Paddy Upton

Proteas in Switzerland

Mike Horn is one of the most remarkable, inspiring, mentally (and physically) tough men on the planet. Called ‘explorer of the century’, ‘greatest ever adventurer’ and ‘the toughest man alive’, Mikes dreams dreams so big they scare him, then he sets off to accomplish them. Amongst his plenty solo adventures, he took 6months to swim 7000km from source to mouth of the Amazon, he circumnavigated the 40000km of equator without motorised transport in 17months, took 27 months to circumnavigate 20000km of the Arctic Circle without motorised transport, walked to the North Pole in 61 days of total darkness of mid-winter, skied to the South Pole and has climbed several 8000+ mountains without oxygen. Equally significantly, he is an authentic all-round good guy.

He also happens to have a training camp in the Swiss Alps, which is almost exclusively used to train the Young Explorers from every continent, who he takes to the most distant and extreme corners of the world, teaching them about both surviving in and caring for the environment.

As an old university mate of mine, he agreed to break from his current 4year, 100,000km journey around the world, to host us at his Swiss training base. A big thank you must go to Cricket SA for agreeing the budget for an out-the-box idea like this.

Day one saw the team driving around the Alps in seven of the latest generation E-cell and F-cell Mercedes Benz cars, which run on electricity and water, and produce zero carbon emissions. One of them was Michael Schumacher’s personal car – who happens to be a friend of Mike Horn. Having had a good look around the region, we shifted our mode of transport to mountain bikes. During a two-hour ride, we soon discovered there is no flat terrain in the Alps, something we would learn again and again over the next few days. While a few players went over their handlebars and donated skin to the gravel paths, none were badly injured. Thank goodness.

That evening Mike had us all riveted with his story and slideshow of spending 61 days travelling to the North Pole, across moving ice flows, in the permanent total darkness of the polar winter. Enduring temperatures of below minus 50°C, regularly having to swim, in darkness, from one ice flow to another as they broke up underfoot, surviving repeated attacks by hungry polar bears… all whilst towing a sled containing 100kg of equipment and food. Along with his partner Borg Ousland, they are the only two people to ever reach the North Pole in winter. More people have been to the moon. As we listened, concepts like dreaming big, preparing excellently, real mental strength, overcoming obstacles, never giving up, committing to decisions, and respecting your teammate took on entirely new dimensions for all of us!

The next day was an opportunity to visit Mike’s training grounds. Kitted up in snow boots, gortex pants and jackets, gloves and beanies, snow rackets and ski poles, we headed for a 3hour hike through snow to summit a 3300m peak. It entailed a rope climb, traversing an ice-field with crevasses, and a steep/ exhausting push for the summit on a clear day, with temperatures near zero and in deep snow. Not really your average cricket playing conditions.

On the walk back down to the cable station, Mike routed the party down the ski slope, so that we had a killer of an uphill climb to finish! While we all arrived completely exhausted, at age 47, Mike looked like he had just pitched home from a stroll in the park.

A truck filled with mountain bikes awaited our arrival at the bottom of the cable car. Mike pointed to a mountain opposite the one we had just summited, and said; “we’re cycling over that mountain back to the hotel”. Ha-Ha, big joke. No one believed him, myself included.

The peak loomed some 750m above us. Mike hopped on his bike and headed straight up, shouting, ‘follow me’. Joke over. The next 90 minutes saw players using every swearword in the book, until they were too exhausted to swear… and there was still more to climb. For 7km, we climbed, never once did the path level out. Not once. Honestly! I have never been so physically exhausted in my life. But I was in Mike Horn territory, so I refused to get off my bike, refused to rest, refused to walk. I found reserves that I never knew I had. AB de Villiers said that he had never been that exhausted in his life, and that he pushed harder than he had ever had before. He now knew he could do more than he believed.

Another player said; “I’ve had enough being the best I can be. It’s time to be better than that.” Cramp struck three players. Jacko, our comrades marathon runner physio, stretched the muscles out, helped the player back on the bike, and the slog continued. Marchant de Lange battled cramps for nearly 3 hours, but refused to give up, and didn’t. On the way up, about 3km and 45 minutes away the summit, Gary Kirsten got a puncture that we could not repair. Mike Horn gave Gary his bike, and then proceeded to carry Gary’s bike to the summit.

