Conquering the Impossible

Conquering the Impossible by Mike Horn

Summary of “Conquering the Impossible” by Mike Horn: In Conquering the Impossibleexplorer Mike Horn presents the incredible expedition he led between 2002 and 2004, a solo tour of the Arctic Circle. Starting from Norway, he crossed Greenland, Canada, Alaska, and Russia before returning to his starting point, the North Cape. This epic adventure takes the reader to the heart of the most hostile territories in the world, where temperatures, climate conditions, and wild animals pose a serious threat to human survival, especially in the dead of winter. In addition to being a tribute to the environment and solidarity, this book also serves as a powerful testimonial of self-triumph.

By Mike Horn, 2005, 397 pages.

Note: The chapter titles of the book have been retained. However, the titles of the sub-sections appearing in this summary have been created to synthesize the various accounts within each chapter.

Review and book summary of: Conquering the Impossible by Mike Horn


In this introduction to Conquering the Impossible, Mike Horn is in Norme, Alaska. He is stuck there for administrative reasons: he is waiting for the Russian authorities to grant him the authorization to continue his expedition.

It’s October 2003 and he’s been traveling the Arctic Circle for 14 months.

[I have almost died in icy water; I have felt the fangs of polar bears brushing against my face. I have survived temperatures of minus sixty; I have made detours of one thousand two hundred kilometers in the total darkness of the Arctic winter. I have had my fingers, face and even lungs frozen. I have struggled five days and five nights in my boat punctured by a tree trunk, to reach the coasts of Greenland, before beating the world record of crossing this country; I have lost all my equipment, almost burned alive… and I am only halfway through my journey! … But I can admit that during these fourteen months, I mustered the courage to overcome these hardships because I didn’t know how much suffering remained ahead. Now that I know, I would not be able to do it again.]

Speaking of his “profession,” he writes:

[I am an extreme adventurer like others are booksellers, teachers, or butchers. I reject the label of superman that is sometimes attached to me. I just want to be – I am – an ordinary guy who does things out of the ordinary. If there is anything that sets me apart from the average person, it’s my determination to not let any obstacle stop me.]

Chapter 1 – Three Frozen Fingers

Why does Mike Horn want to go around the Arctic Circle?

In this first chapter of Conquering the Impossible, Mike Horn explains the reasons why he wanted to take on the challenge of going around the Arctic Circle. He recounts that after his round-the-world trip following the Equator line, he was looking for an adventure of the same magnitude.

[Physical or athletic achievement is not enough to motivate me. I need to blaze a new trail, to clear new territories.]

While exclusivity seems to be one of his main criteria, so is competition:

[Besides, of all those who have attempted this feat before me, none have succeeded. Of all the reasons that would encourage me to undertake this challenge, this was surely the most important.]

1.2 – Preparation

Crossing Greenland with Jean Troillet and Erhard Loretan

As the adventurer was not familiar with the conditions of extreme cold during an expedition, he participated in the Greenland crossing with Jean Troillet and Erhard Loretan. He considers this crossing as a preparation for his future challenge. He says he learned a lot of things, but above all patience.

The author of Conquering the Impossible tells a rather amusing anecdote during this expedition: while he was stuck with his two companions for two weeks in a snowstorm in Greenland, Mike Horn was invited to an award ceremony for his previous exploits. The organizers wanted him so badly that they sent a helicopter to rescue him and his colleagues. The trip to Monaco (where the gala is held) is taken care of by the organizers, and he finds himself there, still equipped and dressed for the Far North. It is on this occasion that he meets his future sponsors, who would prove crucial for what would lie ahead.

Borge Ousland’s advice for a solo expedition to the North Pole

To make up for the failure of the first expedition to Greenland, Mike Horn set out in search of the North Pole, which he wanted to reach alone. He then turned to Borge Ousland to learn all about solo expeditions in the Far North. In a few days, Borge Ousland taught him all the knowledge he had accumulated during his years of practice in the Far North. Mike Horn then realizes that the physical condition he needed to cross the Amazon jungle [may not be enough for what requires a polar expedition].

Mike Horn’s equipment

The author Mike Horn then retraces the steps of developing his custom-made equipment (sled, tent, shoes, clothes, skis, etc.). A few days before departure, not everything is ready. Borge Ousland comes to Mike Horn’s rescue, going so far as to give him his own shoes, the ones that took him to the Pole.

Mike Horn gives a valuable piece of advice for all those who want to face the coldto maintain a good temperature, you have to put layers of clothing on top of each other and make sure that the air circulates between these different layers. In fact, “it’s not the clothing that warms the body, but the body that warms the clothing.”

Borge Ousland also explains to Mike Horn the rudiments of sleeping: 20 seconds maximum to put up the tent, an insulating sheath for the sleeping bag so that the condensation does not freeze you (he specifies that in such conditions, the adventurer loses one liter of water per night), etc.

1.3 – The departure to the North Pole alone

The “conqueror of the Impossible” took off in February 2002 to try to reach the North Pole on foot from Cape Artechevskythe closest place on Earth to the pole.

[I am fully aware that from here on, I will be totally alone in the challenge I have set myself. Until now, I have been helped, surrounded, financed, supported, carried by people who believed in me and still do. But as soon as this helicopter will have carried away the last of them, it will be up to me, and me alone.]

The departure of his loved ones at this moment is emotionally charged. Mike Horn describes the awareness of his potential demise in the adventure that awaits him. His entire load weighed 210 kilograms, so he had to get used to pulling this weight. Another difficulty: the explorer moves almost blind in a landscape where the night lasts all day, and compasses are unusable.

[The hostility of the weather that I had faced since my arrival at these latitudes were nothing compared to the solitude that I was discovering, solitude rendered all the more oppressive by the certainty that here, the slightest mistake could be fatal.]

