“I’m Not a Summit-or-Death Guy”
Alpine climber Mike Libecki knows there is more at stake than a summit when raising a family
For many alpine climbers, expeditions are synonymous with suffering. You hang out in your tent for days, waiting out bad weather, hump heavy loads, and endure whipping winds, frostbite, and frigid temperatures. But for climber Mike Libecki, 41, who’s put up first ascents from Greenland to Afghanistan, the harder the slog, the more joy it brings. “Without the mystery, there’s no adventure,” says Libecki, who when he’s not scaling remote rock faces, he is a hands-on single father to his 11-year-old daughter, Lilliana. In November, the father-daughter team will head out on Lilliana’s first expedition: a two-week skiing and SUPing adventure to Antarctica.
I caught up with Libecki by phone from his house near the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon, in Utah, to find out how he does it all—soccer coach, professional explorer, soloist, single parent, DIY backyard farmer. Appropriately, the conversation began with a muffled ruckus in the background and Mike apologizing, “Hold on one second. I have 11 animals here, pigs and chickens and dogs and cats. My parrot is battling off a couple of magpies.” On that note….
OUTSIDE: How do you juggle it all?
LIBECKI: It’s all a choice. I really believe that the time is now. Dream big, climb those mountains. I want to look back on my deathbed and know I went for it. I want my daughter to grow up with animals. I want to keep it enthusiastic always. There’s not much down time around here.
But practically speaking, is it difficult to manage your home life and being gone on expedition?
I have a support crew that takes care of my animals when I travel. I’ve done over 50 expeditions now. Depending on the opportunities, I’m gone 4-5 months a year. I don’t have family money. I work hard for what I get to do. What I do is what I love and what I love is what I do. I’m a single dad. When I’m not traveling, I’m a dedicated father. I work from home. I coached her competition soccer team for five years. My daughter’s mom and I are really good friends. When I’m gone, she’s with her mom and family. Her mother is the pillar of how I can do this stuff. Without her I’d be nothing.
How do you justify the risks of expedition climbing?
There are inherent risks with anything. I look at expeditions and climbing and goals as a big mathematical equation. You make sure all constants are there, focus on the variables and the things you can’t control, and everything is going to be fine. What I do is 100 percent safe. If I thought I was going to die, I wouldn’t go. Half my trips are solo. I’m such an optimist. I’m not a summit-or-death guy. I’ve backed off a lot of summits when it’s gotten too dangerous. Fear is my friend. It keeps me aware and focused on what I need to do.
But you’ve had some near misses?
I’ve had quite a few close calls with rock fall, one in Afghanistan. I was underneath this big flake, the size of a garage door, as soon as I got away from it, not 15 minutes later, it fell. It cut two of my ropes in two places. That was a big moment. I was in tears. It was flashing through my eyes—what if I didn’t come home? Yet I had tested the flake with my techniques, and nothing happened. I survived it.
How do you stay connected to home when you’re on expedition?
It is hard to leave. There’s not a trip where the plane takes off over the ocean and I’m not tearing up and missing my daughter. I wondered how it would be after she was born, how it would affect with expedition life. It hasn’t changed. The only change is that now I take the satellite phone. I can Skype from almost anywhere in the world. Every single week I’ve ever traveled, I’ve sent her flowers. When she was really young, I had stand-up cut-out photos of me made. Life is moving, we do what we do. She inspires me to go after what I love because I want her to do the same, to pursue what she really loves. Yet on the flip side, there are going to be compromises and sacrifices, moments of sadness and emotion. Anything great in life has sacrifices.
When did you first start taking Lilliana on trips and into the backcountry?
Her first trip out of the country was to Thailand when she was eight months old. She’s traveled around the world with me: Russian, Poland, France. She’s grown up outdoors, appreciating nature. She started skiing when she was two. It seems pretty normal to us and to most people we know. Traveling the world is the best education you can get. As a parent, that’s what I want to teach my daughter.
And this trip in November will be her first expedition?
Yeah, but we’re not taking a small sailboat to depths of insanity. We’re going on a big boat to ski and paddle board, and to scientific stations to see the penguins. We trained last winter, practicing backcountry skills and skinning up. It’s a stepping stone to who knows what she’s going to do in the future. It’s a safe, controlled ‘expedition vacation.’
That sounds like something you feel you need to stress.
The last time I was in Antarctica it was minus 40 with 80 mph winds. Some of the media I’ve done….well, you’re going to get some haters. But it hasn’t been about taking my daughter. It’s more ‘How can you go on your suicidal trips, and risk leaving your daughter fatherless?’ This is joy and life is here to live.
How do you stay motivated during the long, tough expeditions?
I just love it. I don’t call it an ‘expedition.’ I call it an expe-addiction. You can’t do these things if you don’t love them. Without challenges it just wouldn’t be worth it. There are two ways of living, in life and on expeditions: pre-joy or joy. Every single moment of your live you have joy. It could be pre-joy: 100 mph winds, rock fall that scares the crap out of you. It’s still joy. Some people get annoyed with how optimistic I am. The only thing that really matters are if friends or family are sick, or if someone is hurt. That’s when life gets really ultimate. Aside from that, it’s pre-joy or joy.
Do you have tips for parents who want to pursue the adventure life?
There’s really no excuse for things you want to do and love to do. If you really love it and want it, the only things stopping you are excuses. How bad do you want it? If you really want it, don’t drive a car with payments. Sell it and spend money on travel. Why ration passion? I just want [my daughter] to learn from me that you can really do anything you want if you really focus. It’ll be mostly joy and a little bit of pre joy. And the pre-joy is so wonderful because you know it’s going to end. On an expedition, you’re freezing and suffering, and in that moment I just smile and embrace it because it’s going to be over soon. It’s just immaculate mayhem.