From the top, which came as a massive relief, about a 900m descent lay ahead over the next 14km. All were looking forward to cruising downhill. It was not to be. We carried our bikes for the better part of the first 2km, down terrain too treacherous to cycle. It is too much for my limited writing ability to describe what it was like to cycle down a Swiss Alpine mountain, through virgin forests along tracks forged only by cows during their higher altitude summer living, accompanied by team mates encouraging you through sometimes quite steep or technical terrain. It was spectacular. A true privilege to experience. Mike did it on all foot, still carrying Gary’s bike.

Freshly brewed beer awaited our arrival home after over 7 hours of climbing and cycling. Seldom has a beer tasted that sweet! The next was equally as good.

After a fitful sleep, we woke early for a 7am start, scheduled to descend a glacial river flanked by sheer cliffs, sometime so narrow that one would have to turn sideways to pass. Predicted thundershowers made the canyon too risky to run, so we headed to a region which was three mountain passes and 75 minutes away, to another such canyon, where the rain was only scheduled for later in the day.

Players and management dressed in 5mm wetsuits, specialised river walking boots, full-length protective overalls, waist harnesses, life jackets and helmets, and headed from base camp up a steep and narrow ravine. The next two hours saw us bum sliding down slippery moss-covered waterfalls, jumping into natural plunge pools from heights between 3-11metres, and sliding down a flying-fox pulley system that was the only safe way to descend one 25m waterfall. Most if not all of us were visibly shivering, through a combination of operating out of comfort zones, and in just above freezing glacial water.

‘Man-of-the-match’ went to Jacques Kallis who overcame his significant fear of heights to complete the flying fox and an 8m jump into a small rock pool. The award was shared with 23yr old media manager Lerato Malekutu who descended each waterfall jump and flying fox with accompanying screams of terror. Like Jacques, she never backed down.

After a full-on high-energy 48 hours, players were given the afternoon to rest or take a leisurely stroll around the quaint village of Chateaux d’Oex. It was impressive to see seven people to rather choose a 10km run along the river, and another five to go on a ‘leisurely’ mountain bike with Mike, which ended up being a gruelling 3hour and 38km round trip to the famous Swiss town of Gstaad. As if the countryside wasn’t beautiful enough, a beach volleyball tournament provided further soothing for the eyes.

The evening had us travel to a traditional high altitude cheese making cottage, where host Pipo opened his ‘home’ to host us for an evening of experiencing the Swiss cheese making and eating culture. Mike gave another of his impromptu talks, this time sharing stories of his preparation for his 7000km journey down the Amazon. Of the many lessons, we heard of seeing through obstacles to the solution on the other side, making critical decisions and committing fully without any second-guessing, that if dreams don’t scare you, then they’re not big enough, that bettering yourself everyday is not negotiable for someone wanting to live life fully, and that saying you will do something is not enough, it’s the action that counts.

Despite one or two players suggesting a chilled final morning to conclude a wonderful Swiss adventure, Mike and Gary had other ideas. At 7am, Mike took us through the famous ‘church run’. Up a long flight of stairs to the top of the village church, down the other side, and then back up the hill to the hotel. We then hopped back onto the bikes, with most if not all of us letting out a little ‘eina’ as bruised bums hit saddles. Again Mike showed us a loop of the village, ending with an ascent up the steepest road the village had on offer. Familiar with the two routes, players and management were divided into four teams, and the gun went off for three laps of the church run, followed by three laps of the mountain bike route. The power half-hour race was a fitting way to end the Proteas four days in the Swiss Alps, Mike Horn style.

After shower, pack and self-help breakfast (including packing your own dishes away), we met for a 45minute de-brief of the experience. Whilst there is no guarantee of winning, there is no doubt that the time spend at the training camp was a massive success from many perspectives, including advancing our unique team culture, learning more about ourselves and perceived boundaries, limitations and/ or obstacles, and several personal insights into living and performing at the top of our game. Lessons that will no doubt add value us as we move into an important season of cricket.

Each player was encouraged to draw his own learning from the experience. For me it was that I cannot pursue success by taking any shortcuts in preparation, that my mind can overrule an exhausted body, how liberating it is to be real/ authentic and not worry about what others think, to not limit myself by my own or others thinking, that it’s action not words that count, and that life is here to be lived fully. Which may well mean operating well outside the box!

Thanks Mike and his team, CSA and fellow Proteas for an experience of a lifetime!

Written after the first version of this blog was published. We bid a sad farewell to Mark Boucher whose early exit from International cricket came through a freak eye injury. The picture below, a few days before the injury, epitomises the man. Summiting a mountain, in front, in the snow, in a T-shirt. Farewell to a great warrior and friend to many!

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