Authors: Mike Horn
This time I picked up my satellite phone to call Cathy. I hadn't told her about what had happened to my fingers. I wanted to keep her from worrying needlessly, and I figured that this was my problem, so it was up to me and no one else to solve it. In the least alarmist manner imaginable, I described my symptoms to her and asked her to talk to a specialist about it for me. She put me in touch with a doctor, a woman who specializes in hands.
“Have your fingers changed color?” the doctor asked me.
Yes, and there was even worse news: my two thumbs, my right index finger, and my right ring finger had all erupted like cauliflowers, taking on the ugly appearance of frozen tripe.
“How long ago did your fingers get frostbitten?” she asked.
“Three or four days.”
In response to a question, I gave as detailed a description as I could of the blisters and the open sores. She asked me if there was any smell. It wasn't a smell, it was a stench! Every time I pulled my fingers out of the warm water, a veritable wave of rot would rush into my nostrils.
“Turn back immediately,” the specialist ordered me, “if you want us to have even the slimmest chance of saving your hands.”
I wasn't turning back! It was pretty obvious that she hadn't spent more than thirty-five days hiking across an ice field, this so-called specialist, hauling a four-hundred-plus-pound sled harnessed to her kidneys! What did she know about my situation? What right did she have to tell me to drop everything and abandon my goal?
I hung up abruptly after blurting out, “Thanks. I'll call you if I have any other questions.”
I described this conversation to Cathy, who got in touch with one of my sponsors, Groupama Assistance. In turn, they got in touch with a man who is widely considered to be one of the leading specialists worldwide in cold-related pathologies, Dr. Emmanuel Cauchy, in his office in Chamonix. In his field this French doctor is a sort of guru, and his opinion is held in the highest regard.
Over the telephone, Dr. Cauchy began by asking me roughly the same questions as his fellow doctor, and he urged me above all else not to burst the blisters. I explained to him that I had regained a bit of feeling in the tips of my fingers. He agreed that this was encouraging, but he also argued in favor of a diagnosis that I had sustained level-four lesions. “Beyond that level,” he said sharply, “there will be no alternative to amputation. And that will become inevitable if you continue to expose your hands to the cold because the condition of your fingers will continue to deteriorate.”
I was furious and disappointed. I needed supporters, people who would pat me on the back and give me encouragement, not vultures who would urge me to throw in the towel.
While I obstinately refused to give in to the siren song of defeat, the news of my misadventures spread over the Internet, and then in the media. Back home in Switzerland, the television trumpeted the “Mike Horn affair,” and from all sides, people were calling Cathy to go on the air, live, to defend her reckless husband, who was irresponsibly refusing to listen to the voice of reason. My wife bravely replied that I didn't need her to defend me. “He's the captain of his own ship; he makes his own decisions. I don't defend him; I help him and I support him, whatever choices he may make.” She refused to give the media the names of the two doctors whom I consulted over the phone, but the journalists tracked them down on their own and invited them to appear on a talk show on the subject of frostbite and the other risks run by reckless fools like me. What is going to happen to Mike if he refuses to return? That question lay at the heart of the discussion.
In my mind, the question never even arose. These were my own fingers, my own life, my own decisionsÂ â¦ and no one else's.
I continued to push on, and by this point I'd even stopped soaking my fingers in hot water. That method might be effective in a hospital setting or in a temperate climate. But here, at temperatures of thirty to forty degrees below zero, all that happened was that they were freezing a little more deeply each time I took them out of the water or whenever I used them to pitch my tent, attach a snap hook, tie my bootlaces, or get dinner readyÂ â¦ and with each step that I took on the ice field. Bandages were what were needed. I even learned to function without using my hands, at least not in the usual way that hands are used. I used my teeth and the palms of my hands pressed together to seize an object if it wasn't too small.
