Expaddiction

A near-fatal attraction to the world's gnarliest climbs

Mike Libecki and Freddie Wilkinson shuttle loads of gear after their first ascent on Bertha's Tower, an unclimbed tower that rises more than 2,000 feet in Queen Maud Land, Antarctica. This was Libecki's fifth visit to the continent. Bertha's Tower was named after Libecki's grandmother, Bertha, who encouraged him to drop out of college over 20 years ago and focus on climbing.

I was definitely in denial.

Sixty feet up a shattered wall of basalt in the Arctic, I just hoped to find a place to set up my portaledge, out of the reach of polar bears. The rock—for lack of a better term—was shitty. But I was still headed up. A couple of soccer ball–size rocks crashed onto the talus to my left, exploding like small bombs. As I hammered in a knifeblade piton, a huge flake shattered like a plate of glass. The fragments sounded like ceramic tiles as they hit the talus below. I needed to find a way up this wall, but this line was death.

I downclimbed and peered through the fog and rain for any sign of bears. Back on the ground, I dragged all of my gear out of the rockfall zone toward the nearby beach and broke out my stove to make coffee. A huge pile of polar bear feces mixed with bird feathers sat between me and the ocean. I had no rifle. I needed to have a little talk with myself about my next move.

For the past eight years, I’d been dreaming of climbing a rock wall in Franz Josef Land, a Russian archipelago 1,000 miles north of the Arctic Circle—farther north than Alaska, Baffin Island, and all but the northern tip of Greenland. If I succeeded, it would be the northernmost rock climb ever done. Now I had bailed less than one pitch up.

I’d only been permitted to climb on this section of the wall because no seabirds nested here, and suddenly I realized why: The birds knew it was too dangerous. It was time to wake up. I would not be safe in a portaledge on this eroding-in-real-time rock. On the ground, a polar bear encounter was almost guaranteed, and without a gun I was just a fool. With hopes that a bear could not follow, I climbed up a nearby ice couloir and called for a pick-up on my satellite phone, and the next morning the Russian sailboat I had hired returned. The boat’s horn blared twice—their signal that they had looked for polar bears and it was safe to load my rafts. I paddled out through the rain and wind. But as I climbed into the boat’s sanctuary, I felt a hollow feeling. I’d made the right call, but it felt like I was walking away with my tail between my legs. Now I had unfinished business. I would need to go back.

It used to be something I joked about, sort of laughed off to my friends and family. But now, at age 40, it’s time to just come out and say it: I’m obsessed with expeditions. Maybe even addicted. Each year I plan multiple exploratory trips to unclimbed rock formations in remote and harsh environments. At some point, there’s always a personal choice: go or don’t go. And I always go. Knowing there will be suffering. Knowing I could die. Even knowing I have to leave my 10-year-old angel of a daughter, Lilliana, for months at a time. I believe anything worth doing in life takes compromise and sacrifice. So far this obsession has led to more than 50 expeditions in more than 30 countries. My goal is to complete 100 expeditions before I die. And it all dates back to a day when I was just 6 years old.

It was 1979, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, less than an hour’s drive from Yosemite National Park. My first “expedition” began on a normal Saturday morning after hot chocolate, Honeycomb cereal, and Bugs Bunny cartoons. I had seen mountain lions sneak into the woods more than once on my two-mile walk to the school bus stop, and now I grabbed my Red Bear bow and arrow and pump pellet gun, and went to find one of these wild cats—I was going mountain lion hunting. I headed off into the forest without telling anyone where I was going.

Amazingly, I did see a mountain lion that day, with two cubs. She stared me in the eyes before following her babies into the woods. That day I also had a run-in with a five-foot rattlesnake and shot it with my pellet gun. Where the pellets punched holes in the snake, eel-like baby snakes slithered out. These moments of connecting with wild nature started it all. I could not have predicted what would happen that day, and this is what still drives me to go on expeditions. Not knowing what I will see, touch, smell, taste, hear, and what or who I will meet. I need to find what I don’t know is waiting.

Libecki leading the fourth pitch on Bertha's Tower, a previously unclimbed 2000-foot tower in Antarctica. Photo by Cory Richards.

