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The mountains are calling and I must go, and I will work on while I can, studying incessantly.

- John Muir


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Adventure Travel

Feb 01, 2018

Taming the Munga-Thirri Desert with Mike Horn

Crossing Earth’s biggest parallel dune desert, in the middle of Australia, with the world's greatest explorer—Mike Horn. Riding in his trusty beast, a V8 Mercedes G500, I join his team for five days journeying into the Simpson Desert, and dig a little deeper into what makes him tick.

WRITTEN BY

Lorenzo Fornari

 

On February 7th 2017, Mike Horn, the legendary explorer, completed the longest ever solo, 5100 km, unsupported north-to-south traverse of Antarctica in a record-breaking 57-days. Mike Horn, and The Outdoor Journal’s Lorenzo Fornari cross the earth’s biggest parallel dune desert, in the middle of Australia. This story appeared in The Outdoor Journal Spring 2018 edition of the print magazine. Subscribe here to see this and other amazing stories in your own hands.

Dashing through the Simpson Desert desert. Photo: Alex Rae
Dashing through the Simpson Desert desert. Photo: Alex Rae

“We have to be a little bit of a criminal in our lives. Just think of robbing a bank. That excites me!”

When I found out I would be joining explorer Mike Horn on the Australian leg of his Pole2Pole expedition this August, I was both ecstatic and terrified. Horn’s fabled exploits are legendaryhis survival skills stem from his time in the South African special forces, and his sheer inhuman determination to explore has brought him to climb four of the ‘eight-thousanders’ without oxygen, circumnavigate the equator with no motorized assistance over an eighteen-month period, and follow the Amazon river from source to ocean with nothing more than a glorified boogie board. Earlier this year Horn crossed the South Pole unassisted in a record time of 56 days and 22 hours, a 5,000 km trek with nothing but skis, a kite and a lot of olive oil-saturated food to sustain his 12,000 – 16,000 calorie-a-day diet. Pole2Pole is Horn’s two-year retirement expedition that begins and ends in Monaco and will see him cross the North and South Poles. Now, faced with the opportunity to travel with the greatest explorer of our time in the heart of a country that has a reputation of everything trying to kill you, would it be a recipe for disaster? Nay, I loved every second.

Prepping

2 weeks of gear for the Simpson Desert Australian expedition. Photo: Lorenzo FornariI was sent the flight details, program, and a checklist of equipment, which we had to make sure could all fit into one carry-on sized piece of luggage. All said and done, 2 weeks worth of clothes (“pack for winter-like nights”), gear, camera & multiple lenses, action cameras and attachments, laptop, and 2 pairs of shoes managed to fit in a 32-liter F-Stop Lotus photograph bag. Years of practice packing for communist Chinese-inspired “one bag policy” airlines taught me well and I admit it felt a bit unsettling to pack so little for a place so far. The inverse correlation that the further we go, the more we need.

August 6, Sunday

Half a world, two flights, five meals, eight time zones and a whole other season away, I touched down in Brisbane, affectionately dubbed Brizzy or Brisvegas by locals. The airport hotel would be my first step of the expedition and is where I got to meet other members of the team who flew in from Germany, Japan, Switzerland, and other parts of Australia. The only person missing was Mike himself. Jerry Stamoulis, our overall expedition coordinator from Mercedes Australia & NZ, showed us Horn’s whereabouts on an interactive map on his mobile phone. “The storm off the coast has delayed him a bit, but should still be okay to meet us at 6:00 a.m.,” he said. Horn would arrive by boat, the Pangaea—a 35-meter ice-breaking, aluminum-hulled sailboat which he imagined in every detail whilst walking the Arctic Circle for two-and-a-half years. “He always finds a way,” Jessica, Horn’s youngest daughter, assured us as we looked at the dot on the Delorme satellite tracker marking him still far from Brisbane. It was late and the dinner had been bountiful so I called it a night and tried to get rested up for the big adventure ahead.

 

Monday, August 7

With wicked jet lag and a pre-dawn wake-up call, I partook in a traditional Australian vegemite-infused breakfast. Vegemite, for those who aren’t familiar with it, is a yeast-extract spread that looks like tar and tastes something like a cross between liquid burnt toast and sorrow—it’s a delicacy in these parts.

That’s when Mike Horn walked inand his presence could be immediately felt. He’s just one of those people who steps into a room and it goes silent as everyone turns towards him. There he stood with his devilish grin, in expedition attire fitted to his sturdy athletic figure, and all of it laced with boundless charisma and magnetism. He’d just arrived by sea, the sun a mere glint over the horizon, and here Horn made jokes, literally jumping around, greeting each person like he’d known them for a lifetime and we were all reunited for this amazing adventure which he couldn’t wait to begin. His jovial mood stalled when one of our resident German YouTubers wasn’t ready for departure. When Von der Laden finally appeared, Horn gave him a disconcerting, murderous stare while madly grinning at the same time and firmly proclaimed in his Afrikaans accent, “you need-to-understand- discipline”, all the while holding Felix’s hand in what can only be described as a death grip.

Mike Horn emanates irresistible enthusiasm from every fiber of his being from the moment you meet him. His aura is so strong you find yourself confused as to why you’re smiling, even after your hand has been crushed. “Is your death grip a good way to make a good first impression?” I asked.  “Hahaha, no, no,” he replied, “the death grip is something my father taught me. If you meet somebody, you’ve got nothing to hide. You look him in the eyes and you squeeze his hand. If that guy doesn’t look you in the eyes and return a squeeze, it doesn’t matter how hard, don’t hang around a long time.”

“We only have 30,000 days of life available to us. You need to think at length about how you’re going to use the time.”

