“The time is now...What are you waiting for? No excuses."
Libecki and his daughter on a boat checking out the conditions in Antarctica, photo by Mike Schirf
Mike Libecki, a big-wall solo climber and a veteran of 58 expeditions to some of the most remote locations on the planet, has an interesting email signature. Without any irony, he signs off every email with five inspirational quotes, all attributed to himself.
“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?”
Cheesy? Perhaps. It’d be impossible for just about anyone else to pull off an email signature like this, but somehow Libecki manages. For those who know the 41-year-old climber, they recognize just how genuinely engrained these mantras are in his personality. He is the eternal optimist.
“My friends give me shit for quoting myself all the time,” Libecki admits. “Well, I really strive to live up to those ideas. When I see that in my emails, it reminds me to keep that going.”
Libecki selfie on remote river on the way to explore virgin earth in Guyana to climb a first ascent, photo by Mike Libecki
Dangerous scorpion in Venezuela, on the way to climb the Acopon Tepui, photo by Mike Libecki
Alpine climber Freddie Wilkinson, with whom Libecki recently traveled to Antarctica to make the first ascent of a 2,200-foot vertical spire that they dubbed “Bertha’s Tower” (7,200 feet elevation), attributes Libecki’s success in the mountains to his unwavering optimism.
“That’s what keeps him going when the conditions get tough,” Wilkinson says. “I’m totally psyched to do another climbing trip with Libecki.”
Libecki named the Antarctic mountain after his grandma Bertha. “She was the one who always said, ‘The time is now! The time is now!’” recalls Libecki. “She was a huge inspiration. When I was considering dropping out of college to become a climber, I went over to grandma Bertha’s house. She poured us each a glass of whisky, and then just got all fired up. She said, ‘Why would you ever question passion? You gotta go live your life, dammit!’”
“That support really gave me the confidence to bail on school and move to Yosemite.”
Libecki practicing banjo in virgin earth East Greenland, photo by Andy Mann
Libecki exploring East Greenland (map on a boat), photo by Josh Helling
Libecki on a wild rock bridge on the first ascent of Mashanig, Socotra Island, Yemen, photo by Josh Helling
Whatever it is that drives people to travel, explore new places, and heed the call of the unknown seems to be particularly ingrained within Libecki’s genes. His grandfather (Bertha’s husband, and his mother’s father) grew up on a farm in North Dakota. At age 14, he saw a photo of Yosemite in a magazine. He was so inspired by the grandeur of the national park that he hopped on the next train alongside the hobos. He reached Yosemite and ended up living there for the next four years, working with a conservation corps to clear land.
“That’s always been a really cool story to me,” says Libecki. “I mean, think about being just 14 years old and busting out to Yosemite. That’s pretty young. He was pretty independent.”
The family remained in the foothills of Yosemite. Libecki was born just north of Fresno, California, minutes away from the national park. He grew up fishing, hunting and exploring. He started climbing in 1990, his senior year of high school.
“After that first day of climbing, I went out and bought some Boreal Aces and an 11mm rope. And I went to Yosemite the next week, and actually met Wolfgang Güllich and Kurt Albert. I bought my first harness from them in the Camp 4 parking lot.”
Albert was one of the first sport climbers in the world, and considered the father of red-pointing routes. Güllich was the best sport climber in the world in the 1980s, and even got to be Sly Stallone’s stunt-double in Cliffhanger.
Libecki spent the next four and a half summers living in Yosemite. He worked in the Mountain Shop in Curry Village, and spent his free time exploring and climbing. “Basically my lifestyle turned into sweetness of life and climbing,” says Libecki.
He cut his teeth in Yosemite, learning the tricks and tactics needed to climb big walls, both with a partner and by himself. Soloing heightened the whole adventure. Soon he was turning his focus to the greater mountain ranges of the world. He explored the granite big-walls of Baffin Island, which lies between the mass of northern Canada and Greenland, taking trips there five years in a row.
“On my third trip there, my partners bailed,” Libecki says. “So I’m like, well, I guess I’m just going to solo. I ended up soloing the Ship’s Prow in Baffin. And it was like a whole new addiction. I made it. I didn’t die. And I loved it.”
Libecki Stand Up Paddle boarding in remote East Greenland, photo by Keith Ladzinski
Libecki Iceberg climbing/soloing in remote East Greenland, photo by Keith Ladzinski
Libecki heading to the Ship’s Prow solo on Baffin Island, with dog team and super steep wall, photo by Mike Libecki
Since then, Libecki has made a name for himself in the adventure and climbing world for solo expeditions. He has visited almost 100 countries and completed 58 expeditions. He hopes to reach 100 expeditions before he turns 100 years old.
