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Mike Libecki’s solo expedition to Frans Josef Land

Wednesday, September 7, 2016
This past summer Libecki, with the support of the Mugs Stump Award (of which BD is a founding member) and Polartec Challenge Grant, headed to the untouched region of Russia's Franz Josef Land.

Men go back to the mountains, as they go back to sailing ships at sea, because in the mountains and on the sea they must face up, as did men of another age, to the challenges of nature. Modern man lives in a highly synthetic kind of existence. He specializes in this and that. Rarely does he test all his powers or find himself whole. But in the hills and on the water the character of a man comes out. —Abram T. Collier

[A polar bear in Franz Josef Land, Russia, a perfect example of the magic, power and beauty of the natural and wild arctic. Two Russian scientists were killed and eaten by polar bears in 2011.]

Part One of Three

 

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 where snow fell and less than forty miles and an hour's drive to Yosemite National Park. I had seen mountain lions (or were they bobcats?) sneak into the woods more than once on my two-mile walk to the school bus stop. One Saturday morning, after a good session of hot chocolate, Honey Comb cereal and Bugs Bunny cartoons, 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. I actually did see a wild cat that day, whether it was a bobcat or mountain lion I cannot be sure, however, I am sure there were two cubs with the momma cat that looked me in the eyes before she disappeared after her babies into the woods. That day I had a run in with a five-foot rattlesnake. I shot it with my pellet gun, and though I had killed many rattlesnakes before, this time was different. When the pellets from my gun punched holes in the snake, small eel-like baby snakes slithered out of the same holes. I will never, ever forget that day. My point here: it was my first real expedition experience.

Now, aside from having a much bigger body, being a dedicated father to an angel daughter, and having bills to pay, not much has changed; expeditions are still my favorite thing, they consume my life and define most of who I am. I have done more than 40 expeditions and counting. My goal is to accomplish 100 expeditions before finding out if being an atheist was a smart choice. One of the things that inspire these journeys is to seek out, find and climb first ascents on the most remote rock walls, towers and steep formations in the most remote corners of the Earth.

This is where Franz Josef Land, Russia, comes in. I have a stack of USGS map drawers filled with hundreds of maps I have collected over the years. Sometimes I catch myself poring over these maps, perhaps like Sherlock Holmes hot on the trail of an evildoer looking for a new clue, but in my case, I am looking for clues that will lead me to virgin Earth, home to unclimbed large rocks. I acquired a new set of maps in a small shop on the east coast of Greenland that eventually led me to these remote lands high in the arctic, the mysterious islands of Franz Josef Land, Russia.

[The raw, timeless landscape made me feel like a dinosaur could appear in these ancient and mysterious lands.]

Franz Josef Land is a 192-island archipelago in the far reaches of northern arctic, roughly between the latitudes of 80 and 82 degrees North. I had found very little information about the islands in regards to steep rock formations to climb, which is fine with me. I would just find a way to go and have a look for myself. This all started in 2003. In 2004, I found myself on a huge Russian Icebreaker, standing at the bow, looking down over the edge as the steel point of the impressive ship crushed through the sea ice on our way to Franz Josef Land.

I spent two weeks in the archipelago with the Russians, the entire time looking for rock spires, towers, or walls that would be enjoyable to climb. I knew the highest elevation there was only just over 2,000 feet (620 meters), so it was likely that substantially tall rock formations existed there. We saw many polar bears among the islands. With no indigenous people here, polar bears would most likely look at humans the same way they viewed seals; a tasty meal. More so than they do in Greenland or Canada where they fear humans that hunt with loud, deadly rifles. Regardless, humans continue to get attacked by polar bears around the world, but Franz Josef Land seemed to be much more prone to bear attacks. By the time the Icebreaker left Franz Josef Land I had seen a few areas of rock cliffs and walls from a distance. A couple areas in particular looked to be home to rock cliffs or walls worthy to climb, but they were too far away to really know. On that journey, in 2004, I was only allowed to stay with the Russian crew and on their course. I did not have permission to do anything on my own. It was a quick reconnaissance to the area.