51 years young, Horn is cited as “the greatest explorer of our time.” His wanderlust can be traced to age eight. He had told his father he was going to bike to his uncle’s house, failing to specify he meant the uncle who lived over 200 km away, not the one next door. After his time in the South African special forces and a successful debut in the fresh produce industry, he moved to Switzerland on a one-way flight without a dime in his pocket when he was 24 years old. Since then he’s been exploring every corner of the earth, breaking and setting unprecedented records along the way, and inspiring young and old and everyone in between. On principle, Horn hates wasting time and he firmly believes that we have to keep on exploring, be it places or ourselves and our own limits. He believes we must make the most of our time on this planet. #30000

“We only have 30,000 days of life available to us. You need to think at length about how you’re going to use the time,” he explains. Horn made up his mind a long time ago and has spent his life exploring the world. His thirst for exploration was passed down to his daughters, Jessica and Annika, who help run the family business Horn Media.

Mike Horn and Matt Raudonikis discussing the game plan for the next week. Matt is the only member of the expedition who’s been to the Simpson Desert before and can share invaluable information. Felix snoozing in back. Photo: Lorenzo Fornari

Growing up as the child of an explorer, Jessica says, “It’s made me a very open-minded person.”

“My earliest memory of joining my dad was at the end of the Latitude Zero expedition in Kenya, I was five,” she shares. The Horn family’s first expedition together was to Bylot Island in Northern Canada to train for the North Pole. For Jessica Horn’s 12th birthday, she arrived at the North Pole with her sister, mom, and dad. “I check time to time and I still have the record as the youngest person to get there non-motorized. Other younger kids have been dropped off by helicopter and such, we actually skied hundreds of kilometers from Barneo, a Russian base.”

Freshly graduated from university, she heeds the advice of her father, “Follow your own way, and not the herds. And say ‘yes’ to everything,” she adds from her own young but formidable experience.”

Jessica’s mother, Cathy, passed away three years ago. “My mother was my biggest role model. She did everything with a smile and supported my father’s dreams and visions. ‘Go out and do it, I believe in you,’ she’d tell him,” Jessica says.

Jessica Horn’s unique vantage point of the world inspires her to motivate people to travel, to explore, and most importantly for her, to galvanize people to protect the environment. “With Horn Media,” she says, “we want to give a voice to everyone and all of the organizations that are trying to do something good for the planet.”

Jessica, her father’s reflection. Photo: Lorenzo Fornari

The next five of our 30,000 days would be spent together crossing one of the most desolate places on Earth. First stop, the Brisbane Archerfield Aerodrome for a charter flight. A 12-person turboprop Beechcraft that would carry us to our first base camp.  Seated in the co-pilot’s chair, I refrained from flipping the captivating switches and buttons, although I really wanted to know what would happen if I hit the shiny Coffee switchHours of endless, arid desert passed by and started to become monotonous. Given my passion for all things airplanes, I managed to overwhelm our friendly pilot Clint with so many questions that, now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure he started talking to nonexistent control towers just to get me to shut up.

Jessica Horn staring out of the Beechcraft aircraft’s window on our way to Birdsville. The endless desert would be our home for the next 5 days. Photo: Lorenzo Fornari

We landed 1,300 km away in Birdsville—a frontier town situated on the edge of the Simpson Desert, which is known as Munga-Thirri by the aborigines.

Preparing for a landing in the outback: Photo: Ryosei Suzuki

In the dry, but agreeable desert heat at the aptly named Birdsville Hotel, our fleet awaited: seven glorious Mercedes G-Wagens. Two were configured for logistics and support, three were the “back-to-basics” G350 model, and the two others: Mike Horn’s own black and white, trusty G500s. Readily distinguishable by German plates and left-hand drive, Horn’s vehicles include extended gas tanks, special suspensions, and oddly-enough, rear-seat entertainment screens which seemed very out of place in such an ‘extreme’ adventure vehicle. His beloved wheels have accompanied him on every continent through some of the least hospitable places in the world. The only emotion that could describe Horn’s affinity for his faithful Mercedes is genuine love.

“This is a BEAST,” Horn says of his beloved G-Wagen, “Why must you look for something better if you have the best?”

The adventure team was finally all together, cordial introductions took place but Mike Horn was interested in one thing: “Let’s eat on the road! I want to get out there and explore.” The Mercedes fleet was a tease, a seduction that could only be met with pedal to the metal.

The adventure commences in Birdsville, on the edge of the Simpson Desert. Our small fleet of G-Class 4×4 ready for the adventure. Photo: Alex Rae

And so, as ready as we could be with “Big Red” burgers in our bellies, a moniker earned from their proximity to the biggest dune of the of the desert, we finally set out. The adventure begins. First step, head to Big Red, a 40m high ridge. It would allow us to also get acquainted with the cars, the unique terrain and marked the beginning of the desert crossing. The Simpson Desert (Munga-Thirri) is the largest parallel sand dune desert in the world, made up of more than 1100 blood red and orange dunes, shaped by the westerly winds into long sandy waves, some of which can reach 200km in length.

Racing towards the Big Red. Photo: Alex Rae

The last time I had driven a 4×4 offroad was several years prior in a manual-gear Chevy Blazer on the Ruta 40 in Patagonia, so I was a bit startled when Mike told me to take the wheel of his car but I was stoked and eager to do well. He jumped in the back seat and his daughter assumed the role of co-pilot. I was getting the full Horn experience. A quick rundown on every button, lever, and pedal, and Horn declares, “Now that that’s all clear, drive!” No pressure whatsoever. I made sure the handbrake wasn’t pulled and pressed down hard on the accelerator, per my tutor’s instructions. I didn’t get yelled at for at least three minutes for my rudimentary-level driving abilities, so I’d say it was a success. Within sight of Big Red, we hit the brakes to wait for the team to catch up and prepare for the approach to range over the mighty dune. “You have to know your terrain. In the afternoon the sand will get hot and therefore will be softer. At night, cold and firm. Go fast, but not too fast,” Horn directed. We didn’t want to lose traction and energy and get stuck.

