Uncovering incredible ascents, descents and expeditions into the unknown, from a pre-social media era. Owen Clarke talks with adventurers and explorers of all stripes from around the world about expeditions from the days before Instagram and Twitter, iPhones and GoPros.
Alone in a Frozen Sky
Mike Libecki, the first ascent of the Ship’s Prow, and the art of solo climbing on the edge of the world.
By Owen Clarke
In the spring of 1999, 26-year-old Mike Libecki was planning a trip to Canada’s Baffin Island with two partners, to tackle a 5,000-foot big wall. It would be his third trip to Baffin in as many years. He’d fallen in love with the place. The walls in Baffin are still unrivaled anywhere in the world in Libecki’s eyes (and this is coming from a man who has since embarked on close to a hundred expeditions in as many countries). “There’s Patagonia, there’s Pakistan, there’s Greenland,” Libecki said. “But nowhere else compares to Baffin. It’s intense and ominous and overwhelming. You can go to Trango, and there are huge, sheer walls, but then you go to Baffin and there are a hundred of them. Baffin has the largest concentration of big, sheer, steep walls on the planet. Period.”
In those days, Libecki was an addict. He couldn’t stop going on expeditions. “I was living in my truck, working in a ski shop in Utah, and if an opportunity came for me to go on a trip, I was gone,” he said. “I was obsessed.” He was also, consequently, burdened with over $42,000 dollars in credit card debt. Expedition after expedition was adding up financially.
When his partners bailed on the Baffin Island expedition due to financial issues themselves, Libecki was torn. He didn’t want to throw in the towel. Determined, he changed his objective to a smaller wall, the 2,000-foot Ship’s Prow, and began preparing to climb it alone.
This was long before the scores of remote solo first ascents that he would become known for. At the time, Libecki’s only big wall soloing experience was on El Capitan, in Yosemite Valley. Ship’s Prow was going to be a big leap. An awe-inspiring, overhung granite prominence rising from the remote Scott (Pilattuaq) Island at the mouth of the Scott Inslet, Ship’s Prow looms over a frozen sea in sheer grandeur and solitude, in one of the most inhospitable regions on the planet. Temperatures are far below freezing day and night. Violent winds sweep across the sea ice. Polar bears roam. It’s a far cry from sunny Yosemite Valley. Climbing with a team in these conditions is one thing. Libecki would be alone.
Across the Ice
Libecki arrived in the tiny Inuit settlement of Clyde River on April 23, staying with a friend and her Inuit husband. “Right from the beginning it was full Inuit-style,” he told me, laughing. “I got there and she was pulling out these teeny-tiny, newly born baby seals to boil for dinner.” He later met with an older Inuit man, Jaycko, who would take him across the sea to Scott Island.
“The rest is the adventure and the food and the people and the mystery, that journey into real, raw nature.”
Most teams travelling in Baffin today go by snowmobile. Libecki chose to travel with Jaycko and a team of sled dogs. Snowmobiles make some aspects of the journey easier, but you’re also losing out on a part of the experience, as he sees it. “Why I go on these trips is only 49% to 51% climbing. It’s not just about the objective. The rest,” he said, “is the adventure and the food and the people and the mystery, that journey into real, raw nature.” Journeying by sled dog was less efficient in some ways, but it had its benefits, and more importantly, it was true to the way the Inuit lived, and had been living and traveling for generations. This was important to Libecki. “At that time in Clyde River, there were tons and tons of sled dogs,” Libecki said. “It was a way of life.”
Jaycko took his nine-year-old grandson Benji along with them, to teach him about the dog teams. Soon, thirty-six dogs, two sleds, Jaycko, Benji, Libecki, and his climbing gear rode out onto the sea ice. “This was just as the sun was starting to peak over the horizon after winter, and it was cold as fuck,” said Libecki. They traveled 200 miles across the frozen sea to the northwest in a meandering, roundabout journey, hunting for seals and Arctic char, eating bannock (homemade bread) around the stoves at night, and gliding quietly across the ice.
Jaycko was teaching Benji everything there was to know about the dog teams, and Libecki was listening in. “He’d make a Ooooouuuwahhh noise, and the dogs would go left,” Libecki recalled. “He’d make another noise, and they’d go right.” At one point, during a long push with the dogs, Libecki remembers sitting on the sled sometime after 4 a.m. They’d been traveling for over eight hours at the slow, three or four mile an hour pace of the dogs, and he was exhausted and freezing. He was exposed on the sled, with windchill, in sub 40-degree temps. “I was cold,” he told me. “Really. Really. Cold. I wanted to be tough, and be able to be out there with these guys. I mean, [Jaycko] didn’t even have a hat on,” he said, laughing.
But Libecki finally caved. He knew enough to realize that he was starting to get hypothermic. Jaycko barely spoke any English, but the two managed to communicate, and the Inuit pulled the sled over. They set up a makeshift tent, heated it with camping stoves, and covered Libecki in reindeer skins. He warmed up immediately. Afterwards, Jaycko handed him handmade sealskin mitts and boots to replace Libecki’s cutting-edge modern gear. “My feet and my hands were toasty warm for the rest of that journey,” he said.
