Canadian Marc-Andre Leclerc died in a climbing accident in Alaska in March, along with Ryan Johnson.
Eighteen months earlier, American Alpnine Journal associate editor Chris Kalman had recorded a long interview with the young Canadian, in preparation for an article that appeared in 2017 journal.
To honour Leclerc’s life and provide a window into his unique character and intelligence, the American Alpine Journal offers this edited version of the interview below, covering his thoughts about bold climbs from Canada to Patagonia, on their podcast called The Cutting Edge.
Read the article this interview was preparing for here.
Look for a tribute to Leclerc in the June/July 2018 issue of Gripped magazine.
Remembering Marc by Chris Kalman
I didn’t know Marc-Andre Leclerc nearly as well as I would have liked to. As such, I feel it is important to note that I am in no way fit to eulogize him. I don’t want to over exaggerate our connection. But I don’t think you need to know someone intimately to be deeply affected by them. When someone like Prince, or Leonard Cohen, passes away, people from all over the world who never even met them come together to mourn. That is how impactful their art was. Marc-Andre is no different. His climbs inspired me, but his attitude about his climbs – about climbing in general – helped mold my own feelings about how I live my life. Thus, even though we were little more than acquaintances, I am deeply saddened by his death. And so, I have done the only thing I know how to do with those kinds of feelings. I wrote. Here is what I would like to say about Marc-Andre Leclerc.
Marc and I met in a hostel in Bariloche in 2014 during the Austral summer. He, Will Stanhope, and Matty Van Biene were on their way down to the Turbio Valley, and I was headed to Cochamo. Later, he stayed with Matty and I at the shack we were renting in Index. It was during that time that I started to gain a real appreciation for him – not just as a climber, but as a thoughtful, intelligent, and charismatic human. He was a strong climber then – but nothing out of the norm. Still, you could feel some electric potential in him. He was bristling with possibility. I knew he was special, and I quickly became fond of him.
In 2016, just a year after we were falling on the same routes, Marc had one of the most successful years of climbing in the history of the sport. Early in the winter, he did an impressive linkup of solos on the Stanley Headwall, in the Canadian Rockies. In the spring, he was back in the Rockies again, establishing first ascents of a bevy of routes in The Valley of Ten Peaks with Luka Lindic. He and Luka also climbed the rarely-repeated Greenwood-Locke route on Mt. Temple in full winter conditions, in a single push – the first time it had been done in that fashion. When Lindic left Canada, Marc-Andre carried on alone, completing the first winter solo of the Andromeda Strain on Mt. Andromeda, and almost immediately afterwards, the first solo ascent of Mt. Robson’s Emperor Face, via the route Infinite Patience. Next he was going ground-up in the Ghost Valley, drilling on lead for a new 5.13 multipitch sport route with Brette Harrington. In the blink of an eye he was off to Baffin Island, where he established two new routes with difficulties up to 5.13 on Great Sail Peak with Brette, and their friend, Joshua Lavigne. He didn’t slow down in the summer, authoring the first ascent of the impressive Chinese Puzzle Wall near Mt. Slesse in B.C., again with Brette, via their 11-pitch 5.12b, Hidden Dragons. In September, Marc found himself alone on the summit of Torre Egger after soloing the route, Titanic, for the first solo ascent of the peak. He did it in full winter conditions. That climb has been touted by some as the proudest ascent ever done in the range.
I know all this because Marc told it to me in a conversation I had with him shortly after his Egger solo. I was working for the American Alpine Journal, and we wanted to do a feature with Marc about his solos of the Emperor Face, and Egger. Marc had been hard to pin down on this. He had already written a beautiful blog post about Robson. Couldn’t we just use that? I could tell he was not looking forward to spending more time in front of a computer. I felt it was imperative not to let this opportunity slip, so I made Marc a deal. He and I could just talk on the phone, I would record the conversation, and then I would build his story from that interview. He was game, so we set a time, and soon we were chatting like old friends.