1.4 – The trials of an adventure in extreme conditions

Storm on the ice floe

Then follows the story of his first forty-eight hours stuck on the ice floe: finding the right place and setting up the tent, cooking while the storm rages outside, sleeping in minus forty-degree weather, etc. Finally, he boards again a helicopter that has come to drop off other expeditioners to pass on the other side of a gap that has been rendered impassable by the storm. He would learn shortly afterwards that the other crews had left…

[My perseverance was a product of my ignorance. The others said they had never encountered so many gaps or seen such a fragmented pack of ice. For me, who had no other previous expeditions to compare with, these conditions seemed normal. I continued on…]

The accident

After three weeks of trekking, an accident happened: while he was crossing a delicate passage, the ice gave way under the weight of his sled. He found himself plunged into water at three degrees, without his waterproof suit. But the worst was yet to come: he would have to pull himself out of the water without his sled turning over (it floats) and change clothes as quickly as possible to avoid freezing.

[My first instinct is to pick up handfuls of fresh snow and cover myself with it. Thanks to its absorbent properties, the powder snow “dried” me very quickly and prevented me from freezing completely. I then had to pitch my tent to preserve some warmth and change in a bubble.]

Fortunately, more fear than harm for this episode! Mike Horn was able to resume his expedition to the North Pole the next day.

[In a flashback, I see myself in the Amazon rainforest. My initial objective was to cross it. Then, after the bite of a poisonous snake left me five days between life and death, my objective changed. It became: stay alive… then cross the jungle. Survive. Then, reach the pole.]

Encounter with a polar bear

A few days into his first month on the ice, near latitude 85° North, Mike Horn tells of an encounter with a bear that was a little too curious!

[Now I could hear its rough breathing…very close to me. And suddenly, there he was! His curiosity aroused by my tent, an object as big as he was, as if from another planet; he stuck his snout into it, just to probe the alien’s intentions. The monster’s snout, impressed in the stretched nylon, was a few centimeters away from my own face. I felt like I could count its fangs, behind which loomed a half-ton of meat and claws.]

The adventurer’s frozen fingers

After having escaped the claws of this polar bear, Mike Horn finds himself this time, caught in a storm, backing up. Numerous gaps open up near his camp, including one under his sled! While he chooses to leave while facing headwinds and a temperature of minus sixty degreeshis bootlace comes undone

Equipped as he is, tying his shoes poses quite the challenge. And it would have serious consequences:

[While I was struggling in vain with this bootlace, the first signs of hypothermia appeared: trembling, blue nose, and lips… I still couldn’t do it. Too bad: I ripped off my gloves off and wedged them under my arms so that they would keep some of their warmth… Before I had finished tying my shoelace, my fingers were partly frozen. I put on my gloves, which were also frozen.]

He then recounts the difficulties of setting up his tent and lighting his stove without being able to use his hands. His words describe the pain and the stakes of such a waste of energy and resources.

[At first, I had a reaction of despair at the idea that I was going to lose my fingers, even though I had done everything I could to avoid it. Then, as my willpower took over, I told myself that, with a little luck, I wouldn’t lose more than three partial finger joints.]  

Continue at any cost

Mike Horn then describes his daily life with frozen fingers and the phone calls to medical specialists. The affair is mediatized, but the adventurer makes the choice to continue his expedition, whatever the cost. He confesses:

[Let’s face it, I knew from the beginning that this kind of thing was going to happen to me. Just as I knew perfectly well that at one time or another I would fall into the water. I only didn’t know one thing: when? I had no suicidal tendencies, just a kind of well-managed fatalisman awareness that the Arctic, otherwise, would not be the Arctic.]

1.5 – The return and the amputation

Mike Horn presents his expedition through the prism of a valuable lesson and shares his introspections here:

[This was the moment when I felt a liberating shift. Reaching the Pole had been an obsession that has dominated my life to the point of blinding me to everything else. That’s why… I was bound to be disappointed when I achieved my goal. I felt that when I set foot on that fateful marker, I would forever be drained of the strength that had brought me this far and allowed me to overcome so many other challenges.]

He thus decides to return, after forty days:

[I felt nothing more than a deep disappointment, an irresistible sadness that brought tears to my eyes, while the miles of ice floes that I had so much trouble covering in the opposite direction slipped away under my feet. I was unhappy, frustrated, full of anger: this was not normal! This was not the way things were supposed to end! … I had come to think that it would have been better if I had died on the ice floe.]

The adventurer recounts his care in an old, dilapidated hospital in Russia, his meeting with the mayor of the village, then his repatriation to Chamonix. Once there, he attempted a “last chance” treatment to avoid amputation. Unfortunately, a few weeks later, it took place: the doctors removed the three extremities of his last phalanges. He was able to keep his fingers. The doctor forbade any exposure to the cold for at least two years, but he began the expedition to the Arctic Circle only four months later.

Chapter 2 – Terra Incognita

2.1 – Mike Horn’s imminent departure for his expedition around the Arctic Circle

Mental and material preparation

From the very first lines of this second chapter of Conquering the Impossible, it is all about Mike Horn’s imminent departure to take on the challenging Arctic Circle.

[Far from having brought me down, my relative failure in my attempt to reach the Pole has enriched me with an invaluable amount of experience, along with a precious life lesson: learning to say “stop”; I have taken another step towards wisdom.]

The explorer again elaborates on his material preparation. Following his first experience, everything was redesigned to be as close as possible to his needs. The whole activity makes him totally forget the injuries of his fingers. [I was already there], he says; [and I sensed – I knew – that this 100 percent positive mindset would carry over to the physical side of things], he adds.

Mike Horn presents the equipment he uses on his expeditions to bring back images, but also the only means of communication he plans to take with him: satellite phones. Moreover, for this expedition, he will need a boat with, once again, very precise characteristics.

As each of his expeditions requires large budgets, he gives conferences to supplement the contribution of his sponsors.

