very thin ice. And we thought that the ice would be a little bit more stable. Thin ice moves much easier when there’s a little bit of wind than old ice that’s very thick because old ice that’s thick weighs much more than very thin ice. So as soon as the wind blows over the thinner ice, the ice pans as we call it, or the ice flows, they move much faster. And if the wind comes from the wrong direction, against us, that was mostly the case, the thin ice moves back and forth very quickly so it moves faster than what you can walk and that’s why we started running out of food.
Then add to that, the darkness. Not being able to actually see where you’re going. That adds a big stress psychologically and because the Arctic Ocean’s full of traps. It’s sometimes just snow that’s on top of the water and if you walk over that layer of snow that’s on top of the water and it breaks and you fall into the arctic ocean, you’ve got very little chance of survival. And to overcome all of these challenges in complete darkness has a really big mental effect on you. So your mind- there’s so much to deal with that slowly but surely the darkness and the challenges are psychologically killing you.
So that’s when time becomes very important. The time that you actually spend on the Arctic Ocean shouldn’t exceed 3 months because then you could seriously go into depression and that’s usually when expeditions fail.