World-class alpinists Marc-Andre Leclerc and Ryan Johnson have passed away while on a climb in Alaska.A GoFundMe page was started to assist family and friends here. An update on the page reads, “It is with great sadness we update this page tonight. Marc’s dad sends the message below.
“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. My heart is so broken. Part of me is gone with him. Our family appreciates all of your prayers and we would like to ask for a time of privacy as we come to grip with these devastating developments. Marc-André was an amazing, loving man and he has touched many lives in so many ways. He will be remembered and loved forever. I know he is with our Lord and I will be with him again one day.”
The two were last heard from on Mon. March 5 after climbing a new alpine route in the Mendenhall Towers near Juneau. On Fri. March 9, Juneau Mountain Rescue reported, “The climbing community in Juneau is a tight one. We understand the concern of the community because we are feeling it too. We are continuing to work with the Alaska State Troopers to search for Ryan and Marc.”
Rescue workers saw some of Leclerc and Johnson’s gear during a fly-by earlier in the week, after the concern for the climber’s safety grew on Wednesday when they failed to return as planned. Leclerc and Johnson were both very experienced all-round climbers with a number of big routes to both of their names.
In 2007, Johnson and Sam Margo made the first ascent of the north face of the West Tower via The Great White Conqueror V AI4 M5 A1 in the Mendenhall Towers.
I never met Johnson, but Leclerc was one of my climbing heroes who I had the privilege of spending some time with. Below is a collection of some of Leclerc’s climbs and quotes from his blog, Instagram and our conversations. He was a visionary Canadian climber who pushed limits on rock, ice and in the alpine. He had broad shoulders, curly brown hair and an inviting toothy grin; an unforgettable smile.
He approached his passion with humility. He studied the geography of a wall or peak and the history of climbers who had attempted or climbed before him. He was a meticulous climber and if you’d ever met him, you’d know that he went climbing because he really did just love it so much.
He never chased the headline-making climbs, instead he looked for remote and off-piste experiences. When he was visiting the Canadian Rockies, he would sometimes sleep on my couch in Canmore. Sometimes with his partner Brette, sometimes alone.
He and I would flip through old guidebooks and journals and talk for hours about climbing pioneers and projects left undone. I had never met a climber who studied climbing literature and old climbers as much as he did. I had the pleasure of hearing first-hand from Leclerc about some of his adventures.
He grew up in Agassiz, east of Vancouver, in the Fraser River Valley and just north of Mount Slesse. He started climbing at age nine at Project Climbing gym in Abbotsford.
His mother Michelle bought him The Freedom of the Hills for his 15th birthday. And he began to focus his energy on solo trips up multi-pitch routes on Falcon Crest Wall at Harrison Bluffs. He taught himself rope-solo techniques and eventually attempted Grand Wall later that year.
He would eventually move to Squamish and either rent a cheap room or live under boulders in the forest. I first heard about Leclerc about seven years ago, I saw a video called Driven that featured him climbing in Squamish.
A few months later, he started a blog to share his thoughts about climbing ethics, his ascents and more. For the first few years he would post often and then nearly never. His first post included, “So right now I am living in a house with three of my best friends and climbing buddies where I rent the stairwell and front entrance space for $180/month. My bed at the moment is a queen size air mattress inflated inside a 3ft/8ft room that folds up on each side and swallows you whole when you lay down on it. It may not be the most glamorous sleeping arrangement however rent is cheap and I use my money for more important things such as beer, ice cream, cookies and sometimes rock climbing.”
In July of 2013, he soloed two big routes up Mount Slesse in a day, the Northeast Buttress and the North Rib. Those free-solos were big deals and they signaled at what was to come.
This is what he had to say about that, “The realization of a goal I made four years ago, that once seemed absolutely impossible. The amusing part is, it didn’t feel particularly hard or outrageous. Aside from a moment or two in the pocket glacier, it never felt extreme. I think this is how these kind of missions should feel, relaxed, comfortable and in control. I realize now how much I really missed the mountains and how happy I am to be back.”
A few weeks later, he walked up to the base of the Grand Wall, again, and set a new speed-solo record. The record would later be bested by Alex Honnold. It was one of the few times Leclerc focused on timing a climb.