[Some people reproached me for the risks I had taken and those I was about to take… But risks are part of my job, as they are inherent to other professions.]

A well-supported departure

Finally, on August 4, 2002, Mike Horn is about to set off on his tour of the Arctic Circle from northern Norway. He is surrounded by his family, friends, partners, and sponsors.

[The highlight of an expedition was not the arrival, but the departure, which was the culmination of so much effort… For me, it was the beginning of the adventure; for them, the beginning of the wait.]

With these words, the “conqueror of the Impossible” underlines the strength of his entourage because Mike Horn is not isolated: a whole team follows him and supports him in his endeavors.

2.2 – The polar adventure begins!

Choosing to go around the Arctic Circle against wind and current

The objective of this new expedition is to stay between 66° et 76° latitude (North). It is a choice that the adventurer explains as follows:

[If I chose to do this tour of the Arctic Circle against the wind and against the current, it was for a very simple reasonif I succeeded in the most favorable direction, I would have spent the rest of my life wondering what about in the other direction…]

Between Norway and Greenland, Mike Horn suffers damage to his boat: a tree trunk hits the hull at the stern and propeller, and the hold fills with water. Fortunately, he manages to plug the leak, although he is already in a dangerous zone due to drifting icebergs. After a stop at Angmagssalik where, with the help of part of his team, he repairs the boat, he finally begins his crossing of Greenland on foot. This part represents seven to eight hundred kilometers.

[Without a teammate to take over and open the trail for me, I painstakingly made my way through snow that varied in depth a hundred times a day.]

The author of Conquering the Impossible tells an anecdote according to which, to cross the ice pack, he had to request permission for two people: in theory, it is forbidden to attempt this feat alone, in view of the danger… Crevasses are one of the major risks.

Breaking the record for crossing the Greenland: goal reached!

Furthermore, Mike Horn had a system of kites created to optimize his movements and facilitate the towing of his sled. All this with the aim of beating the record for crossing Greenland.

Thanks to this system, he manages, some days, to exceed the hundred kilometers. Unfortunately, this system can also be dangerous: Mike Horn pays for it twice. First, when a sudden strong wind dragged him for more than three kilometers without him being able to control anything, then when he stopped smack dab in the middle of a field of crevasses, including the largest he had ever seen, only a few meters away from him.

And then, finally, the finish:

[One leg of the journey had ended; another was about to begin. I crossed the Greenland ice cap in fifteen days and eight hours, setting a new record.]

Chapter 3 – The Courage of a Bear

3.1 – Two months of waiting in Arctic Bay

Mike Horn sets out again in this chapter of Conquering the Impossible to tackle the second stage of his expedition: he goes from Greenland to Canada by sea, with his sailing boat, Arktos. As winter approaches, the cold and ice disrupt the initially planned route. He is thus diverted towards Nanisivika zinc mine, in full closure.

The snow is not enough for him to start his journey, he still has to wait for almost a month. His entourage then joins him to spend a few days at his side in the ghost mine. When they leave, he settles in a small cabin lent by a mine worker in Arctic Bay, a little further south. He confides:

[I was down, but not beaten. I’ve always believed that things happen for a reason, even if it takes a while to find out what that reason is. A defeat, for me, is only a step towards victory. I’ve never thrown in the towel without a very good reason.]

3.2 – A heartbreaking departure

Finally, at the end of November, more than two months after reaching the Canadian coast, he is able to set off towards Cambridge Bay, not without the emotion of leaving the community that had welcomed him.

[It wasn’t the first time I had left – probably forever – a place where I had made friends. But it is the first time that I have left the warmth of a human tribe to strike out, almost blindly, into total and permanent darkness… Moreover, each of my steps would take me further away from my route because I was forced to make this enormous detour. For all these reasons, this departure from Arctic Bay would remain one of the most heartbreaking I had ever faced.]

The author of Conquering the Impossible confides that he refused to listen to several warnings about the danger of his expedition: the temperatures in these regions are extreme and the polar bears represent a great danger, despite his bear radar. The explorer shares his feelings about these warnings as follows:

[What had driven me to ignore with such obstinacy the recommendations of everyone, including those who live here and know this country better than me? Pride? Stupidity? As the days went by, I tried to stop questioning myself: in doubt, I was sure to be defeated by the forces of nature… far superior to my own.]

3.3 – The life of an adventurer

The importance of equipment and survival rules

At this stage of the book, our “conqueror of the Impossible” discusses his equipment: socks, shoes, clothes. He specifies that this equipment is a sort of extension of his skin and not a “protective shell.” He also details how he removes each layer before entering his tent. Further, he explains the measures taken during sleeping periods: not to cross his legs, to regularly change his position, to wake up at regular intervals, etc.

The temporary moments of encounters

After three weeks of trekking and a storm that he fortunately waited out in a small hut, he meets an Inuit on his way, intrigued by his presence. These temporary moments are important for the adventurer:

[Our meeting lasted no more than seven minutes, during which this stranger, without knowing anything about me, found time to form an opinion about me, to guide me, to feed me. I forgot the cold and the night. Moments like this justify all the others.]

Much needed mental support

Mike Horn celebrates Christmas at Nyboe Fjord, then leaves Baffin Island, as he had planned. Unfortunately, the rest of the route is complicated: the ice is not enough, he must consider a much longer route. This forces him to be supplied by two of his teammates. They spend New Year’s Eve together, with his friend from Arctic Bay joining them.

[For the first time, I was not being encouraged to give up, but to go for it, to give it my all to get to the finish. I was no longer alone in believing in myself. And even more than food and equipment, that was what I needed.]  

A blessing in disguise

Once again blocked by unpredictable ice on the Gulf of Boothia, Mike Horn suffers an incident that could have been much worse: while he changes the fuel for his stove, it catches fire and sets the tent on fire. The author is only superficially burned, but he loses most of his equipment in the fire (tent, parka, sleeping bag, stove, etc.)!

