SEEING THE PLANET FROM ANOTHER PERSPECTIVE.
LESSONS FROM A MODERN DAY EXPLORER.
Interview by Erwan Berthou & Catherine Thomason (www.remarkablemagazine.com)
Photography by Mike Horn
“It’s great when people follow their passion. We always have an option in life, and if one of those options is to do what you love, then you might as well do that.” A lesson for all of us to live by, and one that epitomizes Mike Horn. Following his passion for exploration and adventure, Mike Horn has, amongst other things, circumnavigated the planet without the aid of motorized power (that’s right, your options are to walk, row or swim), walked to the North Pole during the dark season and is in the process of preparing an expedition to reach the summit of K2, the second highest mountain in the world. Mike took time out of training and preparations to talk with us about boats, mountains and discipline.
YOU HAVE BEEN IN THE MOST REMOTE PLACES ON THE PLANET , WHAT ARE THE MAIN THINGS YOU HAVE SEEN CHANGE THROUGH THE WORLD?
I think what has changed over 25 years of exploration, more than the physical, is the attitude of people. People always talk about deforestation, melting polar caps. Yes, I’ve seen the forest cut out, drowned polar bears. I’ve seen erosion of the perma-frost. I’ve seen massive rivers and ice breaking off in Antarctica. That’s something we all know, we all hear about. But what we don’t really look at is the effect on human beings, the attitude of human beings living through the change. And that’s what I’ve really seen change over the last 25 years of exploration. When you meet people along the way in these remote places, you see their lifestyle is changing, to adapt to what nature is throwing at them and it’s remarkable. To me that was quite surprising.
The other part that’s also hard to see is the behavior of the animals. When you see the behavior of the animal change to adapt to the environment that is quite alarming to me. Very close to the North Pole, you now can see a mother with two cubs looking for food, where before the ice was too thick and not breaking up enough to hunt. Then there’s the grizzly bear coming into the region of the polar bear, and ultimately, the grizzly bear kills the polar bear. That is a sign of climate change that isn’t a direct effect, but rather the knock on effect and more revealing to me than anything about climate change around the world.
We understand today that the planet is warming up – ok some do, some don’t – but we don’t really take it seriously enough because we’ve over publicized it. Al Gore did a great film on The Inconvenient Truth. But at the end of it, I have the sense it made people give up, throw their hands up in the air and say listen, it’s gone too far, we can’t get it back. That to me is the wrong attitude to have.
SO WHAT DO WE DO INSTEAD?
We should have an attitude that we show the beauty of the planet to people, to give them hope and not despair. And that’s where I thought the Pangaea expedition would be good, specifically because I wanted to take the younger generation, the ones who can make a change because you can’t teach old dogs new tricks. We think the adults should make the change, but I believe its the young people, they are the biggest source of power and that power has not been given the freedom to operate. In my view, so far, it’s never been released; it’s never been listened to. So if you can empower the younger generation, then they can make the change.
The Pangaea Project was all about showing them the most beautiful places in the world and that they still exist. And then work through a little education project to show how we can repair what human beings have damaged. They go on to set up these environmental projects around the world to rebuild or reconstruct the environment step by step. Because if you do small projects everywhere in the world, the impact is massive and over time, we’ll see the progress.
THE PANGAEA PROJECT RAN OVER FIVE YEARS . DID IT DELIVER WHAT YOU THOUGHT IT WOULD?
The original concept was simple. Take the younger generation to places that could intellectually stimulate them. Activate their intellectual and emotional intelligence. That meant I had to take them somewhere no one else had taken them. So that’s why I built the boat. That’s why I selected the kids from every continent, to create this network of all these young people so they collectively could have an impact afterwards. Sure, I got criticized, that I was taking too much risk (with the kids), but I’m not someone who works in an office everyday. It’s my job to take risks every day. The more you do your job, the less risks you take because the more knowledge you have. And that’s what people misunderstood about the project. They looked through their eyes, and not my eyes as a professional explorer.
Whatever we do, whether it’s in education, in conservation, in exploration or adventure, we have to stay as close as possible to our DNA, to what we know and what you love. We always have an option in life, to do whatever you want to do. If one of those options is to do what you love, then you might as well do that.
WE SHOULD HAVE AN ATTITUDE THAT WE SHOW THE BEAUTY OF THE PLANET TO PEOPLE, TO GIVE THEM HOPE AND NOT DESPAIR.
So for the project, I brought in Professors, I enlisted Doctors, and I built the team on the boat with professional sailors. Everyone had a specific role to play. I leveraged the knowledge of other people to craft the whole experience because me, Mike Horn, I’m an explorer, an adventurer and I can’t be seen all of a sudden as the new savior of the world. I just wanted to take these kids, show them these things, and let the Professors and Doctors educate them on the change in the climate and let them act on it.
The next obstacle was the financial aspect because it wasn’t always available to these kids based on their backgrounds. Therefore I got the sponsors so the kids had free access to the expedition; nobody had to pay anything to come on this expedition. And that budget limited the expedition to 5 years. So now, the project has been handed over to them, the next generation, the young explorers I’ve trained.
AND NEWS OF THESE PROJECTS?
