Before the little girl came into his life and changed everything, Mike Libecki was a boy who grabbed a gun and set off into the desert looking for a mountain lion. It was a pellet gun. He’d just finished a bowl of Honeycomb and some cartoon watching. He was six years old.
Back then, in the late 1970s, the Libeckis lived on a few acres with fewer neighbors in the Sierra Nevada foothills near Coarsegold, a small community in California about 90 minutes south of Yosemite. It was the kind of place that parents could let their kids roam without a worry, really, and Libecki and his two brothers roamed a lot. So on and on he went, his pint-size shoes skipping between manzanita and rocks, the sky a buffed-out blue. He was gone for hours, having what would become one of the most formative experience of his life. No one had really noticed he was gone.
“I knew he’d gone on a hike, but dusk was coming, so as a parent you start to get worried,” recalled Libecki’s mom, Charlotte. “I started driving around calling out for him, but there was no reply. I called his dad and said, ‘You better come home quick. Mike’s missing.’”
But Mike had not gone missing. Libecki thinks he saw a mountain lion, but it was the snake he remembers most. It was a fat and aggressive rattler that didn’t like this boy stomping around its den. An “epic” battle ensued. It was five feet long, hissing hate and a thing to be killed. (Forgive him; he was six.) Libecki slowly lowered his pellet gun and pulled the trigger.
The shot found its mark, but the sting only angered the snake. It lunged, so Libecki shot it again. The beast recoiled and writhed and lashed out like an uncontrollable whip, its fangs wet with neurotoxins. The boy pulled the trigger over and over, his breath pinched and shallow, and still the snake kept writhing. Pap! Pap! Pap! After what felt like an eternity, the snake rattled a deathly rattle, twitched, and went still. Then, in a moment that would change Libecki’s life forever, dozens of tiny rattlesnakes began to wriggle out of the wounds he’d inflicted and onto the hot sand like so many slithering demons.
The boy wasn’t scared, sad, or disgusted. He knew nothing about how rattlesnakes carry their eggs and then their live young inside them, so he stood there gawking, fascinated. When the baby snakes slipped into the brush, Libecki turned around and went home, to everyone’s relief. Something fundamental had changed within.
“I could have never, ever predicted what was going to happen that day,” says Libecki, now 41. “I’m still looking for that feeling, that not knowing what’s going to happen next.”
Libecki has made a career out of chasing that feeling, mostly through adventure climbing and, in more recent years, by being a dedicated father, which for him is the greatest expedition into the unknown. As a Mountain Hardwear athlete and National Geographic explorer, Libecki has spent months establishing new routes on big walls in Baffin Island, Greenland, and Afghanistan, often alone. He has used a stand-up paddleboard to reach the base of unclimbed peaks on remote Russian islands and bushwhacked his way through Borneo to complete a first ascent on a 2,000-foot tower. He wants to go on 100 expeditions by the time he’s 100. He has 23 more ideas for trips down on paper right now.
Fulfilling them is not an easy thing for a father who, according to friends, has built his life around his 11-year-old daughter, Lilliana, an only child whom her grandmother calls “sweet, kind, and independent.”
“There’s not a time that a plane doesn’t take off that I’m not in tears because I miss her,” Libecki says. “So why do I do it then? I could talk all day about sunsets, people, language, and food, but when you get deeper into it, why? Why do I like chocolate over vanilla? We don’t know why. We’re a random miracle following the universe, but it’s a beautiful thing to love your child. When I’m gone, I bring two satellite phones to keep in touch and send her flowers every week.”
That won’t be necessary on expedition No. 57, which kicked off in early November, because for the first time, Libecki will combine his love for the unknown with his love for fatherhood by bringing Lilliana to the bottom of the earth. Their mission: to climb, ski, kite-ski, and paddleboard in Antarctica on a 3-week trip.
“Seeing the penguins in the wild will be awesome, and my dad says we can ski right down to them,” Lilliana wrote in an e-mail from Ushuaia, Argentina, where the two planned to board an 80-passenger boat. “I had to train really hard by hiking and backcountry skiing. I got straight A’s because my dad said I had to in order to go to Antarctica, and I did my chores at home.”
