Web Winter 2013

An Arctic Expedition Trilogy Perceived

Posted on: January 9, 2013


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

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

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.

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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.

A polar bear in Franz Josef Land, Russia. Two Russian scientists were killed and eaten by polar bears in 2011. [Photo] Mike Libecki

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. [Photo] Mike Libecki

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....

Another sailboat in visiting with our sailboat. I climbed the mast to get a rare and beautiful fog bow image. [Photo] Mike Libecki

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.

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. [Photo] Mike Libecki

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.

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