We stay in close contact with these young people, as they still need support. Many of them have gone on to study environmental science or engineering and are now finishing university to go on to set up their own projects. Now they are the ambassadors, the ones responsible to take it to the next level. They came back with so much knowledge, as did I, and they knew only 6 had lived each expedition. They have something unique to share, just watch their TED talks. They’re setting up Pangaea centers in the Black Forest, schools in Serbia, camps in Singapore and China. It’s no longer in my hands; I just planted the seed. In a way, you have to give them the freedom to do what they think is right to do. I’m the old dog these days.
YOU DID SOME COACHING WITH THE GERMAN FOOTBALL TEAM FOR THE WORLD CUP LAST YEAR AND WITH THE INDIAN CRICKET TEAM. HOW DO YOU ADJUST YOUR MESSAGE BASED ON TALKING TO TEENAGERS OR TO SPORTS PROFESSIONALS?
I know how to connect the dots between people and the motivation they need; you have to find the good in the person. If you can find the good in yourself, you’ll never let go of it and it will give you the strength and drive to achieve amazing things. That’s when change starts to happen through each of us.
WE ALWAYS HAVE AN OPTION IN LIFE, TO DO WHATEVER YOU WANT TO DO. IF ONE OF THOSE OPTIONS IS TO DO WHAT YOU LOVE, THEN YOU MIGHT AS WELL DO THAT.
When I coach people, it’s so they understand this one thing: there is no other option but to win. It’s a bit controversial, radical even. People say winning isn’t everything but to me it’s the only thing. Through the coaching of “winning is not everything but the only thing”, the guys on the (professional) teams understand that if they win, then they can go on and do other things. Success brings opportunity.
We don’t win the World Cup only for one reason, for a cause; you win for yourself, and once you’ve done that, it’s your job to figure out what can you give back. It’s their life. It’s not a Mike Horn Project. But it’s a lifestyle change too. Once you’ve tasted success, then it’s easy to change your life a bit because your ‘new’ lifestyle allows you to adapt more easily. If you’re down in a hole though and just surviving, it’s very difficult to have the courage to change your life. Success can be criticized, yes, but it’s also the catalyst to change.
I don’t climb the mountain to raise money for charity, or save the planet. There are all these expeditions out there for some reason or another. I don’t believe in that. I go to the Pole because I want to go to the Pole. I climb the mountain because I want to climb it. That gives me the power to communicate the thing I want to.
SO IT’S MIKE HORN, EXPLORER.
I’m an explorer and that’s what motivates and drives me. If you want to make exploration your lifestyle, you have to be driven to stay alive more than anything else. Any decision you make should be focused on – can I stay alive first and then see if you can get to where you want to be second. I’m now looking for that next life of being an explorer, shaking things up just a bit. We’re fortunate to have the Discovery Channel work with us on a new documentary about surviving planet earth. It’s not just killing the snake to eat, it’s how do you truly survive these often new, natural elements and the changes in the climate. It gives us the chance to reach out to so many more people.
I’m still that guy that really wants to challenge himself. OK, I’m close to 50 and I still have a little bit of knowledge and experience to go, but I have learned over the years and can apply it. I’m fortunate to have this boat to go anywhere in the world. That gives me a lot of freedom to choose what I want to do. Using my life as stepping stones and accumulating knowledge from the North Pole, the Amazon, the Desert, the Himalayas, the Tundra and the Ice Caps, now I can combine all that knowledge in one expedition and in a way, write history in the field of exploration. You have to do things that maybe nobody has attempted, or that people would call impossible. We are pushing the limits of exploration today, but now we have all the elements together like knowledge, experience and obviously the equipment needed, we can try and do things today that previously were not possible.
SUCCESS CAN BE CRITICIZED, YES, BUT IT’S ALSO THE CATALYST TO CHANGE.
THE PANGAEA (BOAT) IS ONE OF A KIND WITH INNOVATIVE TECHNOLOGIES ON BOARD TO MAKE IT AS SUSTAINABLE AS POSSIBLE. TELL US MORE ABOUT IT.
DID YOU GET CRITICISM FOR TAKING SPONSORSHIP FROM MERCEDES?
Some people questioned doing an environmental project with a car company as a sponsor. But I believe you must preach to the unconverted and to be able to effect change, you must work with the people that can implement that change. Mercedes is motivated to be true and authentic to what they say. They are dedicated to innovation and bringing out some very exciting cars with electric and hydrogen systems. They are quite involved in the environmental issues and continue to support our environmental projects. They don’t use it for the marketing of it; they do it as part of their conscience, because they sincerely care. When the economic crisis started, so many companies stopped sponsorships, and Mercedes could easily have pulled out, but in fact they said its really now we need to invest more in this type of project because its fundamental to our future.
WHAT WOULD BE YOUR TIP FOR LIVING BETTER, HARMING LESS?
People always ask me how I stay motivated – how do I go to the North Pole where it’s so dark in winter and you have to walk for sixty days. It takes you two years to walk round the Arctic Circle, six months to swim down the Amazon River.
I tell people, I’m not motivated every day. It’s not inspiring to go out in -50° or -60° and when the wind is blowing at 100 miles per hour, when you know your fingers are going to freeze. But you can be disciplined. Inspiration itself doesn’t motivate people. Inspiration encourages people to be disciplined and make them get out there and do what needs to be done. We cannot be motivated every day but if you’re disciplined, you can do anything in life. Believe me, I’m not always motivated, but I’m disciplined enough to get out there and do what I have to do.