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Web Winter 2013
An Arctic Expedition Trilogy Perceived
Due to the record 80% of the arctic sea ice melting in 2012, polar bears struggle to feed on seals and are hungry. [Photo] Mike Libecki
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.
A stand-up paddleboard approach to climb a first ascent, from sailboat to sailboat in a push. [Photo] Mike Libecki
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.
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.
On the summit, a first ascent of a 400-meter route, free solo, 5.8, under four hours boat to boat, Year of the Dragon. [Photo] Mike Libecki
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. [Photo] Mike Libecki
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.
A polar bear in Franz Josef Land, Russia, a perfect example of the magic, power and beauty of the natural and wild arctic. [Photo] Mike Libecki