A young Agassiz man who died summiting the Mendenhall Towers in Juneau Alaska is being remembered for his kind, humble spirit and incredible mountaineering career.
Marc-André Leclerc, 25, of Agassiz and climbing partner Ryan Johnson, 34, had been dropped off near the towers March 4 and made it to the top, posting a picture of the view to Instagram the following day. State troopers reported a significant snowstorm March 7 – the day they were supposed to return – and the bad weather was unrelenting, delaying search efforts over the following days.
On March 14 the search was called off and troopers reported that Leclerc and Johnson are presumed dead after their gear was located in and above a crevasse on the Alaska towers seven days after they were first reported missing.
“Due to the circumstances, Johnson and Leclerc are presumed deceased,” the troopers reported, adding that avalanche danger and safety hazards prevent recovery for the time being.
“Marc-André was an amazing, loving man and he has touched many lives in so many ways,” wrote his father on Facebook that night. “He will be remembered and loved forever…”
The call of the mountains
At only 25, Leclerc was one of Canada’s most accomplished rock climbers and alpinists, with an impressive roster of both international and B.C. climbs.
His climbing career started in Pitt Meadows, when he took up indoor climbing at a Maple Ridge gym. Leclerc’s family moved to Agassiz when he was about 11-years-old, around the same time he won the Canadian Nationals for indoor rock climbing. The budding mountaineer attended Agassiz Elementary Secondary School for a few years before graduating early from Highroad Academy in Chilliwack.
Leclerc’s mother, Michelle Kuipers, said her son was, in many ways, a quiet person. He was smart, she said. With a sense of humour, an appetite for life and an endless devotion to the places and people he loved.
“He was completely self-taught in almost every area of his life. For a quiet, sometimes goofy guy, he was deeply intelligent. He could be very funny, he talked in rhyming couplets for a couple days just to bug his sister.”
Kuipers recalled how growing up in Agassiz helped to develop her son’s love and appreciation for the natural world. By age 15, Leclerc was already a serious alpinist.
“I think this area really fired his imagination,” she said. “When we moved here he would come home from school, toss his school bag, grab his climbing gear and jump on [his] bike and head out to Harrison Bluffs.”
As a teenager, Leclerc would climb the bluffs, sleeping overnight on the granite peaks with the family dog.
Leclerc’s sister, Bridgid-Anne Dunning, remembers chasing animals on the family’s hobby farm and spending summer days with her brother biking to The Farm House Natural Cheeses for cheese and gelato.
“Marc-André commented almost every day on how beautiful Mount Cheam was,” she said. “He loved Mount Cheam and Hopyard Hill. Anything that was going upwards – that had a view.”
When they were younger, Dunning and her brother were climbing partners in the gym and even on the same climbing team. But Dunning said it became apparent early on that alpinism was her brother’s passion, through and through.
“That really came through when he left the indoor climbing gym and started exploring the mountains. That was his world, that was his escape. He just loved it.”
Long-time friend and fellow mountaineer Sam Waddington recalled that for Leclerc, the mountains had always been calling – and Mt. Cheam was one of the first.
“He was off pushing his limits and finding new trails and scrambling in the Cheam range. I think living in Agassiz…looking up at Mt. Cheam every day… he always looked at the new possibilities and wondered if there were routes on that mountain that had never been climbed.”
And there were. Eventually, Leclerc was chasing those routes, putting up new lines on Cheam and the ranges around it.
And Leclerc didn’t stop at local mountains. He was known worldwide in the climbing community for an extensive lineup of extreme international ascents, like Patagonia’s Cerro Torre and Torre Egger, a list of solo accomplishments including an ascent of Aguja Standhart and Cerro Torre’s The Corkscrew Linkup, and endless Canadian climbs in the Rocky Mountains, Squamish area and the Fraser Valley, to name a few.
A September profile by Climbing magazine described Leclerc’s “ongoing love affair with the somber Mt. Slesse” where in 2015 he completed the first winter solo of the Northeast Buttress – rope-less – spending only five hours on a route that took seven days for the last climbers to ascend back in 1986.
Even with innate skill, experience and peer recognition, Kuipers said her son never climbed for attention or recognition, which was part of the reason Agassiz was a perfect home base.
“He liked to encourage people and he never liked to broadcast his own achievements. Agassiz was a place that let him do that. He could just quietly fit in and do his thing.”
Leclerc was the kind of guy who shook off titles with a goofy smile and a light in his eyes. The man called “one of the greatest alpinists of his generation” did what he did for one reason only: because he loved it.
An incredible partnership
During his time living in Squamish, Leclerc met Brette Harrington, another talented, record-setting climber. The pair became partners, not only on mountains, but in life.
