Mountaineer Mike Libecki made a journey that no one had ever made before. Following his lifelong dream of becoming a professional mountain climber, he and three other climbers made a daring and dangerous trek to a land almost alien to the known world: Antarctica.
Libecki was attending college when he decided that his true calling was mountaineering. With the blessing of his grandmother, Bertha, he dropped out of university in pursuit of his passion. Since then, Libecki has been on over 60 expeditions, with over 100 stamps in his passport books. Now Libecki had his eyes set on Antarctica, which has mountains that have yet to be explored.
“This is the most expensive expedition you can do,” Libecki said, referring to the $100,000-plus price tag. But with perseverance and a lot of luck, Libecki found an answer. It happened to be the National Geographic’s 125-year anniversary, and they were all for the trip. With their support, and equipment from various sponsors, Libecki and his team were prepared to set out on an expedition they will never forget.
“Antarctica is kind of like a forgotten place … It’s like an ice planet,” Libecki said. The scenery consists of flat ice spanning miles and the occasional rock formation. Arriving in a small Russian camp hidden in the vastness of the Antarctic, they were soon ready to set off into the tundra, until a vicious storm set in with winds of up to 100 mph. This was the first delay of that flight since 2003, and the crew was worried they may not even get to embark on the expedition. They had to wait in the camp for weeks.
Luckily, their flight captain, against protocol, decided to fly them out to the site of their expedition. “The feeling of isolation kicked in immediately,” Libecki said, remembering the moment the plane left them. “You watch as the last piece of comfort and warmth takes off into the sky.” Just after beginning the 45 day expedition, their brief moment of luck came to an end. Within hours, katabatic winds of around 60 mph blanketed them in snow and created temperatures that could kill them in mere hours. They were only able to find one boulder amongst the flat ice that could shelter them from the extreme winds.
The climbers were now eager to find a safer location, but even more importantly, a mountain they could be proud of climbing. They set off on skis with kites strapped to them, riding the winds across the ice until they came across the largest vertical climb in sight. Without hesitation the group, mainly lead by Libecki, began the first ascent up the mountain. The climb was extremely dangerous, with the nearest help hours away in the event something went wrong.
“What we were doing is 100 percent mathematically safe, you just can’t make a mistake,” Libecki said jokingly. The climb took them ten days in total. Every precaution had to be taken because even the smallest mistake, or pebble, can mean the difference between life and death for a climber and his team. There is no emergency vehicle or quick response out there so even small mistakes can easily spell death. Regardless of any danger, they climbed.
When they reached the top, Libecki and his team shared a bond stronger than the Antarctic blizzards they withstood together. Libecki said, “You shouldn’t take life too seriously, don’t grow up all the way, and have a good laugh,” in reference to a photo he took of himself on the summit wearing a dragon mask. Remembering the support for his dreams, Libecki decided to name the mountain Bertha’s Tower, after his grandmother who passed away prior to the expedition.
As for what drives him to attempt these death-defying climbs, Libecki stated, “I don’t know why I do what I do, I just love it.” Since this expedition, he has gone on many more all over the world, sometimes even taking his daughter with him. This experience is one that is not out of reach. With passion alone, Libecki was able to do something no one has done.
National Geographic LIVE will be holding a similar event in Campbell Hall on Nov. 22, with the goal of showing people a world that we don’t even know exists.