[On the Russian Icebreaker heading to Franz Josef Land, Russia to look for unclimbed rock formations.]

I was obsessed with Franz Josef Land before I returned home, the same obsession I had to go mountain lion hunting at six years old, the same obsession for all of my expeditions. At that time, I had already done a dozen other arctic expeditions, so my love affair with the arctic was already one of intense passion. The main problem was getting permission to climb in Franz Josef Land on my own. It is a highly restricted area. The reconnaissance journey on the icebreaker was a rare opportunity. I wanted to go back, with freedom to climb and explore. Another problem, even if I did get permission from the Russian government, was finding a way to access the islands. For seven years I contacted anyone and everyone that could possibly have information about the permissions. And, for seven years, I contacted anyone and everyone that might possibly know how I could get there and back. Every clue eventually led to a dead end.

I am not one to give up so easily....

Part Two of Three

I have proven to myself time and time again, that where there is a will, there is always a way. I take the term commitment very seriously, driven by organic passion. In 2011, I was on one of my enthusiastic research-rampages, once again inquiring about arctic sailboats and captains, as I continued to try and find my way back to Franz Josef Land. One of the people I had been talking to told me about a young Russian captain. I contacted him within minutes of receiving this information. He responded that same day and said, "I can take you to Franz Josef Land no problem, and I can get the permissions." Just like that, in one quick moment of 'now' my life changed. I started the normal process of the expedition planning equation. But, first and foremost, after the Russian captain told me the cost for the mission, was to find a way to get the funds. Here I would like to thank not only my many sponsors and supporters, but specifically the Mugs Stump Award and the Polartec Challenge Grant. Without their support, I could not have moved forward with the commitment and planning to get back to Franz Josef Land. With my Russian visa in hand and a verbal nod from the Russian captain that everything was a go, I found myself on a flight to Russia with the same excitement I had at six years old going mountain lion hunting.

[Sailing with the Russians for seven days and nights from the mainland to get to Franz Josef Land.]

I was greeted with a warm welcome by the captain and crew. After the sailboat was stocked with supplies and optimism, we headed north from the Russian mainland to Franz Josef Land. It took us seven days and nights without stopping, everyone on a six-hour-on, six-hour-off shift, 24/7, to reach the first of the islands.

From my research and from my first trip to Franz Josef Land in 2004, I knew of two islands I wanted to go to that were hopefully home to beautiful rock walls and/or cliffs to climb. I never had the chance to get a view close enough to really know much about the rock. In 2004, we needed an Icebreaker to sail through the islands, constantly crushing through the sea ice to make our path. So I had prepared to be dropped off by the sailboat at the edge of the sea ice, then travel with a combination of skis, small rafts and sleds to access the island and climbing objectives. My first concern was just how I was actually going to get to the island from the sailboat over the sea ice, or combination of ice and open sea. On top of that, two Russians working in Franz Josef Land had been killed by polar bears the previous year, so my concern for polar bear safety took over most of my thoughts. I was prepared to travel over the sea ice conditions on my own. But the only reliable preparation for polar bear safety was to have a rifle with me. In Russia, getting access to a rifle proved to be very difficult. The captain assured me he would supply one. I have had several polar bear encounters in Baffin Island and Greenland, always with a rifle in hand, and fortunately I have never had to use it. I also grew up hunting, so I could definitely protect myself with a rifle. Knowing that people had been killed and eaten by polar bears in Franz Josef Land haunted me.

In order to have permission to climb in Franz Josef Land, the captain had to bring a Russian official with us to oversee the expedition. This is where things got complicated. Not until we were among the islands was I informed that I could not take a rifle with me, contrary to the promise of getting one. I had only flares. A polar bear would laugh at them if hungry enough. The Russian official would also have to visually approve the area I was going to climb in. He wanted to make sure there were no birds nesting on the cliffs. If we could not get close enough to see the area from the sailboat, I would not get permission to climb.