One, two, three, I hit the accelerator and the gas engine roared to life. “Go! Go! Go Go!” Mike bellowed, “Yes! Yes! Go! Don’t accelerate too much! Center diff-lock off! That’s it! Center diff-lock on! Look at the sand! Negotiate, read it!” We crested the mighty Big Red.

Mike Horn atop the Big Red dune spurring on a fellow comrade trying to get up the desert’s highest and steepest dune. Photo: Lorenzo Fornari See the documentary with more footage here

The entire convoy stopped atop Big Red, we looked out at a sea of orange, yellow, beige, and sand. Sand as far as the eye could see. Sizing up the hostile terrain that lay ahead, we partially deflated our tires—a necessary precaution while driving on sand, although it consumes up to 50 percent more fuel. “The most important thing about off-road driving is getting the tire pressure right,” Mike explains as he used a twig he found nearby to get the pressure to approximately 1.5 bar. Holding up the small piece of wood, he added, “This is the most ancient tool that nature has ever created. If you know how to use it, you can do everything with it. You clean your teeth. You can deflate a tire. You can even wipe your arse with it.” It might be his ability to exist both sternly and merrily that makes him right for this job.

Father and daughter, Jessica, work as a team and deflate the tires. Photo: Lorenzo Fornari

In our mighty steeds, we barreled west through the warm, savanna-like empty terrain. Some 1200 dunes run north to south and we’ll be crossing them on our journey west.  “Here you have vegetation, and where there’s vegetation there are usually signs of life,” Horn explains excitedly, “and so, while it is arid and there is no water, you think something might be able to live here—that’s what makes it exciting.”

The Big Red dune, over 40 meters high, is the largest dune in the Simpson Desert and the starting point of most expeditions. Photo: Lorenzo Fornari

Pole2Pole expedition is rooted in three pillars: environmental protection—through providing research on wildlife and the environment; adventure; and sharing. Any discoveries that might contribute to science were supposed to be noted and marked with GPS coordinates by team members. I had prepared myself to encounter red kangaroos, desert dingos, wild camels hoary-headed grebes (which, despite the Tolkienesque name, is actually similar to a duck), Australian bustards, even bilbies (a surprisingly cute cross between a rabbit, mole, and jumping mouse which may or may not kill you). Alas, save for a single dingo the only animal we encountered was the fly and therefore cut the scientific part of the expedition, short.

Photo: Alex Rae

Now entrusted as a driver, I took turns at the wheel with the Horn kin as night descended rapidly. Visibility in such a corrugated landscape can prove deadly if not careful. Revving to the top of a dune to successfully cross it leaves little time for reaction if the car ahead in the convoy is stuck, something invisible until too late. To take precaution, every vehicle trekking through the desert must be 3.5 m high, carry a fluorescent red safety flag, and is equipped with a Citizens Band (CB) radio so we can communicate within our convoy as well as contact travelers within a 3-4 km range—useful for alerts or friendly conversation that ranged from witty conversation to lewd jokes, which unfortunately I couldn’t make much out of given the rather thick Ozzy accents. In any case, they were welcome during the long and sometimes monotonous drive.

The importance of the safety flag. You can see it over the ridge. Photo: Lorenzo Fornari

Night was upon us. “Be on the lookout for the camp. Right-hand side,” Stamoulis notified through the CB. A few faint lights glimmered and we made a right turn after a day of going straight. I half-expected an adventure with Mike Horn to include hunting and foraging our own dinner, but chef Billy Dohnt and the entire support crew prepared something of Michelin-star quality. Grilled surf & turf featuring giant shrimp, kangaroo, emu, and alligator with fresh greens and avocado in a light vinaigrette, boiled potatoes, and fine French mustard, plus apple crumble with cream for dessert. All accompanied by some amazing local wines and brews.

Our camp for the first night. Nothing but stars and sand. And shrubs. Want to watch more? click here Photo: Alex Rae

We worked together to make the camp a cozy and light-hearted place to wind down for the night. We all had swag kits, which were like large duffel bags that we unrolled and within them had a self-contained foam mattress and collapsible tent, all-in-one. The full moon illuminated the camp like a great blue gas lantern. In front of our large campfire, dubbed “Bush-T.V.” we sat spellbound. The wood crackled and embers rose towards the stars. Its flame kept us warm from the bitingly cold night as the arid and bare desert couldn’t retain the heat of the day.

Gathered around the fire in the bitter cold desert, telling stories, drinking wine. Photo: Ryosei Suzuki

All the while, earthy, full-bodied red wines and craft beers flowed freely and we carried on the ageless tradition of storytelling around the campfire. Mike Horn’s tales of hazards and thrills on every corner of the globe had us hanging onto his every word. He also spoke of the sadness of seeing starving polar bears drown or so weak that they’re killed by their own prey. He even hit us with a bit of trivia: Do you know what “Arctic” and “Antarctic” mean? (Answer at the end).

Mike telling one of his many stories around the fire. Photo: Lorenzo Fornari

Horn makes no announcements that he’s going to sleep. Nor does he bother with things like tents. Instead, he unfurled his swag kit by his Mercedes and slept right on top of the tent/mattress, beneath the stars. Shortly after, I got hit by a wall of exhaustion and didn’t even care if there was a lurking dingo, I crawled into my swag tent and Morpheus’ embrace held me tight.

