Dashing Explorer Skip Horner, a Montana Original

By BRIAN D’AMBROSIO

Skip Horner knows a sensational or unusually adventurous experience when he sees it.

Not only does he appreciate the spirit of adventure, but he also lives it, breathes it, thinks it, traverses over it, spryly leaps across it — and he makes a living sharing such extremely bold and unique undertakings with others.

For Horner, participating in enlivening and original enterprises —whether it’s white-water rafting in Madagascar or Papua, New Guinea; scaling the summit of Mt. Vinson, the tallest peak in Antarctica; or ascending Gunnbjornsfjeld, the highest mountain in the Arctic—isn’t just a job, but rather a lifestyle choice that melds together his happiness, personality, and broad knowledge.

Horner explains: “The experience of seeing new foreign cultures and wildlife scenes keeps me going. This curiosity is always there. I’d love to be able to go to every country in the world to see what’s happening, but there are way too many places to go. If a year has gone by and I haven’t visited a new country or culture, then it hasn’t been a good year.”

Originally an East Coast guy, Horner moved to Aspen to become “a ski bum” in 1969, a time that he refers to as the town’s “golden age.” The glitz hadn’t taken effect yet, open space was plentiful, and real estate prices weren’t so exorbitantly unreasonable. During his second year there, he discovered the fabulous fun of cross-country skiing, even using it as a mechanism to transport himself back and forth to town, and from the mountain where he’d downhill ski by day to the teepee he called home that winter.

Years later, Horner began teaching cross-country skiing. One day, on his way to work, he noticed a man distributing brochures for a local river expedition company, and after a little bit of schmoozing, Horner had a job guiding folks through the Grand Canyon on the Colorado River.

Montana adventure travel guide Skip Horner atop Mt. Wagagai in Uganda.

Skip Horner and friends atop Mt. Wagagai inUganda.

After three summers and 21 trips guiding the indubitably demanding Colorado River, Horner went looking for a new direction in life. Law school was supposed to be a definite destination, but that never panned out because he got hired by a different adventure travel company named Mountain Travel. This job established the foundation of what would become his life’s work.

“At that time, I still thought that guiding was something I could only do before getting serious about life. I was still thinking that it couldn’t be a career.”

In 1974, Mountain Travel sent Horner off to lead climbing and trekking expeditions to just about everywhere in South America, as well as throughout the ruggedly remote expanses of the Himalayas. The early 1970s, he says, brought the emergence of the adventure travel industry. Then, the concept of world travel was far more obscure and mysterious, and, unlike today, guidebooks to every single country in the world weren’t available at every bookstore and coffeehouse in town.

“Basically, [back then] you would fly into a place and then start asking questions. [Mountain Travel] would send me a plane ticket to almost anywhere — could’ve been Katmandu or Santiago, Chile, or Nairobi — and I’d pick the client up and take them on a trip.”

After leaving Mountain Travel to do his share of solo globe-trotting, Horner began offering his own guided services. Starting and maintaining an adventure company, he says, wouldn’t have been possible without the inestimable help and the exuberant encouragement of his wife, Elizabeth.

It’s been more than three decades since he began experimenting with world travel, yet Horner believes that a good guide doesn’t need to have previously visited a country in order to be a competent escort for a client. In fact, he says that if a guide possesses a keen understanding of geography, topography, and cartography, and practices clear, logical thinking, then that person should be able to safely and successfully guide folks through unfamiliar terrain.

“My expertise isn’t in having been to a place and therefore knowing everything about it; my expertise is in knowing the patterns of places — how mountains work, how rivers work, and how travel works — so when I get to a new place, I can use this understanding of patterns and systems to make a new trip work. If you can understand the motivations of people, and have compassion for the people whose country you’re going to, you’ll be fine.”

However, such bold and risky undertakings are closely associated with uncertain outcomes and inherent danger, which does alarm Horner. But fear, he says, is a critical emotion necessary for an adventure guide’s success: Have it and it can be consciously counteracted to make a trip thrive, or used as an adrenaline boost to prevent things from becoming routine; lose it and things may become uninspiring. Either way, a good guide, he says, doesn’t mind sticking his neck out in an unfamiliar place.

“The first time I took people to Mt. Everest, I hadn’t been there. Some people like that type of adventure. My fear of falling has made me a successful climber; and as a guide, I’m always afraid of having a disastrous trip. When pulling into any new town, I’m a little bit up on edge, a little bit excited, a little fearful, but you can control this fear and make a success out of it.”