[Making our way through more magic, power and beauty of Franz Josef Land.]

I am an advocate for the planet in every way, and I respect proper etiquette on all expeditions. I was actually impressed at the local commitment of making sure Franz Josef Land's wildlife is protected. As we sailed through the islands, slowly making our way to where I wanted to climb, I prepared my rafts and supplies to leave the sailboat. What was interesting though, is that thus far we had encountered very little sea ice, especially in comparison to when I was here in 2004. In this same area eight years prior the Icebreaker had to break through the ice-laden sea. It was incredible how much the sea ice conditions had changed in the course of only eight years. With over 80% of the arctic sea ice melting in 2012, it was the record-holding year for arctic sea-ice melt. It was also the first time ever recorded that the Greenland ice cap was entirely melting at one given time.

On this same trip in 2012, we met the worlds largest icebreaker, the nuclear powered 50 Years of Victory, on its way back from the North Pole. They radioed our sailboat and asked us to come aboard. I asked the captain about the sea ice conditions and how I remembered that in 2004 this entire area was encased in ice. He told me that in the course of only eight years the thickness of the sea ice up near and at the North Pole had decreased from eight to ten meters thick to just over four meters thick. Incredible. Regardless of why, it seems global warming, especially in the arctic, is very real.

Of course, this affected my expedition in more than one way. I would most likely not have to travel over sea ice from the sailboat to get to the island on my own. This created an easier and faster approach, but also took away from the anticipated intensity to reach the island on my own through the ice. I suppose it worked out for the best; we had some delays getting to the island and I had much less time in the area than I had hoped for.

[A curious walrus coming to say hello, another example of the magic, power and beauty of the arctic.]

The sailboat became encased in fog and we moved slowly, going around chunks of sea ice and large icebergs. We were less than two miles from the island I wanted to explore and climb, but could not see more than 40 feet from the sailboat, it was right in front of us, confirmed by the boat's radar. I was elated, psyched and caught in a moment of ultimate realization. After eight years of believing, of dedication, I was about to get to live my dream and climb in Franz Josef Land.

Four hours passed and the fog finally lifted. I could see the rock walls, like large sea cliffs, and they were beautiful. I was incredibly excited, but in the back of my mind several warning signs went off as I was about to get in my small rafts (one in tow with my gear) and head to the island. My main concern was the rifle promised to me that did not come to fruition. My plan was to immediately climb up one pitch and get a port-a-ledge camp set up so I would be safe from polar bears. The rock walls, though beautiful, looked very questionable in quality. The walls were basically cliff bands of basalt rock, old columns of volcanic chamber uplifts, capped by an obvious rotten band of rock. Somewhere deep within, my perception of the rock from the boat gave me the chills, not necessarily in a good way. Unfortunately I have had frightening experiences with rock fall in the past.

In Baffin Island, a partner and I were nearly crushed by a 2,000-pound stone, when the freeze-thaw season was in motion. In Antarctica, I pulled off some flakes that opened a can of worms to a massive rock fall, crashing below as I trembled in fetal position. In Afghanistan, I climbed under a big, loose hanging flake half the size of my two-car garage door, over one foot thick. I tapped it with my hammer. It was questionable for sure. I had to move up and diagonally underneath the huge hanging flake to continue the route. I went for it. Less than ten minutes later, as I was making an anchor about ten feet to the left of the flake, it let go and exploded against the wall and on the ground. Two of my ropes got cut half way through in three spots. I still cringe when I think about how close I was to that horrible fate.

In addition to the rock fall and polar bear fears, the Russian official on the boat still had to give final permission to climb here. There were quite a lot of birds and nesting sites, but also areas of the cliffs that were void of bird activity. He showed me two spots that I would be allowed to climb, of course, that had no evidence of bird activity. Piles of sharp talus at the base of the walls occupied my mind (they had fallen to get there), as did the rotten top band of the walls. We had seen several polar bears on the way here, but none in this particular area, fortunately.