To make up for the hours it took me to perform the simplest tasks, I hiked for shorter periods each day. The result was that I was moving forward more slowly than at the beginning of the expedition, but I was still keeping up a good averageâmore than nine miles per dayâand I had every reason to be optimistic. One reason in particular was that despite all of my misadventures, I had reached the same point, after the same number of days, as four French legionnaires who attempted the same expedition the previous year.
But the warning from the doctor in Chamonix continued to haunt me. The days that still separated me from the North Pole were very likely going to cost me my fingers, not just the fingers that were already damaged, but perhaps the others as well. That would make me a cripple and would put an end to my career once and for all. I'd reach the North PoleÂ â¦ sure, I could definitely get there. I had struggled and fought to achieve that. But once I was there, I would find myself on a little piece of drifting ice field at the top of the world. Was this one expedition really more important than being able to keep going for years to come, living this life of adventure as long as possible, this life that I had chosen for myself and which I would not give up for anything on earth?
I called my friend Johann Rupert, president of the Richemont group, to tell him what I was thinking and feeling. He did not have even a moment's hesitation. “Come back immediately!” he told me.
This was the third time that I had been given that piece of adviceâor, perhaps I should say, that command. I was increasingly tempted to obey butÂ â¦ I had never quit before. If I gave up now, it would be the first time in my life.
“Well,” I told Johann, “I just need a little more time to make a decision.”
I needed time, time to get used to the idea of giving up and failing to attain my goal, throwing in the towel when I was in better shape than ever beforeâdespite these giant blisters on my fingertips and three frostbitten fingers, which were in no way keeping me from moving forward. I needed time to get used to the idea of failure, just when I could see the finish line ahead of me. A little more time to accept the idea that I might never have a second chance. While I continued to push on, the throes of my dilemma nearly made me forget the cold, and as I continued to mull the problem over in my mind, I finally saw this expedition for what it was, first and foremost: a priceless source of lessons about myself. Among other things, it would teach me the taste of defeat and how to deal with it, a valuable lesson for someone like me who had only ever met with success. I would be forced to return to Europe, to face the judgment of others, and to look them in the eye and answer, “Well, at least, I tried.” A new experience and, perhaps, a valuable lesson in humility.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Franziska continued to speak to me as I unwrapped each packet of food that her husband had prepared for me. I would read the little message that came with it: “
and keep up your courage!” “Hang tough, it'll be over soon!” “Just one more push, and then you can go home!” “It's cold outside, but they're waiting for you by the fireplace!”
Knowing this voice that kept encouraging me belonged to a woman who was no longer alive was deeply moving and upsetting, and it gave me one more reason to outdo myself.
Suddenly, an incongruous question came to me: What should I do with all these little messages, the last messages, perhaps, that Franziska ever wrote? Would Philippe want me to bring them back home?
“No,” Philippe answered without hesitating. He said to scatter them over the ice field, near the North Pole. “Bestow them upon nature, give them to the wind, like Tibetan prayer flags. That is what she would have wanted, to be part of the elements for all time.”
A few days later, I complied with Philippe's wishes, and I tossed a handful of little strips of white paper into the howling Arctic storms. The gale was so powerful that they vanished the instant they left my handÂ â¦ as if Franziska were in a hurry to rejoin that wild nature that she loved so much, even to her death at its hands.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
I had passed eighty-five degrees north latitude. I was practically on a highway nowâthe ice field stretching out to the horizon before me was as flat as Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats. At night I slept for two or three hours, thanks to the morphine from my medical kit, which helped to calm the relentless throbbing in my fingers. The pain returned whenever I woke back up, but I forgot about it as soon as I started moving again. I was only about fifteen to twenty full days away from the northernmost point on the planet: the North Pole.
It was at this very moment that I felt a liberating shift. To reach the North Pole was an obsession that had so dominated my thinking that it blinded me to everything else. That was why I would actually be disappointed when I finally achieved my goal. I now felt certain that as soon as I reached that fateful spot, I would be emptied forever of the force that had driven me here and allowed me to rise above so many other challenges.
