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Remembering Alpinists Marc-André Leclerc and Ryan Johnson

A look back on the lives of Marc-André Leclerc and Ryan Johnson, who disappeared in Alaska's Mendenhall Towers after summiting a new route.

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Marc-André Leclerc Ryan Johnson Obituary Alpine Climbing
Marc-André Leclerc (left) and Ryan Johnson (right) went missing in Alaska’s Mendenhall Towers last week.Marc-Andre Leclerc; Ryan Johnson

On March 13, at 10:53 P.M., Marc-André Leclerc’s father posted the news that his son, and partner Ryan Johnson, who had been missing for a week after climbing a new route on the North face of Alaska’s Main Mendenhall Tower, were dead.

Alaska Department of Safety reported from the Mendenhall Ice Field:

“An intact anchor rope was seen at the top of an ice shoot on the 4th Tower. Two climbing ropes were also seen in a crevasse midway down the 4th Tower. The ropes match the description of the gear carried by Johnson and Leclerc.”

Dangerous avalanche conditions prevent a recovery at this time.

Mr. Leclerc wrote on Facebook: “To all of our friends near and far who have been supporting us and praying for Marc-André I wanted you all to hear it from me first-hand, before it’s in the news. Sadly we have lost two really great climbers, and I lost a son I am very proud of. Thank you for the support during this difficult time.

“Marc-André was an amazing, loving man and he has touched many lives in so many ways. He will be remembered and loved forever.”

On March 5, the two men checked in via cell phone after completing a new route in the Mendenhall Towers, north of Juneau. When they missed their planned check in from basecamp on March 7, around the time a storm blew through the area, search and rescue operations began. Over the next several days, helicopters searched the area and a climbing rescue team was assembled, but the missions were frequently cut short due to poor weather.

Remembering Ryan Johnson 

“Super funny. Nice. Honest. To the point,” said a friend of Johnson, who asked to remain anonymous. He added that Johnson was a visionary who dreamed of new climbs, but also liked to quietly do his own thing. “That’s why you don’t see photos of him all over the Internet.”

Johnson was the co-founder of Tongass Fitness in Juneau. His bio reads:

“Ryan has a passion for athletics and human performance. He found swimming at a young age and competed for more nearly 10 years, taking his passion to several national level competitions. An experienced mountain climber, Ryan completed difficult climbs in the U.S., Canada, Kyrgyzstan, and Nepal.”

Johnson made several visits to the Mendenhall Towers. In 2008, after receiving funding for a trip via the Mugs Stump Award, he and Sam Magro climbed the West Tower, authoring The Great White Conqueror, a 2,500-foot route rated M5, AI4, A1. In 2011, Johnson and Gabe Hayden completed the first free ascent of Main Tower’s 2,000-foot South Buttress, at 5.11a. In 2012, Johnson and Tim Banfield put up the 340-meter WI5, Bathtime with Toaster, in Mendenhall Glacier’s Suicide Bowl. This year, he won the Mugs Stump Award again, this time to climb the East Face of Mt. Hayes in the Alaska Range.

“Although Ryan has climbed all over the world, his heart always brings him back to his beloved Mendenhall Towers, which form a wondrous skyline above the seaside town of Juneau,” said friend and climbing partner Clint Helander. “He knows the secrets of all aspects of each of the seven towers through personal experience and relentless studying of the range’s history. In Juneau, Ryan is widely respected as a climber, mentor, coach and most importantly, a devoted father.”

Remembering Marc-André Leclerc

Marc-André Leclerc once described his insatiable climbing stoke to this author, saying: “You know how you hear stories of people who climb 10-15 days in a row because they are so excited? I can’t take rest days on ice climbing trips; I just get super psyched. I really, really enjoy ice and mixed climbing.”

He is regarded as one of the greatest alpinists of his generation.

For five years, while I was a freelance writer, and later editor, at Alpinist, I corresponded with Leclerc extensively. One night, while sitting at a dining room table in Jeffersonville, Vermont, I listened until late as he told me of his latest solo climbs. He described getting off-route on an approach in Banff in December 2014, which lead him to onsight solo several pitches of mixed climbing, including a thin standing pillar he referred to as a WI6 pencil.

