In the spring of 2015, National Geographic Resident Explorer and my good friend, Mike Libecki, called me and said he had an idea to climb a remote tower in the jungle of Ua Pou Island, French Polynesia. “There will be moments that you wish you never came,” he said. Oddly enough, that was exactly what my filming partner Keith Ladzinski and I wanted to hear, as the best expeditions usually hold a good bit of struggle. Plus, Libecki has a knack for finding the most unexplored and uncharted climbing locations on the planet and being the first to summit.
For this expedition, Libecki enlisted Angie Payne to be his climbing partner. Payne, after a successful trip to Greenland with Libecki in 2012, made the mistake of telling Libecki she would go on any “crackpot” mission he ever conjured up. The only issue was that Payne had never climbed a big wall before. But Libecki wasn’t looking for climbers as much as he was looking for people that could take the suffering. In that way, we were all a perfect fit.
We set out on the 21-day mission this March, and after 16 days of debris-filled climbing in horrible conditions, Libecki led us to the summit of Poumaka in a tropical storm.
Photo: Libecki and Payne with unknown pitches and struggle above them.
Our first look at the towers of Ua Pou Island.
Libecki and Payne cut a trail to Poumaka and take in the view of the tower from the base for this first time. Everything was so dense and the jungle seemed to climb right up the tower with the same overgrown ferocity it possessed on the ground.
Libecki showing off the gear that keeps them safe—muddy “bird beaks,” which he hammers into small cracks and crevices on lead.
Vertical mayhem: Libecki gets more than he bargained for during his 12-hour lead of pitch two, which he described as one of the hardest pitches of his life.
Libecki returns to base camp after “fixing” pitch two after an epic 12-hour battle to move the team only 100 feet up the tower.
The remote tower of Poumaka looming above Camp 1.
Life on the wall. Payne and Libecki make their morning commute up to the previous day’s high point.
Payne dodging debris as Libecki clears the route for pitch five above. This became a far too familiar occurrence.
Payne ascending one of the fixed lines near the middle of the tower.
Libecki and Payne set up an exposed office on a portaledge and scout the route above using photographs they took from camp.
Even the simplest of things become challenging—or at least dirtier—in the jungle as Payne puts in her contacts.
A soggy morning view from advanced base camp as Libecki and Payne perform the daily ritual of preparing for the day on the tower.
Libecki jumaring up some of the steepest pitches of Poumaka to cover distances of previous day.
Libecki in his element as the ever-optimist.
The duo found themselves huddled in a small cave 100 feet below the summit during the final push. They made the choice to climb the summit pitch in the dark during a tropical storm.
A full-time sufferfest, and one Payne, or any of us, will not soon forget.
After 16 days of struggle, the duo submitted Poumaka. Here, their headlamps light the way down.
Libecki sets off a biodegradable lantern in celebration, not only for the summit but also his 42nd birthday.