[Finally leaving the sailboat on my own to the rock walls, nothing but mystery ahead.]

I put on my drysuit and pfd, loaded my haul bags full of gear and food into the second raft, and said goodbye to the Russian sailboat. Less than two hours later I started shuttling loads to the base of the wall. From the shore, I watched the sailboat disappear as fog again encased the island, then rain started to fall as the wind picked up.

On my first gear shuttle from the shore to the wall, I found a huge pile of polar bear feces mixed with feathers. Fuck. All I thought about were the two Russians that had been killed and eaten in Franz Josef Land the previous year, and from what I had heard, they had rifles with them. I had only two flares (in my front pockets the entire time) to scare a polar bear away should one arrive. I became extremely cautious, constantly looking around all of the time, just in case a polar bear was lurking.

Within a few hours, I had my gear shuttled to the base of the rock wall that I was officially given permission to climb. Just to the left of me, cracking sounds of baseball-sized stones added to the talus field and reminded me of the rotten sections high above. Wind and misty rain did not help.

There were plenty of cracks in the rock to place gear and start climbing. These rock cliffs, roughly 300 to 400 meters high, are better described as countless vertical columns of rock all stuck together, sort of like single pieces of uncooked spaghetti noodles bound in a tight package at the market. I started rope soloing so I could get a camp set up on the rock face and stay safe from polar bears. About twenty feet up, a couple soccer ball-size rocks crashed onto the talus to my left again. I have had communication like this from mountains in the past. About sixty feet up, as I hammered in a knife blade piton, the rock shattered like glass plates, they sounded like ceramic tiles breaking as they hit the talus below.

[The mysterious rock walls, beautiful yet questionable quality of rock in Franz Josef Land.]

Fuck. I realized I was in denial. The rock quality was, for lack of a better term, shitty. There was simply no more denying it. This section of rock was like ceramic platelets all stacked together without mortar looking for any reason to crumble after ages of stagnation. I had enough experience to know it was time to back off and consider another route. I downclimbed as I looked for polar bears in every direction. At the base, as I packed my haul bags, a few bowling balls exploded ten feet to the left of me. Had they been in a bowling alley, they would have shattered the bowling pins, had they hit me, I would not be typing this. Rocks of all sizes had been constantly falling just to the left of me since I had arrived at the wall. I dragged all of my gear away from the wall, broke out my stove and made coffee. The pile of polar bear shit mixed with feathers reminded me of the danger lurking. I needed to have a little talk with myself about my next move.

A thought hit me like that commercial for vegetable juice, "I could have had a V-8!" In other words, it was clear why this section of rock did not have bird-nesting sites; who knows how many hundreds or thousands of years the birds have been living here and figured out the consistent rock fall activity at this part of the cliff. At that moment, I got hit with another wake-up call. I was not safe living in a portaledge on this eroding-in-real-time rock. I was not safe on the ground without a rifle.

After the coffee, I faced reality. I would have to go back to the sailboat. The rock was too dangerous. A polar bear encounter was almost guaranteed, and without a gun, I was a fool. I actually shivered at the thought. I could still do some climbing, but I would have to base camp from the sailboat. I called the captain on my satellite phone. He was back near the island in the morning. I paddled out through the rain and wind and climbed into the boat's sanctuary. I have only had to back off a few climbing routes in the past because they were too dangerous. Making a decision like that can be difficult and emotional. This time though, I felt proud of myself. I felt like I was able to take my experiences and learn from them. I recognized death before it found me. A friend of mind told me something about hubristic ways; when someone has too much pride, ignores and pisses off the gods, and gets killed for it. I smiled at my decision to not be a human bowling pin or a tasty dinner for a polar bear.

[Due to the record 80% of the arctic sea ice melting in 2012, polar bears struggle to feed on seals and are hungry.]