Now, a year and a half after our conversation, Marc is gone. He and his partner, Ryan Johnson, perished while descending from a new route on the Main Tower of Alaska’s Mendenhall Towers. Marc was just 25 years old.
The morning after hearing the news, I revisited the recording I made of our conversation. I got the tears out of the way early on, listening to Marc talk about starting school at the age of four, skipping another grade after that, working construction at the age of 14 to afford his first rack.
When the tears dried up, I found myself on the edge of my seat listening to a voice I already missed. At times he had me in stitches with his casual treatment of incredibly severe situations. At others, he gave me goosebumps with his beautiful descriptions of the alpine environment, and his humility. He was the opposite of cocky, and arrogant. It always felt to me as if Marc was just as in awe of his climbs as the rest of us; not in a self-congratulatory way, but in the way you might stare at a stunning spire. It almost felt to me that through these climbs, Marc transmogrified into something as beautiful as the mountain itself, and that he was dimly aware of that, even if he couldn’t fully explain, or believe it.
At the time of our interview, I was worried that Marc was being reckless with his climbing. I didn’t like it, and I told him as much. I had recently come to a point in my own climbing in which I forced myself to quit free soloing cold turkey. I did so because it had become clear to me that I couldn’t trust myself to make good decisions. I explained this to Marc, and asked if he thought he was being realistic about his risk assessment.
His answer surprised me. When he said “I wouldn’t make hard and fast rules for myself” I thought I was perceiving his Achilles heel. But I was wrong. He went on to describe a process for making decisions in the mountains that immediately struck me as far more organic, and intuitive than my own. “It’s hard to explain,” he said. “The only way I can even produce a visual is some kind of web of interconnected possible outcomes and decisions and small adjustments. Each small decision brings you down a different path—a whole next set of places you might find yourself, and decisions you have to make next.”
Upon listening to Marc’s words, my hard and fast rule, “no soloing”, instantly struck me as facile, and oversimplified. Moreover, it was indicative of a personal weakness from which Marc did not seem to suffer. The reason I had to say no, en masse, was because when I said yes, I never changed my mind. I experienced no such web of decisions – just set off bullheadedly to complete what I had set out to do. When Marc set off on solos, he told me, he was always prepared to bail. I could not claim the same for myself, and the only reason I’m still around to write this, I’m certain, is sheer dumb luck.
It would be easy to attribute Marc’s sudden passing, given his many daring climbs in past years, to an overly capricious attitude toward risk. But I honestly don’t believe that was the case. As his girlfriend, Brette Harrington, explained to me recently: “Marc knew very well what he was dealing with and took all the precautions to avoid accidents. This year in particular we have backed off of objectives due to questionable approach slopes or looming cornices, waited out warm weather, and waited for the mountains to clean. Marc was very attentive and conservative when it came to conditions.” When he perished, he was not out of his element, not pushing the boundaries of his abilities. I don’t think he was being overly risky. I think he got unlucky.
Marc knew that getting unlucky was always a possibility. We talked about this during our conversation. I shared with him something Steve Swenson once told me. “You can be super skilled, super knowledgeable, and have all the tools,” I paraphrased. “But at the end of the day there’s luck, and if you don’t think there’s luck involved, you’re lying to yourself.”
“Yeah,” Marc agreed, “you are.” And then, he simply said “Man. Crevasses and avalanches.” He did not expound further on those things. He didn’t have to.
I think Marc lived beautifully, intentionally, and intelligently. He wasn’t hiding from, or in denial about, the possible ramifications of his chosen life path. He embraced it unequivocally. And for this reason, I find myself reaching for a tired trope, I discarded long ago and never thought I’d come back to.
He died doing what he loved.
