Thriving at Altitude, part 1: National Geographic explorer Mike Libecki shares his philosophy on living long and living boldly
The Longevity Project: Part one of a four-part series
Editor’s note: This is part one of a four-part Longevity Project: Thriving at Altitude series that will publish on Mondays through Sept. 30. The series also includes profiles on Routt County locals who are thriving at altitude.
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Mike Libecki believes there are two ways we experience life.
The first involves joy — family, parties, births, reunions, food.
The second includes death, defeat, sadness, exhaustion. To Libecki, that’s just pre-joy.
Libecki, who was named the 2013 National Geographic Adventurer of the year, has been on 87 expeditions, stretching to every continent and more than 100 countries, bagging over 220 first ascents along the way.
While he’s crossed deserts and jungles and a frozen sea, Libecki’s true passion is climbing, particularly previously untouched pieces of Earth. Most of his trips have been solo. He’s aiming for 100 expeditions, leaving just 13 between him and his goal.
“Mystery equals adventure. Without mystery, there’s no adventure for me,” Libecki said. “When you’re on an expedition, you just don’t know what’s gonna happen, who you’re gonna meet, what you’re gonna eat, what’s the climb’s gonna be like, what polar bear is going to come into your tent. You just don’t know. When you get a taste of that mystery and the reveals of magic and power and beauty, it becomes addictive.”
Through all the death-defying and treacherous expeditions, Libecki stays positive, always holding on to joy.
“If we can go into a sense of pre-joy, it still has the word joy in it, and in those experiences, all of the pre-joy will always lead to joy,” he said. “We have to have the yin and yang of that, or we don’t have real joy.”
What: Longevity Project: Thriving at Altitude featuring National Geographic explorer Mike Lebecki
When: 6 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 3
Where: Strings Music Pavilion, 900 Strings Rd.
Tickets: Visit steamboatpilot.com/longevitytickets
Libecki’s eternal optimism manifests itself through repeated mantras or sayings such as, ‘Life is sweet,’ ‘Why ration passion?’ and ‘The time is now.’ The latter he heard from his grandmother, one of 14 kids growing up on a farm in North Dakota.
She and her siblings didn’t have the opportunity to chase their dreams. They had to work the farm to survive.
“My grandmother really inspired myself and my brothers to be optimistic, about living in the moment, about having gratitude and doing what you want to do,” Libecki said.
He packs that positivity on every expedition. When he experiences -40 degree weather in the Arctic or avoids the Taliban in Afghanistan, he stays joyful.
That optimism doesn’t come easy, though. Libecki works hard on his mental strength and mental health, something that is imperative in the high-focus situations he puts himself in. That being said, he strongly believes putting energy into maintaining mental health is something everyone should do.
“I think something really important to talk about is mental health and mental stability and mental strength. That’s the only thing that matters,” he said. “The physical part, being in shape, being strong, that is so easy. … The mental health, mental stability, mental power, mental strength, that’s the challenge for all of us.”
A unique mindset
Libecki sees every expedition as an equation.
There are thousands of constants and ever-changing variables that he is always weighing and examining in his head. He said this stems from an early love of physics and math, something he actually pursued in college before dropping out to move to Yosemite and climb full time.
Fueling this mindset, is what he calls OECD, or obsessive expedition climbing disorder. Obsession shouldn’t be a bad word, though. Without being obsessed, Libecki and others like him wouldn’t travel to the actual ends of the Earth. That unquenchable passion and drive to explore must be there.
“What I do is 100% mathematically safe,” he said. “You just can’t make a mistake.”
The expedition equation begins with planning and preparation. If he travels to Antarctica or Siberia, and his stove breaks, he needs to have a three-inch tool to repair it.
Throughout an expedition, throughout a climb, variables change. He might hit a slab of rock that is too crumbly and presents the risk of “exploding” when he puts his weight on it. To keep it 100% safe, he has to turn back.
Libecki traveled to French Polynesia to climb a skinny steeple of rock, but after trekking through the jungle and beginning his second attempt up the wall, he deemed the rock too dangerous.
Failure, or not completing an expedition, is just part of his job. Since many of his climbs are first ascents, he doesn’t have any idea what conditions will be like until he gets there.
