In a world that is increasingly urbanised, it’s difficult to travel to lands that are barely touched by civilisation, let alone completely uncharted. For explorer Mike Libecki, however, those difficulties are all part of the adventure – and worth the fear, loneliness and danger he must endure to reach such lands. In August, Mike – who was recently named amongst National Geographic’s Adventurers of the Year – returned from his 50th expedition and has 23 more trips planned for the next few years, including one to Antarctica with his ten-year-old daughter. Feeling equally at home atop a virgin peak as in his house in Utah, Mike’s mission is to inspire people – in particular his daughter – to chase their dreams with all their might.
What do you remember most about your childhood?
I grew up in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains near Yosemite National Park, which is sort of like the centre of the universe for climbing. My family was into hunting and fishing and was very outdoorsy in that respect. My first journey into the wilderness was when I was six years old and I just left my house with my toy bow and arrow to go mountain-lion hunting. And I did end up seeing a mountain lion and her two cubs. I was gone all day and my parents thought I’d been kidnapped and had called search and rescue. But, for me, I remember just being out there and in the moment and I didn’t even think about fear or danger. I think that was a defining moment for the life I’m living now.
What was your childhood dream?
I don’t think I really had one. I was like most kids in that whatever was happening, whatever I was doing as a child, was what life was. A childhood to me is living in the moment. But as you get older and start getting a taste of the world, you realise that everyone has a different life and there are so many different cultures and ways of living out there.
When did you realise that being an explorer could be a profession?
When I started going to college I really loved mathematics – it was something I really resonated with. I had started climbing in Yosemite and that really became the mathematical connection – the big equations of variables and constants and mysteries and the challenges of climbing these big walls. The climbing soon led to first descents all over the world and has continued to do so. The speciality I’m sort of addicted to is untouched, remote earth and exploring new territory.
What do you love about the unknown?
One of my quotes is ‘Without mystery, there’s no adventure’ and exploration to me is basically mystery – without the unknown I wouldn’t be driven to go out and do this. It’s really about finding out more about myself, other cultures and flora and fauna, and challenging myself out in the unknown when I’m really out there on my own and there’s no rescue possibility. Every day, every step, every moment of each climb is something new. When you’re the first one to go out there, there’s never any guarantees or knowns – you can’t really research very deeply when you’re going to a place that’s truly untouched.
Where’s the first place you travelled to?
The very first time I went out of the country was in my senior year of high school and I went to Denmark. And then my next trip was to Japan with a friend. I think that trip to Japan was the defining moment. It was in my early twenties and I’d already been climbing full time and so once I had that taste for a different culture, especially an Asian culture, it really sucked me in to wanting to see the world. And that quickly evolved to now, 50 expeditions and 100 countries later, and it’s just an unbelievable experience to see the world in such an exploratory way – you taste it, touch it, feel it, smell it, eat it. That’s really what exploration is to me.
Tell me about your grandmother …
She would always say: ‘The time is now.’ I dropped out of college to go and climb full time and she was really supportive. She grew up living a pretty hard life in North Dakota with eight brothers and sisters farming, and if they didn’t farm, they didn’t eat. So she was really encouraging about just going and living your life. She had so many things in her life that she wanted to do but just didn’t get to, so she was very supportive about saying just go out there and live.
What has been your greatest challenge?
There’s quite a few, but the main one is just missing my daughter. I haven’t really missed part of her life or been disconnected from her, but on a personal note the toughest part for me has been being homesick and missing her and my family and friends. But what’s really cool about that is I’m also teaching her that, with any dream or goal that you have, it does take sacrifice and it’s not just an easy road for anything. With everything worth doing, there’s compromise, and she’s learning a lot about that. She basically inspires me to inspire her and continue getting out there. A really big part of it is showing her that there’s this amazing life and that opportunity isn’t just opportunity – being alive is an opportunity.
How do you deal with fear?
There have been moments of mortal fear when I’ve been really scared and death was definitely knocking on the door if I wasn’t careful. There was a time in Afghanistan when I was there by myself and the Taliban was in the next valley and I was told to leave. Or the time when there was a big rockfall while I was solo climbing that, literally, if I’d been in the spot that I was in five or ten minutes before that moment, I wouldn’t be talking to you right now. But I think that fear is based around my daughter. Before she was born, I didn’t ever really feel that sense that I had to get home. Now with my daughter – even though I push things just as far or hard – that fear is much brighter and more evident thinking how my daughter would feel if I didn’t come home.
Who inspires you?
My number-one inspiration is my daughter. Everything has evolved to really being about her. This lifestyle for a long time – and still today – is somewhat selfish, yet there are a lot of things that I’ve found that I can bring back. So many people are so kind about how inspirational a lot of the things I do are and how it motivates them to get out and step out of their comfort zone and feel life. That’s been really refreshing over the years to hear that, but the inspiration for me without a doubt really is inspiring my daughter. This year alone we’ve been to France and Poland and Russia together and she’s going on her first trip to Antarctica with me next year. I’m really excited that she is getting to know this planet and its people through what I’m doing.
Do you believe in a god and, if so, which one?
I’m not religious in any sense of organised religion, but my religion is nature, the planet and the universe – things that I can touch, feel, taste, smell, etc. Yet I’m also very fantasy-oriented and I’d like to believe that there are magical, more powerful things that just can’t be explained, even though I’m by no means religious in any sense.
What are your words of wisdom?
There are a lot, but the ones that come to mind is that the time is now and there’s no excuse for not living your dreams. There are ways to find what you want to do and love to do and you just have to break out and go get that. It’s not only life, but it’s the quality of this life.