After many years of living a life fraught with extreme exquisiteness and dicey endangerment, the single most beautiful, powerful, and emotional thing to ever affect Horner is a solar eclipse. It’s an outstanding astronomical event that he’s seen in some far-flung places, including once while cross-country skiing through the frostily cold confines of Mongolia, and yet another time when leading a caravan of camels across furrowed sand dunes deep in the Sahara. (Horner is already organizing trips to view the next four solar eclipses from unusual places.)

“A true solar eclipse is the most unbelievable event a person can experience. It’s so outrageous, so unbelievable, so moving, that you have to see it for yourself to understand it.”

Often Horner passes through and pops up in places so remote that his presence compels some locals to suspiciously scratch their heads; others to wipe their eyes in disbelief, as if they were looking at a mirage; and a few to even fretfully hurry for the hills.

One time, when Horner was guiding a white-water rafting trip in Madagascar, his party pierced through an eerily remote stretch of water and waited on a quiet beach to meet a helicopter. Horner was guiding for an adventure company named Sobek, which at the time was receiving much positive publicity in Madagascar. The helicopter, which was supposed to skirt the group around a singularly treacherous arrangement of waterfalls, was just part of the hullabaloo thought up by an oil company hoping to capitalize on Sobek’s newfound publicity.

Skip Horner, Montana adventure travel guide and juggler of mangoes

Skip Horner, Montana adventure travel guide and juggler ofmangoes.

“We pulled ashore with eight days’ worth of scruff and grunge, with our beards and boats and life jackets, and we landed along a village full of kids. They saw us, and as we got closer to them they ran away. It was very funny for us, because we could see them peeking at us through the brush and bushes.”

There, on this distant and far-off beach, an incredible scene took place, with boats arriving, a helicopter landing, and a pair of roaring twin-engine planes circling – all punctuated by groups of animated Westerners in funny dress, including the U.S. ambassador to Madagascar.

“We had a cocktail party right there, and people were looking at us like we were from Mars. Who knows what kind of mythology came out of that day. Can you imagine what kinds of stories have been passed down in that village?” asks Horner, who fell violently ill that same day due to a mosquito bite he’d gotten on a previous trip, the nip incubating into cerebral malaria.

While pockets of relatively uncharted territory still exist in the world—where few people have ever ventured, places so remote that little human interaction transpires there—today’s trekking groups will take clients to nearly anywhere on the planet. And chances are that Horner’s already blazed those ill-defined trails. In fact, he will visit the same place twice if he really loved his first experience there. And if he keeps finding enthusiastic people who want him to lead them on a trip to a particular place or predicament, he’ll repeat such a journey as many times as wished.

Come February, he’ll be shepherding an expedition to Mt. Kilimanjaro to summit Africa’s highest point for what’ll be his 24th time. Even though he’s been there and done that many times over, Horner’s enthusiasm for this approaching ascent has by no means worn thin.

“I love going with people that are excited, that get something out of the trip. I refer to the people that come with me on these adventures as friends. I see it this way: It’s a relationship that’s between friends. I’m doing what I love doing most and I’m doing it with my friends. I love taking people to places who desire to understand where they’re going, and that’s fun no matter how often I’ve been to a spot.”

Even after 30 gripping years in the business and a few close encounters and unnerving brushes with doom—such as when, two years ago, he was buried under an avalanche in the Himalayas and watched with incredulity as thick snow slid, tumbled, and disintegrated before his eyes, all the time thinking he was a goner—Horner, who’s the first adventure guide to take clients to all seven continents, scoffs at the very notion of the “r” word: retirement. To him, cozy couches, slow strides, and casual, unhurried living aren’t vicissitudes favorable to conducting a life, but mere episodic interludes between absorbing adventures.

“This is my life. My life is my work. For me to retire would mean that I’d have to quit traveling and guiding. I can’t do that.”

For more information about Skip Horner’s extraordinary adventures, visit his website.

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Missoula writer Brian D'Ambrosio, his dog, and a beautiful view.

Brian D’Ambrosio is a Missoula writer, editor, instructor, and media consultant. D’Ambrosio’s recent articles have been published in local, regional, and national publications, including High Country News, USA Today, Wisconsin Trails, Bark Magazine, Montana Magazine, and Backpacker Magazine. His latest book about legendary vigilante screen actor Charles Bronson, Menacing Face Worth Millions, A Life of Charles Bronson, will be released this summer.