My organization Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation has teamed up with fellow National Geographic adventurer Mike Libecki on two new projects. A world-class climber, Mike collected samples for the ASC Scat project and documented polar bear sightings for a pilot project on his latest expedition. Here is Mike’s story about completing the first ascent of Polar Bear Fang Tower in Greenland, while collecting data to help conserve some of wild the places he loves.
By Mike Libecki
I knew exactly where I wanted to go. I had satellite images from the Danish government and every map of the east side of Greenland loaded on my laptop. I zoomed in to double check our location. The 2,800-foot Polar Bear Fang Tower, the object of my obsession, was just around the corner.
It was close to 1 a.m., and the midnight sun was hiding behind the massive mountains surrounding us. Before dropping us off, our captain sailed back and forth looking for polar bears. Last time I was here, there were 11 in the area, but the coast was clear, so he dropped us on the rocky shore.
My brother Andy and I unloaded our gear, and then scrambled to a ledge high on the cliffs near shore to sleep, safe from bears. The next morning we set up a deluxe basecamp and then started up the long valley toward the tower. I carried a shotgun over my shoulder, and we carried flares and pepper spray in our pockets.
Six hours later, we saw the magnificent Polar Bear Fang. I pulled out my 300mm lens and photographed it, so I could locate cracks in the rock face and map a vertical route that would hopefully lead to a first ascent of this massive tower.
Andy doesn’t have much experience on technical mountain terrain—in fact this would be his third climb ever—but I knew he had the focus, determination and communication skills needed. He had followed me up a big wall in China’s Tien Shan in 2005, and up a huge route on Asan in the Karavshin, Kyrgyzstan, in 2006. We had fun. We laughed. It’s a beautiful thing sharing grand adventures as brothers. On this trip, I would again rely on the energy of our brotherhood, our blood, to generate the optimism to keep us safe.
After a few days, a few dozen miles of hiking, and several roped glacier crossings, we came to a beautiful granite ridge surrounded by glaciers, nearly 3,000 feet above the ocean and our base camp. We now stood less than a mile from the tower that I had been trying to get to for a decade—in a way, for my entire life.ASC recently began a pilot project with a polar bear researcher in eastern Greenland. This bear, near the Libecki’s base camp, had an ear tag and marking on his back, denoting it as part of the study. (Photo by Mike Libecki)
A recon revealed a simple scramble with one rappel to reach the glacier between camp and the tower, and the glacier proved surprisingly easy to traverse. From the base, most of the rock low on the tower appeared loose, but after a few hours of scoping, I found a few routes that looked somewhat safe. Back at high camp, I spent time searching the face with my zoom lens and began remapping our route.
Honestly, this was no place for a beginner, let alone someone on their third climb ever. Brotherhood, blood, bond, belief.
It started snowing and we took advantage of a couple stormy rest days, ate a lot, and read books. The best part of the storm was having extra time to Skype with my daughter. Yes, that’s right, Skype video calls from one of the most remote areas on the planet.
Once the sun emerged, we racked up and headed to the base of the tower. I brought the satellite phone—a first for me. At least Andy would have some kind of fighting chance if something happened up there. We started our push the following morning after sleeping at the base of the tower. I planned to free climb the entire route, while Andy would follow by ascending the rope. Before we got in our bivy sacs, I climbed a pitch and had him clean it for a refresher. He accomplished the task with ease.
For food, we took only Clif Bars, Shots and Bloks, and three liters of water. I led with two ropes and a double rack of cams and nuts, a few hexes, a hammer, six pitons, four bird beaks, and two alpine aiders. Andy followed with the food and emergency gear.
We started in light fog and clouds. By the third pitch, huge, hanging daggers of rock had forced me off my planned route. The terrain unfolded with fun, well-protected climbing. I focused on how the rope would run for Andy’s safety, using up a few extra hours to prevent him from pulling loose rock on top of himself.
The almost-full moon came out as dusk fell. Clouds brushed the sky like gray, eerie paint strokes over the moon. We rappelled down to a small ledge just off to the right, where water dripped into a bowl of rock about the size of a bathroom sink. There, sat next to each other and shivered out the night.
At sunrise we got out of our frost-covered bivy sacks, filled our water bottles, and washed down Double-Espresso Clif Shots and Clif Bars. We ascended the rope back to our high point, and Andy stacked ropes as I racked gear. So far, I hadn’t encountered anything harder than 5.11 and hadn’t had to drill a single bolt. It was a good style and we were having actual fun, not just type II. The next pitch had cool, flaky laybacks with short 5.11 cruxes and good rests every 10 to 15 feet. We climbed all day until the sun went around the corner and shade trapped us in shiver-land.
We were higher than the other summits around us, but it wasn’t over yet. The crux came two pitches before the top in a huge chimney full of loose flakes and rotten stone-teeth. When I finished it, I radioed to Andy.
“Hey man, please, please go really slow, be careful what you touch. No mistakes.”
Just inches from my anchor were big teetering fingers of stone I did not want to touch. We finessed through it and climbed an overhanging bombay chimney next—one of the coolest 5.8 pitches ever. The last technical pitch is often the most dangerous in terms of loose rock. But here, a full 200 feet of 5.9 on clean granite took me to within 50 feet of the true summit. A walkable, knife-edge ridge led to the fang tip.
That night, we laughed as we lay in our bivies on a little platform we’d carved out atop the Fang, the sky waning dark pink on the horizon. It was a perfect moment in an imperfect world. A couple hours later, we were shivering so uncontrollably we couldn’t stop laughing. We never really slept, and eventually crawled out of our frozen bivy sacks at dawn, 6,600 feet above the ocean, and nearly 400 miles from the nearest civilization.
The Libecki-Libecki Route, the first ascent of Polar Bear Fang Tower, went in 16 pitches at 5.11 and was supported by the Mugs Stump Award and the Shipton-Tilman Grant. Read more about Mike Libecki’s adventures at mikelibecki.com.