Fortunately, he manages to save his GPS, his phone, and a few other things. He asks his wife Cathy for help. On the orders of the Canadian Mounties, the RCMP, he is rescued by Johannessy (his friend’s father-in-law from Arctic Bay) and Simon, the Inuit, who offered him some fish some time before. They bring him back to Igloolik. While waiting for his wife to bring back some equipment, he learns to catch the animals of the Arctic with tips from Simon: bears, wolves, and wolverines are no longer a problem for him. He also discovers the method to build an igloo in less than twenty minutes.

[I did not have any regrets about the dramatic circumstances that led me to spend these few days here, in the company of Simon. I may have lost most of my equipment, I may have been set back a hundred kilometers from my goal, but I certainly did not waste my time. For the teaching of my Inuit friend is a gift that no one could have given me.]

Chapter 4 – The Big Chill

4.1 – Surviving

Bears and the cold – the main dangers

To begin this new chapter, the author tells us about leaving a small inscription in a cabin where he was caught in snow storm. He writes:

[Mike Horn was here. He didn’t kill any bear and hopes that no bear will kill him.]

The explorer then explains how he uses both the snow piles and the wind to locate himself in the polar night. The bad weather prevents him from making rapid progress, and the threat of bears grows ever greater.

[Minus fifty-six… My blood was thickening. I could hardly bend my knees when walking; I felt like I was moving in slow motion. I breathed with difficulty… The air was burning, and I feared my lung cavities would freeze.]

Mike Horn then describes his first encounter with a bear: as he finds himself less than ten meters away from the animal, he puts into practice what he has learned from his new friends, namely, to make oneself big with gestures using his arms. This is enough to prevent the worst! A few days later and in minus sixty degrees, he meets a second one: this bear does not react to his arm movements and starts to follow the explorer. Mike considers shooting the bear with the only weapon he has left since the fire, a flare, but before doing so, he tries lastly shouting at him to leave. This time, it works!

The will to live is greater than anything

The conditions are truly extreme. The author of Conquering the Impossible suffers the full force of the cold and must constantly repair his equipment that cannot withstand the temperatures. In addition to this, he is physically and psychologically exhausted by such an expedition. [By pushing my body’s limits and my organism’s capacities further and further, I started to die without even realizing it. It was time to put aside my obsession with the goal and focus on my absolute priority: survival], writes Mike Horn. Before adding:

[The human will to live is stronger than anything. Stronger even than we can imagine.]

4.2 – The adventure continues…

The triumphant welcome of the inhabitants of Kugaruk after four long months of expedition

Despite everything, our “conqueror of the Impossible” continues his way in the direction of Committee Bay: after four months of trekking instead of one week of navigation, he can finally return to the West and Kugaruk. It is a few kilometers from there that he meets up with some of his team, five weeks after his departure from Igloolik.

[When I entered the main street, the entire population – five hundred people, including three hundred children – poured out of the prefabricated houses to surround me and greet me with shouts of enthusiasm. They applauded me in cadence, while I ran my last meters. My friends, who had preceded me on snowmobiles, immortalized the scene with all the Inuit generations celebrating around me. For four months, the satellite phones, the CB radios and the “Eskimo phone” had been reporting to every corner of the Great North: ‘There’s a guy who left Arctic Bay and is going on foot to Kugaruk through Igloolik! Unimaginable!’]

Family warmth

The next stop after this interlude is the village of Gjoa Haven, on King William Island, three hundred kilometers away. There, he reunites with his wife and two daughters:

[The clan was back together. If all I had done prior was only to arrive at that moment… it would have been worth it.]

After five days with his loved ones, the departure sounds. But before, they all enjoy together a traditional “drum dance”.

[I would take with me, besides the friendship of the people here, the memory of wonderful moments spent with Annika and Jessica. When you spend five days every six months with your children, every minute must be exceptional. And every minute was.]

Mike Horn’s letter to his daughters

So, he sets off again for Cambridge Bay on May 2, 2003, after a few more days in Gjoa Haven. On the road, he decides not only to cross the pack (pile of ice) of the Royal Geographic Society islands, but most importantly to leave a letter for his daughters.

[This idea, which began to form in my mind after Arctic Bay, was born out of my desire for Annika and Jessica to see everything I could. But to get them to come all the way out here, it’s not enough to tell them the scenery is worth seeing; you have to give them a goal: looking for a letter left for them would be a “treasure hunt” that might motivate them. Especially in a very long time. Particularly if I am no longer here… I tried to express the emotion I experienced in being here… where I finally tried, with my own words, to justify both my dreams and my absences. My life, in other words. In short, I told my daughters everything I wanted to tell them, but that they were still too young to understand.]

4.3 – Unforeseen events rendering the expedition all the more beautiful

Living your dreams

Further on, on Jerry Lind’s Island, he discovers a gigantic colony of musk oxen. Then he meets two Norwegians, Brent and Randolf, who are on the Amundsen route.

[Their eyes shined with the thrill of adventure, with the almost incredulous joy of being there, and with that glow that belongs only to those who are living their dreams... Our discussions were the diametric opposite of those superficial conversations from which you can no longer escape these days.]

Taking stock in Cambridge Bay

Finally, he arrives in Cambridge Bayaware of the experience and the encounters he has just had:

[For six months I had been dreaming of this place where I was supposed to arrive by boat and where I finally had to come on foot. You could say that I deserved it. If the sea had let me pass, I would have lost out on meeting them and everything else.]

Chapter 5 – The End of the Earth

5.1 – Fast trekking before the ice melts


Mike Horn spends a few days in Cambridge Bay, waiting for a supply of food and maps for the rest of his adventure. When this does not arrive, he finds some extra supplies in Cambridge Bay before setting off in the direction of Paulatuk.

