For South African-born explorer Mike Horn and his Norwegian colleague Børge Ousland, a perilous fall odyssey up to — and over — the North Pole offered an extraordinary immersion into an Arctic being reshaped by climate change. They traveled on skis, hauling supplies on sleds. At times, they broke through thin ice and had to use rafts to cross stretches of open water.
As Horn wrote, “we are here to ski across the Arctic Ocean.”
Here are some excerpts from their Instagram dispatches through a journey that began in late September and ended Dec. 8.
Mike Horn, Sept. 27:
The first couple of days were far from easy! Our sleds are heavy (over 180kg each spread out in 2 sleds each) and the ice is still very thin and fragile to confidently ski on.
These conditions oblige us to remain extra careful and to take our time in order to avoid accidentally falling through the ice and into the freezing water. It’s already happened a few times but thankfully only up until the knees.
Mike Horn, Oct. 3:
It’s been a tough day today, with southern drifts affecting our progress. As we walk towards the North Pole, the moving ice is pushing us back south. It’s like walking on a treadmill, we’re making physical effort but sometimes staying in place.
Børge Ousland, Oct. 4:
Tough day, took 2 hours to get through the maze of broken ice mixed with water. A foot of fresh snow and lots of thin salty ice that was like glue under sleds, whiteout and strong wind from the SW. Surprised to see so much thin ice this far north, mostly 2″-50 cm, and very broken.
Mike Horn, Oct 21:
I took this photo of @BorgeOusland during our lunch break, which only lasts 10 to 15 min. … We do not speak to each other during our breaks, we just eat and drink, then stand up and start skiing again before our bodies cool down too much. We live in two separate bubbles during the day, and in any case, we are not here to talk, we are here to ski across the Arctic Ocean.
Mike Horn, Nov. 15:
Licking our wounds tonight after spending the whole day walking first to the south towards our goal, then towards the east to compensate for the western drift, and finally towards the north to make our way around a huge open lead…so basically, it is as if we walked in a big circle today, ending up not too far from the position we left from in the morning…this is a painful process for the mind.
…We are both suffering from some swelling and open wounds due to the cold. As you can imagine, it is essential for us to take care of these small sores in order to avoid them getting worse or even infected, even though like the toes, this meticulous process is quite painful. No matter how well we try to protect ourselves from the cold, salt, the ice and the wind, the unavoidable exposure to these elements eventually takes its toll. For me, my weaker spots are my thumbs and nose. Those parts are slowly becoming black but it is nothing to worry about yet…Although the pain it causes is starting to get quite uncomfortable, I try my best to keep thinking of more pleasant feelings.
After being stopped by this massive open water lead, we first decided to try and cross it…The frozen ice that covered the lead was extremely thin, we could see the dark water through it. It was definitely too thin for us to attempt crossing, but we decided that we had no choice but to go for it.
Some of the ice blocks we were walking on moved around like an inflatable mattress floating on water. As we pulled our heavy sleds, they were making an indent in the ice behind us. Each step we took was nerve-racking, we were just waiting for the ice to give in beneath us…So we stopped and put on our dry suits to test the condition of the ice ahead (without our sleds) before deciding to continue walking in this minefield. Although we had already made our way across half of the open lead, we concluded that it was too dangerous to continue and turned back…So back we went and set up camp for the night with hopes of the ice freezing more overnight.
I guess there are bad days, good days and even worse days…
Mike Horn, Nov. 19:
Although climate change is affecting both the South and North Poles, the changes are a lot more noticeable for us here in the Arctic. The Arctic sea is not only shrinking in size, but it has also becoming younger and thinner over recent years. This causes the ice to break up and move a lot faster than it used to, which are two of the biggest challenges we have been encountering so far on our adventure. It is sad for me to admit, but in all my years as a professional explorer, I have never been so affected by climate change.
Sometimes I wish I was rather in Antarctica and not here pushing ourselves to the max for only minor progress, but then I remember my own philosophies…Never wish to be elsewhere than where you are right now. There is something positive to retrieve from even the most uncomfortable situations. Do not let challenges bring you down, may the effort you invest in tackling these challenges help you become stronger and stronger. And above all, do not forget that sometimes it takes two steps back to make one step forward…
Børge Ousland, Dec. 6:
Another dramatic day – this is the moment we met up with Aleks and Bengt! (Two skiers who ventured out from a boat to meet them.) But before that, Mike looked back at me at the same time as he stepped over a small ridge, he went straight into an open-water lead and got totally wet.
It was a very critical moment in the windy -25C conditions. I helped him out and quickly put the tent up and started all the stoves we had. Mike undressed and thankfully had enough spare clothes. After drying the boots and pants, we were moving again a few hours later.
We paddled over a lead where our friends @polarbengt and @aleksandergamme were waiting for us. We are now skiing back to Lance (a Norwegian polar research vessel that ventured into the ice to rendezvous with the skiers) together and are now only 12 km away. We are still on our own food rations with the leftover food we have.
If all goes well tomorrow, we will finish this amazing trip together. It has been a true honour to do this with @MikeHornExplorer. We have worked so hard, and stuck to our routines all the way and never gave up. Just hope all goes well with the last few km (kilometers) to go….
Postscript: Early Dec. 8, minutes after midnight, the two skiers reached the Lance. Their first meal on board featured spinach soup, steak and chocolate.
Below, Ousland, left, and Horn come together for a selfie.