Coming of Age

Solo first ascents in Queen Maud Land, Antarctica
Author: Mike Libecki. Climb Year: 2005. Publication Year: 2006.

As the gales of November whipped and thrashed my fragile nylon tether, I felt like a lone sailor out at sea. But the sea I explored consisted of solid blue ice, and I sailed with a kite connected to my harness, skis, and sled. I had come to reconnoiter and climb remote granite islands that are both threatening and magnificent. They are like giant granite bouquets blooming out of vases of ice—by far the most uniquely shaped formations I have ever seen.

To go alone to Queen Maud Land had been on my list of dreams for many years. All the solo expeditions I had done had been part of a staircase of training to prepare for this journey. Then, after a year of meticulous planning, there was a sudden shift in logistics: the Russian company making it possible for me to get there switched the date of departure from December to October. It was either go early and gamble on risky weather, or don’t go at all.

For the last 15 years, I have looked through my eye-windows into the world with the feeling of being 17 years old, an adolescent boy. I am 32 now, and I can see and feel myself changing. For the first time in my life, when I look into a mirror I can see my dad looking back. Goodbye adolescent boy, hello adult man.

All the homilies that I heard growing up pertained to other people, to older people, to adults. I remember hearing adults share their wisdom: “Curiosity killed the cat,” “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” “One day at a time,” and the ever-so-popular “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.” Such age-old sayings had always made a bit of sense to me, but now they have come to define my life, not only in the trials of relationships and building a career but also on intense expeditions around the world.

My initial reaction to the new feeling of adulthood was like a rebirth, with renewed optimism and the courage to take life to greater heights. I felt something like a professional kid, with newfound strength to continue my lifestyle of climbing in the remotest areas of the planet, and to do so while being a father, having a comfortable home for my family, and giving back to the community. Now I even listen to the news channel in my truck instead of rocking out to bootleg Grateful Dead jams circa 1977. What happened to me? As surely as a compass needle points north, I was becoming an adult.

Random events during my Antarctic trip in 2005 confirmed this metamorphosis. For the first time, I indulged in what I had always considered the classic adult vices: coffee and tobacco. My entire life, I had made fun of my parents for indulging in this combo. How could a cancer stick followed by jitter juice be a delight? Just before leaving Cape Town on my way to Antarctica, as I bought a few back-up salamis at a market, a pouch of tobacco caught my eye. I left with a pouch of Old Toby and 50 rolling papers. Unfortunately, with changing into an adult also comes hypocrisy.

I flew from Cape Town to the Russian base Novolazarevskaya. When we touched down on the ice runway it was October 31, Halloween. The sun was below the horizon and the temperature was –15°F without factoring in 60 mph winds. Before my sixth step onto the frozen continent my face was numb and my nostril hairs had turned to ice. I was welcomed by hot borscht and long skinny wieners for breakfast. A celebration among the crew was under way for the start of another Antarctic season, as they unloaded boxes of Stolichnaya from the plane.

According to my map, a few hundred square miles of Queen Maud Land are home to countless spires, towers, and ship-prows of granite. I had made friends with the Russian pilots and had the opportunity of a lifetime to spend almost three hours flying over the area for a stunning aerial reconnaissance. It seemed impossible that so many unclimbed world-class formations could exist in such a relatively small area.

At one point, perhaps in the time of Gondwanaland and Laurasia, these geographic works of art must have been home to dragons and wizards and are part of the reason fairytales exist. I felt like an ancient warrior right out of a book, coming to save a sweet, beautiful maiden imprisoned at the top of the unclimbed spear-tip summits, guarded by subzero temperatures and fierce numbing winds, like ferocious, frost-breathing dragons.

I pointed to a group of granite swords to signal where I wanted to land. The toylike, bi-wing airplane landed on the glassy ice and slid back and forth like a fish swiveling around a boat deck. The Russians laughed and gunned the single-propeller engine like kids in a go-cart. The pilots seemed perplexed that I would attempt to climb one of these strange towers of stone by myself. When I stepped out into the numbing breeze, I felt the same way.

The sound of the propeller faded to silence, and I stood alone on the clear icecap; perfect sculptures of shiny ice flames surrounded me. It was 0°F when the last light of the sun winked away. The tall, ominous granite and I regarded each other with suspicion. I shuttled loads to set up my camp. When the rustling of gear and skis gliding on ice subsided, there was only the breeze, my heartbeat, and my breath. Utter solitude. Living alone in temperatures as cold as my home freezer for the next five weeks would prove another adulthood slogan: “Be careful what you wish for, because you might just get it.”

There were two real concerns: the katabatic winds and the rotten granite. I had learned to fear both during the Antarctic summer of 2003–04 when I climbed a big wall about 40 miles away. The lurking wind had turned balmy, sunny, 20°F days into dangerous negatives in minutes. I also would never forget my previous experience on the worst rock of my life. Since I left Salt Lake City on this journey, I had been possessed with worry about the rock quality. But I wore a halo of hope that I would find solid stone, and the steep-sharp granite formations disguised their danger in gorgeous grandeur. The towers are so fantastic that one’s fear is replaced with a feeling of eroticism.

My first objective was to attempt a stunning shield of rock that reminded me of the Ship's Prow off the coast of Baffin Island. In 1999, on my first solo expedition to the Arctic, I was able to climb that ominous formation in temperatures that never rose above 25°F. I was now back in a similar situation on the opposite side of the planet, and though the temperatures here would be colder, at least I would not have to worry about polar bears raiding my camp.