The temperatures have risen, which implies a high pace of daily mileage (more than forty kilometers per day, eleven hours of trekking) in order to arrive before the ice melts. The explorer confides in these moments of long solitary trekking:

[Undistracted by human agitation, movement, visual stimuli, freed from immediate worries and material contingencies, my mind totally open, I dissected this or that aspect of my life or became absorbed in more general reflections. My imagination was constantly churning, preventing me from going crazy in solitude and silence…]


After Lady Franklin Point, the ice diminishes with each day, until it is only snow floating on the water. Without realizing it, Mike Horn enters this tricky passage and falls. Fortunately, by doing a “roll” as he describes it himself, he manages to find stable ground. In spite of this, he chooses to head in the same direction. He writes:

[I was constantly on the verge of disaster. The slightest mistake could be fatal, I knew, but I was unable to stop. It was an intoxication, the euphoria of adrenaline…]

He arrives in Paulatuk on time, one month after his departure from Cambridge Bay. There he rejoins his colleague Jean-Philippe and a friend of his.

[If I had made it this far, I think it was because I believed in myself,  and because I learned to never let disappointment make me lose hope. The rest of the magic potion was a blend of experience and wisdom.]

Journey of discovery

Time is running out because of the changing season: Mike Horn leaves only two days after his arrival in Paulatuk. Before leaving, and as usual, he asks an elderly local for advice, which leads him to the following reflection:

[More each day, I became aware that my adventure was infinitely more than a physical or sporting challenge, it was an expedition of discovery where I was exploring the territory of humanity as well as my own human nature.]

5.2 – A journey with increasing risk and difficulty

A treacherous expedition to Tuktoyaktuk

This time, Mike Horn targets Tuktoyaktuk. But the path deteriorates, both in terms of its appearance (first snow, then water, then rock), and its weather and population (grizzly bears add an additional threat to polar bears). After his first encounter with three grizzly bears (a mother and her two cubs), the explorer decides to leave the beach on which he is advancing and to climb the cliff he has been following for many kilometers. He discovers the tundra above, which offers him a snowy expanse much easier to travel.

Then, and until he reaches “Tuk” as he nicknames it, Mike Horn encounters many difficulties related to the melting of the ice already well advanced. He passes several times through the ice and must navigate while constantly wet. However, he manages to reach the “brown town” on June 2, 2003.

Tuktoyaktuk is an important stop because Mike Horn has to change his equipment and switch to more summer-appropriate gear. He replaces his sled with a kayak. For the explorer, “it was the beginning of another expedition”, a new challenge so exciting that it makes him forget about the winter!

New conditions – more summer-like but just as dangerous

The first few days of swimming up the Mackenzie River against the current are trying, but he finally arrives at Shallow Bay without too much trouble. He is lucky enough to observe dozens of belugas dancing under his boat. Further on, the waves hinder his progress and overturn his small boat. After nine days of sailing, Mike Horn is exhaustedbut the danger of his environment prevents him from resting; he succeeds, with incredible efforts, in overcoming the waves that throw him about the ice and can finally get a few hours of sleep.

From Herschel Island onwards, the sandbanks complicate his progress.  He cannot advance in the water, but the absence of hard ice on the shore prevents him from being able to walk on it sure-footed. Finally, on June 28, 2003, he reaches the border between Alaska and the Yukon!

The natural splendor of the Far North inspires the explorer with these poetic words:

[The landscapes that I crossed were among the most sublime that I had the opportunity to contemplate. This Far North where the land, the sea and the sky are the facets of the same diamond, where the mountains seem to have broken through the ice, brings me back more than ever to our infinitesimal nature in comparison…]

5.3 – Alaska!

Halfway through the journey: the feeling of starting the way back

His first stop in Alaska is the small village of Kaktovik, on Barter Island. There he repairs the rudder and the float of his kayak before leaving, only two days after his arrival. Shortly after, he meets three ornithologists who would give him a full course on all the birds he would see along his way. He learns from them that in order to enter Prudoe Bay, his next stop for supplies, he has to request authorization from the British Petroleum company – which he obtains with difficulty. On July 21, 2003, two days from Cape Barrow, his GPS indicates that he is exactly halfway along his route. The “conqueror of the Impossible” tells us:

[I have traveled ten thousand kilometers, out of the twenty thousand of my complete circumnavigation of the Arctic Circle. It had taken me almost a year to get here. Maybe it would take me as long to finish. All I knew was that from that place and that moment, I would be on my way back.]

In Barrow, Mike Horn meets by chance some French friends and their sailboat Vagabond. He also takes advantage of this stop to make a visit to the dentist. He leaves Barrow on foot because a storm is raging and prevents him from setting sail again. On his way, he has to swim across a river. He retrieves his kayak that he had sent to the village of Wainwright and takes advantage of a weather window to leave.

Arriving at Point Lay on August 10, 2003, he discovers the boat that will take him to Russia. This trimaran is convoyed by his brother whom he has not seen for more than twelve months. They sail together to Point Hope where he is reunited with his wife Cathy and his daughters.

Philosophy of the Far North

At Point Hope, Steve, an Inuit, explains the bond between whale and men:

[In the philosophy of the people of the Far North, it is the whale that offers itself to the hunter, to feed the village with which it shares the sea. It has three lives, and thus offers itself three times, before dying completely… When the men are victorious, they bring his soul back to the village, before returning it to the ocean. In this way, the whale can be reborn and offer itself again next season, ensuring the survival of the community…]

5.4 – Departure for Russia

Now, Mike Horn ventures to Russiaon board his trimaran. The crossing of the Bering Strait marks the end of his stay in Alaska.  Initially he leaves on his own, but he finally picks up his brother and skipper Ronan Le Goff, who will take the trimaran after Provideniya, in Russia. The Bering Sea is a complicated passage of the expedition. But once the crossing is successful, he declares: 

[In a few minutes, I would be the first man to have crossed solonon-stopGreenland and Canada, all the way to Russia.]