Tuesday, August 8

I awoke from such a deep sleep, I had to piece together my surroundings. Is that sound outside a dingo scavenging the camp or a fellow expeditioner snoring?  Why are my dirt-covered boots inside the tent with me? Happily warm in my silk lining and winter-thick sleeping bag, I shunned the freezing air outside. But then I remembered wise words for Mike Horn, “Without discipline, you can never be motivated. People ask me how I can be motivated to get out of the tent every day, whether there are 200 km winds or it’s -50ºC? I’m not motivated to get out of the tent, I’m human. I’m disciplined to get out the tent”. I thought of those wise words as I put my discipline on snooze for 15 minutes.

Dawn in the desert. Worth it. Photo: Lorenzo Fornari

My day officially started at 5:30 in the morning with wet wipes for a shower. I reassembled my various bits of clothing and gear and made a beeline for the campfire, and found a few others had the same idea. Light crept up from the horizon. The world turned purple, then blue, dark yellow, and eventually orange as the sun made its grand entrance.

Billy got breakfast going when suddenly a small generator disrupted the peaceful silence of the desert and crackling campfire. Of all the reasons there was a ginny was for…a Nespresso machine. Any romantic notion of an old-school camp rumbled away as the harsh reality of modern comforts and technology that we’d left far behind came rushing back. It was like finding a Starbucks in the middle of the playa at Burning Man. “I don’t know man,” Dohnt said to me with a resigned look. “Someone said we needed one, so I made sure we had it.” All was forgiven as he broke out the bacon steaks, eggs, fruits, bread and butter. And vegemite.

Mike preparing and serving the crew some amazing ham steaks, eggs, and bruschetta. Truly a breakfast of champions. Photo: Alex Rae

Breaking down the camp was as simple as rolling up our swag and making sure we left nature untouched as we found it. By 8:00 a.m. we were pointed due west to cross a few hundred more dunes to Poeppel Corner—where Queensland, Northern Territory and South Australia converge.

lanruoJ roodtuO ehT. Want to watch more? click here Photo: Lorenzo Fornari

I took the wheel in one of Mike’s cars, this time accompanied by Stamoulis who at this stage of the trip just went by “the Greek” and the legendary Erwin Wonisch, an original designer of the Mercedes G-Class. He knows every nut, bolt, and detail of the vehicle since it was first developed in the early 1970s and manufactured in Graz, Austria. It was another day of learning advanced driving techniques accompanied by a soundtrack of laughter and eighties music. “Forget what Mike taught you,” Wonisch said in his unmistakable German accent “Put the other diff lock on and go up the dune in third gear. Ja! Go!” So much for Mike “learning everything I know from Erwin”.

Legendary Erwin Wonisch (bottom right), one of the fathers of the Mercedes G-Wagen. Photo: Alex Rae

We passed dry riverbeds, their thin white crust crumbled beneath the tires, leaving deep red and brown scars in the track. Contrasted with cloudless blue skies, it was a sight to behold and a welcome break from the up and down dune driving. Anyone crossing this stretch alone could be stranded for days without ever seeing another person or even able to make outside contact. In such inhospitable terrain, death is always a possibility.

Photo: Alex Rae

Approximately 170 km from Big Red, we finally arrive at Poeppel Corner. A large bronze plaque set on a concrete pillar greets us, commemorating this arbitrarily selected geographical spot (it was moved a few times since the 1880s when Mr. Poeppel, a surveyor, had first set the point).  A few souvenir pictures later, Horn gravitated to a concrete pillar planted in the sand and decided that he would lift this 100-kilo object because he could. He doesn’t back down from a challenge and this was no exception. After half a dozen thwarted attempts, he kept at it, psyching himself up more each time. We held our breaths as we collectively envisioned him literally breaking his back, or a hernia at the very least, attempting this seemingly futile exercise. Through sheer determination, strength, physics, and stubbornness, Horn finally managed to leverage the massive concrete slab onto his shoulder and swagger a dozen meters on shifting sand before unceremoniously dumping it back from whence it came. Mike the übermensch proving yet again he’s not actually from this planet. We let out a collective muted cheer for his exploit, relieved we didn’t need to use the sat phone for a medevac.

Poeppel Corner. Where 3 Australian states meet. Photo: Lorenzo Fornari

The caravan continued west towards the famed Dalhousie Springs, a remote oasis that sports more than 60 springs and pools, some as warm as 40C. One more night in the outback, we set up camp. Most of us knew one another for little more than 24 hours. We arrived from varied walks of life, professions, ages and cultures, yet it felt like we were already a tight-knit team. Two days of driving in a terrain I’d never encountered before with two of the most experienced, hardcore drivers in the world—and neither of them reprimanded me too much. Not bad if I may say so myself.

Despite having a generator to produce espressos, we were still far from modern amenities, wandering off to find a quiet spot to dig a hole and squat. The full harvest moon made the night incredibly bright but feeling pretty vulnerable with pants around the ankles in a makeshift desert WC.

Mike holding up Issue 12 of The Outdoor Journal which also featured him on the cover and his crossing of the Namibia Desert. Photo: Alex Rae

Around the fire that night, German YouTube superstars Felix von der Laden and Peter Smits expressed to Horn that they hadn’t been disconnected from the internet for this long in their lives. And so, Horn and the Germans shared their two divergent alien worlds around the campfire, a generation gap happily extending a piece of each other for better understanding. “Let me get this straight,” Mike said in a rare moment of incredulity “you have millions of followers on YouTube…who watch you play video games?” “Yes, that’s how we started a few years ago” Peter added.

It was the first time I ever saw Mike with an expression I’d never thought I’d see: genuine surprise and incredulity. That split moment was the very definition of a “generation gap”. Mike, however, rarely backs down and went on the counter-offensive to try and understand and conquer the unknown. Within minutes he was asking a deluge of questions, smiling as he chipped away at this totally alien idea. Always curious, always exploring. “That’s why I keep exploring. It’s food for me. It’s what makes me happy.”