If you’re thinking that these trips are all incredibly expensive, you’re correct, but Libecki is not independently wealthy. He pays for his trips however he can, working odd jobs, saving up, or even maxing out credit cards if that’s what needs to be done. He has also won dozens of grants to help fund his trips, including the National Geographic Expeditions Council Grant, Mugs Stump Award, Polartec Challenge, Copp-Dash Award, The Lyman Spitzer Grant, Shipton-Tilman Award, and many others. He is a National Geographic Explorer and an athlete with Mountain Hardwear, Clif Bar, Black Diamond, Goal Zero, and the list goes on. When he returns home, he leverages his experiences through storytelling, articles, and, occasionally, corporate speaking gigs.
But soon, that thirst for the next trip takes hold.
“My criteria for choosing an expedition are simple: Untouched. Unexplored. Unclimbed. That’s what gets me excited.”
But Libecki doesn’t only travel or explore solo. In 1997, he climbed Denali, the highest peak in North America, with a Japanese friend of a friend. They reached the camp at 17,000 feet after a few days and prepared for their summit push.
“His name was Hajime. And just before we go for the summit, he pulls out these giant head-to-toe tiger suits and masks out of his pack. I’m like, ‘What? Has he been hauling these up the whole time?’ He said, ‘Year of Tiger!’ He barely spoke English. But we put these tiger costumes on and started climbing at 17,000 feet. And we had such a good time. We passed some guided parties. And we made them laugh.”
“I’ll never forget that that trip because it reminded me that just because we’re climbing, and we’re in these serious or dangerous places, doesn’t mean that we can’t have fun. That’s what it’s all about! Having fun. We’re all still kids, dammit! We should never let go of that beauty and magic of childhood.”
Since then, Libecki brings an animal mask to commemorate the Chinese New Year’s animal on every trip. “It’s been a cool theme on these trips.”
Libecki solo in East Greenland on the first ascent of a 3500 foot tower
Selfie on a stormy summit (all fog in photo) on Mashanig, Socotra Island, Yemen, photo by Mike Libecki
That child-like enthusiasm for adventure and optimism has, most recently, been re-taught back to Libecki by the most unlikely expedition partner you could imagine: his 11-year-old daughter, Lilliana. In December, Lilliana and her father put together a trip to Antarctica to go skiing and see penguins.
Lilliana has been skiing since she was 2 years old. Mike began teaching her how to backcountry ski when she was 9 years old in the mountains surrounding their home in Salt Lake City. Preparation for the Antarctica trip involved many more days of backcountry skiing. The work of carrying a heavy pack and skinning uphill was a big wake-up call for Lilliana.
“There were some tears shed on the mountain, but I reminded her, TBS: Tough, brave and strong. Optimism is such a huge part of my life. I talk to her about it. I explain there’s only joy and pre- joy. When it’s not joyous, it’s ok, because joy is coming. I tell her about all these theories, and I wonder what she thinks.”
Finally, Lilliana and her father made it Antarctica this past December. One day on the trip, the team faced winds gusts up to 60 miles per hour. Weather was moving in. Libecki admits to feeling an abnormal amount of pressure in that moment, but also on the trip in general. After all, he was in a serious place with his 11-year-old daughter. In her father’s face, Lilliana recognized a moment of doubt.
“She looked up at me, and said, ‘TBS, dad! Remember? Tough, brave and strong!’
“My heart melted at that point. This was really a situation in which she wasn’t just being my daughter. She was being an equal partner, and a good partner. As I get older, sometimes I need those reminders to remain optimistic. She took what I taught her and taught it back to me.”
The two skied down to Charlotte Bay, where Lilliana got to see the penguins. That fire and passion for exploration, which had brought Libecki’s grandfather to Yosemite at age 14, was now coming alive in his daughter. The torch was being passed on.
Mike’s daughter Lilliana helping him pack for Antarctica, photo by Mike Schirf
Libecki and his daughter Lilliana skiing in Antarctica, photo by Mike Schirf
Libecki and his daughter Lilliana skiing in Antarctica, photo by Mike Schirf
“I’m seeing my [her] transitioning to a young woman,” he says. “She’s finding a passion, and she’s going for it. It’s frighting and scary and exciting all together.”
Lilliana has now officially visited five continents and 12 countries. She has a goal of reaching all seven continents before she becomes a teenager, a goal that she is well on her way to achieving this year.
In June Libecki and his daughter are travelled to Tanzania to climb Kilimanjaro and bring solar power to a local orphanage there. That takes care of Africa (continent number six). Then the duo are traveling to Australia, New Zealand and Tasmania, for continent number seven.
She says she wants to be a world traveler and photojournalist when she grows up. Like her dad, she’s clearly inherited that itch to explore.
Libecki and daughter Lilliana getting ready for their trip to Antarctica, photo by Mike Schirf
Editor’s note: After publishing this article we got the following note from Mike Libecki:
“My daughter and I just got back from Africa, climbed Kilimanjaro, and did a big humanitarian project at an orphanage. She did the 7 continents at 12 years old! Her goal and she achieved it!”
Andrew Bisharat is a longtime writer, author and climber who lives in New Castle, CO, with his 102-pound dog and 110-pound wife. You can follow him on Twitter: @eveningsends, Instagram: @andrewbisharat or through his climbing website, Evening Sends.