Wild and Without Limits

Legendary Swiss South African adventurer Mike Horn shares tales of his latest epic expeditions and his bond with Panerai at Watches and Wonders Geneva 2024

By Debbie Hathway

In the European summer of 2023, Mike Horn and his daughter, Annika, left Switzerland separately in a “little race” to see who could reach Iceland first. Mike sailed on his 32-metre expedition yacht Pangaea; Annika cycled. Annika won. It was a taster for what was to come in Mike’s planned four-year “What’s Left” expedition, an around-the-world adventure billed as his last major project in a 30-year career experiencing natural extremes that would have broken a lesser man. His book, Dream of a Lifetime – Crossing Antarctica, is an unputdownable account of what he can endure – mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually – in an environment as unhospitable as it is magical in its natural splendour.

The plan is to revisit significant locations from this period and some he has yet to discover with his four-member crew to assess the state of the planet and share it with the world. Pangaea will be the primary mode of transport. The route will encompass the Arctic, the Amazon jungle, Antarctica, Patagonia, the Australian desert, New Zealand, northern Canada, Alaska and Asia, with lengthy stopovers.

But first, he had to complete an expedition that could be described as one of the most terrifying for him as a father – a return crossing to Greenland (1 210km) in May 2024 with his daughter, Annika and a pack of Alaskan malamutes. It’s a surefire way of “making my life more complicated as an explorer, not easier,” he says.

Adventuring with his family – his late wife Cathy and daughters Jessica and Annika – was previously confined to things he could control. Now, bringing the dogs in and Annika, and preparing for their first crossing adds unprecedented levels of challenge for this devoted family man essentially considered the greatest modern explorer today. “I’ve tried to avoid it because I know the dangers of it and the difficulties, and I don’t want to expose my kids to those extreme conditions. At first, I thought [their interest] was just because of what I do, but now I can see it’s really in their blood. I can’t stop it, so let’s give them the right tools to be able to make the right decisions to survive the growing stages of exploration.”

But there was something else he had to survive first – getting these most celebrated of Alaskan dogs to accept him as pack leader. The Alaskan Malamute is a working dog descendant of those who lived with the Mahlemut Tribe in the upper regions of western Alaska. It was developed for pulling sleds, drafting, hauling, and hunting. “It’s been a little bit of a power show. You can see there’s a hierarchy of the pack. The males treat women completely differently from men. They don’t compete with Annika. They listen to her. They obey her more than they obey me.”

Mike might have a battle scar to show for it if the stitches he had in his forefinger at the watch fair leave a mark – evidence of his journey learning about dog psychology and how to get these descendants of dogs that crossed the Bering Strait with their owners over 4 000 years ago to understand who’s the boss in this arrangement. “The dog tried to bite me. I had to grab him, turn him onto his back and hold him there until he started to relax and begin to submit to me. The moment they submit, it’s serious stuff, it’s incredible. And I’m wild; they’re wild.”

Why choose them, then? “Because that’s what the Inuit people used to do. You’ve worked with dogs. You understand. If you’ve got two dogs, you’ve got two different characters. You can’t treat all dogs the same. And then, understanding their character builds your character. I’ve learned so much,” says Mike.

He credits the pack with teaching him what is most important in life, including how to survive an Arctic winter, conserve energy, be well protected, and focus your mind. “And then, when you create that trust, that relationship with them, they’re willing to do everything for you. Everything. I went out running one day with them – just under 58km, but it’s far at minus 40 degrees Celsius – and we went up the mountains and across and I wanted to come back another way. A way that they’d never done, and that I’d never done. And the wind started picking up, it was dark (as it is in winter), and I got stuck a bit. I went back up and there was a moment when I thought, shucks, maybe I should set up an emergency camp and camp here. But then I thought imagine if I can double back… I’ve got the best survivors with me. Let’s see if we can trust them and put my life in their hands.”

By this stage, the communication between Mike and the dogs was already helping them make important decisions about where to tread in the icy terrain, so he let them be his guides this time. “Those dogs ran down the mountain in snow so thick – I couldn’t see anything – more than 5km back to my boat. That relationship of trust is… so inspiring. And that’s new to me, living out there [nine months in Greenland by then]. It’s a little bit like, let’s learn from these animals, and try to understand how we can better our lives as human beings. What about trust, about doing one’s best and taking care of each other to survive?”

Mike’s next mission will be to get out of Greenland before the ice cap starts melting, creating massive rivers that are impossible to cross. As always, he’ll be wearing a 47mm Panerai Submersible Mike Horn on his wrist – the latest in a series of timepieces developed over his almost 20-year association with the brand and one he sees as an extension of his character. “Whatever I wear on expeditions is really an extension of my character, or my thoughts, or what I want to achieve. We’re all explorers in one way or another. I just do it on land whereas others do it in science or art or music or whatever.”

On 21 May 2024, Mike and Annika completed their two-week father-daughter adventure onto Greenland’s icecap. “What an incredible experience! Full of lessons, challenges, harsh conditions, highs and lows, and plenty of special moments, elevated by the company of our furry friends,” says Annika.

Follow @mikehornexplorer and @annikahorn on Instagram to get more insights into this experience, which included the timely birth of six gorgeous puppies to Issy just before their departure but changed the dynamic of the excursion pack as you’ll see on social media. Talk about a proud Papa!

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