Before long I had three pitches fixed, with the high winds and freezing temperatures forming the crux. As I traversed a small ledge under a hollow spider web of cracks, two haul- bag-sized flakes stood in my way. They were balanced so perfectly it seemed that a gust of wind could set them loose. They had to go.

On a good stance, with bomber gear, I gently touched one of the flakes, and they both went crashing toward the ground. I was expecting the simple thrill of a wall trundle, but then a chain reaction started and pool-table-size flakes in a dihedral about 10 feet to the right of me exploded and roared with fury. Before my adrenaline had a chance to kick in, a truck load of granite let loose, continuing the thunder and destruction. I tucked into a fetal position. The earth shook and screamed like King Kong. It sounded like the entire wall was crumbling: doomsday. All of the stone to the right of me that would have been part of my route erupted in the most intense movement of earth I have experienced. I smelled fire, heat, raw organic energy.

After the end-of-the-world explosions bellowed across the icecap and boomed off the nearby walls, I heard only ringing and a deep hum in my head, then the crackling of stones bouncing down the wall toward me. I hid behind my eyelids, curled into a ball, and took the stoning like an accused witch tied to a post. Then there was silence, a chilly wind, bright blue sky, and a happy sun gleaming. It was as if I was in a straight jacket. I suddenly gasped for breath as if I had been under water for three minutes. I was hot and wet despite the freezing wind—then I realized I had peed my pants.

I rappelled the route, shivering. Fortunately, my route had been veering right, and my ropes below were unscathed. As my tears slowly seeped, I thought of my daughter. I thought of my adult duties, and not only how much my daughter needed me but also just how much I needed to be with my daughter. Tears froze on my face. I crawled into my bag, drank the rest of the warm liquid in my thermos, bit off a few chunks of hard salami, and tried to sleep. My iPod fed me therapy in the form of Johnny Cash songs: “One,” “Nobody,” “Solitary Man,” and “I See A Darkness.” In my mind I could still hear the crashing roar of the earth. I could still smell it.

When I awoke I felt a new energy. I took the day to digest the experience and consider my options. It was the first time I had backed off a solo route, and it humbled me to the bone; I had to come to terms with the fact that this experience had been near ultimate danger, and I had had no choice but to go down. But my psych-addiction-obsession for solo climbing is energy I cannot control; it guides me like iron to a magnet. I had put every bit of my heart and soul on the line to get here. I thought of another bit of adult wisdom that my mom had always told me: “Be true to yourself, and be thankful for what you’ve got.” I still had plenty of time to find another objective.

I put on my skis to look at a beautiful, tall, skinny spire nearby, a route I had scoped earlier that led to a café-table-sized summit. Despite the lingering terror from the first route I had attempted, I still yearned to stand on the top of this spire.

I found some solid stone but also, of course, pitches of kitty litter. There were times I would try to place a No. 1 Camalot and, after finally whittling down the pebbles, I’d end up placing a No. 3; a knifeblade placement would turn into a 3/4-inch angle hole. The wind chill controlled my schedule, and I often had to rappel back to camp due to dangerously numb feet and toes. I tiptoed with each move and wore free climbing shoes the entire time for precision, despite the frozen toes I obviously would have to endure. I fixed ropes and used only one wall camp. I could barely sleep while thinking of the next day’s work in the steeps, shadowed by fear from that first monumental rockfall experience.

I made the summit after 16 days. Standing on top was glorious, but most of my enjoyment while getting there had been consumed by fear of the rotten rock. Nonetheless, I found myself screaming with joy as I put on my Year of the Cock mask atop the needlelike Windmill Spire.

Safely back at camp, I was hypnotized by a magnificent horizontal sunset of Barbie pink and sherbet orange rolling across the horizon. The ship’s prow I had attempted mocked me in glorious sunlight. I still wanted to stand on top of its amazing summit. Three days before the Russians picked me up, I skied to the back of the formation, and after several hours on a beautiful dragon-back ridgeline I found myself on top. I thought of my daughter again, but this time I was laughing instead of crying.

Back home I had to take pain pills for the after-effects of frozen toes. Before long I was pulling off dead flesh that looked like strings of dried squid. I felt deeply honored to have witnessed such raw power on this journey.

I am back to my usual green tea and coffee a couple of times a week. The tobacco didn't make it home, and I mock myself for the brief nicotine fix. Transformation into adulthood is an interesting journey. The single most important thing I have realized, as I evolve from boy to adult and to father, is that I need to teach my daughter that she must believe in her dreams, regardless of what they may be, and to go after them. Old age and death are inevitable. The time is now.


Area: Orvinfjella, Queen Maud Land, Antarctica

Ascents: Solo first ascent of Frozen Tears (1,500 feet, 9 pitches, VI 5.10 A3) on Windmill Spire. Solo first ascent of Dragon Back Ridge (2,500 vertical feet, 5.5) on unnamed “ship’s prow” formation. Oct. 31-Dec. 8, 2005.

A Note About the Author:

Mike Libecki’s life revolves around raising his three- year-old daughter, Lilliana, and seeking out remote, unclimbed walls and mountains of the world. He lives near the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon in Utah with his daughter, dogs, cats, birds, rabbits, and his newest family addition, a potbelly pig.

Grants: This expedition was sponsored by the Banff Centre, Black Diamond, Clif Bar, Mountain Hardwear, and the W. L. Gore Shipton/ Tilman Grant.

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