Known as the Roman Chimneys, the upper Grand Wall is rarely climbed. Leclerc said about that part of the route, “I had never soloed the Chimneys before, so I climbed cautiously, particularly through the initial 5.11a slab crux. As I power laybacked a slightly damp 5.11a offwidth I thought to myself, ‘even if I don’t break the record I won’t be trying this again,’ but soon enough I was racing through the gritty face climbing that avoids an 5.11+ roof crack and up the final 5.10 corner to the top. I checked the time as soon as I reached the ledge that marks the end of the Roman Chimneys, it was 11:30 bang on. I had taken somewhere between 57 and 58 minutes, just shaving a minute or two off the previous record!”
That October, Leclerc sent me a note about one of his new routes. He’d freed The Last Temptation of St. Anthony 5.13 R/X on the North Walls in Squamish. He described in his message that the crux fourth-pitch, which was a thin face originally climbed with A5 hooking, as a “contender for one of the boldest leads on The Chief.”
In 2014, Leclerc accomplished a number of big climbs.
It all started in January with Canadians Paul McSorley and Will Stanhope, along with American Matthew Van Biene. They climbed a new 18-pitch route and made the first ascent of the peak Cerro Mariposa above Lago Mariposa, near the headwaters of one branch of the Rio Turbio in Argentina.
Leclerc then returned to western Canada. He went on to free-solo three routes on Mount Slesse, including the Navigator Wall, East Pillar and Northeast Buttress in a day. He also climbed new terrain in the Waddington Range.
I reached out to him to hear about his climbs. He didn’t have much to say about Slesse but said a few months later over a beer that his mantra during his Slesse trifecta was, “I feel like a cat, I feel like a ninja, I feel like a ninja cat, an alpine ninja cat.”
About the Waddington trip and solo link-up of Serra 5 and Asperity Mountain in an 18-hour return push from base camp, he said, “So psyched to have completed the first solo ascent of Serra 5 and to also establish a 1,600-metre new route on Asperity during my link up, Calm Like a Bomb.” That new route goes at TD+/ED1 5.10a WI3.
He also talked about Brette Harrington’s free ascent of The Shadow 5.13 in Squamish. “Brette fired the Shadow this morning. Third try overall. Maybe the second female ascent? It was cool,” he said. He always made a point to tell me about her climbs before mentioning his. He sent me the below photo of Harrington on the steep corner.
I hadn’t met Leclerc, but shortly after that last correspondence, he said, “I’m looking to come out to the Rockies towards the end of November and for a few days in December as well.
“Thinking a couple weeks. I was wondering if you know any alright places to stay, cheap hostel or couch surfer type places, and if you would want to climb? Hoping to get in some mileage before heading to Argentina.”
A few days later, Leclerc arrived in the Canadian Rockies. He went to solo Professor Falls, a classic WI4. But he accidentally climbed the wrong route. Later he said, “It felt really hard for WI4, but I just figured it was early season. Found out later it was Sacre Bleau.”
Leclerc accidentally soloed a multi-pitch WI5/6, in early season conditions. He said, “It felt a little hard when I was stemming between the pillar and the rock wall. I just figured it was still early.”
He skipped Canmore and headed straight to Jasper.
“I camped on the Icefields and tried to solo Andromeda Strain then hitch-hiked here,” he said. He then met Joshua Lavigne for a 30-hour car-to-car ascent of The Wild Thing V M7 1,200m on Mount Chephren.
And then with little rest he charged up two classic ice lines. He said, “Two hours up Polar Circus and then maybe an hour on Weeping Wall. Six hours car-to-car with walking between routes and descending and stuff. Then I passed out next to Ian’s van while they climbed Polar Circus. Ha, no rest day after getting off Wild Thing, I was pretty rocked.”
Over the next few months, Leclerc readied for Patagonia. As a favour to me, he wrote a 1,000-word article about his Wild Thing ascent for my book The Bold and Cold.
He then visited Patagonia and with Colin Haley and made the first ascent of La Travesia Del Oso Buda, the reverse traverse of the Torres. “It was my big introduction to climbing in the Torres and initially everything felt foreign, particularly climbing in the rime mushrooms,” said Leclerc. “Topping out our final peak was a relief and but even close to the end of the journey. The climb certainly set the pace for the rest of 2015.”