Chapter 6 – Welcome to Russia!

6.1 – Customs and administrative problems

The arrival in Russia is particularly inhospitable: once their documents are stamped, the customs officers, unsympathetic, take away Mike Horn’s GPS and rifle. Fortunately, he kept duplicates in his boat.

However, the adventurer must obtain special authorization to cross the Chukotka. He learns the day after his arrival that this crossing is now authorized only when accompanied.

While awaiting a solution, his brother and Le Goff leave with the trimaran, while Mike Horn sees his equipment being searched on the dock. Once again, he manages to hide the forbidden items! He is then placed under house arrest and describes a forgotten Russia, where time has stood still.

The administrative misunderstandings continue for the author of Conquering the Impossible: while he is summoned by the local police, he realizes that his visa has expired. He is interrogated by the ex-KGB. After many phone calls to high officials and a trial, Mike Horn finally gets out of the fine and the banbut has to return to Alaska, just enough time to obtain the much talked-about authorization for Chukotka.

6.2 – Return and forced immobility in Alaska awaiting Russian permits

A month and a half after his arrival in Nome, he learns that his permit will be valid only at the end of November. While waiting for his wife and daughters who would come to join him with winter equipment, he meets Nicolai, who would become his guide and guarantor. Together, they would have to follow a route established by the Russian authorities.

[I knew that in winter, this crossing would be extremely difficult. But months of forced inaction had built up such a rage inside me that I felt capable of moving mountains… or at least of climbing over them regardless of the weather.]

He finally set off from Provideniya on December 17, 2003, to take on the mountains of Chukotka.

Chapter 7: To Die Just a Little

7.1 – From bad to worse

Misadventures with the guide Nicolai

[I had the feeling of having gone back in time. Not of fifty years, as in Provideniya, but of a century. As if the landscape itself had something much more… primitive than anything I had already traveled through.]

After many twists and turns brought on by Nicolai, who ultimately turns out to be a poor guide, Mike Horn discovers a yaranga, a traditional Chukchi tent. There he meets two men and a woman who invite him to taste walrus.

After Nateperment, he continues his way in direction of the military base of Mys Shmidta where he must announce himself to the authorities, then Mys Billingsa. Before arriving at Pevek, he experiences serious doubt. He decided to “shake things up” and writes: [For a man in my situation, the wrong state of mind is the most dangerous poison. I worried that I had almost let it get to me.]

Pevek marks the end of his accompaniment by Nicolai and a new anecdote with the local police, this time to the point of having to flee in a hurry

Extreme conditions, powerful elements, and a sense of unreality

The Russian bureaucracy continues to modify the plans of the author: this time, it is his team which struggles to obtain the necessary permits for supplying in Ambarchik. This would have to be done in Chokurdakh.

On the way, Mike Horn is caught in a violent storm that forces him to trek for forty-eight consecutive hours while combating frostbite. The author states:

[At that moment, I thanked my first Arctic winter, the one I faced between Arctic Bay and Committee Bay. The experience I gained from it may have just saved my life. I could have died. And there’s no guarantee that still wouldn’t happen. Still, I did not enjoy the good weather in the Arctic as much as I appreciated the moments when nature was raging. Her demonstrations of force elicit in me a mixture of fear and respectful enthusiasm. I had to come all the way up here to see the true power of the elements, a power in comparison with which it is an understatement to say we are insignificant…]

Mike Horn skirts the coldest part of the Arctic, the Kolyma plain, and heads towards the Siberian Sea. This leg of the journey is once again complicated by the temperatures and the wind.

[This frozen desert is desolate in a way that makes it even more so than all the others I have crossed. Not a footprint in this part of the world, which seems to have been detached from another planet… This universe has something surreal about it, and I had an almost physical sense of abnormality that I experienced there. I walked along as in one of these dreams in which one wonders at what moment it will turn into the nightmare…]

When physical strength wears thin, willpower sets in

For lack of provisions, the author is forced to ration his meals, which weakens him considerably. Caught in a storm, exhausted, he feels that the end is very near… And then, the voices of his daughters come back to his mind and give him, once again, the strength to get up and move forward.

[Briefly, I threw in the towel. I was defeated, and I was close to the abyss. I panic in retrospect when I remember how easy it was…and tempting. But I was able to see once again that the will to survive, in human beings, is decidedly stronger than anything else.]

7.2 – The Russian expedition continues

Finally arrives the stop in Chokurdakhafter one month of trekking since Ambarchik. The explorer finds there his team for a complete resupply and a thorough examination of his equipment. He leaves quickly to complete the last two thirds of his journey in Russia.

After a family interlude in Tiksi, which marks the half of his journey in Russian territories, he is full speed ahead in direction of Khatanga thanks to his kite. He narrowly escapes two accidents because of ledges that he failed to see.

The spring thaw begins to modify Mike Horn’s plans and forces him to change course as he advances in Northern Siberia. After crossing Lake Passino, he reunites with family, sponsors, team, and journalists for a series of press conferences and yet another resupply.

Then follows a long crossing of swamps in the tundra. He travels along a gas pipeline of several hundred kilometers. Mike Horn explains to the reader that in the Arctic, there are really only two seasons, winter and an extremely short spring/summer (about two weeks):

[It feels like watching a movie in fast forward. The tundra turns from brown to green in twenty-four hours. Under the light that never goes out, you just have to stay still and focus on a specific point to see the grass grow and the vegetation bloom! And that’s not a figure of speech.]

This is another world for Mike Horn: animals, vegetation, sunshine, and heat.

To conclude this chapter, the author notes that the hospitality of the Russian people left a lasting impression on him.

