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Athletes & Explorers

Jul 22, 2019

Alone Across Antarctica Part 4: Mike Horn’s Race Against Time

Ultra-Adventurer Mike Horn still holds the longest record on Antarctica; does the new world-record traverse measure up?

WRITTEN BY

Davey Braun

The Outdoor Journal’s 5-part series Alone Across Antarctica began with a breakdown of Colin O’Brady’s most recent world record attempt to cross Antarctica on a solo mission. In Part 2, Captain Louis Rudd explained what it took to survive his simultaneous 56-day journey. In Part 3, Børge Ousland recounted the first-ever solo crossing of Antarctica in ’97 to share his perspective on the latest record-breaking attempts. In this installment, Mike Horn gives us insight into what it took to hit the longball on Antarctica.

In the spring of 2017, Mike Horn completed the longest crossing of Antarctica in history without resupply, spending 57 days alone on the ice, and spanning a staggering 3,169 miles (5,100 km). As a throwback to legendary explorers like Amundsen and Shackleton, Horn reached the coast of Antarctica by sea on his vessel Pangaea, sailing from the southern tip of Africa.

Horn skied and kited on a new route across the longest possible crossing of the continent, hauling all of his gear, including ice axes and crampons, in case he encountered crevasses. He even adapted his biological clock to a 30 hour day in order to cover the vast distances he would need to without running out of food.

Most recently, on December 26, 2018, American adventurer and endurance athlete Colin O’Brady completed a new world’s first expedition to cross Antarctica in 54 days alone and without resupply, using human power alone. British explorer Captain Louis Rudd completed the journey just two days later. O’Brady claimed his journey was the world’s first crossing of Antarctica solo, unsupported and unaided.

“His claim is an insult to Børge Ousland who did the first traverse in ’96-97, and has no legs to stand on.” – Horn

The Outdoor Journal connected with Mike Horn to discuss the logistics of his world-record crossing of Antarctica and whether the latest 930 mile (1,455 km) traverse by Colin O’Brady and Captain Rudd lives up to the challenge.

Sailing Pangaea in Antarctica prior to the expedition.

THE ROUTE OF THE UNKNOWN

TOJ: Can you explain the process of selecting your route from coast to coast? What data or images did you have to help with navigation?

Mike Horn: I decided to do a new route following the longest possible crossing of Antarctica, with the complication of not taking a plane but arriving and leaving on a boat. This meant that part of the crossing was going to happen during the beginning of winter.

Pangaea sailing in Antarctica. By Dmitry Sharomov.

Read Next on The Outdoor Journal – Mike Horn: His Devotion to the ‘Mountain of Mountains’, and the Loves of His Life.

“I knew that no rescue would be possible. It was going to be a race against time.”

I researched an entry and exit point where the ice would allow me to get as close as possible to the continent during the sea-ice breakup surrounding Antarctica in summer. Knowing that it was not the ideal time to be on the plateau and an early freeze on the other side could add difficulty to my project. I had no choice but to wait for the ice to break up, meaning that I would start my expedition when the commercial expedition period would close and that no rescue would be possible on this route but on the South Pole. It was going to be a race against time.

I had no maps or data on the traverse of the mountain range in Queen Maud land so I took all the equipment that was needed to cross the crevasses – ice screw, ice axes, crampons and ropes, enough food for 90 days – that would determine the distance I need to cover in a day without running out of food. I constantly changed my biological clock from working on a 24-hour day to running on a 30-hour day to respect the daily distances I needed to cover.

Navigation is key, but also the most difficult part of the expedition – wandering off into the unknown every day – small mistakes in navigation on an unknown route can lead to disaster. This is where experience becomes very important.

Arriving through the ice breakup to Antarctica. By Dmitry Sharomov.

TOJ: Ben Saunders, Henry Worsely, and now O’Brady and Rudd have all attempted this new 930 mile (1,455km) route, not even half of your 3,169 mile (5,100 km) journey. Is it a valid crossing?

“In my philosophy of a crossing, you finish when you have water in front of you.”

Mike Horn: I want to congratulate O’Brady and Rudd for their crossing. We all decide personally how we want to do our expedition and there should be no rules and regulations associated to how we chose to do the crossing. Børge Ousland did the first crossing in ’96-97 and O’Brady cannot claim that. Børge did a route with double the distance and weight in his sled starting on the ice edge, finishing at the ice edge and that I consider a full crossing of Antarctica. In my philosophy of a crossing, you start on the ocean and finish when you have water in front of you.

