Photograph by Josh Helling
Explorer Mike Libecki
A climber turned explorer searches out the last truly wild places on the planet.
Explorer Mike Libecki is the consummate adventurer. With more than 45 expeditions to his name, he shows no signs of slowing down. And 2012 was his busiest year yet.
In early winter, the 39-year-old kicked it off by completing the first ascent of a 2,000-foot tower in Borneo’s West Kalimantan, a feat that involved wading through mud, leeches, and “machete mayhem” to get to the wall.
Via snowboard, he made a series of first descents in Afghanistan’s avalanche-prone Koh-e Baba mountains and then kite skied over mountain lakes—all while keeping a watchful eye out for Taliban operatives.
As summer rolled around, Libecki was off to Franz Josef Land, a Russian archipelago just south of the North Pole, where he stand-up paddleboarded between islands and made solo first ascents of unclimbed peaks.
By August, he landed on Greenland’s southeastern coast, where he put forth a marathon 60-hour effort to push a new climb up an untouched granite monolith with sport climber Ethan Pringle. Fall meant a quick trip to the Philippines’s Cordillera Mountains for what Libecki refers to as “jungle mayhem” or bushwhacking up jungle-covered peaks.
Libecki’s astonishing year is capped off this November with a National Geographic-sponsored trip (with the dream team of Freddie Wilkinson, Cory Richards, and Keith Ladzinski) to the eastern stretches of Antarctica’s Queen Maud Land. They will find unclimbed horns of rock jutting thousands of feet upward from ancient ice. It will be the fourth time Libecki has ventured to the bottom of the world.
“The main components of my trips are remote, untouched, unexplored mystery,” says Libecki, who lives just outside of Salt Lake City, Utah. “An adventure for me can’t be an adventure unless there is mystery, unless there is an unknown, something that hasn’t been done before.”
A Libecki trip is always unique and possibly dangerous—he’s almost been killed by rock fall on a few occasions. Often done alone, his excursions to the remote edges of the world also have a touch of whimsy.
His stories are filled with joy—he’s more likely to tell you about the time he stripped nude on top of a summit or the food he ate in a remote Chinese village than discuss the difficulties of his climbs. Since his first expedition, Libecki has paid homage to the Chinese calendar and brought along a mask to celebrate the year’s namesake animal. For 2012, the Year of the Dragon, on each adventure he donned a dragon mask at some pivotal moment of each expedition.
Despite his creative expeditions, unwavering desire, and quirky demeanor, Libecki has remained on the fringe of the adventure world’s conscience. Maybe it’s because he is too busy planning his next adventure; he already has 22 new trips written down and ready to come to life.
“Sometimes I forget some of the moments, but I never forget a trip,” says Libecki. “It’s part of my DNA.”
Adventure: What keeps you so motivated?
Mike Libecki: Untouched, unexplored, mystery, and wilderness
A: Anything else?
ML: What continues the excitement is not only the exploration, it’s the culture, the people, the friends that I make, the incredible kinds of deep culture that I get pulled into and get to experience. That is a huge part of it.
A: You’re a single dad and very proud of your daughter, Liliana. When you aren’t out on expedition, you seem to live a very regular life as a dad.
ML: I’m a full-time dad. I taught two art classes this week in her classroom. The week before I took her entire fourth-grade class camping for three days. Being a father helps me calculate how I want to set an example for her. She’s now old enough to say, “Dad, why do you always have to go climb these mountains?” She’s learning that with everything, with every passion in life, there is sacrifice. That sacrifice is me leaving and missing my daughter. So many people make this happen. Without my daughter, without my daughter’s mother, this life couldn’t continue.
A: Trips to the edges of the world aren’t cheap. Before you were sponsored or winning grants, was your passion a burden financially?
ML: I rationalized my credit cards as student loans. For years I put trips on credit cards and came home to a $20,000 credit card bill. Then I would work my butt off all season long, pay it off, and do it all over again. It’s evolved. It’s still a financial challenge, but I know from experience that believing in it, following that enthusiasm and passion, [makes] it just work out somehow.
A: Your trips are often to the most out-of-the-way places, areas we’ve never heard of. With so little information, how are you so successful at completing your adventures?
ML: Sometimes these trips will take one, two, maybe even three times to succeed because there is so much depth to the exploration part of it, actually finding what’s out there. I have to love a trip to do it. I call it organic enthusiasm. Without enthusiasm you can’t do anything. You can’t force it. We have to love it. I’d even say we need to be obsessed, or have a healthy addiction to do it.