No matter the size of the challenge, if someone’s already done it, adventurer Mike Libecki isn’t interested.
“If it’s been climbed, or there are people who have been there, I’m not too interested in going,” says Libecki, a 2013 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year. “It’s not competitiveness. It’s just my nature. My interest is in first ascents and exploration. That’s really my drive.”
From the comfort of an armchair, it’s easy for a homebody to imagine — in an overpopulated world made smaller through technology like Google Earth — that there can’t possibly be a place unseen by humans.
Libecki, who will appear with photographer Cory Richards Sunday-Tuesday (Jan. 11-13) at Benaroya Hall to deliver a talk called “Untamed Antarctica” — the first in the 18th season of the popular “National Geographic Live” speaker series — knows better.
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“I get that from a lot of people,” he says. “How do you explore in today’s day and age? The truth is there are tons of places still unexplored, endless places to go. I have hundreds of maps I’ve been researching for years. Or I could be inspired by a photograph of, say, wild birds that incidentally shows unclimbed towers in the background.
“I did a few trips to Afghanistan (where he snowboarded down the avalanche-prone Koh-e Baba mountains while keeping an eye out for the Taliban) because of a photo in a magazine spread about Afghan culture. There were these huge towers behind everything. On my first trip to Greenland in 1998, the local Inuit fishermen told me about big, unclimbed rock walls. I’ve made nine expeditions there since then because of their information.
“What’s really cool is there’s nothing you can find about those places through ordinary research. You have to go there yourself. You have to use all your senses.”
A veteran of more than 50 expeditions (with another 23 in the planning stages) on seven continents, Libecki, 40, has pushed himself through sometimes hostile terrain (wild animals, extreme elements, war, mud, leeches, thick jungle) to reach a place he wants to climb or traverse.
In 2012 alone, Libecki’s passion drove him to make a first ascent of a 2,000-foot tower in Borneo’s West Kalimantan province. That same year, he paddleboarded through a Russian archipelago just south of the North Pole to make a first ascent of some peaks.
Some of Libecki’s adventures are horizontal. In 2011, Libecki became the first documented person to journey through the 1,000-mile Taklamakan Desert in Western China, despite sustaining a serious burn to his leg on the eve of the crossing.
Libecki’s “Untamed Antarctica” talk with Richards will focus on their 2012 National Geographic-sponsored expedition (with two teammates) to Antarctica’s Queen Maud Land, where they ascended thousands of feet of a jutting rock called Bertha’s Tower in the Wohlthat Range. Besides its remoteness, Bertha’s Tower proved nearly inaccessible, surrounded by solid ice and pummeled by hurricane-force winds.
“It was a phenomenal trip that demanded everything we had to survive,” Libecki says. “You don’t know what’s going to happen next. You’re just in the moment, working on the next step. We got all the official permissions and worked with a Russian company that charters flights.
“But once you’re out there, you’re on your own. No one’s coming to rescue you.”
Tom Keogh: email@example.com