I let him grok the new ideas and I turned my gaze and mind towards the shimmering stars above and I noticed the constellations, familiar but somehow subtly different from my normal Northern hemisphere view. Like the last time I was in this land, I had a sense of ‘twilight zone’ surreality that I quite enjoy as it keeps me on my toes.

A perfect starry night descended upon us. Photo: Lorenzo Fornari

Caked by the dust and sand from the past few days, I peeled away from the fire to slip into dreamland, looking forward to the next day’s adventure to Dalhousie Springs and the promise of a hot bath.

Wednesday, August 9

We emerged from our warm cocoons before dawn to find Horn had already stoked the fire and prepared bruschetta made with bread freshly baked the night before in a cast iron pot by Billy the master chef.  The smell of coffee wafted through the camp and following it to its source I was greeted by poached eggs and a bounty of spreads, fruits, and pastries. And vegemite.

Packing up, tying down. Photo: Alex Rae

Upholding the “leave no trace” doctrine, we were back on the road traveling along the French Line track, named for French surveyors who had come on an unsuccessful search here for oil more than a century ago. I rode with Mike as he piloted at breakneck speeds down dry river beds, fervently attacking every dune like it was his last. While he was in his element I figured it was a perfect moment to pick his brain.


LF
: You’re known as Mike Horn, “Explorer“. What is the difference between adventure and exploration?
MH: I think we all have an adventurous spirit but we are not all explorers. An explorer explores the adventurous spirit. You can be an explorer in art, in science. When you become an explorer, you’re willing to go out of your comfort zone and explore your adventurous spirit.

LF: What is “Adventure Travel” for you?
MH: Adventure travel means you’re learning something new, seeing something new, and going off the beaten track. You can’t necessarily make a living with adventure so it’s got to be more than your passion. It’s got to be your lifestyle, a way of living. What we usually have in life is too many options. We opt out of everything! It’s not the easy moments, it’s the difficult ones you want. Greed is one of the biggest downfalls of the human being. The more he has, the more he wants. It becomes this vicious circle that you go in that you think that you only live alone on this planet and you don’t care about the rest behind you.

LF: Do you believe adventure travel can save the world by educating people?
MH: I think that adventure travel can be a big catalyst to make people want to conserve the planet for future generations. Respect nature and respect the people that will admire nature the same way you do who will come after you.

LF: Do you get a say in giving a message for the environment and generate awareness?
MH: I don’t think “the environment” is something we should speak about anymore. The environment should become a lifestyle. Conserving the environment and taking care of the environment is simple respect.

LF: What keeps you going when you’re in a difficult situation?
MH: I think about coming back alive to a family that supports me, to a group of people that love me. I don’t leave home because I don’t like being home. I come back home because I love my family, I love my daughters, unfortunately, my wife’s not alive anymore, but I loved coming back to see her. That’s why I want to survive, because it’s sincere. I don’t do what I do for any other reason than to feel happy and content with my life but I have a responsibility that goes with it. That responsibility is towards the people that give me the freedom to do what I do. To be able to take and use that freedom means respecting one thing: you have to come back alive.

LF: What’s a “Mike Horn motto” we should live by?
MH: We have to be a little bit of a criminal in our lives. Just think of robbing a bank. That excites me. How am I going to outsmart that alarm system and all that? When you go out and adventure, you’ve got to be able to think through the whole spectrum of life.

LF: Adventurers, or adrenaline junkies, are commonly associated with recklessness and bravado, people who don’t respect life or their own lives.

MH: I don’t do it to die. I do it to live. The moment I take the decision to cross Antarctica I know I could die, but I’m not afraid of losing. That will to win becomes bigger than that fear to lose. If you have that will to win, then dying is part of what you do.

LF: What is the worst thing you have ever had to eat to survive?
MH: Rotten walrus that was killed by a polar bear. It was bloated and half rotten. It was my limit but I had to survive.

LF: That sounds positively revolting. OK, so what is the best thing you’ve ever eaten?
MH: I had a 3 star Michelin chef, a friend of mine, prepare some of my meals for my arctic expedition. Once a week I’d have a treat. They were the best ever meals, foie-gras, poulet farci, etc. The best thing I ate during my travels that I provided for myself were wild strawberries. And caribou. Caribou is tender, sweet. Very good.

LF: Everyone has a weakness in life. What’s yours?
MH: Chocolate.

LF: Do you have a favorite curse word?
MH: [With a great big sarcastic smile]: I never say curse words. Ha ha. If I had to choose, I guess it would be ‘cac’.

Watch our exclusive video with Mike Horn for more interviews and more stunning footage of the Simpson Desert crossing here

 

And with that, he wore a big grin and his eyes lit up like a mischievous kid. His charisma is what so effortlessly captivates people, making them willing to follow him over the edge of the world. He’s affable and a jester who likes to tell naughty jokes, yet a laser-focused leader the instant a situation calls for it.

Mike’s famous (?) dancing moves. “He has no rhythm at all!” Jessica exclaimed. Photo: Lorenzo Fornari

Listening to Horn, I understand that he truly is passionate about life, the good and the bad. He talks fast, trying to get out as many thoughts as possible in a short a time. His ideas, experiences, and memories resulting from such an extraordinary and saturated life magnetizes anyone within earshot into his orbit. When he curses, which is a lot, it is not because he’s vulgar but rather he can hardly contain his enthusiasm and steadfast zest for living.

While the weather and scenery remained relatively unchanged, the color of the land became slightly darker and richer as we continued further inland, reminding me of African bush.

