For Mike Libecki and four other young Americans bound for northwest China this month, it's not enough to climb difficult routes in an untouched valley of the Kok Shal Tau range. No, they have to suffer, too. Even before reaching for the first hold, the group will spend three weeks ferrying 1,500 pounds of food and equipment up and down a glaciated valley.
"Climbing is only 51 percent of it," the 27-year-old Libecki says, explaining why he opted against hiring porters to shoulder 150 pounds of salami, 100 pounds of cheese, and 30 pounds of pitons, among other necessities. "At least 49 percent is all the other stuff." The Alta, Utah, resident says his love for "the other stuff"—laborious preparation and the monotony of so much gear-humping—places him among a new generation of adventurers who exclusively seek virgin routes and then stick around for months in an effort to spiritually integrate with the local culture and environs.
Suffice to say, China will tax both the group's idealism and its stamina. After flying into the northwestern town of Kashi, the group plans to skirt the Taklimakan Desert in four-wheel-drive vehicles, mount camels near Akqi, and then ride north into the Tien Shan Mountains until they hit the terminus of an unnamed glacier in the vicinity of Mount Kizil Asker. For roughly eight hours a day over a two- to five-week period, they will ferry their gear, in 50-pound loads, from ten to 14,000 feet. Then, after many weeks, if no one has been injured on the glacier, if snow delays have not depleted their food supply, if nobody's mutinied—in other words, if a dram of testosterone remains—they will climb. And climb some more. "The longer we're there, the better," says 28-year-old Jed Workman, a Yosemite big-wall veteran who will suffer through the trip alongside his brother, Doug.
Hard numbers are sketchy, but the team—which also includes Jerry Dodril and Jimmy Haden—expects granite faces as high as two Half Domes and, if the walls resemble those of the same range in the neighboring Republic of Kyrgyzstan, they'll have overhanging aid routes, too. The team will spend a month climbing, scouting, and mapping a valley that hasn't seen foreign visitors since 1962. "There are other people doing sick self-support adventures," says professional mountaineer Dave Briggs, "but it's not the next big thing." Of course, for pure-hearted Libecki, setting trends isn't the point.