I imagined myself circling around the Pole, sniffing at it from a few yards awayâwithout setting foot on it. That way I would still always have that goal to achieve, that Holy Grail to grasp, like a sweet reward that you save for last, the self-deprivation making it sweeter still. I would have succeeded in dominating the elements by deciding, myself, the outcome of the battle. And even if it might seem like I had failed, I would have won a personal victory.
It had been a week since my fingers were frostbitten. That evening it was a little less cold, and I pitched my tent by the light of a magnificent sunset. All around me there was a sort of fragile and perfect harmony. Although the natural forces of the Arctic had beaten me to within inches of my life, neither the cold, nor the pack ice, nor the crevasses had managed to kill me. Because I had merely survived, the decision was still my own.
I was ready to go home.
I called Cathy, and she alerted Gouram Assathiany, a young man of Georgian descent who spoke good Russian, and he took over. Because I was in the Russian sector of the ice field, Gouram contacted a number of different military bases in Siberia. He finally turned up a pilot and a helicopter that were willing to come to fetch me.
Before they could take me home, though, they needed first of all to find me, and that was no simple matter. The good folks at Argos had offered to “lend” me a rescue beacon for a period of two years, in exchange for fifty thousand Euros. That was a little too rich for my blood. And so my friend Vincent Borde managed to obtain a beacon for me from the people at Plastimo, who sent it to Russia, and from there to an encampment near the North Pole, and then relayed it to Cape Arktichesky by helicopter. A pilot who had been asked to bring me the beacon let me know that he was coming to drop it off. But when he got there I found out that it was going to cost me ten thousand Euros! That seemed like a lot of money for a detour of a few miles along a route he follows nearly every day!
That is why, to make a long story short, I had no beacon. And without a beacon, I would be quite a bit more difficult to find. The rescue beacon beamed out a signal that any helicopter crew could pick up and find while in the air. But in the absence of the beacon, I would have to relay my GPS position to Cathy, who would then relay it to Gouram, who would relay it to my rescuers. They would then embark on their mission as soon as the weather allowed, but all the while, I would be drifting off the mark I gave them on the constantly drifting polar ice. Because the Russian helicopter crew would have no way to receive my updated coordinates in flight, they would have to sweep 150 or 200 square miles of ice field to find me, and they claimed that they did not have enough fuel to do that kind of a search. They could only agree to come get me at some specific location and take me directly from there to their base. So I gave my coordinates to Cathy, who transmitted them to Gouram Assathiany, who then organized my rescue with the Russians. I had to keep my fingers crossed that I wouldn't drift out of their range.
Furthermore, in this country where bureaucracy was still the true reigning despot, to bring someone over the border and onto their territory who had neither passport nor entry visa, and who was armed as wellâI carried a gun only so that I could defend myself against polar bearsâwould be a major affair of state, even if it was a question of life or death. I spent two days waiting, huddled in my tent. Two days of atrocious suffering from the pain in my fingers. Two days in which the ice began to break up all around me once again, and during which I began to drift on a piece of ice field once again. In a rage I called Gouram to tell him that, since I had been drifting away from my position for the entire forty-eight hours, I was going to have to break camp and hike back to it. He told me, above all, not to move. The rescue operation was underway. For the sake of peace and quiet, I obeyed and curled up, once again, in my tent, like a snail in its shell. I stuffed myself with morphine pills to assuage the terrible pain that continued to torment my fingers.
When Cathy called me the next morning to tell me that the helicopter would reach me in eight hours, I was too weak even to try to believe her. I took another dose of morphine and slipped back into a comatose slumber. My dreams, peopled with giant ice cubes that knocked against one another in all directions, were suddenly disturbed by the hacking sound of an electric chopperÂ â¦ unless it was the sputtering of an Arctic lawn mower. Suddenly I was jolted into wakefulness by the metallic sliding sound of the zipper of my tent. The two flaps pulled open to reveal the bearded and hooded face of a Russian soldier.