Photo: Ryosei Suzuki

We arrived at Dalhousie Springs in the late afternoon. Flushing toilets and camping lots awaited. It was a bittersweet feeling as we neared the beginning of the end of this amazing adventure. The almost 40C hot thermal pool after four days without more than wet-wipes was sublime. Our motley convoy lingered in the pool until sunset, playing in the water, floating around and trying to swim towards the hundreds of birds that rested in the surrounding trees. We stepped out from the utter bliss of the dark green hot spring and within seconds we were literally assaulted by swarms of mosquitoes. We rushed to change into dry clothing, swatting ourselves like maniacs doing so.

The warm, 40 degree, Dalhousie Springs in the middle of nowhere. They were a welcome break and a chance to get clean. Photo: Alex Rae

As open fires weren’t allowed on the campgrounds, this last evening together was lit by the harvest moon. We spent the night swimming beneath the Milkyway as we celebrated the journey and took it upon ourselves to lighten our liquids in tow.

Thursday, August 10

On the last morning of the expedition, one of our Japanese members from the team Ryosei Suzuki, led us in a welcome impromptu yoga session. We did sun salutations as dingoes circled in the distance. We indulged in the last breakfast of the trip and packed up for Mount Dare, the next closest inhabited place some three hours away by car. From there we’d fly to Sydney, and then homeward bound.

Mt. Dare. The only civilisation for hundreds of kilometers. Photo: Lorenzo Fornari

Mt. Dare was nothing more than a gas pump, car shop, restaurant and souvenir shop with a broken windmill which really completed the stereotypical image you’d expect of a middle-of-nowhere outpost like this. It was just missing some koalas and kangaroos. We entered the unassuming faded red front door and were totally awestruck. Strung from the ceiling were hundreds of foam beer coolers from around the world. Stickers, hats and other memorabilia, including old magazines and VHS tapes brought by passersby over the decades filled the space. The fun cheery staff was everything I could have hoped for from an Australian outback hole-in-the-wall. It was nice to have a stone cold beer and a rustic lunch, but it was a bit too soon to be hit by things like satellite T.V. and the internet. I left my devices switched off and disconnected to savor the adventure spirit a little longer.

In the fields behind the Mt. Dare outpost, a small turboprop plane similar to the one that had brought us from Brisbane to Birdsville lay in wait to carry us off to Sydney.

Mike gives a great big hug to Satoko Suzuki. Photo: Ryosei Suzuki

As we boarded, I realized these last few days were normal, possibly even relaxing, for the greatest explorer of our time. “Thanks Mike,” I said on my way up the ramp stairs, giving a firm handshake. “It’s been an amazing adventure for us and a dream come true, thanks for having us along for a few of your 30,000 days.”

“Remember,” he replied, still firmly shaking my hand, pulling me in towards him a bit, looking me squarely in the eyes like he was going to deliver the secret of the universe and with a slight grin, and in his enthralling Afrikaans accent told me, “If your dreams don’t scare you, you’re not dreaming big enough.”

Mike imparting some advice and always more stories. Photo: Alex Rae

PS: The answer to the meaning of Arctic & Antarctic? From the Greek ‘arktos’ or “bear” and “anti-bear”. In the North, there are bears, while in the south, none. I bet you didn’t know that. I certainly didn’t. Now you have a pub quiz question you can use. You’re welcome.

Watch our exclusive video with Mike Horn for more interviews and more stunning footage of the Simpson Desert crossing here

Hi there! Inspired to cross and explore the Simpson Desert? Let us know and we can help you organize it! Deserts not your thing? Visit outdoorvoyage.com and choose some of the best adventures around the world with only the safest and most reputable adventure operators.

A beautiful group picture finale. Photo: Alex Rae
The end of a long and hot adventure. Photo: Lorenzo Fornari

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Jul 06, 2018

Rescue from the Ice: A Narrow Escape In Iceland

Two men drive a jeep off a glacier and into a crevasse in Iceland. A US Air Force PJ recounts his role in a civilian rescue mission while stationed at a naval base in the North Atlantic.

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WRITTEN BY

Skiy Detray

This story originally featured in a print issue of the Outdoor Journal. You can subscribe here.

November, 2006. The call came in as our team was having dinner at our base in Keflavik, Iceland.  A civilian jeep had fallen into a crevasse on the massive Hofsjokull Glacier. The jeep was wedged 80 feet down, with unknown passengers trapped inside. Accessing the jeep and saving these people would be complex and dangerous, so local authorities had called in the American military’s elite rescue team.

As a Pararescueman (or PJ) I worked on a team with some of the most elite soldiers in the U.S. military.  PJs are highly specialized personnel, trained to conduct high-risk combat and civilian rescue operations at a moment’s notice, anywhere in the world.  Unlike other special forces – Navy SEALs and Army Green Berets – who are trained to hunt and take life, the PJ’s primary mission is to save life: we resort to lethal force only when necessary to protect our patient.  I was stationed at Keflavik, from where we conducted military rescue operations but also extended our services to the local Icelandic population when needed.

We rushed to the staging area where our equipment was waiting for us, along with a fleet of HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters.  I could feel the adrenaline surging in my blood, my heart rate quickening.

The key to successful execution of high-pressure rescue is to remain calm. No matter how unlikely success may appear, one must be confident that he or she has the skills to overcome any situation.  One must improvise, based on instinct and years of training, often thinking well outside the box.  Since the very first days of our training, we had been taught to adapt, overcome and complete the mission at any cost.

The U.S. Navy base at Keflavik was established during World War II to defend Iceland and secure northern Atlantic air routes, and remains in operation 60 years later. The PJs stationed at Keflavik were on hand primarily to support F-16 fighter jets maintaining patrols over the icy northern Atlantic Ocean.  Any time an F-16 is in flight, two assigned PJs are on alert and ready to immediately respond to any incident.  Additional PJs are on alert 24 hours a day to respond to civilian rescues for the country of Iceland, a service provided to extend goodwill to our hosts.  When PJs are not performing actual missions, they spend their days preparing and training, always sharpening their skills for future missions.

