Climbing with Tarantulas, Scorpions in Venezuela Adventure chats with ace climber Mike Libecki about his recent expedition in South America, why he goes solo, and the necklace he could not climb without. Text by Ryan Bradley Photograph courtesy John Burcham Photography
SPIDER MAN: Mike Libecki leads a pitch up the Acopon Tapui Massif during his first attempt of the wall, in 2002.
May 11, 2007
Mike Libecki, 33, likes alone time, especially if it's on a 2000-foot (610-meter) rock wall. He solo climbed the frigid Ships Prow (Baffin Island, Canada), the Viking's Shield (Greenland), and the Fox Fang (Greenland). He's also a truly unique character: He wears animal masks that correspond to the Zodiac calendar during every climb and has a degree in mathematics. There's also all that cliff-side solitude.
Adventure spoke to Libecki on the phone from his home in Utah about his encounters with giant, leaping tarantulas in Venezuela, why he goes solo, and the necklace he could not climb without.
Hear climber Mike Libecki's tales of brotherly bonding in Kyrgyzstan, in an interview with National Geographic's World Talk. Go to the interview >>
Tell me about your jungle climb in Venezuela earlier this year.
Libecki: We got back third week of January from a trip in Sabana Grande on the Acopon Tapui Massif. I first went down in 2002 to attempt a first ascent. I was pulling off six-foot [1.8-meter] flakes of sandstone that were pretty frightening; and the wall down there is just over 2,000 feet [610 meters]. We climbed about 800 feet [244 meters] and my partner decided she couldn't hang.
This year I went back with another partner, Kyle Dempster. Out of 2,000 feet [610 meters], 60 or 70 percent of it is over-hanging. But the crux of the climb was not the climbing, it was the ticks and the deadly scorpions.
On the wall?
Libecki: The base of the wall was where the ticks and scorpions got us, while we were shuttling loads and fixing pitches. At one point I pulled this tick off and blood was oozing out and I sort of blacked out from who knows what
just because, it was kind of gruesome, you know?
And on the route, twice, when I was climbing, four-inch [10-centimeter] tarantulas ran out of the cracks. They're big orange and black tarantulas—and those things can jump, and you can just see the fangs. It was kind of scary being on lead and thinking one of these things can jump on your face and sink their fangs into my cheek. But it was definitely a cool element of climbing: totally jungle style.
How long did the ascent take?
Libecki: About two weeks. We had to shuttle through dense jungle, fix lines
we were in no hurry. After five days on the wall, we stood on the summit.
Although this recent trip wasn't a solo, you seem particularly fond of solo ascents.
Libecki: I started soloing in Yosemite when I lived there—El Cap and whatnot. And I decided to do this trip to Baffin Island in 1999 and solo the Ships Prow. I did a six-week trip. The challenge of being solo was so engrossing—no rescue, way out there, the northernmost wall climbed on the planet. It never got above 15 degrees [Fahrenheit or -9 degrees Celsius] and most of the time it was zero. I went on that trip feeling really strong and motivated with no attachments to anything.
And Baffin [Island] was so enchanting. We took sled dogs out with the Inuit and took all my gear over the frozen ocean and then I spent six weeks alone on this 2,000-foot [610-meter] wall.
If you're with a partner on a wall and you break an arm, you're going to be fine. But when it's a solo, that immediately intensifies everything three times over. It really puts a lot of perspective on how much responsibility you need to have from beginning to end: from packing for the trip, dealing with food and water, and just every logistic you need on a huge wall in the middle of nowhere—especially in the Arctic's unforgiving environment.
Do you find yourself being more disciplined and focused when you're alone because there is such a small margin for error?
Libecki: I do. A lot of my history is mathematical—that's what got me through school and that's just how my brain works. So for climbing—take climbing the Ships Prow—you have to climb a wall three times if solo. What I mean by that is that you lead a pitch, rappel down, clean the pitch, and then also haul the bag; so a 2,000-foot [610-meter] wall turns into about 20,000 feet [6,096 meters] of climbing. It's really a logistical fantasy for me [because] I thrive on all of the variables. No one to talk to, no one to belay, no one to shuttle loads, no one to give you a rest. It's a really wonderful challenge.
Take me through your logistical checklist.
Libecki: You know, I never keep any lists. I never write anything down. It's always in my head. I'm so meticulous about everything I need, from tent pole repair to a sewing kit to modified climbing gear. Every trip that I've done has been really amazing training for the next. When I went solo to Antarctica I thought, "Oh gosh all these trips have prepared me for this huge, monumental trip to this unbelievable place." Then when I was finished, it was just another training trip for the next.
What's the one piece of gear you could not do without?
Libecki: There's not really one you can single out because if you miss one, you're done. So you have to be dialed in every category. But, when I started doing these trips, my mom got really concerned—she's pretty religious and she had this little necklace made for me and blessed by her priest. She gave it to me when I was 20 and said, "If you take this with you and wear it on your climbs, you're not going to die. I believe," she told me, "and if you believe it will come true." I've had it on and never taken it off once, going on 14 years. I've evolved into this belief that if I have this on, I really don't have to worry about anything. A lot of my trips have been really challenging financially, but every single time something happens to where I'm able to get it done. The power of the belief thing has been really proven.
Along with your mothers concern, you have a daughter
You know, I did my second solo to Greenland just before she was born. I had a lot of thoughts out there. I knew my child was coming and a lot of people were asking me, "What do you think is going to happen?"
When she was born [in 2003], it was the first miracle I feel like I ever witnessed. I'm really into video and I had a helmet camera on and two video cameras set up when she came out of her mother's womb—so I was really excited about capturing the moment. I want to show her that you can really believe in things, that you can do whatever you want, and that the time is now. I want to show her that if you believe in something you can do it regardless of what it is. I don't care if she's a climber, but I want to give her the opportunity to do whatever she grabs ontomusic, school, art, whatever she loves in her heart—for her to know that you can really do what you want if you believe in it.
Papua New Guinea and an area of northern Greenland that no one's ever been to. A lot of the trips I do are to totally virgin territory, and, you know, there's not much out there that can be called untouched. There are so many people doing so much over the last couple of years
Subscribe now and save!