“We all need to understand how important failure is. Anytime we have something that is a failure, we need to be like, ‘Good. I’m gonna learn. I’m gonna grow,'” Libecki said. “Failure is also connected with fear. If we live with fear, it’s gonna shut down our lives. Failure and fear are incredible tools. We can fail at anytime at anything. Without mistakes, without failure, we don’t learn and grow as humans. We can’t be our best person with failure.”
Libecki said he’s had two close calls with rock falls, prompting him to visit a therapist upon returning home.
He wasn’t traumatized from almost dying. He’s accepted that death is inevitable. That’s part of why he lives the way he does. Coming home alive every time is the only option because if he doesn’t, he’ll have failed his daughter Lilliana.
Favorite adventure partner
Of all the expeditions he’s been on, Libecki said there have been none more powerful, special and emotional than the ones with his daughter.
Now 16, Lilliana, who goes by Lilly, joins her father regularly on expeditions, climbing Kilimanjaro at 12, and visiting all seven continents by that same age. She’s been to 28 countries and on six major expeditions with her father.
“Growing up with a dad who does a lot of exploring and adventuring has always been a really cool experience — to see him leave and prepare and then come back two weeks to a month later and have all these new stories and photos and experiences to share,” Lilly said. “Now, I’m starting to prepare myself and go on these trips and take experiences like that and use them when I’m back home. It’s really enlightening to see and be able to share that with my dad.”
Libecki, while not immune, is used to the effects of altitude. Lilly, on the other hand, was hit hard by the effects when they traveled to Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.
The pair spent a few days acclimating, but even as they hit 17,000 feet, Lilly started to get sick. They assessed the situation, decided she would be fine and proceeded, summiting the volcano at 19,341 feet.
“It’s been really cool to see her push through that and have incredible headaches. The headaches are the worst headache you’ve ever had and you just have to take it,” Libecki said. “She has talked about that. She understands that, ‘no pain, no gain’ not only physically in that moment, but taking that metaphorically is an incredible thing.”
Libecki said sharing his passion of adventure with his daughter has been incredible and rewarding.
“Aside from the culture, people, food, travel, all of the beautiful places she’s seen, I want her to understand, just like my grandmother taught me, if you have a passion, if you have enthusiasm, you can do whatever you want.”
As of right now, what she wants to do, is to give back.
After ascending the tallest peak in Africa, Lilly and her father helped build two schools in Boma Ng’ombe, Tanzania. And that experience inspired her to create the nonprofit, The Joyineering Fund, when they returned home.
“That really opened my eyes that the world around me is in need of the things that we have and certain luxuries,” she said. “I want to give back to as many people as I can and change the world one person at a time.”
The Libeckis have been on five major trips in the name of the nonprofit, with four more on the docket.
Will the expeditions end?
Libecki is just 13 expeditions short of his goal but actually has 23 planned. As long as the passion and the “organic enthusiasm” is there, he will continue to explore.
He has noticed a change in himself recently, though.
“I’m organically shifting into the give-back. This lifestyle has been incredible but very, very selfish,” Libecki said. “When I say selfish, I think as humans we all should pursue a passion.
“I feel an incredible calling that we are making a huge difference in peoples lives,” he added. “I’m so inspired by that to take what I’ve learned in this lifestyle and apply that to people where they are left behind.”
In addition to his daughter’s nonprofit, the Libeckis want to open an animal sanctuary. They have a mini version in their home with two dogs, pigs and chickens.
No matter what he’ll be doing, Libecki will be doing it in the name of joy, following his passion and living life to the absolute fullest.
“It’s not just life,” he said. “It’s the quality of life. I want to have a very high level life.”
And though Libecki may travel in extreme situations in remote corners of the world, his mindset can be applied to anything.
Even before gaining recognition and sponsors, Libecki made the gutsy move to pursue climbing, going into credit card debt to explore. He believes finding your passion and chasing your joy is something anyone can do.
“I would describe my dad as the most adventurous, caring and supportive person I know and someone that you can deeply rely on for anything,” Lilly said. “No matter what, he’s going to be there for you and try to make you pursue your passion and help you get to what that is. Every step of the way, he’s gonna be there for you. He’s my rock, basically.”
Libecki will speak at Steamboat Pilot & Today’s Longevity Project: Thriving at Altitude event at 6 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 3, at Strings Music Pavilion. Tickets can be purchased at steamboatpilot.com/longevitytickets.
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