“It’s their home, it’s their land,” he said. “It’s a privilege to get to be there and be welcomed.”
This is one aspect of what Libecki loves about solo expeditions. “You can be in a remote culture, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, Greenland, wherever, but if you go in with a team, you’re insulated by that team. You don’t connect with the local culture the same way you do when you’re alone,” he said. With Jaycko and the Inuit, Libecki was taken into their world. He slept in a tent with them, ate with them, hunted with them. “If I was with a team we’d have our dehydrated food. We wouldn’t be eating seal. When you’re alone, you get to get deep.” For Libecki, cultivating these relationships, respecting and being welcomed by the local people in the regions he climbs is equally as important as (if not more important than) completing his objective. “It’s their home, it’s their land,” he said. “It’s a privilege to get to be there and be welcomed.”
Libecki, Jaycko, and Benji traveled across the ice for two and a half weeks before the Ship’s Prow loomed above the frozen sea ahead, in the twilight of a ten-hour sunset. Polar bears would be a primary concern for Libecki when camped at its base. They’d passed plenty of tracks en-route, and seen several at a distance. So while unloading his gear, he asked Jaycko if he could keep a dog with him, for protection. “Jaycko just kind of looked at me, and laughed,” he said. The Inuit had no problem with it, though. He left a dog with Libecki, but the first night, the dog bit through his leash and was gone. It was over a hundred miles back to Clyde River, and the dog went the whole way alone, right back to Jaycko. “It was almost like [Jaycko] knew the dog was going to do that,” Libecki said. “He knew already it wasn’t going to work.”
Life in a Freezer
Alone for the next five weeks, with the sheer mass of the Ship’s Prow his only companion, Libecki lived on the ice. He had a sleep tent and cook tent, the latter to draw any curious (or hungry) polar bears away from where he slept, both staked down with ice screws. The sleep tent had a cord fence around it that would alert him if a polar bear was coming in.
He was in a world of ice. “Every single thing you drink you have to melt,” he said. “You’re in a freezer. Everything is frozen the entire time.” It’s one thing to simply survive in that terrain, as Libecki found out on the sleds. To climb in it is another thing entirely.
He modified his equipment and style to suit the harsh terrain. He created a liner from an extra-small leather glove which he’d get wet, then work onto his hands like a second skin. This way he could have the gloves on 24/7 and climb with dexterity without being cold. He shaved his plastic boots so they could fit into his aiders better. He chopped chunks out of the ice each day with his axes to cook. In the mornings at base camp, he’d walk far out onto the sea ice, out from under the shadow of the wall, to brush his teeth basking in the sunlight. He’d go into his cook tent for breakfast and blast his stoves to warm up.
“You’re climbing alone? We hope you don’t die, man.”
Libecki spent over a week tenting at base camp fixing a few pitches, regularly battling brutal storms that threatened to destroy his tents and necessitated constant repairs. One of the few luxuries about Baffin and Ship’s Prow, he said, is that there is no approach. The walls climb directly out of the sea ice. Base camp is a stone’s throw away from the wall. In that time of year, another luxury is the near 24-hour light. There was no use in keeping time. “I’d just climb climb climb, go down, sleep sleep sleep, then repeat,” he said. “I never knew if it was night or day. It didn’t matter.”
A week after he arrived, two other teams showed up to climb the Ship’s Prow, setting up a quarter-mile away on either side of his camp. “I went down to meet these guys and they came out with ice chests of bacon and steaks, they were having a big barbecue,” he said. One team ended up climbing only two pitches and bailed. “They were just like, ‘This is way too fucking cold, we’re just gonna eat our food and leave,’” Libecki said, laughing. When they left, they told him, “You’re climbing alone? We hope you don’t die, man.” Shortly after, the other party bailed as well, leaving Libecki truly alone on the ice. After fixing four pitches, he committed to the wall.
The Art of Being Alone
To hear Libecki tell it, his soloing is a blend of two arts. One is the art of mathematical precision. Everything, from rope systems to the glove system he designed on Ship’s Prow to provide warmth without losing dexterity, is calculated to the nth degree. The second art is the psychological art of mastering solitude. When you’re with a team, you have people to bounce ideas off of, to hold you back if you’re going too far. When you’re alone, you have no sounding board. Making the right decisions is crucial. “A situation can be 100% mathematically safe,” said Libecki, “but if you make a mistake, you die. You have to make good choices, and when you’re alone, it’s very hard to double-check yourself.” Libecki manages this by, quite literally, becoming multiple people, constantly talking to himself on the wall. “I pretend I’m out there with three of me,” he said. “Me, myself, and I. So I’ll be at an anchor and I’ll be talking to myself, like, ‘Okay, you’re double-backed. How’s this? How’s that?”
There are benefits, of course. He doesn’t have to worry about knocking rocks down onto his belayer. He operates on his own schedule, climbing when he wants, eating when he wants, taking a rest day when he wants. He’s constantly moving, never having to hang in place at a belay, struggling to keep warm while a partner battles up the pitch above. When you’re soloing, the work never ends. You’re leading, you set your anchor, you rap down, jug it and clean it, rap down, let loose the haul bags, jug it, and then haul them up. “Imagine a minimum of ascending each pitch three times,” said Libecki. If you count the hauling motion, you’re looking at a fourth time. This is a good thing on the frostbitten wall of the Ship’s Prow, where stagnation means freezing.