Inside my home at the foot of Little Cottonwood Canyon in Utah’s Wasatch Range is a stack of metal USGS map drawers filled with hundreds of maps collected over almost 20 years. They cover all of the planet. I pore over these maps like Sherlock Holmes, looking for clues that will lead me to large, unclimbed rocks.  Fifteen years ago I started acquiring maps of the northern Arctic: Canada, Scandinavia, Russia, Greenland. I called, faxed, and emailed every polar institute or society I could reach, requesting maps and information. This is how I came across one of the most remote places on the planet, Franz Josef Land, a 192-island archipelago in far-northern Russia.

After exhaustive research, I found no clues about any climbing-specific exploration in Franz Josef Land, nor any evidence of big, steep rock formations. Which is actually how I prefer it. That meant I would have to find a way to get there and have a look for myself.

In 2004, after receiving information from famed Russian polar explorer Victor Boyarsky about a ship heading north, I found myself standing on the bow of a huge icebreaker, the Capitan Dranitsyn, on its way to Franz Josef Land. My nose hairs frosted from the Arctic wind as I watched the half-meter-thick steel bow of the impressive ship split the sea ice. I spent two weeks in the Franz Josef archipelago, getting to know the Russian crew and peering through the fog for rock spires or walls that would be tempting to climb. I knew some of the islands rose to over 2,000 feet, so it seemed possible that large cliffs existed. I glimpsed one island with appealing rock walls, but only from a distance—too far away to know if they were worthy of climbing. The icebreaker stayed on its planned course, and all I got was a tease. But the magic, power, and beauty of the area had entranced me.

Geographically and politically, Franz Josef Land is one of the toughest places to reach on the planet. This is where famed Norwegian explorers Fridtjof Nansen and Hjalmar Johansen spent the winter of 1895–96 after retreating from an attempt to reach the North Pole. There are rumors of abandoned military bases and hidden submarines among the islands. Travel for reasons other than military or research purposes is highly restricted. And even if I did get permission from the Russian government, how would I find an island with good climbing and safely get to the cliffs? For seven years I contacted anyone and everyone that could possibly have information about permission to explore and climb in Franz Josef Land. Every clue eventually led to a dead end. But I am not one to give up easily.

Year after year I contacted Arctic veteran Victor Boyarsky for any new information, and in 2011 he finally told me about a couple of captains in Spitzbergen who might be willing to make the trip. They both were interested—for a hefty price—but were unable to get permission. However, one of these sailors told me about the young Russian captain of a 50-foot sailboat that was supposedly heading to Franz Josef Land. I contacted the captain, and he responded the same day, saying, “I can take you to Franz Josef Land, no problem, and I can get the permissions.” (The captain has requested anonymity.) Just like that, a new expedition was in the works. Now began the usual planning, gear buying and packing, budgeting, grant applications, and proposals to sponsors. With a visa in hand and a verbal nod from the Russian captain that everything was a go, I boarded a flight in July 2012 to Arkhangelsk, Russia, about 800 miles north of Moscow by the Barents Sea, with the same sense of excitement and curiosity I’d had going mountain lion hunting at 6 years old.

Once the sailboat was stocked with vodka, porridge, pickled herring, beer, drinkable water, and optimism, we sailed north from the Russian mainland. It took us seven days and nights of nonstop sailing, with everyone aboard manning the helm in six-hour shifts, to sail more than 1,100 nautical miles to the first of the islands. From my research and what I’d seen eight years earlier, I believed two islands might have beautiful rock walls to climb. But I’d never seen them close enough to be sure.

In 2004 we had needed an icebreaker to pass through these islands, constantly crushing through the sea ice to make our path. So, I had prepared to be dropped off at the edge of the sea ice, and then travel with a combination of skis, small rafts, and sleds to reach an island and climb. As we sailed through the islands, however, we encountered very little ice. Reaching shore would be easier and faster than I’d expected.

Libecki and Freddie Wilkinson on Bertha's Tower, during his fifth expedition to Antarctica. Photo by Cory Richards.

