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Outdoors: Utah adventurer undertakes a solo journey to the ends of the Earth.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

There comes a time when anyone who has walked a mile off the beaten path entertains the same thought: "Am I the first person to stand in this spot?"

It is a powerful notion — and one that is rarely true, given the wide reach of humans.

Mike Libecki has pondered the lofty thought more than the average adventurer. The difference is Libecki probably is the first human to reach many of the remote locales he has visited.

"People love to tell me you can't find virgin earth. I love to debate with them," said the 38-year-old from Cottonwood Heights, who often travels alone. "There are tons of places where the earth has been untouched by humans. I seek it out — to touch it, feel it, taste it, smell it, walk on it and climb it."

Libecki has worked hard through the years to balance his thirst for adventure, making a living and trying to be the best father possible.

Along the way he was the first documented person to cross the Taklamakan Desert in western China (traveling 1,000 miles in 62 days), spent 80 days skiing and big wall climbing in Antarctica's Queen Maud Land, coached his daughter's soccer team and was named Father of the Year at her school a couple of times.

"My daughter inspires me to keep going on these expeditions to absolute virgin earth. I want her to see — to know — that if you have a dream you can achieve it," he said. "Being a father to my angel daughter is the most amazing, magical, wonderful summit of life I could ever imagine."

Going alone

Although Libecki — who grew up in California and moved to Utah to ski and climb in 2001 — occasionally travels with a partner, he prefers the opportunity to go it alone.

"Because I go on so many solo expeditions, people ask me if I am antisocial. In fact, I'm very social. I just like to go alone for the ultimate challenge; to get to the summit and back home alive. It is my responsibility alone. I love the challenge," said Libecki, who figures he has gone on 35 expeditions.

Hired by National Geographic TV to guide a recent trip to Guyana, Libecki hungered to be alone in the environment. He noticed some formations that looked like they needed to be climbed.

So he decided he needed to go back on his own.

"The [local] people are more casual when you are alone. When you are part of a crew, everyone is working and it feels so official and there is little conversation with the locals," he said. "When you are alone, people open up and you get a glimpse into that normal daily routine. You get them laughing and telling stories that just don't come as easily when there is a group."

Libecki relies on locals to help with vital information once he closes in on his destination. Locals provide boats, camels, snowmobiles, whatever it takes to get to his spot.

He has had hundreds of amazing encounters with locals. From the Inuit people of Greenland to the Bedouin tribes people of Yemen, he has felt the love and compassion of strangers who became friends.

"Part of the pleasure of the expeditions is learning about the culture of the locals," he said. "Hanging out with families and experiencing their daily life is as rewarding as finding remote places."

Getting political

Learning how to reach these untouched parts of the planet required more than an ability to read maps and cruise the Internet. Expedition planning for Libecki is as much about maneuvering through a political obstacle course as it is having the means and legs to get there.

"I research an unbelievable amount of time through an amazing number of sources," he said. "These aren't just places you show up. Some are very secure and require months, even years of planning."

On various trips in politically unstable countries, Libecki has been assigned personal armed escorts and afforded rare charter flights to his destinations.

He come in close contact with Taliban members several times during his trips to Afghanistan and became concerned when a local in Yemen became a little too friendly.

"He wanted to take us to this restaurant 45 minutes out of town. He was like our new best friend, he kept wanting to buy us things," Libecki said. "We just kept trying to be nice to him."

The men had a taxi drop them off a mile away from their hotel and then tried to make sure they were not being followed. Once at the hotel, they packed up and headed for the airport for a 20-hour wait rather than sit in their rooms and worry about something happening to them.

"That was pretty spicy," Libecki said. "It was very scary."

Wildlife

The wildlife Libecki has encountered has been as amazing as the people, cultures and landscapes.

There was the time scorpions and tarantulas crawled out of the cracks of the wall he was climbing in Venezuela and the trip where the locals warned him not to go into the jungle because of all the cobras. Being without his equipment due to an airline issue, Libecki decided against traipsing through the jungle in his tennis shoes.

During one of his numerous trips to Greenland, Libecki was thrilled to spot a polar bear swimming miles from land. After 30 minutes of snapping photos of the animal, the experience took on a different taste when an Inuit on the boat pulled out a rifle and dropped the bear with one shot.

"I was in shock, but it was the way of the Inuit and I tried to respect their culture," he said.

That respect earned Libecki a rare meal of polar bear.

One of his best tips came from a birder he ran into in Papua New Guinea.

"I had a passion for big walls and he had a passion for birds. We got to talking and I gave him a card and told him if he ever saw any cool rocks to send me a note," Libecki said. "He later sent me an email and told me I had to go to Socotra Island in Yemen."

Not being the first

It was on Socotra Island that Libecki had the unexpected disappointment, and eventually wonder, of not being the first to climb a unique feature. Hours of Internet research and numerous calls and emails to friends turned up a big blank on this remote island.

After spotting an intense formation, Libecki spent three days climbing to the top of the tower only to find a bunch of stacked stones that were obviously not left there by Mother Nature.

"I'm always hoping to be the first, but here was this wonderful gift of mystery left by a fellow human," he said. "The stack was encased in lichen and moss. It could have been put there 100 years ago. I asked around and none of the local nomads had heard of anybody climbing it before."

Libecki plans on returning to the island to try to solve the mystery. But he is going to have to set some priorities. Other distant locales in Russia, Africa, Afghanistan and remote islands in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans are singing their siren song.

brettp@sltrib.com

World traveler

Mike Libecki has traveled the world searching for "virgin earth." He has filled more than 100 pages of passports with stamps and has visited some of the countries numerous times. Here is his expedition list:

Antarctica

Baffin Island

Greenland

China

Kyrgyzstan

Uzbekistan

Tajikistan

Madagascar

Yemen

Papua New Guinea

Venezuela

Guyana

Russia

Africa

Afghanistan

Iceland

Japan

Korea

Thailand

Check out his website at mikelibecki.com/

Solo • Utahn's ongoing quest has taken him to places where few, or none, have gone before.
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