Later on that trip, after climbing the 4,300-foot The Wild Thing on Mt. Chephren, and topping out in darkness, he and his partner had to abort their descent until morning. At one point, Leclerc anchored his rope to a single nut and rapped most of the way down it before realizing it didn’t reach the ledge below. He then prusiked his climbing rope under a fading headlamp.

The very next day he soloed the Grade IV and Grade V length ice routes Polar Circus and Weeping Wall. Upon returning, alone and once again in the dark, Leclerc found himself locked out his buddy’s van, his shelter for the night. He was able to pop open a small window with his ice axe and extract the sleeping bag locked inside. He then waited for five hours until the van-owner returned, on the side of the Icefield Parkway.

“I fell asleep by their van for five hours until they got back and that was the end of my trip; it was pretty classic,” he said.

Marc-Andre Leclerc Cerro Pollone solo patagonia alpine climbing
Leclerc straddles the summit ridge of Cerro Pollone during a solo mission in Patagonia.Marc-Andre Leclerc

Leclerc grew up in Agassiz, British Columbia, graduated early from high school and immediately moved to Squamish, BC, where he made a living doing landscape and maintenance work. Later, he became a full-time sponsored climber, having started at the sport at an early age.

He started with fourth-class summits at 11 or 12, then got involved in gym and competition climbing. At 15 he began big wall and alpine climbing, combining rope soloing with free soloing. When he moved to Squamish, he quit competitions and became interested in mountaineering and technical scrambling.

Leclerc was indefatigable, ticking off one huge climb after another. Notable ascents include: the solo triple linkup of East Buttress Direct (5.10+), Navigator Wall (5.10+), and Northeast Buttress (5.9+) on Mt. Slesse in a day, speed soloing the Grand Wall (III 5.11 A0) on the Stawamus Chief, a solo of Cerro Torre’s The Corkscrew linkup (5.10d A1 90 degrees; 3,900 feet), Leclerc and Colin Haley’s first ascent in January 2015 of La Travesía del Oso Buda (5.10a A1 M6; 3,900 feet; aka the Reverse Torre Traverse), a skyline linkup of the Cerro Torre Group, the first winter solo of Torre Egger, and a first ascent with Brette Harrington and Joshua Lavigne of the West Buttress (VI 5.12a C1) of Great Sail Peak on Baffin Island.

In April 2016, in his blog, he describes soloing Mt. Robson via the Infinite Patience.

“The views were phenomenal as I scrambled upwards to eventually reach the long traverse across the west face that is used to avoid the Gargoyles of the upper Emperor Ridge. This 800-meter traverse can be the physical and mental crux of the route, and although it is not technical, traversing steep and exposed snow for such a distance is a tedious affair. I kicked steps and planted my tools for what felt like an eternity, my gloves becoming wet and freezing solid in the cold wind. I watched the sun slowly making its way towards the horizon while traversing towards the Wishbone Arête which never appeared to get any closer.”

While working with Leclerc on a project at Alpinist, he described his three-route linkup—7,000 feet worth of climbing, solo—on Mt. Slesse:

“I imagine falling off, flying through the dense mist, unable to see the inevitable end far below. But I’m not going to fall, and I smile as I race up to the summit ridge.”

I reflect back to one of the earlier times I wrote about Leclerc. He’d just turned 21 and free soloed and aided the Grand Wall of the Stawamus Chief in 57:30. Chris Geisler, a friend of Leclerc, said of the achievement:

“Marc-André is a highly motivated adventurer who has been running around in the mountains on his own since his early teens. Marc-André has quite a strong mind and has been working on strengthening his weaknesses for a long time. Now he’s just applying his motivation and skill to bigger objectives, unbounded but informed by those of the past in the climbing realm. If you bump into him, you can be sure that he’ll be having a lot of fun!

“Oh, and by the way, this is just the beginning. Just warming up, before Marc-André actually knows what he’ll truly be able to accomplish….”

To help the families of Ryan Johnson and Marc-Andre Leclerc, two GoFundMe campaigns have been setup. The Ryan Johnson Closure and Milo Fund will “assist family and friends with closure and costs related to Ryan’s passing, and assist with care/life/college fund for Ryan’s 2.5-year-old-son, Milo, who will be missing his father, and father’s support, intensely.” The Marc-Andre Leclerc Closure and Respite Fund will go to Leclerc’s “family and partner for the costs they will endure, given the circumstances of Marc passing.”