Mike Horner had a lifelong fascination with Everest, but he never made it to the mountain before his untimely death due to neurological disease in February 2023.
Throughout his life, Mike Horner marveled at Mount Everest and the brave people who dared to scale it. But Mike Horner never got to attempt the climb himself. He died at the age of 65, after struggling with a rare neurological disease that left doctors stumped. He died on Feb. 8, 2023.
Grief hits everyone differently, and for his son Nick Horner, it took the form of a downward spiral and several bottles of bourbon. He ignored texts, and shut himself away from the world. Then, one day, an idea dawned on him: He would take his father’s ashes to Everest, and they would scale the mountain together.
“Dad had never been to Everest, and I knew that’s what I needed to do,” Horner told the Washington Post. “I needed to take him there.”
So, on May 1, less than three months after his father’s death, Horner did just that. He scaled Mount Everest, reaching the Khumbu Glacier 18,000 feet up the mountain. There, he said his final goodbyes to his father.
“Michael D. Horner, July 22, 1957,” he said, addressing the camera held by another climber. “February 8, 2023… I love you so much, Dad. Rest in peace.”
With that, Horner opened his hand and let the wind scatter his father’s ashes across the snowy mountain.
“Grief is a very scary thing — for the first time in your life you feel it’s out of your control,” Horner recalled to the Tampa Bay Times. “I always felt I could find a way to beat it, fix it, overcome it. But I couldn’t make this thing go away.”
His bereavement leave had lasted months, when he had originally suspected it to be just a few weeks. He stopped taking care of himself. His hair and beard grew long and unruly. He was sustaining himself with bourbon and chocolate. His mom and sister were struggling, too, but Horner was hardly in a position to look after himself, let alone his grieving family members.
While speaking with his therapist, Beth Kuehling, Horner expressed his anger at the loss of his father, and questioned what the meaning of life was.
“When people lose someone, our brains want to feel a sense of control,” Kuehling told the Tampa Bay Times. “Grief and loss is an extreme moment of feeling out of control.”
Nepal seemed like the perfect getaway.
Mike Horner had never been outside the United States, but his lifelong fascination with Everest kept coming up in the conversations following his death. He had multiple books on the mountain and watched numerous documentaries about it. He took his son to IMAX screenings of the 1998 documentary Everest.
“I thought it was what I needed to get my mind right and at the same time it just clicked,” Nick Horner said. “Dad had never been out of the country. I was like, ‘Shit, I’m going to take him there.'”
He put two small urns of ashes in with his luggage — one in a checked bag, one in his carry-on — and took a flight to Kathmandu on March 22. For the next six weeks, Horner hiked up the mountain, stopping occasionally to pray at shrines, or simply just to cry. At night, he read Megan Devine’s book on grief, It’s OK That You’re Not OK.
“For the first time in my life, I’m finding out maybe there’s a problem I can’t solve,” Horner recalled.
Everest is the highest place on Earth. For those who believe in Heaven, there is perhaps no place closer to it.
“I remember thinking that this is the closest I’ll ever be to him,” he said. “There is no higher point to get me closer to heaven, if that’s where he is.”
Anyone who has ever lost someone close to them knows that grief never truly goes away. It doesn’t sap you of your strength completely anymore, like it does at the beginning, but it is always there, and can sometimes bubble back up to the surface. Even half a year after his Everest trip, Horner still experiences what he calls “emotional waves.”
“You wake up some days and just don’t go to work. You open your computer and you just can’t think,” he said.
Still, the Everest trip offered him closure that he couldn’t get elsewhere. Doctors still don’t know what disease took his father from him. They might never get an answer. But at least his father finally made it to Everest.
“I found myself saying goodbye to him,” he said. “That is where I think he would want his final resting place to be.”
After reading about Nick Horner’s inspiring ascent up Mount Everest, learn about the grim history of the bodies littering Mount Everest. Or, learn more about the world’s tallest mountain through our gallery of Mount Everest facts.