When we caught up with Mike Libecki, he had recently returned from Greenland and was heading out the door to volunteer in his daughter Lilli’s ninth grade school (or high school) near his home at the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon in Utah.
“I love helping out with the school, today I am giving them a presentation about climbing in Antarctica and Nepal, and the parallel commonalities of expeditions and everyday life,” he said, ‘It’s just such a joy, and another way I can try to give back.”
It’s an amazing testimony to his ability to keep things in balance when his life has evolved around climbing spires and towers in some of the most remote and inhospitable climbing areas in the world on over seventy expeditions.
Libecki has over 70 expeditions behind him with many more planned. On most of those trips, he’s made first ascents of previously unclimbed walls, towers and rock formations.
Some of the areas he’s planned (been to) expeditions to include Africa, Russia, Afghanistan, Antarctica, Guyana, Greenland, China, Madagascar, Kyrgysztan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Baffin Island Papua New Guinea, Venezuela, Yemen, Indonesia, Philippines and Polynesia.
Libecki, who started climbing at 17, once said this about what he enjoys most about his passion for adventure, “Absolutely the amazing people I have met and simply just had the honor and privilege to spend time with, all the amazing friends, and now some of my best friends, no doubt.
“The global community I get to interact with around the world on the pursuit for remote, untouched rock and first ascents. The adventure. The mystery. The organic enthusiasm. The sweetness of life. The feeling of being a soft, fragile human high on the side of a remote wall.”
“And now, having the focus to give back and do humanitarian/philanthropy work is even more important, most recently in Africa, Nepal, Peru and Greenland while on the way to climb.”
One of his favourite places to climb is the rarely visited, rugged east coast of Greenland, which he first visited 20 years ago. Since then, he’s been back a dozen times, most recently, in August 2017, to an undisclosed location on the east coast (he seems to keep some places secret).
“Greenland is in the top three least explored places on the planet,” he says. “It is truly magic, power and beauty. Polar Bears, icebergs, glaciers, people full of life and of course big granite walls no one even knows about. Absolutely true exploration.”
Libecki invited three of his closest friends, the ace team of Ethan Pringle, Keith Ladzinski and Andy Mann to climb a large granite wall that no climber had ever seen or attempted.
Libecki told Michael Levy in an interview for the Outdoor Journal in July, “It’s way back in a fjord. You’d never see it from afar. Most everything that gets climbed in Greenland you can see from the the water. This tower is deep and hidden and remote.” He adds,” You have to embrace blood, sweat and almost tears just to get a glimpse of it.”
Libecki first saw the tower in 2003, while on a reconnaissanced trip with his brother Andy and has been trying to get back for 14 years now. But, Libecki had climbed north of here with Ethan Pringle in 2013. The two travelled by boat to a region 650 km north of Tasiilaq.
They established a 1,060-metre route up the northeast face of Daddy’s Tower and named their new route Built Fjord Tough V 5.12 A2. Libecki noted they climbed it “in 60+ hours, with a brief sitting bivouac,” in the American Alpine Journal.
In an article by Alpinist, Libecki said, “Sometimes big climbs can create friendships and partnerships that can last a lifetime (or not). Pringle and I walked away good friends. Keith Ladzinski was on that trip too, we all met for the first time.” And since then Libecki and Pringle, they have gone on other big expeditions to Yemen and China.
Libecki had gone on previous expeditions with Ladzinski and Mann, too. In 2012, he and Ladzinski made the first ascent of Bertha’s Tower in Queen Maud Land, Antarctica, with Freddie Wilkinson and Cory Richards.
And in 2014, Mann went with Libecki to Greenland to attempt Polar Bear Fang, but they never reached the wall, and Libecki ended up soloing a 4,000 foot new route on the Daughter Tower. But he returned again in 2015 with his brother, Andy, to finally make the first ascent of the Polar Bear Fang, 17 pitches, 48 hours camp to camp, at 5.11+.
The four-man team that travelled to Greenland this summer had experience from countless trips, first ascents and adventures which they planned to put to use while paddle-boarding among polar bears and whales and climbing the remote tower.
On the way to their destination, their boat was trapped in the sea ice literally for almost two weeks in the thickest sea ice Libecki had ever seen. Given that the skipper had been similarly trapped for three weeks on one occasion, they felt fortunate to get free, the delay cost them 13 harrowing days hoping the boat wouldn’t be crushed in the ice flow.
The team attacked the tower but with Libecki goal of everyone reaching the summit together in mind, they decided to retreat after about 300 metres. For this team and with the time we lost from being stuck in the ice, many rain days and near death experience through glaciers on the approach, Libecki, the big wall expert, and Pringle, one of the best all around free climbers in the world, finally set their sights on the aptly named Plan B Tower, 3000 feet of sweet Greenland granite.
About 500 metres of moderate climbing led to eight pitches on an overhanging headwall where Pringle took the lead on the hardest pitches in hopes we could climb this tower onsight, no falls. “This wall deserved to be climbed in the best style possible.
And if anyone could, it would be Ethan to onsight, free, first ascent pitches. Ethan is truly one of the best all around rock climbers. He’s climbed 5.15b, 5.14c trad, and V16. On this route in Greenland he onsighted 5.13 alpine trad. To belay and support someone like that to do a pitch that hard in such a remote place on untouched rock is incredible. ” said Libecki.
Mann noted on social media after their trip, “The new route, the crux pitches of 5.13 led by Pringle and followed by Libecki, likely involves the most technically difficult rock climbing in Greenland.”
During his time in Greenland, Libecki had observed some changes in the environment due to global warming. “I saw glaciers that had retreated 300+ km since 2003. It was mind blowing.”
Libecki also was tracking polar bears to help with conservation efforts and collected water samples for Adventure Scientists to help with microplastics research, as he does on all of his expeditions.
On the trip, Libecki, who is a Mountain Hardwear athlete, tested their new gear in harsh Greenland conditions and it passed the test. His gear has one common theme: it absolutely cannot fail. “It’s a great family to be part of,” he said. “Their gear has passed the tests I’ve put it through, and if they don’t, we make sure it becomes the absolute best through real testing in the field. I have been working with them since 1999 on almost 70 expeditions, its been an incredible relationship.”
Next on Libecki’s calendar? A trip to Antarctica with his daughter, Lilli, a high school freshman who has accompanied him on numerous trips, and then what he describes as, “a jungle location, not yet to be revealed.”