Backcountry skiing in Antarctica was all Lilliana’s idea—and her mother, one of Libecki’s closest friends, supports it wholeheartedly. But Libecki couldn’t just hand his daughter a trip like that. He has no trust fund or bulging bank account, so he got busy finding sponsors, raising money, and believing with his entire soul that it would all work out. Most important, the two trained together, getting their equipment dialed as they skied Utah’s Wasatch backcountry, climbing 9,026-foot Mount Olympus and 11,326-foot Pfeifferhorn—a “spicy” climb for a fifth grader, Libecki says. “We had a couple tough backcountry days, where it was icy and the winds kicked up and we’d just stop and talk about it. I push her, sure, but the main thing is to empower her to follow her passion. So we assessed the situation: It’s safe, the snow’s stable, we can keep going if you want to. She wanted to. As a dad, I’m proud of her, but I’m the most proud when she’s proud of herself.”
Libecki’s plan to bring his daughter into such remote terrain, where avalanches and crevasse falls are real hazards, hasn’t been without critics, who say the mountains of Antarctica are no place for a child. Those critics, however, likely never had a father like Libecki. He radiates a certain positivity, beauty, and willingness to love in such quantities that audiences at his presentations can’t help but bask in it. He says things like “Why ration passion?”with zero irony, and “The time is now”—the greatest lesson his grandmother Bertha ever taught him. (He named a tower he climbed on a previous trip to Antarctica after her.)
At home, he pours as much energy into Lilliana’s well-being as he does into tackling a first ascent when he’s away. “I lead this double life,” he says. He’s coached Lilliana’s soccer team for five years, spent countless hours volunteering in her classroom, and won “father of the year” from her school in Salt Lake City. On this trip, the whole idea is to keep her safe and comfortable and to show her that expeditions can be fun, he says. The two won’t be bivouacking in freezing temperatures or angry katabatic winds—they’ll sleep warm and toasty on the boat—and a third skier will tag along for safety in case of an emergency.
“Mike is always dialed, but I got the feeling he’d gone through everything at least three times,” says Matt Scanlon, a longtime friend who asked Libecki to be his best man at his wedding. “I’ve known Lilli from day one, and for Mike, from the day she arrived, everything became about her—and getting back to her.”
Without a doubt, Libecki has had some close calls over the years. In 2010 he went to Afghanistan, alone, while the Taliban were looking for people like him to murder. He dodged them successfully, but the scariest moment came about 800 feet up an unclimbed tower in the Koh-e Baba Mountains. There, he encountered a multi-ton flake in a particularly crumbly section. Unsure how to proceed, Libecki gingerly made his way over it. Good thing he had: eight minutes later, with Libecki safely out of the way, the whole flake peeled loose, thundered to the ground, and slashed his ropes. It would have killed him in an instant. It shook him to his core, so he retreated to base camp near the foot of the cliff and sobbed.
“How could I have come so close to letting my daughter down?” he says. “I still struggle with that one.”
Life on the road certainly takes its toll as well—Libecki can be gone five months of the year—but Lilliana has already traveled with her dad to five continents. Antarctica will be her sixth. A trip to Africa this summer will be the capstone in a quest to visit all seven continents by the time she’s 12.
“All of my other friends’ dads have jobs that are more normal. My dad is different; I like that he is different,” she says. “Now I get to travel all over the world with him.”
Some trips are still far too burly for Lilliana, of course. This year alone, Libecki has battled minus 55 degrees Fahrenheit in Siberia and climbed some big walls in Greenland and Baffin Island, and he’ll be taking a top-secret trip to somewhere in Polynesia come December, to do more climbing, just weeks after returning from Antarctica. “If it’s not a first accent, I’m not really interested,” he says. “It’s what makes me tick.”
Chances are good the two will get to make some first descents in Antarctica. They plan to spend two and a half weeks on the boat, with about a week spent exploring the Antarctic Peninsula. They brought inflatable stand-up paddleboards to use on calm days, hopefully in the company of whales, and will visit research stations, too. Lilliana will document the whole experience for her classmates back home.
In the end, though, Libecki says what matters most is the bonds we forge with those we love and the lessons we learn from playing in the world’s most spectacular places.
His voice trails off for a moment. When it returns, his thoughts are as clear as that day when he was six.
“I have to wonder,” he adds, “what’s going to be that moment of snakes slithering out for her?”
Follow the adventures of Mike Libecki this winter, as well as other athletes in the Mountain Hardwear community, at findingwinter.com.