I also hoped the lack of sea ice might mean I’d be less likely to run into bears. During my previous visit to Franz Josef Land, we’d seen many polar bears among the islands. With no indigenous people living here, the bears may look at humans the same way they view seals: as a tasty meal. Two Russian scientists working at a research base in Franz Josef Land had been killed by bears the previous year. The thought of being hunted and devoured by this half-ton apex predator was just as frightening as avoiding the Taliban during a solo expedition to Afghanistan the previous year. I had had several polar bear encounters in Baffin Island and Greenland, and firing a rifle into the air had always scared them away. But in Russia, getting access to a rifle proved to be very difficult. The captain had assured me he would supply one, but once we neared the islands I was informed that the government’s rules were too strict: I could not take a rifle with me. I had only flares. The Russian crew laughed and said my flares would be like birthday candles on a cake as the bear ate me. I laughed, too, but then felt that surge of emotion you get just before crying. I was really fucking scared about the polar bears.

Surrounded by fog, we motored around icebergs as we neared the cliffs I hoped to explore. Only by radar could we see the island in front of us. After eight years of believing, of dedication, I was elated. After four hours the fog finally lifted, and I could see the walls: beautiful seaside cliffs, perhaps 1,000 feet high. But as I prepared to board my little raft train (one for me and one to tow my gear) and head to the island, I wondered about the real nature of those beautiful rock walls. They appeared to be columns of basalt, capped by an obvious band of rotten rock. Unfortunately I knew all too well the dangers of rockfall. In Antarctica I pulled off a few loose flakes that unleashed a landslide that crashed by as I trembled in the fetal position. In Afghanistan I had to climb past a hanging flake the size of a one-foot-thick garage door. I carefully moved across the wall beneath the huge loose flake, and less than 10 minutes later, as I was making an anchor about 10 feet to the left, the flake let go and exploded against the wall, cutting into the cores of my ropes in three places.

I zipped up my dry-suit and PFD, loaded my haulbags into the second raft, and said goodbye to the Russian crew. Less than an hour later, I started shuttling loads to the base of the wall. I watched the boat disappear as fog encased the island and rain started to fall. Polar bear tracks crossed the snow, but they were not fresh. I carried two flares in my front pockets, hoping to scare off a bear if it arrived. The plan was to call for a pick-up by satellite phone once I was done climbing. If they didn’t hear from me at all, they’d be back in one week.

The thin basalt columns of the buttress were packed together like pieces of uncooked spaghetti in a package. I chose a line and started climbing, but when I was 60 feet up, the loose stone and rocks falling around me forced a decision: I had to bail. I’ve only backed off a few other routes because they were too dangerous. Making a decision like that can be difficult and emotional. This time, though, I felt proud of myself. I felt like I had absorbed all my experiences and learned from them. I recognized death before it found me.

I have been on my own since I was 16 years old, when I first had my own place. Independence and responsibility not only came fast as an adolescent—they were all I knew. Still in high school, I was forced into early adulthood, with obligations and bills to pay, and to this day I’ve never missed a payment on a utility bill or credit card or loan. Even in the years when I racked up $45,000 or more on three credit cards or took a second mortgage to pay for expeditions, I always came home and worked nonstop to pay my bills.

Now, after the second expedition to Franz Josef Land, I felt I had a new kind of debt to repay. I felt an emotional obligation to somehow get back to those walls and climb a good route. No one else on Earth would care whether I returned to Franz Josef Land, and no one would blame me if I didn’t. What debt should be easier to forgive than a self-imposed obligation? But I felt I owed it to myself to finish what I’d started.

Returning to Russia would offer little mystery—the main element that drives me to plan expeditions. I knew exactly where I was going. I knew the rock was some of the worst I had ever climbed on. I was terrified of the bears. I always say it’s the unknown that drives me. This time it was something else. Did I need to prove something to myself? As I neared 40, was this some kind of mid-life crisis? The expedition lifestyle is what I have known for so long—really all I know, aside from being a father. It’s how I define myself, who I am. I wondered if I could ever give it up.

When my daughter’s mother and I split up eight years ago, we tried to work it out again and again, until finally we had done everything we could, exhausted every angle, and realized it was over. There was some consolation in the fact that we did everything we could. And to this day we are great friends. Maybe it was the same thing with this third expedition to Franz Josef Land: I had to try everything I could before I could actually walk away.

Libecki and Ethan Pringle, just before their 60-hour push on a 3,500-foot first ascent in east Greenland. It was the first time the two climbers had met or climbed together. Photo by Keith Ladzinski.