We had just several days left in the area before having to sail back to the Russian mainland. The captain wanted to see how far north he could take his boat because there was so little sea ice. I looked at different islands hoping to find other possible rock walls and hopefully a route that I could climb from the boat. We went well above 82 degrees north then turned around. I actually found a few other rock formations, but I felt inclined to climb a route on the same island that I had to retreat from. We went back. This time I left from the boat and planned to do a route in a push, sailboat to sailboat. I put all of my gear, rope, crampons, tools, etc., on my stand-up paddleboard, and headed back to the island. The Russian official on board gave me permission to attempt to climb a different tower. I found an arete safe from rotten rock above (hopefully) that looked like it could be climbed fast, and was void of bird nesting sites. After the paddleboard journey to shore, I took off my drysuit and pfd, and headed up the glacier to the rock formation.

I crossed polar bear tracks to get to the base. Since we arrived in Franz Josef Land, we had seen polar bears almost every day. I thought of the pile of polar bear crap mixed with feathers not far from here. Though the polar bear tracks were not fresh, who knew where the hungry bears lurked. In a few hours, I had free soloed a beautiful 400-meter arete with cruxes of rotten 5.8 that were terrifying enough to command full focus and no fucking around, hinting at retreat. I must admit, once high enough on the route, I found myself in a strange situation, at a point of no return. Even if I wanted to down climb due to the loose rock, it felt safer to continue up. Some people will understand that. Adrenaline surged throughout my body and I will admit that I was super gripped. The forced specialization of climbing on rotten rock over the years is not recommended. Of course I had my Year of the Dragon mask with me. I felt some kind of satisfaction to stand atop of a first ascent after so many hurdles. I walked down the backside to the icecap, then down the glacier, flares in hand. Soon I was back on my stand-up paddle-board, gliding over the sea back to the sailboat.

[A stand-up paddle-board approach to climb a first ascent, from sailboat to sailboat in a push.]

Per my request, the captain sailed to one other area I had also seen on my 2004 reconnaissance, home to three first ascents I hoped to climb in the course of a 24-hour period. Unfortunately, when we arrived, there was a large male polar bear guarding these towers. Even if I had wanted to climb with the polar bear present, the Russian official would not allow it. As we sailed out of the islands I continued to reconnoiter any areas with cool rocks to climb. There are nine formations that I found that are worthy of climbing in Franz Josef Land.

The main problem for me on this expedition was that I did not have a rifle to protect myself. In order to actually camp on the islands and complete my climbing goals, I needed to have a rifle or honestly, I could have expected to be eaten by a polar bear (I would get no sympathy if that happened while camping without a rifle, it would be foolish).

It took us five days and nights to get back to the Russian mainland. The captain and crew were back on the six-hour-on, six-hour-off shift around the clock until we hit land. When we arrived at the mainland, the captain finally had some rest and the Russian official was gone.

This expedition was not only a huge dream of mine, but also a major investment, and unfortunately for me, I was still not satisfied with the results. I think the captain could tell there was something on my mind. We had enough time to get to know each other and gain respect for each other on this journey. I was compelled to communicate with him about my dissatisfaction. So, the night before I was supposed to leave Russia, the vodka came out and the captain and I sat down in the docked sailboat. I asked him about the rifle situation, about how I was promised to have one to take with me when I left the boat, but was denied. He told me what I already knew. He tried his best and Russia is very strict. But, he did make me a promise on a smile and a handshake...

[On the way back to the mainland with the Russian crew, wonderful new friends, and of course, vodka.]

Part Three of Three

I left out a lot of emotional details, drama and photos from this report of my experience in Franz Josef Land, 2012. This is because Part Three of this Arctic Expedition Trilogy Perceived has yet to happen. My goal to complete the first ascents is not yet fulfilled. The promise that the captain gave me before leaving was that he would make sure to get a rifle for me and take me back so I can finally realize this dream that all started in 2004. We are headed back in summer of 2013. All good things in good time.

The captain and I found something that we both have in common. We both have an obsession and addiction; his is for sailing to remote areas of the planet, mine is to climb in remote areas of the planet. This relationship should work out just fine.

Stay tuned for the finale of this trilogy.

 


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