Not long after the traverse, Leclerc made the first integral ascent of Cerro Torre’s North Face via Directa de la Mentira with Haley.
“This time many small problems threatened to shut us down; a faulty fuel canister, falling ice, running water, more falling ice, strong winds,” said Leclerc. “Each of these problems we were systematically able to work through as a team and topped out at sunset the second day on the route. Another all night rappel ended one of my favorite adventure climbs in my personal memory bank.”
Leclerc’s hot streak continued with the first solo of The Corkscrew on Cerro Torre. “A solo of this magnitude is probably only second to Renato Casarotto’s (‘God with a mustache’) first ascent of Fitz Roy’s North Pillar 5.10d C1 1,250m,” said leading Patagonia climber Rolando Garibotti.
“The Corkscrew was undoubtedly my hardest climb of the year,” said Leclerc.
He later said over beers that his ascent included “5.10+ rock, grade-six ice, daisy soloing thin aid. The issue was mainly wet rock and verglas in the lower section. I was scraping verglas off of holds with my fingernails while soloing by headlamp.”
Then back in Canada, he made the first solo winter ascent of the Northeast Buttress of Slesse.
He said, “I got dropped off at the start of the road the evening of the eighth and walked up to the memorial where I bivied. Colin Haley and Dylan Johnson popped by at 11 p.m. and we all fist bumped, haha.
“Then I started up at 5 a.m. on the ninth, and approached the buttress directly through the bowl beneath the mountain. The snow was generally fairly firm, although deep in places, and I crossed the by-pass ramps and made it to the first rock pitch at first light.
“Above that, on the Beckey Ramps, there was a lot of ice and good neve to with a section to 80 degrees before moving back to the ridge crest and climbing a pitch of M5 to the bivy ledge. From there, easy snow steepening to 75 degree neve led to the base of the headwall.
“The crux pitch of the headwall went at about M5+, with a spicy crux transitioning from steep rock to thin mixed slab with 1 cm thick ice patches here and there. Above that the climbing eased up slightly until reaching the summit. I believe I must have spent about five hours on the route, but that is an estimation, I had no way of telling time.
“I descended the Southwest Buttress and walked back over crossover pass and down to pick up my gear at the memorial. I walked the gravel road back to the junction with Chilliwack Lake road and had only walked a couple kilometres before getting a ridge back to Chilliwack. I was back at my sister’s place having dinner at 6:30 p.m. A spectacular day in the mountains.”
He sent this image by Dylan Johnson and said, “So righteous! Conditions the night before my climb.” He later added a line to show where he soloed.
He then travelled to Europe for limestone sport climbing with Brette. He climbed the classic 5.13 Séance Tenante in Gorges du Verdon. “Séance Tenante is a true masterpiece of the 1980s,” Leclerc said.
Back in Squamish in the summer of 2015, he made the first free ascent of The Raven, a big-wall style climb. “Atypical for Squamish climbing in its steepness and the bold athleticism involved with the crux pitch, the all gear protected finally also provides uniqueness with its razor thin layback flake protected with micro cams high above the dark North Gully,” said Leclerc.
He also free-soloed Pipeline, a classic 5.10c offwidth near town after a lap with a rope. “Pipeline was my personal crash course in offwidth climbing early in the year, with a rope of course,” Leclerc said.
“At the time I was dumbfounded by the fact that the route was free soloed onsight in 1979 by Greg Cameron. By July my offwidth technique had come a long way, and although I had not revisited the route in the months in between I felt ready to return for the ropeless ascent.”
He said that he was in offwidth-mode and established some new wide-crack problems near Hope.
He and Brette then travelled to California and onsighted The Venturi Effect and Solar Flare on The Incredible Hulk. “With Brette I made two lovely trips to attempt these routes, both established by one of my personal heroes, the legendary Peter Croft,” said Leclerc. “To not fall off either of the routes was a pleasant surprise. Flawless granite, technical climbing and a beautiful atmosphere set these climbs high on the quality pedestal.”