The way O’Brady considers his crossing according to the rules he set himself is his decision but not necessarily how I would like to consider a crossing to be done. It was not a new route either, there are tracks to the South pole and to the Ross Ice Shelf, so navigation is no longer a problem, you just follow the track and that is a big assistance.

Pangaea in Antarctica on Princess Astrid Coast. by Dmitry Sharomov.

TOJ: Shouldn’t a crossing be as close to 180 degrees across the continent as possible? The O’Brady route is at a 70-degree angle, all within the same quadrant of the continent.

Mike Horn: In 2008, I did a South Pole return trip and did not consider it a crossing because I returned back to my point of departure. They did not return back to their point of departure and passed through the South Pole. When you get to the Pole everywhere you go is North and they wanted to do the shortest route hence the 70-degree angle to be picked up by a plane.

“Being picked up by a plane in the middle of the continent can not be considered a crossing.”

TOJ: According to Adventurestats.com, “The start point has to be from the boundary between land and water – the coastline. Permanent ice is considered part of the ocean, not the land. If the coastline is not obvious due to permanent ice, the start point should be according to the mapped outline of the coast.” In my analysis, if the Ross Ice Shelf has been there for 100,000 years, then it would be considered permanent ice and therefore part of the ocean. These rules seems to accept an inner coastal start and a finish across an “invisible” finish line.

Mike Horn: I agree 100% with your remark above, for that reason I did not use a plane to fly to my starting position but sailed from the African continent, walked and skied over the sea ice onto the permanent ice shelf to the continent via the South Pole, more or less in a straight line to the ocean on the other side.

Mike starting his crossing. by Dmitry Sharomov.

When you climb a mountain, you do not start directly climbing vertically, that’s only the last part of the climb. You leave base camp to approach the mountain and return to base camp, that is a complete expedition. Being picked up by a plane in the middle of the continent can, for me, not be considered a crossing no matter if the ice is on the water or on the continent.

Read Next on TOJ: Racing Across Namibia with Mike Horn

TO BE OR NOT TO BE ASSISTED

TOJ: According to Adventurestats.com, “using tracks created by a motorized vehicle is considered support.” In that case, would a route that incorporates the groomed and marked South Pole Overland Traverse qualify as “unsupported/unassisted”? Does the use of SPOT disqualify the record?

“Small mistakes on an unknown route can lead to disaster.”

Mike Horn: On frequently used routes like O’Brady took, you cannot avoid tracks and groomed roads. All along his route he could be rescued and it takes the unknown adventure out of the exploit. We can consider it as a navigational aid and it definitely makes it much easier pulling the sled, but that is the nature of their crossing. They did what they could do under the circumstances. Any expedition is a feat and needs courage, but following a track cannot be compared with a new route.

Mike leaves his crew to behind to start his new route. By Dmitry Sharomov.

TOJ: Why does the use of a kite make a journey “supported” while the use of skis does not?

Mike Horn: Yet again, I do not know who made the rules, I would consider motorized transport during the crossing as “supported” but not using kites and skis. If they say a kite is wind assisted then using skis should be ski assisted. Flying in with a plane, being dropped off and flown out is also some sort of assistance. This is a topic that we can discuss for hours and not find a solution.

POV view of Mike’s power kite.

TOJ: O’Brady made the claim that he accomplished “The Impossible First” to become the first person in history to traverse the continent of Antarctica coast to coast solo, unsupported and unaided.” Do you recognize his claim for the world record?

Mike Horn: His claim is an insult to Børge Ousland that did the first traverse in 96-97, and has no legs to stand on. Anybody supporting his claim should do some research to understand what was done in Antarctica in the past. He made his own rules. According to his rules, he crossed the continent taking only the landmass into consideration. For me, the ice shelf is part of the ice cover surface of the continent and might not be there forever, so a traverse includes all of it, not only part of it. O’Brady is making a very big claim. If he believes his claim, so be it, but we all have the freedom to support his claim or not.

Arriving to Antarctica. By Dmitry Sharomov.

TOJ: O’Brady and Rudd were dropped off in the same plane, and started their expeditions at the same time, how does that impact their claim?

“It was more a competition than pure adventure.”

Mike Horn: They did not plan the expedition as a team, had their own tents and were completely independent of each other, so we can say it was two solo expeditions. It was more a competition than pure adventure or exploration. Everywhere along the route, they could have assistance if needed, and it’s the logical shortest route across Antarctica. Solo on the beaten track or Solo on a new route, Solo stays Solo but the route we take changes the nature of the beast.

TOJ: Do you think today’s social media, which focuses on click-bait headlines, is at fault for creating controversy here?