I landed in Arkhangelsk for my third trip to Franz Josef Land in early July. It was like one big déja vu. As we sailed north, I caught myself feeling like a fool. These cliffs were only about 1,000 feet high—much smaller and less technically difficult than walls I had soloed throughout the world. My only goal this time was to choose a different line and top out. As I steered the sailboat, dolphins jumped out of the ocean and two huge whales blew gusts of breath, seeming to welcome us as the first of the islands of Franz Josef Land came into view.

We sailed straight to the island I had visited before, spotting only two bears along the way. The sea was mostly calm as we dodged mazes of icebergs. The plan was the same as before: The Russians would return in a week unless I called earlier, sounding their horn twice if there were no bears and it was safe to head for the boat. Of course the promise of a rifle had not worked out. There was nothing that could be done. I had the option of going or not going. I always go.

I pulled my packrafts ashore, and the sailboat disappeared. I had stashed flares in my front pockets again as bear defense. All alone—why do I love this so much? The frozen air filled my lungs with a feeling of freedom and vulnerability, and despite the wind and gloomy mist, a smile as wide as the Joker’s stretched across my face as I shuttled gear to the wall.

A couple of hours later, I started up a line about 200 meters to the left of the route I had attempted the year before. Once again, my plan was to set a portaledge camp far enough off the ground to be safe from bears. The climbing was wet, mossy, and muddy. It was steep, but there were great holds here and there. Soon after starting, I sent a big block crashing to the ground. Just like last year. Huge sigh, but no surprise. Rocks fell from above up and down the cliff line. Fuck. I slowly downclimbed.

I had been up for at least 20 hours since my last shift on the sailboat, and all I wanted was to get some sleep in a safe place. I switched to crampons and axes, stuffed a pack full of bivy gear, and quickly climbed up a nearby ice couloir to a small rock perch about a hundred feet up. It seemed unlikely a bear could reach me here. I cooked some freeze-dried pad Thai, had a couple Builder’s bars, drank cold water, and curled into my sleeping bag and bivy sack. I stared up the couloir behind me, sandwiched between two big rock walls that disappeared into the fog, wondering if rock or ice would funnel down the gully and onto my ledge. I felt like a prehistoric man.

About eight hours later, I woke to wind and high clouds, and got a boil going for some instant coffee and oatmeal. I was only a couple of hundred meters from the ocean, and waves crashed heavy and loud on the shore. I downclimbed the steep couloir to my gear. I had one more idea for a route: an arête leading into a chimney that split the wall and seemed like it might be more straightforward. This climb would have nothing to do with ratings, movement, or a beautiful line. I just wanted to climb up safely, stand on the top with my Year of the Snake mask, dance, sing, and rejoice. Why? It’s like asking me why I prefer chocolate over vanilla. I just do. I can’t explain it.

My plan was to climb the route in a push and then descend the back side of the wall, cross a big dry glacier, hike back to my bivy, and wait for my pick-up. The descent would put me in a position to encounter polar bears, which scared the hell out of me. First things first, though: I had to get to the top.

The previous year the weather had been mostly blue skies with warming sun. Now the sky was gray and misty. But once I started climbing, my psych exploded and I was back in the moment of tunnel-vision focus. Aside from the loose rock, upward progress was pretty straightforward. This was probably the easiest route on this entire section of steep wall, but I still self-belayed each pitch, and then rappeled to clean the gear on jumars. I moved slowly and meticulously. I couldn’t seem to lose myself in the moment like I usually did while climbing. I was spooked.

I found a good anchor with several solid cams, quickly equalized them, rapped down my trail line, grabbed my pack, and jugged and cleaned the pitch. Just getting a pitch done gave me some confidence. Finally, I had some momentum. Joy started to creep back in and clean out the haunting webs in my brain. Organically, naturally, I was acclimatizing, figuring out this rock. I started to make peace with these old mounds of stone. Hammer-tapping here and there and getting a good read on solid columns of rock or detached blocks, I could start to feel it and hear it. I had found some of the keys to this castle.

