Take 5: A Q&A with Antarctic explorers Mike Libecki and Cory Richards | SummitDaily.com

Take 5: A Q&A with Antarctic explorers Mike Libecki and Cory Richards

Interviewed by Leo Wolfson
Special to the Daily
Antarctic explorers Mike Libecki and Freddie Wilkinson prepare to climb a face on Bertha's Tower, a 2,000-foot sheer rock wall in Antarctica. The four-man team of Libecki, Wilkinson and two photographers completed the first ascent of the tower in late 2012.
Cory Richards / Special to the Daily |

Nat Geo Live with Mike Libecki and Cory Richards

What: The first installment in the National Geographic Live speaking series, featuring Antarctic explorers Mike Libecki and Cory Richards of the documentary “Untamed Antarctica”

When: Sept. 16 at 7:30 p.m.

Where: Riverwalk Center, 150 West Adams Ave. in Breckenridge

Cost: $25-$45 per event

The complete Nat Geo series includes three events between now and November. Full series ticket holders save 15 percent off each event with a purchase of all three. To buy tickets, go to tickets.breckcreate.org.

In November and December of 2012, a team of four explorers set out to climb the 2,000-foot Bertha’s Tower in Antarctica. The team, made up of rock climbers Mike Libecki and Freddie Wilkinson and photographers/cinematographers Cory Richards and Keith Ladzinski, successfully made the first ascent of the peak in about 30 days.

The climb itself, however, was brutal. Bertha’s Tower is 100-percent rock climbing on sheer vertical and overhanging pitches, with none of the tool-ready ice found on other ascents in the Antarctic. To capture the action, Richards and Ladzinski hooked into ropes with a sender clip (a device that allowed them to shoot below and above the climbers), while Richards and Ladzinkski focused on ascending the incredibly fragile and sharp rock.

On Sept. 16, Richards and Libecki will provide intimate details on their journey when they kick off the National Geographic Live speaking series at the Riverwalk Center in Breckenridge. The two are bringing a cinematic presentation to fully illustrate their jaw-dropping tale, even for attendees who have never been climbing in extreme conditions.

“Our part with the National Geographic series is to share with people our lives, to touch people and share with them the magic and beauty of the natural world, to inspire people to get outside, and to inspire people to care about our planet,” Richards said.

Before the Breckenridge presentation, the Summit Daily News sports desk caught up with Richards and Libecki to dig into the mentality of tackling a first ascent in Antarctica.

Summit Daily News: What kind of planning went into this trip?

Mike Libecki: It was something that I planned, I researched — I researched this trip for 10 years before it happened. That included going down near this area of Antarctica on two other trips to recon and to see these areas, fly over on two different Russian chartered planes. This is literally the most remote, big-wall rock climbing on the planet, one of most desolate, one of the most dangerous. When you go to a place that rescue is almost impossible — and it is impossible for any quick rescue — you could get rescued maybe within a week or two, if there’s good weather. The preparation was incredible. I go to myself, “This is one of the biggest expeditions of our modern day and age,” especially for first ascent rock climbing (with) big, big rock walls and towers.

SDN: How did National Geographic get involved?

ML: (I gathered) an elite team that really can go down and handle the situation. I proposed this to National Geographic’s Expedition Council, which are some of the best of the best in the world, to look at the expedition to say, “Is this something huge and worthy and incredible and monumental?” And they were like, “Yeah, let’s do this.” It happened to coincide with their 125th anniversary of exploration, so it was great timing.

SDN: Cory, what was it like to simultaneously be a photographer and climb on an expedition like this?

Cory Richards: Shooting with National Geographic, there’s obviously tremendous pressure that comes with that. I’m a climber at heart, but when I’m put in the role of an expedition photographer, that takes precedent over anything else. A lot of energy is put into making frames that were visually descriptive, to tell what it’s like to be that isolated, that remote, and what it feels like, inverting it into real terms. My brain, as much as I am a climber, I have that hyper-descriptive mode to try and translate the experience visually. That’s what it’s like for me, to be lost in that. People want to separate the two, but for me, they’re one in the same. The camera becomes part of the climbing gear and there’s never a division of the two, which is great, because when things get harder; that’s when we’re taking more photos. When things get harder, that’s when climbing and photography don’t have a clear delineation. I’m not thinking one or the other. I’m thinking, “(It is) my responsibility to capture these pitches.” You’re lost in the experience, (and) that immersive experience is what allows you to take good pictures.

