- Buyer's Guide
In September, four friends stood atop a 3000ft tower of granite in remote and unexplored Greenland, hooting and hollering at the sun as it sunk below the curtain of ice to the west. They exchanged smiles and embraced, enjoying the sweetness of the summit. Their second attempt at climbing the unclimbed had come off, and, by right, it was time to name the mountain they’d conquered.
It was christened ‘Plan B’, then and there.
After their embrace, the expedition leader handed out rubber rooster masks – a nod to the Chinese Zodiac and his ritual that reminds them to laugh, even when they’re hurting – and the group proceeded to throw off their clothes and huddle together with the masks stretched down over their faces. Each hanging a sock from you-know-where.
A camera was raised. The expedition leader looked down its barrel and yelled “Life is sweet. It’s the Year of the Cock and we’re in Greenland!”
That man was Mike Libecki.
And he lives adventures that most dream of. In a style all his own. Rooster masks and nudity included.
Mike Libecki on Ua Pou Island, photo by Andy Mann
Mike grew up in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California, not far from Yosemite National Park. He lived in a house on a hill surrounded by forest – the place that ignited his passion for nature, mystery and adventure.
He tells a tale of going hunting for mountain lions one summer’s day, alone, with a bow and pellet gun in hand. That day he faced off with a rattlesnake and eyed a lioness and her cub through the desert brush. When he arrived home, Search and Rescue had been called. He was only six years old.
I drop Mike a line soon after his return from Greenland. He asks me, “How’s life?” in the most genuine way you can. He’s on the road in his 4-wheel drive and I can hear the crisp Utah air whooshing through his window.
He’s just left home, near the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon. He lives in a log house encircled by maple and pine with his 14-year-old daughter Lilliana, two dogs, cats, a parrot, a pot-belly pig, a chameleon, a chicken and some rabbits.
His house is a mini-museum, filled with mementos from his adventures: paintings, artefacts, carvings, bones and rugs fanning across the walls and floors. “I’ve collected things from over 100 countries,” he tells me.
On regular days, this is where you’ll find Mike, planning his next adventure. Making notes, working a trained eye over satellite images and unfurled topographic maps, – some stamped “Classified” or “Top Secret” in languages from Russian to Chinese (in his years of exploring he’s found ways to get the intel he needs) – deep in his unwavering search for fang-shaped shadows and clusters of earth that signal a summit yet to conquer.
Mike Libecki in East Greenland, photo by Andy Mann
“Anything that is worth doing in our life is going to take compromise and sacrifice. There's a behind-the-scenes that’s dark and tough. It’s painful, it’s emotional, but it all equals something incredible.”
Find your passion. And climb it.
As he drives, Mike runs me through the most recent Greenland adventure.
He has the relaxed air of a man completely satisfied and abuzz with recent accomplishment. Mike and his band of brothers – Andy Mann, Ethan Pringle and Keith Ladzinski – had not only notched a first ascent, but had paddle-boarded, pack-rafted and trekked to uncharted areas of glaciated Greenland before punching through sea ice by boat and legging it up the fjord to make camp.
Was this a first? Nowhere near. It was Mike’s 12th expedition to Greenland and one of 200+ first ascents to his name.
Libecki and Team in Greenland, photo by Keith Ladzinski
Mike is one of the world’s most accomplished climbers and adventurers. He’s conquered first ascents in Afghanistan, Antarctica, Baffin Island, Guyana, Greenland, China, Madagascar, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Papua New Guinea, Russia, Venezuela, Yemen, Indonesia, Philippines, Polynesia, parts of Africa and even places unnamed. More often than not, he’s done it alone and documented it.
To put his climbing in perspective: if you add up the days Mike’s spent in hanging portaledges, it would equate to well over a year.
But unlike other adventurers on the circuit, his passion for life and preaching the pursuit of a “sweet one” almost precedes his exploration. He’s a professional climber and explorer, sure, but he’s learned a lot about sacrifice in the pursuit of passion and he shares that knowledge with every adventure-hearted audience he meets.
Don’t believe me? Here’s how he signs off his emails:
"The time is now...What are you waiting for? No excuses."
"Dream big...And climb those dreams."
"After all, it is not only life, but the quality of this life."
"Death and/or old age is coming...We must live sweet."
"Why ration passion?"
"Embrace the Joyage!"
These aren’t all Libecki originals…well, not Mike Libecki originals, anyway. Two in fact belong to a five-foot, 100-pound “fire of a woman” who wore dark-rimmed glasses and a beehive hairdo. Her name was Bertha. She was Mike’s grandmother.
One of nine, she worked a farm every day of her life just to survive, and knew a thing or two about sacrifice and the marrow of life.
Mike Libecki on Ua Pou Island, photo by Andy Mann
One conversation towards 200 ascents
“I started climbing at 17. I lived really close to Yosemite National Park and all I wanted to do was to move there and start climbing every day,” says Mike. “But I was in college in Fresno, California, pursuing a maths major. I was really torn, so I went over to my grandmother's house – she was a big influence in my life.”
“She said ‘The time is now, why ration passion? There's no question here. You need to go.’ So I took all my books to the bookstore, dropped them off and then got my truck and moved to Yosemite. It was a done deal.”
Mike Libecki in Venezuela, photo by John Burcham
“If my equipment fails, I fail. If it doesn’t do its job and doesn’t survive, I can't do my job and I can't survive. So there’s a theme to my equipment: it cannot fail.”