Chapter 8 – The Last Man

8.1 – Already two years of expedition


Mike Horn finally retrieves his kayak, transported by helicopter, to Uzshno Solynensky. But the mast and floats of it break on the Messoyakha River. A little further, in the bay of Taz, a gas exploitation allows him to repair his boat, sleep, eat and take a hot shower. Following the advice of his hosts, he modifies his route because the bay of Taz is too dangerous in case of wind. He still has more than a thousand kilometers to Tobseda. He certainly takes risks, but there is no question of wasting everything by taking unnecessary risks:

[caution, yes; recklessness, no.]

Yamburg marks a new incident with the Russian authorities: private oil site, a permit is required to cross it. After several days of waiting, the situation is finally cleared up, thanks to Serguei, a contact in Moscow who has been helping him since the beginning of his expedition in Russia.

Flashback of these two years traveling

[August 4th was the second anniversary of my departure. I had been traveling for two whole years. However, I hadn’t the impression that I had been away for so long… I paddled all day long thinking about all that I had gone through in two years. I projected mental movies of Greenland, Canada, Alaska, Siberia…on fast forward. The twenty-four months had seemed like twenty-four hours to me. I had announced that I would take about two years. I would have kept my word, if it weren’t for the red tape that stranded me in Provideniya. But if all goes well, I wouldn’t be too far off the mark.]

Hundreds of whales: a sight to behold!

He meets the Yamal Nenets, who still live in reindeer skin teepees, then decides to cross the bay of Baidaratsa. His advance is more and more rapid, he now skirts the Urals. The arrival in the Kara Sea offers him an unforgettable spectacle:

[Suddenly, a geyser blast startled me. A superb white whale had just surfaced so close to my kayak that I could almost pet it! The next moment, the sea was seemingly covered with choppy whitecaps, as if the wind had suddenly risen. But these glittering flashes as far as the eye can see were dozens, hundreds of other whales, gracefully frolicking with a perfect formation, as if one of them were multiplied by an array of mirrors.]

Vasya – the old man exiled to the end of the earth

After a passage through Amderma, he finally reaches the Barents Sea, then Tobseda, which marks the reunion with several members of his team, including his brother whom he has not seen for a year and a half. This chapter of the book Conquering the Impossible is called “The Last Man” because in Tobseda lives a man, Vasya, who was abandoned there when the village was evacuated:

[Old man exiled to the end of the earth and prisoner of the sea, without money, without resources and without purpose, he awaited the end like a sacrificial lamb.]

During a violent storm, while he is on the dock, his boat sustains damage that strands him on land while repairs are made. Despite a fire in the boat during the repairs, Mike Horn is ready to set sail again in early October, a little less than a month after his arrival in Tobseda. The farewell with Vassia is heartbreaking.

8.2 – Mike Horn’s last days on his tour of the Arctic Circle

After a few days of sailing, he arrives near Murmansk. The access to the port is very regulated and above all, the prices soar to get the boat out of the water (it must be repaired again). Mike Horn discovers the mafia-like functioning of this strategic place.

Finally, he goes from Murmansk to Kirkenes by bike, while the trimaran is transported there by a carrier.

The author writes what he feels at this final stage of the journey, the strength he gets from these two years of expedition and the emptiness he foresees:

[I did it. I had crossed Russia in eleven months (almost), as I had predicted. Nothing could stop me from succeeding now… On the frozen road, I thought about everything I had just experienced and reflected on everything that awaited me. I began to prepare myself for this arrival which would empty me out, once I realized I would not have to set out again the next day…]

Taking advantage of the last days of solitude that separate him from his official arrival at the North Cape, scheduled for October 21, 2004, he visits the surrounding fjords.

[Suddenly, as I passed a rocky outcrop, the cape appeared in front of me. There it was, the immense and black cliff of which the image I have held close to my heart for twenty-three months. I felt it radiating from the roots of my hair down to my toes. I dared not close my eyes, lest it disappear.]

Mike Horn concludes with these powerful and moving words:

[The feeling of victory was overwhelmed by the happiness of being back. The words that came to me were not: “I won,” but: “I’m home.”]

Epilogue – I often say…

An “emotional roller-coaster”

In his epilogue, Mike Horn shares his intense and overwhelming experience of “conquering the impossible” as a concentration of emotions:

[In the Arctic, when the sun is reflected in the ice crystals, it creates a prism containing the whole palette of colors of this cold and magnificent world. These twenty-three months were a prism of life, a concentration of emotions. I experienced everything I had wanted to experience in thirty-eight years of existence: fear, pain, joy, disappointment, euphoria, rage, hope and despair… and happiness, above all, with a particular intensity. An “emotional roller-coaster.”]

Quest for discovery, self-transcendence, personal development, and life choices

Then, the adventurer looks back on all the lessons learned from such an expedition. He tells why, in addition to having put him to the test physically, his journey took on a rite of passage. How pushing oneself is the best way to develop humanly and personally:

[My expeditions, while remaining physical challenges, increasingly resemble rites of passage. I bring back such treasures of knowledge that it seems to me that I set out only to go and find more… Because, in my eyes, pushing one’s limits is the only way to know oneself and to grow as a human being.]

After 20,000 kilometers around the Arctic Circle, he also underlines the difficulties of such a life choice, the complicated return and especially the unknown future.

Words for Cathy Horn, the explorer’s wife

Lastly, Mike Horn writes a few words for his most faithful support, the one who follows, organizes, and supervises each of the expeditions: his wife, Cathy.

[I would like to offer Cathy a ring, with a “solitaire” diamond. The ring would symbolize my journey around the Arctic Circle, my experience during this expedition, and the perfect path to be reunited with the ones I love. The diamond would symbolize the sublime beauty of the worlds I crossed, the hardness of the ice, its glitter, and its inestimable value since it is the source of life. It is also the harshness of my journey, and that which I had to develop to come out of it. To cut a diamond, you need another one… Finally, like the diamond itself, it represents all the years I spent shaping myself, before being able to take up the challenge.]