Mike Horn: I think if we use social media correctly and we are honest about what was done and how it was done, it stays an amazing tool to share experiences, adventures, and expeditions. We do not play in a stadium where people can sit and watch a match but we can take people along with us on any journey today with sharing photos, video clips, voice files, and blogs. It inspires people and we become examples, and for that reason, I support social media platforms.

Mike pulling his sled with everything he needed to survive for 57 days. By Dmitry Sharomov.

TOJ: Are there still possible first ascents and first solo challenges out there?

Mike Horn: It’s getting more and more difficult to find firsts, but that should not be the main purpose or drive behind what we do or the reason for going out there to live an adventure. Every time I do something for the first time, it is exciting for me, even though it could have been done one hundred times by someone else. First for yourself should be the main reason.

TOJ: What source should we follow as the official guidelines for polar crossing records?

Mike Horn: Your own heart, do it for yourself and others with the correct intentions and you will be happy and satisfied with your accomplishments.

You can follow Mike on his website, or via his social media channels below:

Website: MikeHorn.com
Facebook: @PangaeaMikeHorn
Instagram: @mikehornexplorer

Photos by Dmitry Sharomov

Stay tuned to The Outdoor Journal for the final installment of our Alone Across Antarctica series. 

  1. Monday 8th July: Introducing Alone Across Antarctica Series 2019
  2. Wednesday 10th: Unbreakable Colin O’Brady Achieves the Impossible Once Again
  3. Monday 15th: For the Love of the Journey: An Interview with Captain Louis Rudd
  4. Wednesday 17th: Nowhere to Hide on Antarctica: Børge Ousland’s World Record Legacy
  5. Monday 22nd: Mike Horn’s Race Against Time
  6. Wednesday 24th: The Impossible Truth on Antarctica

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Athletes & Explorers

Aug 06, 2019

In Defense of the Struggle.

Mountain bike racer Alicia Leggett reflects on how the obstacles she's faced have made her a better competitor and a stronger person.

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WRITTEN BY

Alicia Leggett

Like many ambitious people, I hate being bad at things.

Here’s my problem: It’s hard to become good at anything worthwhile without sucking for a while.

I’m a pro mountain bike racer, and last summer was my first season of world-level international racing. I raced in six countries as part of the Enduro World Series and traveled to races outside of North America for the first time. And although this was the season I’d been dreaming of for years, it was the hardest and most frustrating season of my life. More importantly, it took a lot of work to get there, and it will take much more work to keep progressing.

My 2018 season kicked off in March with races in Chile and Columbia, countries I’d never visited but had researched obsessively since I first looked at the season calendar. Living in Missoula, MT, I had spent most of the winter off the bike. I also received my bike for this year the week before I left for South America, so although I was beyond excited and itching to escape the snow, I wasn’t exactly prepared to compete with the world’s best.

“I remember crying in the shower”

I had done what I could. Moving to somewhere warm and dry wasn’t an option for me last winter, so I made the most of things and embraced the mental break from riding. I skied more days than I didn’t ski, I learned to enjoy running in the snow (and started borrowing my favorite dog, who became a great running buddy) and I started lifting heavier and more consistently than I ever have. Still, when I showed up to the start line at 11,000 feet in the Chilean Andes, I struggled.

The two-day race was brutal. I remember crying in the shower after the first day, dreading the morning when I’d have to wake up and do it again. But somehow, those two days are imprinted in my mind as two of the best days of my life. The Chilean sky is beautiful. The mountains are rugged. The terrain made me feel like I was riding on another planet. A week later, I raced in the Colombian jungle, in a mess of tire-sucking mud and suffocating humidity. I reveled in the misery.

“I’m not here to write about the times things went well”

All things considered, those two South American races went all right, and I collected a couple of race results I can be proud of, but I returned to the U.S. battered, exhausted and demoralized. But things improved from there. I put one foot in front of the other, took one pedal stroke at a time, and kept moving. I spent time riding my favorite trails, taking bike park laps and racing at the regional level for the next few months. I started running women’s clinics in my area, continued coaching teenagers and generally had a great time riding my bike. I won four regional races in a row, which was exciting proof of my growth as a rider. But I’m not here to write about the times’ things went well. This is a defence of the struggle.

After racing the Enduro World Series round in Whistler, I returned home and focused on preparing for the season’s final races in Spain and Italy.