SDN: From an emotional standpoint, how was the trip different than if you were just climbing?

CR: When you’re there on assignment, your experience is to focus on telling the story versus just getting caught up in the moment. In a team dynamic, up the wall, the incredible personalities of Mike and Freddie were what allowed me to step back and climb, not just as a photographer. When you’re the photographer, you’re not physically contributing to the upward progress besides carrying. It’s totally different, but totally the same. Things that would normally scare me, like exposure, didn’t. It’s not even a confidence thing — you’re not even thinking about the other stuff. There were times I was very scared on that trip, but photography allows you to take a step back on some level.

SDN: It seems that on an expedition like this, the margin of error is very slim. That must serve as some motivation to a certain extent.

ML: It’s no different than if you were driving on the freeway: you make a mistake, and you might kill somebody or yourself that day. It’s obviously on a different scale, but you’re living in an environment where every move on the climb, statistically, if you make a mistake, you might die and not come home. But, that’s one of the reasons we’re there. We’re there because risk generates fear, and fear is a wonderful tool to keep you alive.

SDN: For the photographers, what was the process for hauling camera gear up a steep, rock face?

CR: Someone leads and they fix the rope ahead of you. Then, you just repel or ascend the route. There was a time we’d fix a line to get a very specific shot, when I’d be above Mike. It was very physical work. My responsibility as far as climbing was concerned was to haul bags, because the rocks were so featured. These bags were getting caught all the time, and carrying 400-pound bags up these rocks is very difficult.

SDN: Difficulty-wise, how did this compare to other expeditions and climbing you’ve done?

ML: The difficulty (is) 5.11a. The thing that comes into play is that you can go climb that rating in California, which has beautiful temperatures at El Capitan. But, you go do this in negative-30 Fahrenheit and 70 to 100 mile per hour winds, and you’re living in temperatures colder than your freezer at home … it is a whole other equation. You’re out there on your own, to not only survive, but to climb a world-class first ascent that no one’s ever been to before. You have no idea what’s going to come at you next.

Then, you take in the fact that this is in Antarctica. The rock quality is completely horrible because these katabatic winds have been scouring it for millions of years. The surface of the rock is death defying. It’s like climbing on huge potato chips and Corn Flakes that are about to fall off, and they’re sharp as razors. You can’t get into the general ratings — you can’t do that. You have to bring all the factors that are going on there, which are completely different than anywhere in the world I’ve ever climbed. Usually, you don’t mind falling on a rope, (but) we did not want to fall because this rock was so sharp and loose, we were afraid it was going to cut our ropes. It was absolutely one of the most difficult climbs I’ve ever done.

SDN: When you finally got to the top, what was it like up there?

ML: It was like standing on a rock from the mind of Dr. Seuss. It was just this wild rock and frozen waves of stone — just hands and fingers of rock, sort of this Dr. Seuss, Picasso piece of granite. Standing on the top was incredible, of course, saying, “We’ve made it, this is an incredible moment of now, a moment of right now.” Soon, that moment of, “We’ve made it, we’ve put everything into this and survived,” in about 20 minutes turns into, “OK, now we have to go down.” It’s sort of halfway, because the true summit is when you get back down and you’re safe, because a descent can be very dangerous.

SDN: When you’re on a trip like this, there are only so many layers you can put on. You must get to a certain point when you’re going to be cold no matter what.

ML: Sure, especially on the climb. You’re never warm. In your sleeping bag, in your tent, you’re warm — you actually sleep well, everything’s fine. When you’re climbing, when you’re out in the elements and moving, you’re not necessarily warm. You’re simply warm enough to not die. You’re cold, you’re shivering, you’re shaking your hands and feet and drinking warm liquids and hydration. You’re basically running your engine so it doesn’t freeze up and die. You’re not suffering, but you’re enduring a lot of discomfort all the time with these kind of temperatures.

SDN: Would you two ever return to Antarctica?

CR: I would go back in a heartbeat. It’s an interesting landscape, in that’s it’s a lot of power. It’s so big, so vast, so quiet and so huge that adjectives don’t really come close to describing the landscape that exists beyond words.

ML: Absolutely. I’ve got another trip planned about 150 miles east of there (Bertha’s Tower) to an even more remote, other big tower out there. I’ve done seven trips to Antarctica. There’s nothing like Antarctica in itself, because mathematically, factually, there’s no other place like Antarctica. It’s a magical, wonderful, frozen wonderland.

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