It was just above freezing, and everything was wet, but the climbing continued to be easy, and moving meant warmth. Lichen and choss. Deep, spongy pockets of yellow and green moss. Good gear here and there. My feet got soaked as I shoved toes into dripping cracks. After three pitches, the wind picked up, and I could feel the wet cold setting in. My soloing philosophy has always been “slow is fast.” Keep moving and before you know it, you are there. Four pitches. Rap, jug, clean, stack, go. I had to tighten up my harness as the sodden gear and ropes dragged on my waist.

Libecki explores the intricacies of east Greenland on his seventh trip to the country. Photo by Josh Helling.

The chimney turned into a big gully filled with moss and loose rocks, and I cut right on a big ramp. Just an easy slab and scramble to the top. I cleaned the gear and jugged, realizing I was laughing out loud. The Joker face was back. No more shitty rock. It was windy and raining lightly, but I was too fired up to care. I took my GoPro from my pocket, put on my Year of the Snake mask, and captured pictures and video of my celebration on the summit.

The top looked like another planet, a plateau of rock and lichen and small bits of vegetation that disappeared into fog and snow and glacier. The feeling of being only halfway set in, as it usually does on a new summit—the true summit was waiting back on the sailboat. I put both flares in my front pockets again, stuffed my pack, coiled ropes, and started down.

As I walked toward the center of the island and then down a dry glacier, I never stopped looking for bears. A snaking stream of water had cut a runnel in the ice; I scooped it up in my water bottle and sipped to avoid an ice cream headache. From the top, it took less than an hour to return to the foot of the wall. I held a flare ready in one hand as I traversed the base of the wall. An hour later, I had climbed back up the couloir and onto my rock perch. Into my bivy sack, down jacket on, stove firing hot water. I was safe. It was over. Or so it seemed.

My satellite phone had full bars as I dialed the Russian sailboat. No answer. I ate, rehydrated, and tried the sat phone again. The captain answered and said he would be able to pick me up in about 12 to 14 hours. Sweet! A few hours later, as I lay curled up on the small ledge, the rain stared to pitter-patter like a drum. Then turned to snow. Then rain. Then freezing rain. The wind gusted. I already had on everything I’d carried up to the ledge except my plastic boots. I stuffed my phone and a few Clif bars into the inside pocket of my down jacket. Everything else was in my pack behind me on a small ledge. Huge gust of wind! Whoosh! I fell asleep, in and out of dreams of polar bears and of the sailboat picking me up.

When I woke up, a layer of ice glazed the bivy sack and the rock around me. It had been more than 15 hours since I talked to the captain. Wind, WHOOSH! I sat up. My pack had blown off and fallen down the couloir with all my food, water, and stove. The boat should be here anytime, I thought, so I settled back into half-sleep and semi-comfort. Twenty hours. I called the captain again. Another sailboat in the area had engine trouble and needed help. It would be another 24 hours.

That’s when I started to experience something I’d first heard described by the Inuit: iktsuarpok. It’s an immense feeling of
anticipation, leading you to keep looking outside to see if anyone, or anything, is coming. Whenever I opened the lid of my bivy sack, I peered down to the talus and the ocean below, and I kept expecting to see a bear. I couldn’t get it out of my mind. Could a bear climb up the ice to reach me? Back in my bivy sack. Instantly back to looking around. In and out of sleep. Iktsuarpok, again and again. I was soaked from rain and perspiration; my hands were wrinkled and numb. I was hungry and out of water, but I didn’t want to move until the sailboat arrived.

I called the captain. No answer. Called again. He said the weather was very bad, and he hoped to be able to pick me up by the next day, but not to worry. Hoped? Another 24 hours? Bear paranoia had possessed me, and I didn’t want to move. I imagined a bear pouncing on my bivy sack and tearing my flesh apart as I screamed in agony. I shrank into my bivy sack and ate my last Clif bar. Toes numb. Sleep. Awake. No bears. Wait, what is that? Just ice. Iktsuarpok. Another call to the captain. No answer. Again. No answer. Cold, wet, cramping. I kept looking at my watch. I pictured getting on the boat, going home, and seeing my daughter. Twenty more hours passed. Waves crashed on the shoreline. Then… Rrrrrt! Rrrrrt! Two high-pitched blasts from a horn. I sat up. Was it real? I couldn’t see anything through the fog and rain. Two more short bursts… Rrrrt! Rrrrt! It had been almost 70 hours since I climbed onto the perch.

