Adventurers headed for trans-pole ski trek
A large sailing vessel moored in Nome’s harbor will soon set out for 85° North to drop two men off on the polar ice. They will cross the Arctic Ocean via the North Pole on skis. The same vessel will pick them up at a point near Svalbard Norway. The vessel is called Pangaea, 115 feet long and ice capable. The men are explorers Mike Horn and Borge Ousland. The pair has already completed some impressive treks through the polar regions. Horn was born and raised in South Africa and now lives in Switzerland when not on an expedition. Ousland is Norwegian.
In 2006 Horn and Ousland skied to the North Pole in winter without assistance, dogs, or motorized transportation. They travelled for 60 days and five hours on skis from Russia to the pole and dealt with open leads, poor visibility in the 24-hour darkness, temperatures down to minus 58° F, and encounters with polar bears. Both men have skied unassisted across Antarctica.
While in Nome, the two men and their crewmembers are busy with the final preparations for the expedition. Despite the size of the vessel the crew is small. Horn himself is the skipper, there’s a Polish engineer whose girlfriend is the cook, another engineer from Germany and Horn’s daughter. She handles the sponsor relationships and the communications strategy. And there are two film crews. One is a group of young Americans who document what the expedition does. They use the content they create to tell the story on social media. A Swiss film crew is filming a documentary on the polar ocean. “We arrived in Nome with four crewmembers,” said Horn.
“It is a big boat for just four people,” said Horn, seated inside the cabin of the Pangaea, savoring a mug of coffee in his stocking feet. “But because I’ve sailed it 15 times around the world I got used to working with a small crew because I’m the owner and the skipper as well. I like being engaged in what I do. I don’t want other people taking me around the world. I want to take myself around the world. That’s why I prefer to work with less and less becomes more. It’s a question of your budget as well. How much are you willing to spend on people? I don’t have massive budgets and big sponsorship contracts so I have a limited crew that I can afford. Having a boat this size is expensive. You’re limited in the number of people because people cost money.”
The Pangaea has retractable rudders and keel that go into a box. As a sail would not supply enough power to go through the ice twin Mercedes engines supply the power when needed. “So the boat took me to Antarctica, broke through the ice, dropped me off so that I could cross Antarctica,” he said. In 2010, the Pangaea was in Nome on the way through the Northwest Passage. “When the ice forms around it the boat gets pushed up and sits on top of the ice,” said Horn. “I based the lines of this boat on Fram, Nansen’s boat.” Fridtjof Nansen was a Norwegian explorer in the late 19th century.
The ski run across the ice to the pole will begin at approximately 85° North. If the ice does not allow Pangaea to travel that far north the expedition will be more complicated. “It seems that this year we can get to 83, 84, maybe 85 degrees north,” said Horn. “And that’s where it’s opening up the most.” They rely on ice experts at the University of Bergen in Norway for information on what the ice is doing. “There’s a person whose job is to analyze satellite photos, see where the ice is moving with the currents and the ocean temperatures,” said Horn. They have aboard ship Iridium broadband internet with real time views of the ice. Once they approach the ice they will use drones to scout ahead.
The two men are well-prepared for the three month ski trek. Each will pull a pulk, or sled, weighing as much as 375 pounds at the start. Half of that weight is food, all individually packed for each meal. “I think we would take about 70 to 75 days food,” said Horn. “That’s if we can reach 85 degrees north with the boat. If the ice stops us at 82 degrees north then it’s going to be difficult to make a decision to get off the boat because the distance to the pole and down to the other side would become too much for us to cross with the amount of food we have.” For breakfast they have oatmeal mixed with olive oil and brown sugar and milk. The oil gives the oats a boost in calories. They also have chocolate, dried food of various types, and oil-rich macadamia nuts. “Natural nuts usually carry a lot of oil and are high in calories for us to eat during the day. By evening when we come into the tent we’d have pre-made food that we’ve freeze dried. There’s oil added to it. So we basically get our calories from cocoa butter, olive oil, natural nuts.” During the day they don’t stop to cook or to eat but “graze” along the way.
Horn says he did a lot of research on what people who live in cold places have traditionally eaten. “They withstood a lot of cold, cold winters. They ate seal fat mixed with berries and meat. It keeps, it’s high in calories, it does the job. What we call purposeful eating is eating for a purpose, to reach a goal. It’s not always enjoyable but it serves a purpose. When we go on the ice we’re eating for a purpose and not for enjoyment.”
How much extra food will they take on the trip, how much margin of safety? “Because we know more or less what the conditions will be like and we’ve researched what the weather has been like in the past we don’t actually have a big margin of food that we take along,” said Horn. “I’ve got a little bit of a different philosophy about margins. If I see I’m running out of food I’ll extend my biological clock to a longer day, say 30 hours instead of 24 hours. So then I use one day’s food in 30 hours and every fourth day I gain a day of food. You lose a lot of calories sleeping. If you avoid the sleeping you can use the calories pulling the sled. And by not pitching the tent and not burning the fuel you save calories. There’s ways of giving yourself margin. To think you should take more food is perhaps the most logical way to do it but also the most inefficient way to do it.”
What about the psychological low points of such an intense and difficult trip? Does Mike Horn every question what he’s doing and have doubts? “Being an explorer for thirty years I never question why I was doing what I was doing because I love what I do,” he said. “The main problem we often ask ourselves is how long can we keep doing this? I’m still young, in my mid 50s. The expeditions become more and more difficult to do because of the physical effort. But at the same time it becomes easier because we’ve got the knowledge that we didn’t have in the beginning. That compensates in ways. Experience today helps. On the polar ocean if you don’t know how to navigate, if you don’t know what to do when the ice drifts, if you don’t know how to get over thin ice, it’s a problem. If you don’t know what to do when polar bears arrive or where to pitch your tent your life as an explorer can become very short. And that’s where you need the more patient approach of an older person. There’s days you’re sitting in the tent and it’s cold and lousy and you’re freezing your fingers but I do what I do because that’s what makes me feel alive.”
The ski trek across the North Pole is part of Horn’s Pole2Pole Expedition, a three-year circumnavigation of the globe via the South and North Poles with ocean crossings and overland expeditions. The adventure began at the Monaco Yacht Club in May 2016. The expedition will end at the point where it started, the Monaco Yacht Club, in December 2019.