Mike climbed nearly every day after, then started traveling overseas to climb. He fell in love with discovering, what he calls, “virgin earth”. He would work in a ski shop six days a week in winter and spring, and then by summer and fall charge off abroad on expeditions – and charge his credit cards to the max in the process.
“At one stage I was $40,000 in debt,” he tells me…and then admits to rummaging through bins for food.
“I was paying for expeditions, believing in the fact that it's going to work out, that I'll come back and I'll work hard and I'll pursue passion no matter what it takes. You know, that's a lot of words. It was a lot of work and sacrifice and compromise. But anything that is worth doing in our life is going to take compromise and sacrifice. There's a behind-the-scenes that’s dark and tough. It’s painful, it’s emotional, but it all equals something incredible.”
Mike Libecki in Queen Maud Land Antarctica, photo by Cory Richards
As Mike gained momentum, experience and friends, his climbing slowly evolved into writing stories, selling photos and making films. “And then I started accessing the outdoor industry and the marketing, and working with companies to design product and to make the best gear on the planet. It's been an evolution of that ever since.”
Like any pro who dangles from sheer rock faces, gear means a whole lot to Mike – in fact, it’s paramount.
“My equipment is maybe the most important thing in every single way, aside from the attitude, the preparation and the physical, mental and spiritual aspect of what I do. If my equipment fails, I fail. If it doesn’t do its job and doesn’t survive, I can't do my job and I can't survive. So there’s a theme to my equipment: it cannot fail.”
“I help test, design and produce some of the best equipment out there. It must meet or exceed the standards I put on it.”
Mike Libecki in Queen Maud Land Antarctica, photo by Cory Richards
And, with Mike, these standards are high. He deals with extremes – be it 1000-mile-per-hour winds ripping at his rope, falling anvils of rock or temperatures well below zero.
Mike deals with more extremes than most. Two or three big expeditions a year would be a year-well-trekked for your average modern-day explorer, but he manages to chalk up four, five, and sometimes six in a year, year on year, with no signs of slowing down.
“I put it down to my OECD disorder,” he laughs. That’s his own acronym: Obsessive Expedition Climbing Disorder. A disorder driven wholly and simply by what Mike calls “organic enthusiasm” – an energy that flows through those pursuing their true passions.
“That’s what I truly love to do,” he tells me. “Exploring and climbing and going to these really remote places. That just happens to be organically what I love. I don't know why. I didn't choose it, it chose me.” And this passion fuels his obsession and propels him forward, each and every day; he never stops.
“When I'm not on an expedition, I'm still on an expedition. I'm planning, I'm preparing, I'm looking ahead to the next one. It’s a huge equation to plan an expedition. All the constants and variables – every single detail is as equally important as the next to reach the final product of success, safety, and coming home alive.”
The mountains welcome Libecki 2.0
And coming home alive means more than ever: he's a dad, raising a 14-year-old daughter, and needs to be around for the long haul. If you’ve ever streamed his expedition videos, Mike, usually surrounded by rock and ice, speaks to his daughter Lilliana through his lens at every opportunity (he even sends her a bunch of flowers every week he’s away). When he’s home he coaches her soccer team, speaks at her school (even being awarded their Father of the Year), and teaches her the skills he’s learned to survive in the wilderness.
And now, they're putting those learnings into practice on real expeditions, together. Mike explores with Lilliana every chance he gets and she’s following in his footsteps. At 14, Lilliana has already visited 25 countries and all 7 continents: skiing in Antarctica, scaling Kilimanjaro in Africa, and trekking 150 miles through the Himalayas. She’s ventured out on four big humanitarian-based expeditions and now has her own not-for-profit, aptly named the Joyineering Fund.
“I don't know anything more important for my daughter than traveling,” Mike tells me. “Obviously, being healthy and happy and doing good in school and earning it. But traveling is absolutely top priority for my daughter's education. I have a favorite quote: ‘Don’t tell me how educated you are, tell me how much you’ve traveled,’ and I stand by that.”
Mike and Lilliana Libecki in Antarctica, photo by Mike Schirf
What’s next for the father-daughter duo? A trip to the bottom of the world, of course: Antarctica, with National Geographic, starting in December.
“We're going down together, broadcasting live with satellite equipment to National Geographic and National Geographic Education, and we're going to bring awareness to the power and magic of our planet, and the organizations that we need to support to keep our oceans clean, our planet clean, and to make the right choices. You know, to be the change we want to see. She's getting a lot of opportunities and is very passionate.”
This expedition will mark Mike’s 73rd (or thereabouts, he admits he needs a recount). He’s aiming for 100. At the pace he’s setting, 150 seems more likely. Will he ever stop? Don’t bet on it…although another big dream might keep him home: “One day I’d like to start my own animal sanctuary,” he tells me, nearing the end of our call.
Do I doubt that he’ll realize that dream? Not for one second. And I can imagine when Mike is there, tending to his animals, he’ll get a call from a satellite phone in some remote corner of the globe.
It’ll be Lilliana, beside her own son or daughter, checking in and letting Dad know that they’re okay, that life’s great and that they’re doing their best to live a sweet one.
Mike Libecki in Antarctica, photo by Mike Libecki
*Feature image: Mike Libecki in East Greenland, photo by Keith Ladzinski