Libecki snaps a quick selfie from the crow's nest of the sailboat, with the tantalizing walls of Franz Josef Land looming in the background. Photo by Mike Libecki.

My muscles felt stiff and atrophied, and I could barely move, but as quickly as I could, I rolled my wet sleeping bag and bivy sack into a ball and crammed my feet into my plastic boots, put on crampons, and grabbed my axes. I downclimbed to the talus and began dragging and trundling my haulbags toward the shoreline. Half an hour after I reached the ship, we were sailing away from the island. The crew had baked a cake to celebrate the fact that I didn’t become a polar bear meal. When I told them I’d made it to the top, they pressed vodka shots on me. But my body was devastated. I felt something like heart palpitations and couldn’t breathe right. Scared, I drank more tea and told the Russians I had to sleep. Thirty hours passed before I rose from my bunk.

My toes and feet throbbed in horrific pain as we sailed back toward the mainland. One of my big toes turned black, and the nail eventually fell off. I had lost 15 pounds. I’d gotten schooled. The expedition that I had obsessed over for years, sacrificed for, compromised for, was over. Now it had become a training trip for the next. And then that next trip would eventually lead into the one after. When would it end?

I turned my mind away from such thoughts and began to focus on logistics. I was due to meet my partners in less than 10 days for an unclimbed wall in China.

 

The Expedition Diaries (1 of 7)

Beginnings 

Solo First Ascent of the Ship’s Prow, Baffin Island, Canada (1999)

On his first big solo expedition, Libecki and a grandfather-grandson team of local seal hunters spent five days driving dog sleds across the frozen sea to reach the 2,000-foot northern prow on Scott Island. They left him there, and he soloed the wall over the following weeks. “This was the expedition when the solo needle first stabbed into me and released its joy into my veins,” Libecki says now.

From the AAJ: I remembered a day in high school when my biology class tried a small experiment to demonstrate the sense of hearing. We closed our eyes and, without making a noise, just listened. We heard breathing, cars in the distance, the air conditioning, maybe a bird singing outside. That first night at camp on my own, I did the experiment again. Silence. For the first time in my life, I heard no wind, no people, no voices, no cars, no airplanes, no animals—nothing. In the end, in a great meditation, I could hear only one thing: my pulse.

The Expedition Diaries (2 of 7)

Commitment 

Solo First Ascents in Queen Maud Land, Antarctica (2005)

“All the solo expeditions I had done had been part of a staircase of training to prepare for this journey,” Libecki wrote of his five-week adventure among the towering granite spires of Queen Maud Land, where the temperature hovered around 0°F and katabatic winds threatened frostbite and the possibility that no plane could pick him up if he needed help.

From the AAJ: On a good stance, with bomber gear, I gently touched one of the flakes, and they both went crashing toward the ground. I was expecting the simple thrill of a wall trundle, but then a chain reaction started and pool table–size flakes in a dihedral about 10 feet to the right of me exploded and roared with fury. Before my adrenaline had a chance to kick in, a truck load of granite let loose, continuing the thunder and destruction. I tucked into a fetal position. The Earth shook and screamed like King Kong. It sounded like the entire wall was crumbling. Doomsday.

On his sixth expedition to China (2013), Libecki leads the third pitch of a big wall first ascent in the Western Kokshaal-Too, Tien Shan Mountains, while Ethan Pringle belays. Photo by Keith Ladzinski.

The Expedition Diaries (3 of 7)

Fear

Solo First Ascents, Koh-e-Baba Mountains, Afghanistan (2010 and 2011)

Dodging the Taliban and encountering the worst rock he’d ever seen, Libecki climbed three crumbling limestone towers in the mountains 100 miles west of Kabul. During his first trip, Libecki experienced his closest call ever when a huge flake peeled off and damaged all of his ropes, just minutes after he traversed beneath it. Two attempts on a spire called the Ibex Horn failed in 2010, so he went back the next year on his way to China and bagged the peak. After the climb, a band of horsemen rode into his basecamp and said he should leave immediately because the Taliban were on the move in the next valley over.

From the AAJ: I had come [up with] a rating system, which I reference as Russian Roulette Rating, to quantify the looseness of the rock. On a 1 to 5 RRR system, the first climb I attempted had to be RRR4, while this second tower was RRR3. The rock crumbled every few moves. Twenty feet below the top I thought of turning back, but I moved slowly to the summit, touched it with my hand (tag, you’re it), and downclimbed.