That September he returned to California and onsight free-soloed Tomahawk and Exocet on Aguja Standhardt. “I carried some gear in case I needed to belay, but conditions were ideal and I never had to make use of it during the climb,” he said. “I found myself on the summit 12 hours after leaving basecamp and was back on the glacier before darkness set in. With the whole Torre Valley to myself, this was a deeply satisfying adventure experience.”
Back in California, he climbed Muir Wall via the Shaft variation, a 5.13+ big wall with Harrington and Alan Carne. He said, “Brette freed everything except for a single 5.12a move on pitch 29. Alan freed most of the route as well, including three 5.13 pitches (two on toprope) which is very impressive at 55 years old.
“The route is quite stacked with four 5.13 cruxes to 5.13c, 13 pitches of 5.12 and most of the remaining pitches being at least 5.11. I onsighted everything except for the four crux pitches and one 5.12a on pitch three. On the final push we jumared to our high point just above the grey ledges and spent four days on the upper wall.”
That winter, Leclerc came back to Canmore and to my couch. He and Brette had never really tried crag dry-tooling and they were going to put some miles in.
They visited Haffner Creek and the Ghost with Jim Elzinga, a legendary alpine climber. Before long they were climbed hard winter mixed routes, including Nightmare on Wolf Street on the Stanley Headwall.
“Surprisingly, before this climb I had never in my life clipped bolts while mixed climbing, nor had I climbed a hanging dagger of ice,” Leclerc said. “Having the opportunity to enjoy this amazing route with Brette, and both ski out by moonlight afterwards was the perfect way to end the 2015 climbing season.”
That December, Leclerc was invited to give a slideshow for the Calgary Mountain Club. He spoke to a room full of climbing legends, like Steve Swenson, Kevin Doyle and Urs Kallen.
For over an hour, Leclerc humbly talked about some of his achievements. He was the youngest climber to give a talk to the 60-year-old mountain club.
The 2016 year brought more big routes for him. First was Scotland where he climbed serious routes solo, some were Central Buttress VII, Gargoyle Wall VI, Point Five Gully V, Hadrian’s Wall Direct V, Smith’s Route V and Minus Two Buttress V into Northeast Buttress. He attempted to solo Darth Vader VII, but conditions forced him to bail. With Jon Walsh, Leclerc onsighted Happy Tyroleans IX.
Back in the Canadian Rockies and back on the couch, Leclerc focused on technical mixed routes, solo. He turned heads with his day on the Stanley Headwall. He free-soloed French Reality WI6+, Nightmare of Wolf Street into The Day After La Vacance M6 WI6 and Nemesis WI6, all about 150 metres.
Nemesis and French Reality had been soloed, but few climbers had considered climbing steep mixed routes such as Nightmare and Day After due to the exposure and quality of rock.
He was then joined by Luka Lindic, a top Slovenian climber.
On the day Lindic arrived to Canmore, we went for beers. I gave Leclerc a copy of my book that he had written for. It chronicles 50 years of hard alpine climbing in the Canadian Rockies. He read it that night, cover to cover.
Over coffee the next morning, Leclerc and Lindic packed gear, food and readied skis for an attempt at the second ascent of the East Face of Mount Fay. It had been snowing a lot, but they were as keen as anyone to get up high.
In the end, they climbed a serious new route up the northeast face of Mount Tuzo called The Lindic/Leclerc M7+ WI6+R 1,100m.
Having been gone a few days without seeing them, I texted him and he wrote back, “Hey man we’re alive. Mount Fay was avalanching so we skied into Valley of the Ten peaks and put up a new route on Tuzo. We ran out of water and an animal ate our food. The second night on the face was spent sitting on a small ice ledge, haha, already out of food and gas.”
Lindic’s partner from Europe came to climb in Canada and Leclerc went to the mountains alone.
He jumped on a tour bus that dropped him off at Mount Andromeda. Alone, he walked up the long glacier to the base of the northeast face of Mount Andromeda and soloed the 750-metre difficult Andromeda Strain. He said, “In the upper chimney it was easier to turn around. I climbed up looking straight out into the mountains with 500 metres of air below my feet.”
