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Mystery Brings Adventure: Film Highlights Libecki-Payne Ascent of Remote Spire on French Polynesian Island

Posted on: June 10, 2015


Pitch 3: Sweet gear mayhem with mud and rain. Mike Libecki explains, "The gear literally never dried out until I got home to Utah. Everything was wet the entire time, ropes, harnesses—you name it." [Photo] Andy Mann/3 Strings Productions

When the unlikely pair of Mike Libecki and Angie Payne teamed up to climb the south face of 3,264-foot Poumaka on the jungle island of Ua Pou in French Polynesia, they knew it would push them beyond their emotional limits.

But those moments make memorable the film Poumaka by Andy Mann and Keith Ladzinski of 3 Strings Productions. And Mann doesn't mince words when he says raw emotion and human suffering make for better film content.

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"I'll always—100 percent—make that trade," Mann says. "I'd rather it be gnarly than nice. Those are the times when human emotion just comes out full-bore."

To be sure, Ladzinski and Mann endured the same epic jungle conditions (Libecki also gives them credit for the first ascent) that plagued the team while they put up their 1,500-foot route, Te Va Anui O Kau Kau (In Honor of Kau Kau; 5.11 A3+) on Poumaka Tower. Libecki led the entire route, which included four jungle pitches followed by eight rock pitches to reach the top of the basalt tower.

It was Libecki's sixtieth expedition. Despite his expeditions and solo ascents across the globe, Libecki, now forty-two, still gets dreamy-eyed at the thought of unexplored lands.

"Jungle mayhem ahead, complete mystery...and you know what mystery brings; it brings adventure," he says in the film.

Libecki at the top of Pitch 2 showing the beaks he placed on his last lead. [Photo] Keith Ladzinski/3 Strings Productions

It was Mann and Ladzinski's fifth expedition with Libecki. Along with suffering together, they have laughed and built a brotherhood during their travels.

"Life's so short that you can never pass up an opportunity, especially one that Libecki brings to the table," Mann says. "A lot has to do with my trust in Mike. He could be like, 'Dude, we're going to Mars,' and I would go because I trust him; so much so that I can remove a lot of my fear and hesitation, which is often the handicap when you have to make decisions [if things get sketchy]."

Mann had been on shark-diving expeditions in Fiji and was somewhat prepared for the tropical climate, but Ua Pou was "pretty wild," he says. Carrying 60-pound packs to basecamp and hauling 30- to 40-pound packs on a route are part of the job, but the constant rain and "vertical jungle" added an extra challenge.

Libecki even began the climb wearing crampons over his climbing shoes in order to get through the thick jungle covering and onto the rock. Wringing water from the ropes and webbing was routine.

The team at the top of Pitch 3 experiencing a rare moment of sunshine. [Photo] Andy Mann/3 Strings Productions

"The rain and the winds and the mud just get to a point where it becomes so intolerable that it's laughable," Mann says.

Although they're an unexpected match, Libecki invited Payne because she's physically strong, has a positive, genuine attitude and her focus is intense, he says. Before this trip, Payne, a decorated national and international competition boulderer and the first woman to climb V13, had never jumared a pitch in her life.

Payne knew she'd be out of her element on Ua Pou. "Despite Mike's warnings, I knew I couldn't pass up this opportunity," Payne says. "From previous experience, I know that a Libecki trip is guaranteed to be a departure from the ordinary; a step (or ten) outside of one's comfort zone; an exploration of the unexplored, and a surefire way to challenge my perceived emotional and physical limits."

When it came time for the summit push, Libecki used spiderlike equalizing techniques on the vines and strange flora for protection in order to get through a 5.11 section to what the team dubbed the "Cave of Woes," less than 50 feet from the top.

The cave is where Payne reached her low point. It's raining (as it did every day), the sun has set, she's belaying, hands muddied, eyes empty, her headlamp battery is blinking red. "It's gonna be a real long night, and I'm terrified.... How the fuck did I get here?" she says with no ounce of humor or pride. Deep inside, though, Payne knew the only way down was to actually go up.

"Angie turned her psyche meter [up] and next thing I knew, she was on the summit with me in the wind and rain," Libecki recalls. They let out howls of joy, put on Year of the Ram masks (a Libecki tradition to honor animals of the Chinese zodiac) and celebrated.

View the festival-length version of Poumaka below. Stay tuned for interviews with Libecki and Payne on Alpinist.com.

3 Strings Productions

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