In this case, more than in any other I’ve been privy to before, I believe that to be true. He was beyond all the ego shit. Had transcended the media miasma, and the competitive quagmire of tracking times, and chasing grades. He was a pure spirit of climbing, and he lived and breathed, from what I could gather, an unbridled passion for being in the mountains.
I don’t know how Marc died, exactly. It seems likely that he and Ryan were swept into a crevasse by an avalanche. One tends to hope that death is quick and painless. And yet, there’s a part of me that wonders if Marc would have wanted it that way. He and I never discussed this subject, so this is purely conjecture. But he was so enraptured by every little thing that he experienced in the mountains, that I can’t help but think he might have wanted to be conscious and aware of what was happening, no matter how painful it was. “I didn’t want to miss any of the views,” he told me of his solo of Infinite Patience. “I was super into the colors, all the little critters waking up… It wasn’t about the climb; it wasn’t about cranking some hard move or anything, or free soloing. It was just this experience. It was like taking psychedelics or something.” I believe that, faced with certain death, Marc would have brought the same boundless curiosity and artistic attention to bear.
And would he be afraid? Of course. But I am reminded of another quote from our conversation, about his descent from Robson. “As I started rapping, I felt super intimidated, but right in the midst of the situation I had most feared, I just started to draw on all of the experience I’d been building, the systems and know-how in the mountains… And in the end, it was fine.”
We can’t actually know how it went down, or how Marc felt. And I don’t want to impose my thoughts on anyone else. But I do want to share a vision that keeps returning to me. I see Marc down in some deep crevasse. Full of pain, and sorrow, yes; but also entranced by the air bubbles trapped in the ice, light trickling in through frozen walls, breath rising weightlessly upward, the strange sensation of pupils dilating, eyes adjusting finally to darkness. I know that sounds. I’m not saying it’s necessarily what I would want for myself, or how I would respond. But I do not equate myself with Marc. I think he had a much deeper tolerance for pain and discomfort, and probably a more enduring curiosity.
There’s something else Marc told to me, which has stuck with me since the moment he said it. “When I finally did the climb,” he said, referring to his solo of Torre Egger, “it actually wasn’t that technically difficult. And then… I’ve been told it’s maybe the hardest route that was ever soloed in the mountains… But I’m like ‘was it actually that important? … You know, maybe the only reason I’m the only person doing that climb is just because I’m the only person in my generation trying these things. Most kids in my generation are mostly not going to the mountains at all. It just makes me wonder, if more people were going to the mountains, would this even be hard? Would climbing have progressed at a different rate? Or am I just the only person in my field?”
I never questioned Marc on that, because I found his humility so damn refreshing. And, to be frank, I don’t think Marc would have appreciated me gushing to him about how special he was. So I held my tongue, told him that was a great way to wrap up the interview, shot the shit with him for a while, and said goodbye.
I was a small part of Marc’s life, and we never exchanged more than a few quick emails after that phone call. Partially because we both were busy. But partially because I didn’t want to be pushy, didn’t want to fanboy all over him.
Damnit if I don’t regret that now. I should’ve bought a plane ticket to go visit him in Yosemite last fall. We chatted briefly about my doing just that so I could wring a few more AAJ stories out of him. It just never occurred to me that time was running out. So I did other things instead.
If I could see Marc now, though, I’d tell him the truth whether he liked it or not. He was one of the most talented alpine climbers that ever lived. He was a warm, tender, thoughtful, inspired, and inspiring human. What he achieved was won through hard work, and passion. He loved being in the mountains, and that love – I’m convinced – gave him a supernatural ability to adhere to steep faces of rock and ice, moss and snow.
Marc-Andre Leclerc was one of a kind. I reject his hypothesis. If you took any other climber out there today and gave them the same muscles, same experience, same tools as Marc had, I don’t believe a single one of them would be capable of his feats. Because they wouldn’t be possessed of the same heart. The same soul. Marc’s was a uniquely gifted and gilded spirit. He was not just the only one out there doing it. He was, actually, that good.