This article was updated March 13, 10:30 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time
On March 5, Ryan Johnson and Marc-Andre Leclerc reached the top of a new route on the north face of the Main Tower, in the Mendenhall Towers, some twelve miles from Juneau, Alaska. That day, Leclerc posted a photo on Instagram, of blue skies and brilliant sunshine, of a multitude of other peaks that extend through the crystalline air to the horizon. The caption reads: “Rare live update here… that is Mt Fairweather in the distance.”
They had been flown to the Mendenhall Glacier on March 4, but they planned to ski out on the West Mendenhall Glacier Trail. According to Gripped.com, “They fired off a few text messages [on March 5] because luckily they had cell service from the top…. When they didn’t return as planned on Wednesday, search and rescue teams went to action and began to form a plan to look for them…. The weather had turned from blue skies to snow storms and -30 degrees at 3000 meters overnight.”
On Saturday, March 10, Juneau Mountain Rescue posted a press release on the organization’s Facebook Page summarizing the efforts of their members: “Juneau Mountain Rescue (JMR) continues to work with the Alaska State Troopers on the search for missing climbers Marc-Andre Leclerc and Ryan Johnson. Current weather conditions are severely hampering efforts to re-fly the area. On Thursday, March 8, the day the search began, four helicopter flights with search teams on board were deployed. Passes were made of the climbers’ planned Mendenhall Glacier exit route, along with their probable ascent and descent routes on the Mendenhall Towers. Both FLIR and RECCO were used to survey the area. The climber’s cache of gear that was not needed for the climb, which included skis, poles and a backpack, was located during those efforts, but deteriorating weather conditions limited further access. The United States Coast Guard and JMR attempted to access the area again Friday, March 9, but were turned around by foul weather. JMR crews spent Saturday, March 10 on weather hold at the Alaska Army National Guard aviation operations facility where the Guard flight crew has a helicopter prepared to fly when conditions allow. During the weather hold JMR has continued to work with friends and family of both climbers to establish a timeline of the climber’s activities. The National Weather Service has consistently provided weather status and forecast support for the search. All teams continue to look for the first available weather window to get back into the field.”
A day later, JMR added the following update:
“Juneau Mountain Rescue was able to fly with the Alaska Army National Guard today. The helicopter and crew searched the Mendenhall Glacier for any sign of travel, and searched several possible descent routes on the South side of the Mendenhall Towers. Weather conditions deteriorated and the flight returned to base after 2 hours of searching. The helicopter was then grounded for the remainder of the day due to severe wind shear and winter weather conditions on the ice field. The Alaska Army National Guard flight crew and Juneau Mountain Rescue are prepared to resume air operations at the first available weather window tomorrow morning (3/12).”
On the afternoon of March 12, JMR announced that they resumed the search with a “current weather window.” That evening, the organization posted another update:
“Juneau Mountain Rescue was able to fly with the Alaska Army National Guard today. However, the helicopter and crew were only able to briefly search the Mendenhall Towers before weather limited visibility and forced the crew to return to base. The helicopter was then grounded again for the remainder of the day due to foul weather. The Alaska Army National Guard flight crew and Juneau Mountain Rescue are prepared to again resume operations at the first available weather window tomorrow (3/13), and look forward to a more promising forecast.”
During the past few years, the Canadian climber Leclerc has astounded climbing communities around the world with a series of remarkable solitary adventures, both roped and unroped, on big walls and alpine peaks–including the first solo ascent of Cerro Torre’s Corkscrew Route (5.10d A1 90 degrees, with occasional self belays) and the first solo winter ascent of Torre Egger in Patagonia. He has also teamed up with other top alpinists on many significant achievements, such as the first complete ascent of the north face of Cerro Torre and the Reverse Torre Traverse (Travesia del Oso Buda) with Colin Haley in 2015. “Regarding Marc-Andre, I believe he is playing in a league of his own,” the great alpinist Rolando Garibotti told Chris Van Leuven for Alpinist.com that same year, for a story about Leclerc’s onsight free-solo ascent of the Tomahawk to Exocet linkup on Aguja Standhardt in Patagonia (with difficulties up to WI6), a mere day after the calendar end of the austral winter.
In 2015 Leclerc received the Guy Lacelle Pure Spirit Award for a climber who “embodies the spirit of integrity, humility and joy that Guy brought to all his climbs.” A year later, in a blog post about his first solo of the Emperor Face of Robson, Leclerc described his developing ethos: “As a young climber, it is undeniable that I have been manipulated by the media and popular culture and that some of my own climbs have been subconsciously shaped through what the world perceives to be important in terms of sport. Through time spent in the mountains, away from the crowds, away from the stopwatch, and the grades, and all the lists of records, I’ve been slowly able to pick apart what is important to me and discard things that are not.” This January, he returned to the Navigator Wall on Mt. Slesse in the Canadian Cascades–a route that he had free soloed during summertime–to make a first winter ascent with Tom Livingstone.
A winner of the Mugs Stump Award, Ryan Johnson, from Juneau Alaska, a strong climber in his own right, had previous experience with the Mendenhall Towers: among his trips to the area, in March 2008, he and Sam Magro had made the first ascent of a fourteen-pitch route on the north face of the West Tower, in thirty-three hours round-trip, over neve, big chockstones and bulging snow. In July 2011, with Gabe Hayden, Johnson completed the first free ascent of the South Buttress Direct on the Main Tower. To Alpinist.com, he commented, “Right from the start we were blown away by both the aesthetic nature of the line and immaculate quality of the granite.” This year, Johnson received one of the American Alpine Club’s Cutting Edge grants for an expedition to the east face of Mt. Hayes, in the Alaska Range.
“Ryan knows those mountains, the Mendenhall Towers, like nobody else. He knows all the descent options, which ones go and which ones don’t,” Clint Helander told Climbing.com on March 9. Helander had accompanied Ryan Johnson on a previous attempt on the route. “The North Face of the Main Tower was Ryan’s greatest unclimbed winter project in the Towers. He swore me to secrecy before inviting me along for an attempt in October 2015. We turned back due to thin ice and no decent rock pro, but I knew Ryan would ultimately return to accomplish his dream line on that face.,” Helander told Alpinist.com.
In a Facebook post on March 8, Serge Leclerc, Marc-Andre’s father wrote:
“What I would like to ask of you is for all of you who believe in the power of prayer to pray for his safe return. Those of you who believe in the power of positive energy, please take a moment to meditate about my son and his partner to fill them both with positive energy and give them strength and the same for those who are actively searching for them.”
Treya Klassen, a friend of the Leclerc family, has set up a GoFundMe page to help some of Leclerc’s relatives and friends travel to Alaska and cope with expenses related to their support of the search efforts. She is also posting updates on this page:
Recent posts include the following:
“We got Marc’s dad in Alaska Saturday night. Marc’s and Ryan’s family are up there and everyone is searching and planning how to find these amazing athletes. Thank you for all your support. Your contribution will make a very big difference for everyone who needs it during this time.”
“Received a message from Marc’s partner, Brette late Sunday night thanking us.
Quote: ‘It is greatly appreciated. This is a very difficult situation but we will not lose hope, and we will keep working on getting in there. We just need good weather and are hoping tomorrow will bring that.’
Alpinist and friend Samuel H. Johnson has also set up a GoFundMe site to raise money for the purposes of “(1) Getting other alpinists with experience in the Mendenhalls up to assist with potential ground search, (2) Assist with defraying costs of privately funded heli hours for search, (3) Assist with Care/Life/College fund for Ryan’s 2.5 year old son Milo in a worst case scenario.”
Alpinist will update this story as more information becomes available.