At my locker in the PJ building, I suited up for the mission in warm layers and Gore-Tex.  I grabbed my rucksack and filled it with goggles, gloves and miscellaneous survival gear. Nearby, my teammates Alex and Matt suited up for the mission.  In addition to the usual medical equipment, we loaded an extrication device (“Jaws of Life”), extensive high-angle ice-rescue gear, and a full complement of glacier camping equipment, as we had no way of knowing how long the operation would require us to be out there. We headed outside to the launch pad, where maintenance personnel were making last-second checks on our bird.

“Ready to rock and roll,” I responded.

The HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter is the Air Force’s primary aircraft for combat and civilian search and rescue operations, a modified version of the well-known Blackhawk choppers, equipped with advanced cold-weather capability for the sub-arctic environments across the north Atlantic.  In addition to rescue operations, the Pave Hawk is frequently used for humanitarian aid and disaster relief missions throughout the world and is often seen in images of U.S. military personnel providing supplies or aid to victims of natural disasters.  

As the thud-thud-thud of the chopper blades slowly increased in tempo, we loaded up men and gear into the cabin and were greeted by our pilot, Captain Thomas.  

“How are you guys doing back there?” Captain Thomas asked over the intercom.  

“Ready to rock and roll,” I responded. As a crucial member of our team, the pilot is all business during a mission, but Captain Thomas had a style and grace far beyond most of the guys: I had noticed her long, curly chestnut hair and very fit athletic build. Being a woman in the Air Force special operations is not easy, and I saw our pilot as inspiring proof that gender differences are often irrelevant in the face of hard work, talent, and raw determination.
I had been a PJ for three years, and was working towards a promotion to team leader.  On this mission, Alex was officially the team leader, responsible for important decisions and ultimately accountable for the outcome of the mission. On paper, I was still a team member, but recently I’d been assuming more of a leadership role as my confidence and experience mounted.

“PJ Team Lead, how do you want to execute this?” Captain Thomas asked over the intercom. No response. After an awkward 30 seconds of silence, I looked over at Alex and was stunned to see the uncertainty in his eyes.  

Again the pilot asked, “PJ Team Lead, what is the game plan here?”  Another 20 awkward seconds went by, as time seemed to stand still.  Meanwhile Alex, a bona fide bad-ass and highly seasoned PJ, was simply freezing up. At the same time, I felt comfortable and in my element, having spent years in the mountains, navigating crevasses and climbing mountain faces and frozen waterfalls as a recreational alpinist, and high-angle rescue was one of my strongest skills in the quiver of PJ specialties.

I keyed the microphone and responded to Captain Thomas. “Let’s do a flyover of the scene to take a look, then try to find a safe place to land.  From there we can move as a rope team to the crevasse or perhaps you can drop us in on the hoist.”  

“Roger that,” Captain Thomas responded, her voice focused and alert.  

I looked at Alex, knowing now was my time to assume the team lead role. I felt confident and capable, and unlike Alex I had been raised in the snow. Having climbed mountains for most of my life, I understood glaciers and crevasses, and although I fully recognised the dangers present in the unstable medium, and the complexities involved in a patient extrication from 80 feet deep in the ice, I felt comfortable in the environment and ready to use my abilities. If there was ever a mission built for me, this was it.

It is not uncommon for candidates to lose consciousness underwater.

As the Pave Hawk carried us toward the Hofsjokull Glacier, I thought back to my PJ training. Conducted under the cruel sun of the hot Texas desert, some call the intense and brutal indoctrination course of the PJs the most difficult selection process in the U.S. military. Ten weeks of total hell, followed by an 18-month training pipeline during which 90 percent of candidates are eliminated. Beginning each day at 4:30 am, mandatory training includes running, calisthenics, push-ups, sit ups, all in the heat, numbering in the thousands per day. But this portion of training is actually the easy part: the real hell starts in the indoor pool.  

Each candidate sits at the edge of the pool, with his diving mask, fins, snorkel, weight belt and booties perfectly aligned behind him.  As the instructors approach the 100 aspiring PJs, a loud guttural war cry fills the indoor facility with bone-chilling intensity. All are aware that the pool is where most PJ hopes and dreams will be shattered. My second week in the program, I decided I was willing to die trying to make the cut.

“Enter the water!” the instructor yells. In perfect succession, the first row of candidates enters the water and performs a 25-meter underwater swim. Throughout each 4-hour pool session, instructions must be executed perfectly. Instructors pay ruthless attention to every candidate’s every move, issuing swift and severe consequence, usually involving additional underwater suffering, to the slightest mistake.  It is not uncommon for candidates to lose consciousness underwater. Fortunately, I had just finished a career as a college distance runner, so my body was familiar with operating on depleted oxygen. I was also very determined not to get washed out. This determination paid off and I was eventually successful in making the cut to become a special forces Pararescueman.

Five years later, and now en-route to the Hofsjokull Glacier, I was thankful that the instructors had not been easy on me. They taught me valuable lessons and to pay close attention to detail.

In this business, the smallest mistake can get you killed.

Upon arrival at the scene we found a gently rolling landscape of white snow and ice littered with crevasses.  I spotted a large crevasse with jeep tracks straddling the slit, ending at a broken hole where an ice bridge has collapsed.  Three people were near the crevasse, aware of the situation but unable to help.  

Over the intercom, I directed Captain Thomas to land about 600 yards from the crevasse, in a flat area where the jeeps had driven and their tracks indicated surface stability.  We exited the aircraft on a roped belay while probing for crevasses.  After we had deemed the landing area free of crevasses, we unloaded all our gear from the Pave Hawk and the bird took off.  We immediately loaded up our large packs and moved to the accident scene, still roped up to protect against falls into any hidden crevasses.  

chopper-1

We greeted the three Icelandic men standing at the scene, then probed the surrounding area to confirm that we could unrope and move about the area safely.  The men were local firefighters and had arrived on scene minutes earlier via glacier jeep.