The first day of racing in Spain was one of my best race days ever. I climbed about 6,000 feet and raced four tricky stages to land myself in 19th of 41 of the world’s best racers heading into the next day. I was so excited I could hardly sleep – I loved the course, and being in the top half of the EWS field felt great. I just needed to keep my riding smooth through the next day and I’d land myself in the top 20.

On the first stage of the next day, things fell apart. My dropper lever got stuck engaged and my seat kept popping up, which was not helpful in steep, rocky terrain. I crashed. Hard. I finished the stage, much slower than I wanted to, then admitted to myself that I might not finish the race. I looked like I had an extra elbow in the center of my chest and it hurt to breathe. I watched a volunteer wheel my bike away and felt my high hopes disappear.

I’d made it through the whole season without any serious crashes or mechanical problems. Why did the problems have to show up at one of the races I cared about the most?

At least I had one race left. After a round of chest x-rays (verdict: nothing broken) and a few days of rest, I was ready to ride again. I drove to Italy, fixed my bike and studied the course. Practice day arrived, and it was the first day I could move around without chest pain, so I considered that a good sign, until I caught my front wheel in a corner and body-slammed the ground. Once practice was over, I started to feel everything.

My chest still hurt and I had a massive bruise on my quad left from the previous crash. On top of that, I’d landed on a big rock just inside my hipbone and my bloody arm had started to swell.

“I crossed an ocean for this,” I kept thinking.

I showed up to the start line battered but determined to make the best of things. I just had four race stages left in my season. I would show up and ride my best.

I hadn’t quite learned the lesson the previous week: Sometimes, things just fall apart. We can’t control all of it. And if we could control it, where would the adventure be?

I controlled the variables I could, but in that final race, my luck had run out.

I bent my derailleur on a rock on the first stage. I also broke my chain guide on the first stage. My chain broke on the second stage as I tried to sprint up a hill with my limited gear range. I rode a clean but conservative third stage before lining up at the top of the fourth stage.

My entire season had built up to that moment. I left the U.S. riding better than ever before, and I’d made sure everything on my bike was dialed. I’d take all the steps I could to set myself up for success, and things still hadn’t gone my way. Regardless, I had to keep giving my all. The last stage that day was my favorite, and I went in for redemption.

I knew I shouldn’t set my hopes too high. After a few minutes of riding fast, skipping through technical rock sections and pedaling hard whenever I had the chance, I felt my chain drop off my chainring and all I could do was try to keep my momentum. So much for having a good stage. I dropped into one of the most iconic sections in all of enduro racing, a rocky corridor lined with thousands of cheering spectators that feels like it goes directly down the ridge to the Mediterranean. It was incredible. After a brutal day, when it felt like everything went wrong, I crossed the line ecstatic.

An article I read once explained that gamblers experience a bigger rush when they almost win than when they actually win. That’s part of what keeps them coming back. I think I’m the same way. For the entire trip, I had great race stages interrupted by the most frustrating moments of my season. I went from feeling on top of the world to feeling awful over and over, in just a few seconds each time. Those races showed me that I could be on-pace with where I wanted to be, racing with the best of them, but reminded me to never take a good result for granted.

“Learn to love struggling”

If I’d finished the season the way I wanted to, I would probably be content, and maybe I wouldn’t train as hard through the off-season. I can use my unfinished business with the EWS as motivation to come back stronger. I learned much more from the Europe races than I ever learned from races that went well, and I will focus on everything I can carry forward with me into future races. I learned about on-the-go bike fixes and gained practice staying calm when things felt disastrous, which, as it turns out, is important.

I’m now in the middle of my 2019 race season, and haven’t forgotten last year’s lessons. I’ve had a few explosive, unprecedented results so far this year, so I know I’ve internalized at least some of what I learned. Each setback has poured a bit more fuel on the fire, and I’m back, mentally and physically tougher than ever.

I’ve heard so many times that we can’t choose what happens to us, but we can choose how we react. I’m choosing to learn whenever I can.

Years of riding bikes has shown me the value in doing things that are difficult. The most fun trails are usually the ones I’m good at riding, so I make myself ride the ones I don’t enjoy. I look for technical climbs, off-camber corners and tight switchbacks, which I would love to avoid. And these days, I can think of a few trails I used to hate that I now find satisfying.

Riding bikes is hard. Crashing out of a race sucks. Mechanical problems also suck. Both at once… well, you get the idea, but that’s mountain biking sometimes, and life. We are all doing the best we can with what we know.

So, my advice to anyone reading: Learn to love struggling. Do the things that are hard, especially when you don’t want to. If a ride or race falls apart, find the lesson and keep moving. You’ll prove to yourself, over and over, that you can survive.

 

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