Four inspirational sentences from Mike Horn

The book ends with some inspiring sentences from Mike Horn. Here are four of them, about pushing oneself and the goals one wants to achieve:

      • [Physically, many people are at my level, if not above. If I have two things over others, it’s my willpower and mental strength.]
      • [The desire to win must be greater than the fear of losing.]
      • [You don’t always reach your goal. This is not a reason to give up.]
      • [We call impossible the things we don’t really want to do.]

Conclusion on the book “Conquering the Impossible” by Mike Horn

Mike Horn, a man who commands admiration

Conquering the Impossible is a book that highlights the fascinating personality of Mike Horn.

The autobiographical account of his expedition enthralls us into the world of an extraordinary man. Choosing to traverse the Arctic Circle alone, against the wind and the current, is testament to the explorer’s exceptional determination. The nature of this expedition also reveals his all-consuming passion for adventure and exploration in its most extreme forms. In addition to his physical condition and his knowledge of survival, it is Mike Horn’s insightstate of mind, and mental strength that captivate the reader throughout the chapters.

An instructive read

Beyond a simple expedition story, Conquering the Impossible invites us to follow an actual rite of passage. Mike Horn, in his quest for profound self-knowledge, defies the limits of danger and is able to dig deep within himself to find the strength he needs to survive.

As a result, compared to any other “struggle”, this book provides invaluable life lessons. Among the many lessons learned, everyone can take something from it to further their personal growth. Above all, the book:

  • Teaches us that the will to liveis tenacious and often helps us bounce back just when we think it’s all over.
  • Reflects on our human insignificance when compared to the indomitable nature surrounding us.
  • Supports the idea that with sheer determination, one can summon the courage to fight on, far beyond what one could ever imagine.
  • Highlights the power of mutual aid and solidarity for carrying out such an expedition, as well as survival and our personal development in general.

A breathtaking narrative

Mike Horn takes us on a roller-coaster ride of extreme emotions and exploits, full of twists and turns. Each leg of his journey reinforces the explorer’s thirst to succeed in the immense challenge he has set himself. Captivating, the story illustrates the heart of humanity and a raw but grandiose nature. The landscapes that the author crosses and describes add an almost surreal quality to his expedition, the strength of which lies in the sincerity of his personal account of a nearly two-year-long experience.

The book Conquering the Impossible is universally acclaimed by travel and adventure enthusiasts; but all readers will be captivated and blown away by this reading.

A delightful adventure to read and an author as talented in his role as narrator as explorer.

Strengths and weaknesses of Conquering the Impossible

 Strong points:

  • The author’s writing style, which carries us along on an exhilarating adventure full of twists and turns.
  • The extraordinary personality of Mike Horn.
  • Maps, at the end of each chapter, which precisely resume his route.
  • A photo section to discover, after the narrative, the highlights of the expedition.
  • A special place dedicated to his encounters to better understand that the solo tour was only possible with help and solidarity throughout his expedition.
  • The many lessons that can be drawn from the account of this extreme adventure, which are excellent for personal development.

Weak point:

  • Some passages are slower paced – although these are expected for such an expedition!

My rating : Conquering the Impossible by Mike Horn Conquering the Impossible by Mike Horn Conquering the Impossible by Mike HornConquering the Impossible by Mike HornConquering the Impossible by Mike HornConquering the Impossible by Mike HornConquering the Impossible by Mike HornConquering the Impossible by Mike HornConquering the Impossible by Mike Horn

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A handy little guide to Conquering the Impossible

The trials of an adventure in extreme conditions

  • Storm on the ice floe
  • The accident
  • Encounter with a polar bear
  • The adventurer’s frozen fingers
  • Continue at any cost

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) of Conquering the Impossible

1. How has Mike Horn’s book Conquering the Impossible been received by the public?

Mike Horn’s book has been a huge success. It is at the top of the Amazon bestseller list.

2. What has been the impact of Conquering the Impossible?

This book allowed the readers to learn and discover throughout the journey how crucial means and logistics truly are.

3. Whom isMike Horn’s Conquering the Impossible intended for?

This book is for all adventurers.

4. What are the lessons learned from this book?

The book:

  • Teaches us that the will to liveis tenacious and often helps us bounce back just when we think it’s all over.
  • Reflects on our human insignificance when compared to the indomitable nature surrounding us.
  • Supports the idea that with sheer determination, one can summon the courage to fight on, far beyond what one could ever imagine.
  • Highlights the power of mutual aid and solidarity for carrying out such an expedition; as well as survival and our personal development in general.

5. What are Mike Horn’s inspirational phrases?

  • [Physically, many people are at my level, if not above. If I have two things over others, it’s my willpower and mental strength.]
  • [The desire to win must be greater than the fear of losing.]
  • [You don’t always reach your goal. This is not a reason to give up.]
  • [We call impossible the things we don’t really want to do.]

Storm on the ice floe VS the accident

Storm on the ice floe The accident
Finding the right spot Crossing a delicate passage
Pitching the tent Being immersed in three-degree water
Cooking while a storm is raging outside Getting out of water without your sled turning over
Sleeping in minus forty-degree weather Crossing a delicate passage

Who is Mike Horn?

Mike Horn was born on July 16, 1966, in Johannesburg, South Africa. His mother worked as an economics teacher. His father, a school principal, taught sports after a career as a rugby player. He died at the age of forty-two, when Mike was eighteen. As a child, he played many sports: rugby, cricket, track and field, tennis, and cycling.

From 1984 to 1986, under apartheid, Mike Horn served as a lieutenant in the South African Special Forces; and participated in the fighting in Angola.  After returning to civilian life, he graduated from Stellenbosch University with a degree in physical education; then worked in his uncle’s fruit and vegetable import and export business.

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