Life By The Horns
“We were very lucky to be gifted with the philosophy that everything is achievable.” Annika and Jessica Horn, daughters of renowned explorer Mike Horn, talk about how he shaped their mindset – and now they strive to empower women everywhere
By Daisy Woodward
Annika and Jessica Horn did not have an ordinary childhood. Growing up in the small town of Château-d’Oex in Switzerland – a lush, mountainous area best known for hosting the International Hot Air Balloon Festival – they were often, quite literally, worlds apart from their peers. Why? Because their father is the celebrated Swiss-South-African adventurer and explorer Mike Horn, whose feats of endurance include circling the globe not once but twice (once, following the Equator, the next time the Arctic Circle), trekking to the North Pole in winter, and scaling four of the world’s tallest mountains. “As a family, we stood out,” says Annika, now 29, speaking from her home in Lausanne. “We had an unconventional way of living, and it wasn’t necessarily understood or appreciated by many.”
Mike would leave for months, sometimes years at a time, leaving his wife Catherine to navigate that equally daunting terrain, parenthood. “Our mother did a great job in explaining what he was doing and where he was,” says Jessica, 28. “We had a map at home where we would follow him on his expeditions. She really managed to maintain a stable, normal lifestyle for us despite our having a father who was out exploring the world.” Regularly, the girls and their mother would voyage to meet Mike mid-adventure, an experience that profoundly shaped their world view. “We’d go to these very remote locations where we’d be exposed to very different types of cultures and environments, like the Amazon jungle,” says Annika. “That’s how we developed our sensitivity towards nature and also discovered the thrill of sports and pushing yourself to new limits on different kinds of terrain. Our father taught us to be adaptable and open minded.” What sort of limits are we talking, I ask, and at what age? “Some families go to the beach, but our father took us to the North Pole when we were 11 and 12,” laughs Jessica. “And the year before that, we went to Bylot Island in northern Canada to climb a glacier to practise for it. I think we did about 200km, getting used to all the equipment,” she says. “With our little legs!” chimes in Annika.
“The North Pole trip was definitely our introduction to the more extreme types of adventure,” Annika expands, recalling the minus 40-degree temperatures they had to endure, and the vast number of calories they had to consume: “Like four times more than a kid should eat!” But far from being put off by the experience, the expedition showed the sisters just how wonderful adventuring could be. “We just wanted more and more,” says Annika. “It was a bit intense,” says Jessica a little more cautiously, “I don’t think we realised what we were getting into because we were so young and naive. But it’s an incredible story. I think I’m still the youngest girl to have skied to the North Pole.”
Indeed, the sisters feel indebted to the lessons they learned during their singular childhood – lessons that have shaped who they are today, and which they seek to share. “We were very lucky to be gifted with the philosophy, the mindset that everything is achievable, everything is attainable,” says Annika. “To understand that we as humans are limitless. One of our father’s favourite quotes, that he himself dreamed up over years of adventuring, is that ‘the impossible only exists until you find a way to make it possible’. That and ‘no dream is big enough’. It was very inspiring to feel that fearlessness growing up, and that’s something we want to share, especially with women, because we all have it within ourselves, sometimes we’re just not given the opportunity to open up those little inside doors.”
Their approach to encourage others is two-fold, making use of both their father’s platform and their own for the purpose. In 2015, the pair took over the running of Horn’s business after losing their mother, the key administrator behind Horn’s expeditions, to breast cancer. At this time, both sisters were still studying, Annika had just finished her bachelor’s degree in Communication and Media Studies at the American University of Paris, and Jessica towards her own BSc in Public Relations at Boston University – degrees that left them well equipped for the job at hand.
It was a father-daughter adventure, embarked upon in the weeks after their mother’s death that affirmed the sisters’ decision to join the family business. “We needed to be together, and to do what we do best,” says Jessica of the endeavour, which involved driving across Europe and Asia, and hiking to the base camp of K2, the world’s second-highest mountain, on the Pakistan-China border. As well as providing an invaluable opportunity to process their grief, and reconnect with both themselves and nature, the adventure was a chance to show their father their desire to support his career in the same way their mother had before them. “We wanted to reassure him that he could still continue to do what he loves doing,” explains Jessica. “It was a really decisive moment in my life because I wasn’t sure I was willing to get into it. And then when I got there, it was confirmed: I needed to be able to support my dad and to continue to go on adventures.”
When it comes to the running of the business, the sisters’ different skill sets have proved the ideal combination. “I deal with finances, managing the partners, negotiating, sorting out the budgets, and getting the contracts signed – the business side with a more structured approach,” explains Jessica of the division of tasks. “And Annika’s the creative one. She manages all the content, writing the books, working on the documentaries, podcasts, master classes and so on.” In 2019, the duo founded their own media production agency, Horn Media, to take care of all marketing and communication for Mike’s expeditions, conferences and events. But they also create bespoke brand strategies, content and promotional campaigns for a range of independent clients. So far, these have included sporting events like the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, as well as the renowned women’s surf, snowboard, and fitness clothing brand Roxy, who approached Horn Media to represent their Active Explorer Collection last year. “It’s the perfect match for us,” enthuses Annika of the collaboration. “It’s a women’s brand that’s body positive, and super natural and authentic.”
Inspiring women to believe in themselves and the power and strength of their own bodies, both through their work, and their own social media channels, is of the utmost importance to Annika and Jessica, who continue to engage in new sports and challenges whenever and wherever possible. “We’re businesswomen during the week, and on the weekends, we go out and adventure: hiking, trail running, anything. And that’s what we try to encourage other women to do through our platforms, and more and more on our father’s platform, too,” says Annika. “This year, we took up uphill skiing with skins. The slopes have become overrun with tourists because of Covid and various slopes being closed, so we just put skins on our skis, hike to the top of the snowy mountains, pack our skins in our backpacks and ski down!”
“Our role as women has only really taken on its full meaning these past two years,” she continues. “Our father said, ‘Of course, I want to share my world of adventure and extreme sports with you, but I don’t want to force you’. And that’s how we decided that what we really wanted to be doing was representing women in the world of sports, or adventure, or activity. Our key message is that nobody has to be an athlete to step out of their comfort zone and to do something that they haven’t done before.” So what would they recommend to those of us tempted to push ourselves that little bit further? “We spent the last two years getting into cold water therapy – going for a dip in lakes and rivers in the middle of winter, and I’d really recommend that,” says Jessica. “It’s very challenging at first. It’s all about being focused, being Zen, centring on your breathing. But you get out of there and you have this feeling of euphoria. The health benefits are amazing, and it’s a great way to show yourself that you’re capable of far more than you imagined.”
This latest pursuit touches upon another of the sisters’ joint passions: the great outdoors, from the benefits it offers to the dangers it faces. “You get energy from nature, and if you do sports in a natural environment, it’s like the trees that surround you invigorate you,” says Annika. “Exploring used to be about extremes, proving that everything was possible in a physical sense, but now we’re entering into this phase where the business of exploring must meet carbon neutral targets,” she says. “Our role is not to become adventurers or explorers but to become spokeswomen for the changes taking place on planet Earth. We have more of an environmental and educational focus now, as does our father.” In fact, the family are gearing up for their next adventure, dubbed What’s Left, which they will embark upon together, revisiting some of the magical far-flung destinations Mike, now 56, has previously explored. This will be a chance for the adventurer to observe the changes that have occurred over the course of his three-decade career, to discover what’s left of the world to explore, and to share his extraordinary stories with his daughters, who will no doubt absorb these remarkable learnings and use them to inform and inspire.