Harrington herself is a remarkable alpinist, internationally recognized for a resume of impressive achievements that include the first free solo of Patagonia’s Chiaro di Luna, and an ascent of California’s Grand Illusion, among dozens of other notable climbs in B.C. and abroad.
Kuipers said Harrington was the love of her son’s life and the two climbers were an endless source of support and encouragement for one another.
She remembers how her son’s eyes would light up whenever he saw his long-time partner.
“He was her biggest fan. He would encourage her to lead every pitch…He encouraged her to the full extent of her athletic abilities…Theirs was just a really special relationship. Not very many couples will spend a week on a portaledge, a thousand feet up a cliff…in a storm. They shared those experiences.”
About a year ago, the Leclerc and Harrington settled back in Agassiz. But they were rarely home, recalled long-time friend Sam Waddington. The world-renouned climbers chased international peaks and treks, pushing new limits and sharing their passion with eachother and other climbers.
“If you think about the number of memorable days that they must have had, living in the mountains day after day and experiencing new things and meeting new people. It’s a pretty phenomenal way to live a life.”
A life without limits
By all accounts, Leclerc was never intended for a conventional life. Kuipers said early on, her son tapped into something very few people are ever fortunate enough to find: a connection to the natural world.
In a blog post about his preparation for soloing the Emporer Face of Mt. Robson, a towering spectacle of the Canadian Rockies, Leclerc wrote how he decided to take on the first free solo of Infinite Patience without a watch or any other technology – relying on intuition to wake up at the right time to start his climb.
“He chose to go with the rythms of nature. He didn’t care a lot about time records or the grade of difficulty of the route. He wanted to be in that place and to experience everything the mountain had to offer him,” said Kuipers.
“He was very much someone who captured the essence of life. He was always completely in the moment.”
Writing about the night before he took on Mt. Robson, Leclerc wrote, “I was being drawn toward the mountain in a search for adventure, by a desire to explore my own limitations and to also be immersed in a world so deeply beautiful that it would forever etch itself into my memory.”
It may have been his presence of mind and respect for massive summits that made Leclerc such an exceptional athlete. His technical climbing skills and physical abilities were admired across the climbing community, and certainly contributed to his ability to scale mammoth peaks and unexplored wilderness. But it was his unwavering mental focus that propelled him, literally, to new heights.
Most climbers, explained Waddington, will never take their lines off, even when they’ve done a route a hundred times without a fall.
But not Leclerc. The young climber’s process was a fluid, artful mastery of the mountain in front of him. If he did a climb once with ropes, he knew he could do it again without.
“His confidence was accurate [for] his abilities,” said Waddington. “Which is a unique state to be in…cause very few climbers could keep their cool in situations as tenuous.”
But that doesn’t mean Leclerc was reckless, Waddington adds.
“I think people’s perception of risk is their own. Marc climbed fully within his abilities. He never had any major mountain accidents. He was a student of history, he understood the risks. He was in no way cavalier about it.”
“I think in the end, he played within his ability. It’s more the mountains volatility sometimes that is the challenge.”
Just another trip
The rugged, icy Alaskan terrain holds an allure for wilderness lovers of all disciplines, and according to mountainproject.com, the Mendenhall Towers – with a 9,000-foot elevation and difficult 500 to 2500-foot ascents –had only been summited a handful of times.
Still, it wasn’t anything remarkable or out of the ordinary for Leclerc to take on.
“In terms of climbing difficulty, this was not gonna be anywhere close to some of the things he had [done] in the past,” Waddington said. “This was just one more trip. He was excited to go and excited to climb with his partner who was up there.”
His climbing partner, Johnson, was also experienced. It was reported by planetmountain.com that the Alaska man had established many new routes around Juneau including the first ascent of the north face of the West Mendenhall Tower in 2007.
Waddington said the climb was well within the abilities of the two climbers.
“We know Marc’s abilities, where he’s been and his judgments and…it would have had to have been something quite extraordinary to catch him off his guard.”
Dunning knows her brother will be remembered by many for his climbing accomplishments, but said it’s the way her brother embraced life that makes him truly memorable.
“He’s going to be inspiring people with what he did in terms of climbing and adventuring but for many of us, he’ll be remembered for the joy he brought into our lives,” she said. “He is someone who prioritized and valued and loved the people in his life.”
“He [was] really living every single day with so much appreciation and gumption and readiness to push himself and to really take everything the world has to offer.”
Dunning hopes her brother’s life will remind others “that every single person has the opportunity to fully embrace their unique self and that can bring a lot of light to the world around them.”