It’s difficult to comprehend navigating a blistering Antarctic snowstorm without another living soul in sight. Or to journey into the unknown and make the first ascent of a rugged mountain in the Himalayas entirely alone. For many of us, a solo adventure of this nature is the sort of fear-inducing, sphincter-clenching type of situation to avoid at all costs. Yet, there’s a rare breed of explorers who are drawn to and take pleasure in these high stakes—who turn fear into power.
While the physical challenge of their exploits, like rope-soloing a 1,000-foot rock wall in Afghanistan, is certainly daunting, it’s perhaps the mental challenge of doing it alone that’s even more formidable. After all, few of us really know how we’d react in a situation where the slightest err in judgement has life-altering, if not life-ending, repercussions.
To better understand what it is that appeals to the world’s greatest solo adventurers, we caught up with Mike Libecki, a rock climber-turned-explorer with established solo first ascents on all seven continents. Over the past 30 years, he’s gone on 87 expeditions, nearly half of which have been alone, to such places as Afghanistan, Papua New Guinea, Baffin Island, Yemen, and Guyana. — as told to Wesley Grover
For me, solo expeditions are about going to climb the biggest, steepest walls in the world that no one even knows about and doing first ascents. When you’re up there, you’re constantly living between the line of dangerous and too dangerous. You have the choice to make things 100 percent mathematically safe and if you get out of that zone, you’ll die very quickly.
There’s never a doubt in my mind about coming home alive, but there is fear. Fear is your friend because it makes you mindful. When you get really scared, that’s a beautiful feeling. Not only is it exciting, but it really puts you in your zone to not make a mistake. It’s the kind of situation where you should love it, be psyched about it, and can’t get enough of it. If you’re on a solo expedition and you have doubt, you should probably just go home.
When I’m out there, I have to make every decision for me, myself, and I. What I mean by that is I literally have a conscious vision of three people in my head where I triple check every knot, every move, every anchor, and everything else I’m doing. The biggest mental challenge is not losing your mindfulness and your focus, because one mistake on the side of a wall and you’re dead.
You don’t have partners to double-check anything, and there have been some pretty interesting close calls, like avoiding rock fall, getting caught in storms, high wind, and minus-60-degree weather. I’ve done a few solo expeditions to Afghanistan and have literally run to not get caught by some very interesting people who found out I was there. There’s something about those expeditions alone that are incredibly addictive because it’s such a mystery and, for me, mystery equals adventure. I call it OECD: Obsessive Expedition Climbing Disorder. It’s these magical moments that I just have to get back to, and when you’re on your own, that mystery is completely amplified. It really leaves me like, “Holy fuck! I need this in my life.” It’s a beautiful thing.