I asked the firemen about the status of the passengers in the jeep. They indicated that one man was dead, on the upright side of the jeep, with one survivor trapped on the bottom side. They didn’t know the survivor’s condition other than that he was injured, cold and very uncomfortable, as the jeep had been severely crushed in the fall. The roof of the jeep was compressed down below its windows, and the patient was not in a good situation. In addition, the instability of a vehicle wedged into the ice presented serious danger to rescuers at the vehicle.

Alex allowed me to take control of the mission, even though he was the team leader on paper. I directed the team to set up some ice anchors and send rappel ropes down into the crevasse. Matt and Alex then rappelled down into the darkness, along with two of the Icelandic firemen. Upon arrival at the jeep they placed several ice screws into the walls, creating a safe anchor to protect them from slipping off the side of the vehicle into the abyss and also provide a safety net in the event the jeep should shift and suddenly fall further into the darkness.  

The temperature was 38 degrees Fahrenheit and dropping fast as the sun descended toward the horizon. Working quickly, Matt called for the extrication equipment and indicated their plan: “We are going to remove the driver’s-side door to gain access to the deceased, and hopefully to the survivor.”

“Roger that,” I respond, and prepare to send down our Jaws of Life.  As we work, several glacier jeeps approach from different directions; word of the accident has gotten out and it appears that every rescue team in Iceland is keen to help.

The first jeep pulled up and a tall, solidly-built man got out and introduced himself as Bjorg. As I briefed him on the situation, I mentioned the trouble we anticipated with our small Jaws of Life trying to cut open the crushed jeep. Bjorg explained that he had a more powerful Jaws of Life, currently en route via truck from the other side of the island—hours away. With the impending darkness and dropping temperature, I knew time was of the essence. I realised we may be able to speed up the extrication process by sending the Pave Hawk to intercept the Jaws, and immediately directed Captain Thomas to rendezvous with the vehicle carrying them across the island. She fired up the helicopter and, with GPS coordinates for a rendezvous point established, headed north to fetch the crucial tool.

More jeeps continued to arrive, all carrying well-intentioned volunteers or professional rescue teams. Bjorg stated that he would be the Icelandic in charge and that he and I would work together to get this done safe and efficiently. A few moments later an independent rescue team dressed in matching red uniforms arrived and started questioning everything: our equipment, our plan, our leadership. With no time to be distracted, I calmly asked Bjorg to tell the man to step down and that everything was under control. He sternly told the man and his team to step back, and we were able to proceed unhindered.

Just then I heard the dull thud of the helicopter returning.  “DeTray,” Caption Thomas asked over the radio, “where do you want these Jaws put down?”  

“Lower them right down on top of us,” I responded.  

“Roger that,” and with a precision hover she had the flight engineer lower the package. “DeTray, how much more time do you need?”  

I indicated we weren’t sure but would probably need several hours.  She needed to return to base to refuel, and promised to be back soon.  “Roger that, see you in a few hours,” I responded.  The bird took flight once again and disappeared into the distance.

With the help of the Icelanders I lowered the more powerful Jaws of Life down to our crew in the crevasse.  Removing the driver’s door, which had been violently crushed by the fall, proved very difficult, but eventually Alex called for a litter to be sent down.  Soon the body of the deceased was loaded and hoisted to the surface, where it was placed in a body bag.

Next, Matt’s voice came over the radio: “Detray, I have some bad news. We were hoping to be able to get to the trapped man through the driver’s side, but the roof has collapsed down to the centre console. It looks like we will need to rappel down under the jeep and attempt to remove the door from the underside.”  

My head swirled with the infinite number of things that could go wrong with this plan.  I trusted my teammates’ judgment and assessment of the situation, but I also understood the risks of sending men under the jeep.  If the jeep were to shift position, it could fall and crush my men.  As acting commander, I would be morally responsible for any injury to my team.  I took a deep breath and told Matt to do what he felt was the right course of action.  “I know you want to save him, Matt,” I radioed, “but please be careful down there.”  

The men descended below the jeep and began to work on the lower door.  Light from their powerful headlamps and the roar of the Jaws of Life drifted up to the surface, eerily echoing off the icy walls.  Time slowed to a standstill, and I could feel the pressure of the situation while waiting.  Matt had just been married and I suddenly felt heightened awareness that I was responsible for his safety.  I sure didn’t want to have to give his new wife any bad news.  

The evening sun finally set and darkness settled over the scene.  Alex radioed up to me, requesting the litter and stating their plan to remove the lower door and guide the patient into the litter.  I reminded the guys to be sure the patient was secured with a rope to prevent him tumbling deeper into the crevasse.

The plan went off perfectly.  The door of the jeep was removed and the patient was loaded into the litter and secured.  Alex radioed up requesting a slow raise of the patient, and our crew on the surface brought him up.  Just as we pulled the patient over the lip of the crevasse, I heard the sound of the Pave Hawk roaring back onto the scene, and at that very moment the Aurora Borealis broke into a beautiful display of blues, greens and reds dancing in the arctic sky.  

“Pilot, we have just extracted the survivor and he is stable and ready for transport.  Request hoist pick up.”  

After an hour flying through the arctic darkness, we could see the bright lights of Iceland’s capital Reykjavik and soon Captain Thomas landed on the helicopter pad of a modern medical facility.

We had pulled off a difficult mission, where success was uncertain. Despite difficult conditions and high risk, we were able to extricate and transport our patient, saving his life, without incurring any injuries to the rescuers.

Illustrations by Rimo Dey

Text by: Skiy Detray 

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