A few days later, I was on a sunny patio in Ontario drinking a beer when Leclerc sent me this text, “Hey dude. Soloed Emperor Face!”
The idea of soloing the Emperor Face had been around for decades, but no one dared attempt the 1,500-metre grade-five wall with seracs and cornices aplenty. It was a bold and game-changing climb.
He continued with, “The first pitch was really steep. From the top I downclimbed a frozen west bowl then traversed all the way back to skis at the base. I dropped by lighter trying to brew up high on the west face though. Watched it fall off the mountain, then having the stove go out was a bit of a heart sinking moment. Then later on found my back up lighter was in my pocket the whole time. I had a lighter the whole fucking time!”
He didn’t leave the Rockies for long and returned with Harrington to work on a project in the Ghost near Hydrophobia they dubbed Auroraphobia. It’s a six-pitch 5.13+ project.
Before heading in, he reached out and said, “Hey dude how is Ontario? Brette and I are back in the Bow Valley to work on the Ghost project. Might you happen to have any closet space where we could put some of my winter/mountain gear for a bit? When will you be back we definitely need to grab a beer!”
They projected the route for a few days, but soon had a plane to catch to northern Canada.
They joined Joshua Lavigne for a trip to Baffin Island and made the first ascent of The West Buttress of Great Sail, an 1,100-metre 5.12a C1.
After their multi-week expedition, Leclerc and Harrington set their sights on the Chinese Puzzle Wall on the south side of the west buttress of South Illusion Peak in the Nesakwatch Creek valley. It’s a diamond-shaped outcrop of steep, white granite. Leclerc would often say, “Oh dude, it’s so crazy. One of the best walls around.”
He talked about the climb the next time I saw him. He was sitting on the couch, holding a guitar with a big smile.
We talked about the history of the route, that in the 1980s, Nick Jones, Bill Noble and Kirt Sellers made two tries ground-up on what they called Warlock. In the 1990s, Fred Beckey, Mark Maffe and Steve tried but only got up two pitches. About 10 years later, Michael Crapo and Ben Demenech tried too. Tone McLane and Dan Tetzlaff tried but bailed after a scary fall.
Leclerc and Harrington called their climb Hidden Dragon, a serious 5.12b 11-pitch ground-up trad route. They spent hours cleaning dirt from cracks while on lead. “Dude, the cracks were so overgrown. It was pretty hard but crazy fun,” he said.
A few months later, he was back in Patagonia and made the first winter solo of Torre Egger in September. “There was a lot of wind on the summit and I did not linger for long,” he said. “I downclimbed the last pitch then rappelled straight down and directly off the edge of the headwall from v-threads which allowed me to avoid the traversing section of the route itself.”
During that winter, Leclerc climbed new ice routes on the West Coast and that spring he made the first ascent of the north face of Lady Peak with Harrington.
“Known for horribly loose rock, the Cheam range sports several impressive north faces,” said Leclerc. “Belays were good for top rope slip ups, but protection was often imaginary at best. Tip-toeing across this compact slab in crampons, several body lengths above a single tipped out beak, was a fun and engaging lead. A great mountain moment.”
Leclerc and Harrington then travelled back to the Ghost with Kieran Brownie and Luke Neufeld. They established a number of 5.12 and 5.13 sport climbs. Leclerc onsight free-soloed big 5.11 walls and made the first ascent of a five-pitch 5.10, ground-up and onsight free-solo.
After that successful trip, Leclerc was back on the couch. A joint was smoked and he said the name of his five-pitch 5.10 Ghost route was Moroccan Hash. He later added bolts for others to enjoy it.
He thumbed through an old guidebook and saw a line up Mount Deltaform that avoided the avalanche-prone Supercouloir.
The next morning I woke up to find the couch empty and Leclerc’s vehicle gone. I never knew where he was going, I don’t think too many people did.
On that day, he had gone and made the first solo and likely second ascent of Flying Buttress 5.7 800m on Deltaform. It took him six hours to reach the summit from his car and five to return. From the summit, he went down the west ridge, completing a traverse of Deltaform and up Neptuak and then down its Northwest Ridge. He said the route was “5.7” and said it was a a cool line with good quartzite.