The Expedition Diaries (4 of 7)

Endurance

First Ascent of the Walker Citadel, Baffin Island, Canada (1998)

Libecki partnered with Josh Helling and Russ Mitrovich to climb the 4,200-foot north face of Walker Citadel, one of the world’s biggest walls. After snowmobiling 60 miles across the frozen Arctic Ocean and fixing a few ropes, the team spent 32 consecutive nights on the wall to complete the grade VII route, including six days trapped in their three-man portaledge by a storm.

From the AAJ: With ropes frozen useless, the team was caged under their storm fly like prisoners. Soon the wall could hold no more snow, and large avalanches crashed down the massive cliff. The first large avalanche to bombard them ripped their zippered nylon doors down and filled their portaledge with heavy snow. Hearts beating strongly, they endured more than a dozen similar events.

The Expedition Diaries (5 of 7)

Horizontal Adventure

First Traverse of the Taklamakan Desert, Xinjiang, China (2001)

After an expedition to the Western Kokshaal-Too mountains along the border of China and Kyrgyzstan, Libecki’s liaison officer described the so-called Sea of Death: the Taklamakan Desert. The desert had never been crossed from west to east, a journey of 700 miles. Libecki arranged for 20 camels to be fed and trained, and then flew to Xinjiang the next year for an entirely new kind of expedition. Just before starting the crossing, the local Uyghur people told him another name for this desert: “He who goes in does not come out.”

From the Explorers Journal: Everything was ready. The camels were packed with thousands of pounds of supplies. Just a few last liters of water needed to be boiled for drinking, and we would be off into the desert. Just as the last of the water was being boiled, two liters spilled and doused my inner right foot and ankle. When I pulled off my boot and sock, my foot was little more than a mass of oozing flesh. A 3” x 8” section of my foot and ankle had simply melted. Just what I needed before starting my walk across this desert.  The temperature was 117°F.

 

Not exactly a tropical paradise, but Socotra Island of Yemen holds tons of rock and route potential. Here, Libecki works on a first ascent of Mashanig's Daughter Tower. Photo by Josh Helling.

The Expedition Diaries (6 of 7)

Sharing the Love

First Ascent, Tombstone Tower, Western Kokshaal-Too, China (2005)

For three of Libecki’s expeditions, he invited along his younger brother, Andy, who was not a climber. On the first, Andy helped shuttle loads. During the second trip, to China, Andy joined Libecki and another partner for the first ascent of a 1,500-foot granite tower. In Kyrgyzstan a year later, he and Libecki did another new line. “With optimism, belief, and focus, anything is possible,” Libecki says. “My mom was pretty concerned about me dragging the youngest brother out there, though.”

From the AAJ: My younger brother is an amazing musician. When we first talked about this expedition, we made a deal: I would show him the experience of a big wall first ascent, and he would teach me to play the banjo. My brother got his experience, with thunderstorms, vertical toilets, plenty of hanging in space hundreds of meters off the ground, and summiting a virgin peak. By the time we got back home, I could play all of “Dueling Banjos.”

The Expedition Diaries (7 of 7)

Jungle Suffering

First Ascent, Morangma, Guyana (2010)

After a botched TV-sponsored expedition left his gear stranded in the jungles of Guyana, Libecki returned alone five months later to retrieve the equipment and climb a new route on a sandstone tepui. He befriended three local men and, after teaching them to belay and jumar, invited them along for an adventurous multi-pitch first ascent.

From the AAJ: Some vines were strong enough to hold my weight when I equalized two or three limbs like an insect. At one point, run out 90 feet, I was so pumped I had to wrap my right arm around a vine and grab my wrist with my left hand. Darkness encroached as I continued up near-vertical vines and trees—so many, I did not even touch stone. Finally, with headlamps, we all climbed wet, slippery 5.5 vines to the top, and then sat out the night under a small rock overhang. My feet throbbed from being wet for several days. When we got down and I finally took off my climbing shoes, I noticed something attached to the bottoms of my ankles: foot-shaped clumps of cauliflower, white with a blue hue.

