Photograph courtesy Mike Libecki
Photograph by Keith Ladzinski
What project will you work on next?
I have completed 50 major expeditions. My goal is to complete at least a hundred expeditions by the time I'm a hundred years old. I have 60 years and 50 expeditions to go. [There are] already 24 more expeditions on paper being planned as I type this. Of course, I'm discussing more projects with Nat Geo—will keep you posted.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
Well, I am still growing up! I did my first solo expedition when I was six years old. So the lifestyle I have now is what I have always wanted and hope to continue for the rest of my days: being a professional explorer, climber, and soloist combined with being a father to my amazing angel daughter. One of the most amazing things about the lifestyle I live is showing my daughter what it's like to travel around the world and bringing her all over the world with me. She is now getting ready for her first real expedition to Antarctica at ten years old.
How did you get started in your field of work?
I have always loved math. From speed math competitions since the second grade to the deep equations in college that investigated gravity and the attempt to prove the existence of God, math has always fascinated me. I found the ultimate mathematical equations for me in climbing and expeditions and in exploration into untouched, remote earth. Growing up, I was hunting and fishing while living near the Sierra Nevada and Yosemite National Park in California—nature and the wild has always been home for me. Though, come to think of it, this lifestyle really started when I went on my first expedition at six years old. At that time, I lived in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, high enough to be where snow fell and less than 40 miles and an hour's drive to Yosemite. I had seen mountain lions sneak into the woods more than once on my two-mile walk to the school bus stop. One Saturday morning, after a good session of hot chocolate, Honey-Comb cereal, and Bugs Bunny cartoons, I grabbed my Red Bear bow and arrow and pump pellet gun and decided to go find one of these wild cats. I was going mountain lion hunting. I was so obsessed with the idea that I headed off into the forest without telling anyone where I was going. I actually did see a wild cat that day—whether it was a bobcat or mountain lion I can't be sure; however, I am sure there were two cubs with the mamma cat that looked me in the eyes before she disappeared after her babies into the woods. That day I also had a run-in with a five-foot rattlesnake. I shot it with my pellet gun, and though I had killed many rattlesnakes before, this time was different. When the pellets from my gun punched holes in the snake, small eel-like baby snakes slithered out of the same holes. I will never, ever forget that day.
Now, aside from having a much bigger body, being a dedicated father to an angel daughter, and having bills to pay, not much has changed; exploration into the unknown and expeditions are still my favorite thing. They consume my life and define most of who I am. One of the main things that inspires me to go on these journeys is to seek out, find, and climb first ascents on the most remote rock walls, towers, and steep formations in the most remote corners of the Earth. Now, 50-plus expeditions and 100-plus countries later, the addiction/obsession for exploration and first ascents continues.
What inspires you to dedicate your life to exploration?
My daughter is my biggest inspiration. My family, friends, the cultures and people around the world, the outdoor community—it's the amazing people of all different walks of life that inspire me. What really drives the obsession and addiction to the kind of exploration I do is the mystery, the unknown, the magic, the power and beauty of the wild. Without mystery, there is no adventure. The solo expeditions can be incredibly challenging; I crave ultimate complex challenges, the huge equations of challenges.
What’s a normal day like for you?
I have somewhat of a double life. Half of my life is being a full-time explorer, climber, etc., and everything it takes to make that part of this lifestyle possible. The other half is being a father. So a day for me could be: alone in Afghanistan on the side of a huge rock tower trying to climb a first ascent and avoid the Taliban, or maybe trying to survive in Antarctica while battling hundred-mile-per-hour winds, or maybe trying to avoid being eaten by polar bears in the Russian Arctic, or possibly digging the larva from my flesh after being impregnated by strange flies in Papua New Guinea.
Or I may be at a parent volunteer meeting at my daughter’s school, or teaching art or math, or maybe coaching her soccer team (for five years), or teaching her how to backcountry ski for her first Antarctic expedition, or maybe giving a presentation about my latest expedition at her school …
Do you have a hero and, if so, why is this person your hero?
Yes, first and foremost my daughter. She is the energy and fuel of my life; I learn from her every day. She inspires me to inspire her.
My mom—she taught me optimism and appreciation.
My grandmother, who taught me that the time is always now and we must live our dreams and there are no excuses.
My dad for raising me in a world of Dungeons and Dragons and [showing me] that magic really exists in this life, and for giving me J.R.R. Tolkien's Hobbit and Lord of the Rings books.
What's been your favorite experience in the field? Most challenging?
One of the most challenging: I was solo climbing a huge rock tower first ascent in Afghanistan, [and when I was] 800 feet up the wall, I climbed under a 2,000-pound flake, and just five minutes after passing this giant flake, it crashed down from the wall, cutting my ropes. It was one of the closest times I've come to being killed. The challenge was the aftermath of thinking how close to death [I had been]—but it was not about me. It was more about my daughter and family and how they would feel. In the same area of Afghanistan, on my second solo expedition there, my local nomadic friends came to warn me about a group of Taliban in the next valley. I quickly left the area in utter fear. Without that warning—well, it could have been interesting to say the least.
Once, in the far northern Russian Arctic at 81º north, I was on a solo expedition to find and climb the northernmost rock wall on the planet and [found myself] in the position of being a meal for some polar bears. It was some of the most mortal fear I have ever felt. Two Russians had been killed by bears the previous year, so it was the very real deal (still get the chills just thinking about how close it was).
Just before leaving to be the first to cross the Taklamakan Desert, a huge pot of boiling water was spilled on my leg and foot. It was just an hour before I was supposed to embark into the desert on a 127ºF day, and my flesh was melted. I continued on to complete the thousand-mile journey, but not without immense suffering and the ultimate challenge to push forward.
There are many challenges in the field, but the hardest part of any expedition is simply missing my daughter—there is no pain or suffering that comes close to this.
What are your other passions?
Being a father is my number one passion, including sharing and showing my daughter this planet and its people and culture and flora and fauna, and the magic, power, and beauty of Earth. Making sure she sees and knows about all of it is very important to me. And on that note, also very important to me is sharing with the world the remote and unique people, places, and experiences I get to embrace, and hopefully inspiring people to get out into the world. I love doing presentations about my expeditions—I have done over 500 presentations.
I'm very passionate about animals. I currently have 11 animals: one pig, one parrot, one chameleon, two dogs, three cats, and chickens.
On a more simple note, I have been brewing beer for 20 years. It's a favorite hobby of mine to brew and bring my beer to people I know all over the world.
Photography, videography, and writing are also passions.
If you could have people do one thing to help save animals, what would it be?
Commit to animals, donate to animal shelters, volunteer time to animals, give animals a home … They are our family on this planet.
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Inside National Geographic Magazine
Coming to Antarctica was Mike Libecki's idea. But this team of hard-core climbers got more than they bargained for.
In Their Words
Pursue passionwhy ration passion? Dream big and climb those dreams. The time is now. No excuses. Death and/or old age is coming, we must live sweet. After all, it is not only life, but the quality of this life.
Adventurer Mike Libecki journeyed to a remote fjord in southeast Greenland for two weeks of climbing and exploration.
Visit Libecki's website and learn more about his work.