After a few days of rest, he was back at it. He soloed the 150-metre Screams from the Balcony 5.11b at Saddleback crag above Lake Louise. He said it was one of the best routes he’d climbed in the area. After he climbed it, he climbed Wicked Gravity 5.11 at Back of the Lake sans rope.
That month in the spring of 2017, Leclerc went on to free-solo many big rock routes in the Bow Valley. His climbs made some locals nervous because the rock is so loose in places.
On Ha Ling, he free-soloed 600-metre Cheesmond Express 5.10, which he thought was a pretty serious climb for the grade. The upper cracks were full of moss and wet, so he free-soloed unclimbed ground out to the right. “Yeah, it was fine,” he said. “Better climbing on the faces.” He went up 600-metre Premature Ejaculation 5.10+, a route rarely climbed, and downclimbed the 10-pitch Northeast Face 5.7.
“The corner looked scrappy so I just climbed the wall way to the right,” he said about the mostly corner-climb Premature Ejaculation.
He made the first free-solo of Pinko on Rim Wall. The 600-metre 5.10 has only a few ascents. Halfway up the climb during his rope-less ascent a ledge broke beneath his feet and he held onto small crimps to prevent falling hundreds of metres.
Around that same time, he made the first-ever free-solo of Tall Storey in Echo Canyon. It’s a 185-metre 5.11c sport route that follows thin crimps on yellow and grey limestone. He onsighted it with a chalk bag and shoes.
When not climbing, Leclerc would hang around the apartment making yummy food and planning on what to do next. He would sit and read and, sometimes, send off emails.
He would bring us Delirium Belgian beer, the kind in a clay bottle with an elephant on it. Between everything else, he’d stay busy stretching, moving and massaging joints and muscles.
One of the last times I saw him was last summer. We met for beers at the Bow Valley Brewing Company. Then we walked by the river with friends. Joints were smoked.
We stood next to the flooding Bow River and more than ever before, he seemed larger than life, unstoppable, almost invincible. We’d point out unclimbed routes on tall walls and joke about stupid things.
He spent time in Patagonia again in the fall of 2017, but the weather was bad and he didn’t climb too much.
Back in the Rockies this past winter, he attempted the north face of Ha Ling in full-on winter conditions with U.K. alpinist Tom Livingstone.
He said after their attempts, “When the first winter ascent of Ha Ling’s north face is completed, the route is destined to become classic. So far it goes like, ‘climb runout kitty litter slabs to gain hollow poorly protected flakes which are followed to the base of a chossy corner – up the chossy corner to a series of shitty birdbeak placements in loose rock – step right to a crumbling ledge, then back left on a decomposing wall which is followed to a bullshit compact slab buried in sugar snow.’ For some reason I can’t wait to go back.”
Back on the coast, Leclerc, Harrington and Steve Janes made the second ascent of the 250-metre The Theft in B.C. on Feb. 12, a seven-pitch M7 WI6+.
The last new route Leclerc climbed before heading to Alaska was the 200-metre Jupiter Shift on Station-D in the Slesse Cirque with Harrington.
He didn’t lead anything on the remote alpine climb and said, “I had a good time getting rope-gunned up a new route in the Slesse Cirque by Brette. It was great to pick off another plum of a route even if the belays were soul shatteringly cold!”
Leclerc pushed the sport of rock and alpine climbing in Canada and internationally like no others. Few outside of his close circle truly knew how mad and crazy his climbs seemed, but of course they weren’t, not to him.
He made bold free-solos that demanded the utmost strength and skill. He fused styles on big walls and in the alpine to accomplish mind-blowing feats. And he really just loved to go climbing.
I’m going to miss our talks about mountain history and his latest adventure, and I’ll miss having him crash on the couch.
I was lucky to know him and my heart goes out to his family, friends and his partner Brette. Visit the GoFundMe page for more updates from the past few days and to donate.
I’ll leave you with the last thing he said on his blog, which he wrote after soloing the Emperor Face.
“I’m happy to say that my visit with the Emperor was a truly special experience. At first I was intimidated by his strong aura but in the end we became friends and the King generously shared his wealth leaving me a much richer person indeed. Thank you.”