Despite the solitude, “[On the Ship’s Prow] there was never any stress or anxiety,” Libecki said. “Only psych and enthusiasm. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t scared, but that fear was my friend.” He talked to himself, checked himself, took each obstacle as a lesson. He didn’t worry about coming back alive, coming back alive was a given. He looks back on that ‘organic enthusiasm’ as a gift now. He was in the moment, immersed, as he put it, “in the time of now.”
Step by Step
“I like chilling, I like making coffee on the portaledge. I like fucking enjoying it.”
Libecki moved slowly, steadily up the wall. Each pitch became an old friend by the time he’d finished it. Climbing, rapping, cleaning, rapping, hauling. “It was full-on ‘slow-is-fast’ mode,” said Libecki. He was efficient, but took his time. “I’ve done speed ascents of El Cap and stuff, and I’ve never liked it, man. I like chilling, I like making coffee on the portaledge. I like fucking enjoying it,” he told me. At times, he was hit by several pitaraqs (extremely cold Arctic katabatic winds), which battered him back and forth in his portaledge. His other main concern was rockfall, but this was easy to manage, both because he was alone and because Ship’s Prow is so steep. Over 70% of the route is overhanging.
“It was clockwork. It just comes down to each and every piece you’re placing and that’s it.”
The brutal cold and storms aside, the climbing on the Ship’s Prow went down handily. The gear was bomber, the anchors were solid, there were no sharp edges. Everything was straightforward, smooth and sustained. It was all mathematically calculated, as Libecki might put it. He found stellar placements for his heads, beaks and hooks. “There was whipper potential, but nothing where I was going to go huge,” he said.
Libecki climbed the wall in ten 60-meter pitches via a route he christened The Hinayana (VI 5.8 A3+, 600m). “When you don’t know what to rate it, it gets an A3+,” he told me, laughing. Almost the entire route was overhung, and he took no falls. One of the highlights, Pitch 5, started out with a hundred feet of dreamlike 5.11 handcrack. Libecki wasn’t free climbing, of course, but it was still an incredible feeling, he said, to walk #2 Camalots for 80 feet before leaving a piece of gear. “It was clockwork. It just comes down to each and every piece you’re placing and that’s it.”
On completing the last pitch, Libecki didn’t go for a top-out. He’d forgotten his trademark mask, which he wears in all his summit photos. He stopped at the anchor, rapped down to his portaledge at the start of Pitch 5, and jugged up the next day with the mask (a rabbit, in this instance) to take a photo.
“The pure joy. It’s a gift. You can’t create it. You can’t train for it.”
The Ship’s Prow was the beginning of a new life for Libecki. He started finding ways to make money off of expeditions, getting sponsors, doing presentations, motivational speaking, chipping away the $42,000 credit card debt. He embarked on dozens of expeditions across the globe, put up dozens of first ascents, many of them solo. He had a daughter, and made a living off of being an adventurer.
When he looks back on Ship’s Prow, things are different for him now. “That organic enthusiasm, I don’t have it anymore,” he said. “I have the drive, the perseverance, discipline, the psyche, and focus, sure, but I don’t have the same organic enthusiasm. The pure joy. It’s a gift. You can’t create it. You can’t train for it.” Things have changed, both in society and his own life. On trips now, anyone can post from anywhere in the world. We stay connected in the most remote of locales with satellite tech. We’re all constantly in the loop.
Libecki had no communication device on Ship’s Prow. He couldn’t have called for help. He would be alone for six weeks until Jaycko came to get him, no matter what happened, so he simply had to get on with it. This wasn’t because he was a purist or wanted to prove a point, Libecki said, but because he simply didn’t think he needed that connectivity (and satellite phones were financially out of reach for someone living in a truck). Now, he brings at least three satellite devices on all his expeditions. Then again, he’s 47, not 26. He has a daughter who depends on him. He has sponsors. Things are different, but that’s not a bad thing. This constant connectivity, these changes, they’re all just part of life. “It’s not a negative, it’s just reality,” Libecki said.
Certain memories stick out in his mind from the climb. “There was this one lead where the sun came over the wall and snow crystals were glistening all around, like little diamonds floating in the air. I looked back, and there was an Arctic owl soaring through the air behind me. It was one of those moments where you’re just in awe of life and reality. I don’t know if ‘perfect’ exists,” he told me, “but if it does, that was a perfect moment.”
All photos by Mike Libecki
To read more about Mike’s expedition check out his write up here: https://publications.americanalpineclub.org/articles/12200012000/The-Ships-Prow-Solo
Owen Clarke is an outdoor and travel journalist based in New Mexico. He is a columnist for Rock & Ice and The Outdoor Journal, and has written for many brands and organizations including Petzl, Black Diamond, Arc’teryx, Outdoor Research, Access Fund, and Trango. Check out his other work here.