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Wednesday, January 11, 2006

So Alone

Feeling lonely? Imagine how you might feel if you were Mike Libecki or Jean-Christophe Lafaille. Libecki recently returned from five weeks completely alone in Antarctica, where he summited a 1,500-foot rock needle in 12 days of icy-cold climbing. Lafaille (at right) is now attempting the first winter ascent of 27,765-foot Makalu in Nepal, the fifth-highest mountain in the world, and he too is alone. Both men have deep experience with solo climbing; Libecki has soloed new routes on Baffin Island and Greeland, and Lafaille has soloed several 8,000-meter peaks. But there's a difference between soloing in high season in the Himalaya and soloing in midwinter. As he did last December on Shishapangma, Lafaille brought only a couple of people to Makalu basecamp to cook and watch his camp; on the mountain he is utterly alone.

I love solo hiking, running and climbing, but the level at which these guys pursue it is almost inconceivable. On Libecki's first attempted route this year, he dislodged car-size boulders four pitches up and literally pissed his pants he was so scared (not a recommended warmth strategy for Antarctic climbing). Yet he regrouped to make a beautiful first ascent. Lafaille has battled intense winds ever since he arrived on Makalu in mid-December; he just lost a tent in brutal winds as he tried to establish his highest camp. Yet he keeps working, carefully moving supplies up the mountain and acclimatizing. If he gets a break in the weather, I have little doubt he'll succeed.

Both men chose to remain connected to the outside world during their climbs; Libecki had a radio with which he could call for help from a Russian base several hours' flight away (though winds often would have prevented any flight), and Lafaille calls his wife nearly every day via satellite phone, and she posts updates on his website in French and English. Otherwise they are on their own, experiencing a sense of isolation and commitment that is very rare in the modern world.

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