adventure: a daring, unusual and exciting, typically hazardous or difficult, experience or activity, calling for enthusiasm
All mountain landscapes hold stories: the ones we read, the ones we dream, the ones we create.” – Michael Kennedy, Alpinist Magazine
My entire house is a collage of artifacts that represent over forty-five expeditions around the world; stories from seven continents and several passports with well over a hundred stamps and visas. One of my most prized possessions is an official set of United States Geological Survey map drawers. There are, in alphabetical order, hundreds of maps that fill the drawers. They are often scattered on the kitchen table as well as hang from the walls not only as art, but as tools for my life.
[Mike Libecki and Hans Christian Florian Sorenson go over the maps. PHOTO: Keith Ladzinski]
One of my favorite past-times is pouring over these maps like Sherlock Holmes hot on the trail of a clue to solve a mystery, but in my case, the clues I find will lead me to virgin earth, to unclimbed, towering rock formations, and ultimately their first ascent. It is just what I love to do, and seems as though my entire life has always been this way.
In 1998, on my first expedition to Greenland, I bought a set of maps in a small shop in the Inuit town of Tasiilaq on the east coast. The shop owner got the entire set of maps accidentally. These maps revealed topographic lines suggesting steep granite walls and towers. These maps pulled at my imagination and were the catalyst for an obsession with the remote fjords on the eastern coast of Greenland.
Over the years I became friends with one of Greenland’s local heroes, Hans Christian Florian Sorenson, who helped further my love affair with the rock walls of Greenland by helping me get the Danish Military and Danish Polar Institutes satellite photos of Greenland’s fjords. These allowed me to explore zones with the most potential for uncharted areas and first ascents.
[Hans Christian Florian Sorenson in his home in Tasiilaq, Greenland. PHOTO: Keith Ladzinski]
When the discussion about taking Angie Payne and Ethan Pringle on a remote “Libecki Style” expedition to Greenland started to grow, I was all in. Out in the wilderness, situations can get tense. Emotions come out. People get scared. Rescue is not an option. Dynamics among the team can go in any direction. But I am an eternal optimist. I am so optimistic I think it might irritate people from time to time. The fact that Angie, Ethan, and I had never climbed together, and that Angie and Ethan had never been on a remote expedition did not phase me at all.
Going on an expedition with people you do not know can be a recipe for disaster; you can end up hating each other and have to embrace an expensive, negatively emotional failure, or even end up hurting each other (or worse) due to lack of experience together. Or, perhaps, it could be the beginning of new friendships and incredible success, resulting in world class first ascents. Strangely enough, there was a constant that also doubled as a variable in this expedition equation: this was a team of strangers to me. I was basically guiding this team into the unknown. And, lets not forget, I was a stranger to them. It was a two way street that could lead to immaculate mayhem.
[Mike Libecki and Ethan Pringle head into the sunset on their way to base camp. PHOTO: Keith Ladzinski]
This trip with Angie and Ethan would be my seventh to Greenland, and a journey none of us would ever forget. No one could have predicted what we would endure and accomplish.
When I was six years old I went on my very first expedition. At that time, I lived in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, high enough that snow would fall, but still less than forty miles from Yosemite National Park. I had seen mountain lions in the woods more than once on my two-mile walk to the school bus stop. One Saturday morning, I grabbed my Red Bear bow and arrow, pump pellet gun, and decided to go find one of these wild cats. I was going mountain lion hunting. I was so obsessed with the idea that I headed off into the forest without telling anyone where I was going.
Believe it or not, I actually did see a mountain lion with her two cubs and she looked me straight in the eyes before she disappeared into the woods. I will never forget how magical and powerful that felt. I often wonder why I was not eaten that day. I have been chasing this mountain lion – these expeditions and first ascents – ever since. I hoped I could inspire Ethan and Angie, to get them addicted too.
It is a healthy addiction.
[Mike Libecki runs through the option with Angie Payne and Ethan Pringle. PHOTO: Keith Ladzinski]
These days my expeditions are a little different. After a day of planes, a boat ride dodging icebergs through frigid waters, shuttling heavy loads up mossy talus in the rain, we finally found ourselves in a remote fjord on Greenland’s east coast. We were surrounded by giant, steep granite towers, our tents crowded by boulders the size of small homes.
The towers and boulders were speckled with interesting lines, exactly the kind of rock that any climber would start salivating over. The chilly breeze, the smell of rain, lush moss, tricking springs, unclimbed rock—it felt like home.
After setting up our basecamp tents and crafting a stone-tabled kitchen out of large granite flakes, we settled in around a stove and a few hot cups of coffee. This was perfect, in my opinion, because the weather forced us to get to know each other instantly. We sat around together in our Yurtini, sipped hot drinks, listened to rain-drop-drum beats, and talked about life and all the unclimbed rock that waited somewhere out in the mist.
[Living the base camp life. PHOTO: Keith Ladzinski]
An expedition usually draws out our innermost thoughts, ideas, emotions, secrets, and creates close friendships that last a lifetime. Sometimes expedition relationships are like short-term marriages in terms of trust and reliability. I know of no deeper bond. Expedition friendships are one of the most special gifts I have been so fortunate to receive in life. Angie, Ethan, and I were all smiling, laughing, and filling the air with joy. Ethan and Angie kept repeating that this was the most beautiful place that they’d ever been. We were filled with psyche and enthusiasm for the rock that he had not even laid a finger on.
[Mike Libecki tops out on a remote tower in Greenland. PHOTO: Ethan Pringle]
One of the best parts of this journey was embracing the joy that I could see Ethan and Angie experiencing. I often saw their eyes light up from the raw beauty, a genuine emotion that could only be induced by wild nature and the unpredictability of its power. We experienced world class first ascents as a team, and quickly eased into the expedition life.
This was truly a journey of new friendships, incredible rock climbing, deep wilderness, and joy. I learned from Angie and Ethan that even though we are different people from different places, we share commonalities that bring us together. I was inspired by Angie and Ethan’s bravery and their physical and mental strength. I feel honored to have been on such an incredible journey with them, but even more honored to call them my friends.
[Mike Libecki, Ethan Pringle and Angie Payne recapping the day's adventures. PHOTO: Keith Ladzinski]
The willingness of our team to dive into first ascents and new experiences in a remote fjord like Greenland reminded me of my first expedition all those years ago. The feeling of stepping into the unknown, whether hiking through the forest on the hunt for mountain lions when you’re six years old, or living life high on a big wall with a good friend, is what keeps me on the hunt for virgin earth and new adventures. Expeditions are a place of learning. They are about diving into a place you’ve never been, and learning how to experience the world through your surroundings.
Without mystery, there is no adventure.