 

 

Libecki and his daughter, Lilliana, at age 10. Libecki is taking her on a first ascent/descent ski expedition this year to Antarctica. She has traveled the world with him, with plans to visit all the continents by age 12. Photo by Mike Schirf.

LIBECKI'S LESSONS

Mike Libecki’s expedition approach has been shaped by his more than 20 solo expeditions (out of a total of more than 50). When you’re climbing many days from the nearest other person, where rescue may not be an option, preparation and packing are not just the way to succeed on expedition goals; they may be matters of life and death. “It’s just me, myself, and I out there, so it’s full self-reliance,” he says. Here’s some of Libecki’s hard-won wisdom.

Prepare and repair. 

Take the time to test your tent, portaledge, cams, stove, and other gear before every trip. Find out what fuel you can buy at your destination. Pack the tools needed for upkeep and repair: lube for cams that get doused in saltwater or mud; a file for crampons and axes; tools to fix or clean your stove; a repair kit with baling wire, zip ties, duct tape, tent-pole repairs, and bomber sewing materials. Assume equipment will fail.

GPS and Maps. 

You may need to come out a different way than you went in, so pack a range of maps. Don’t depend on just maps or just GPS—learn to use them both.

Antibiotics. 

Depending on the area, I may have up to six different antibiotics with me, but the minimum are Ciprofloxacin and Avelox.

Med kit. 

You literally may need to save your own or your partner’s life, so take classes, consult a savvy doctor, and pack a full kit: EpiPen, tooth care (temporary fillings, etc.), serious pain meds, Super Glue, a stitch kit for human flesh—the list goes on and on. And know how to use them!

Water treatment.

Trust me, when it’s coming out both ends for 48 hours, you’ll wish you had filtered or treated your water thoroughly. Same goes for exotic food (I’ve had ox penis, raw seal liver, polar bear, possum intestine, various eyeballs) that you might try in order to be respectful to the locals. Bring hand sanitizer and wash your hands frequently.

“Always with me” kit. 

I always carry prusiks, back-up slings, and a micro-kit containing a lighter, knife, tape, a mini-headlamp, and a photo of my daughter for mental strength during a hard bivy.

Self-rescue and emergency practice.

Go to your local cliff and have your partner play dead from the rock you just pulled onto his head—what do you do? What if you broke your arm or leg? How would you gather rainwater in a portaledge or escape from a wall in a storm? Can you improvise a haul, rescue, or rappel if you lose critical gear? Can you communicate with your partner when he’s out of sight or a storm is too loud? (Consider two-way radios.) When it’s subzero and the wind is 40 mph and shit goes down, you will be happy you prepped for everything!

Satellite phone. 

For the last-resort rescue possibility, if nothing else. (Also, invest in a Global Rescue policy or the equivalent.) I understand the desire to cut ties to the outside world, but having a satellite phone has likely saved my life more than once, including calling a doctor to walk through emergency procedures. (What if your appendix bursts?) And calling loved ones is important for this lifestyle. As a father, being able to call my daughter has made a world of difference—to me and to her.

Entertainment. 

Pack plenty of books, music/instrument, pencil/paper, games, etc. Especially when sitting out a storm for 10 days, these will better your chances for not losing it. Also, bring great food and drink, at least for basecamp. Sentimental or funny stuff can also lighten a dark mood. I like bringing my Chinese zodiac masks for summit celebrations. (This is the Year of the Horse!) I have two necklaces that never leave my neck: one from my mom and one from my daughter, providing energy and inspiration.

Research the culture. 

Study the language, history, and current events of the place you’re going. Try to speak the language, even a little. Research what it means to be polite or offensive in different cultures. Bring small gifts that represent you and your culture well. Get the phone numbers of local emergency contacts. Remember, without local support and camaraderie, nothing happens.

Stay positive. 

Optimism. Patience. Belief. Focus on the “now.” The most intense and painful moments on expeditions often lead to the most wonderful moments.

Be thankful. 

Be generous with appreciation and reciprocation before, during, and after an expedition. It’s not just you or your partners that made it to the summit; it’s the family, friends, supporters of all kinds, and local people who make it all possible.

Just go. 

These beliefs never let me down: The time is now. What are you waiting for? Dream big and climb those dreams. Death and/or old age is coming. Why ration passion?

 


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