Words: Bernadette McDonald
There are only a few climbers in the world like Marc. He approached his passion with humility. He seemed larger than life, unstoppable, almost invincible. Marc leaves a hole in the Canadian and international climbing community that will likely never be filled. – Brandon Pullan, Editor, Gripped Magazine
Marc-André Leclerc quietly raised the bar of alpinism. He was a fine technician, his movements were precise, he had a calm approach, he was good in winter, on slabs, on choss, and on grand traverses. He saw the bigger picture in the mountains – more accurately – the grand picture. His imagination knew no bounds.
His climbs were ground breaking on many levels. It would be impossible to list all of Marc’s climbing achievements since many were done in private, completely away from the public eye. But there are a few that stand out:
The Corkscrew – Cerro Torre, Patagonia, First Solo Ascent
East Pillar – Torre Egger, Patagonia, Solo Winter Ascent
Reverse Torre Traverse, Patagonia – First Ascent
Directa de la Mentira – Cerro Torre North Face, Patagonia, First Ascent
Tomahawk/Exocet link up – Aguja Standhardt, Patagonia, – Onsight Free Solo
Mount Slesse, Cascade Range – Northeast Buttress, Free Solo in winter, 2nd Winter Ascent, First Winter Free Ascent
Mount Slesse, Cascade Range – Triple Link-up of East Pillar Direct, Navigator Wall, Northeast Buttress, Free Solo in 12 hours, 4 minutes
Mount Tuzo, Canadian Rockies – Northeast Face (M7+ WI6+R, 1,110 metres). First Ascent of the face
Mount Robson, Canadian Rockies – Infinite Patience (VI 5.9 M5 WI5, 2200m). First Solo Ascent
The Temptation of St Anthony, Squamish, First Free Ascent
Free Ascent of the Muir wall on El Cap (13c)
Talented, visionary, skilled, strategic and bold, his climbs were futuristic, even in this era of extremism. Patagonia veteran, Rolando Garibotti, understood the scope of Marc’s imagination, claiming that his solo climbs in Patagonia were “of a level of difficulty and commitment previously unheard of, not only in Patagonia, but anywhere.”
Although Marc’s Patagonia climbs were the ones that made him famous, it was his Canadian ascents that were pushing the limits in ways that only the cognoscenti fully understood. Many of these climbs were overlooked: his winter solo of Mt. Slesse, his bold solos in the Rockies, including the Emperor Face of Mount Robson.
I remember Marc saying that he was constantly surprised about people’s reaction to his youthfulness, when considering the seriousness of his climbs. “I’m 24 now, which many people think is rather young for the kinds of alpine solos I am doing. And yet I’ve been preparing for this for 15 years – nearly two thirds of my life.” It’s true. Despite his youthfulness, he had built up his skills in several fields, which he then combined, a rare ability. He often mixed different tactics: aid, free, mixed, solo, winter. He was hard to categorize. He was hard to understand. Everywhere he went, he pushed the local standards. Most people were impressed, even awed by his climbs. Some were annoyed at his boldness.
Most everyone agreed that Marc was prepared, that he was talented, that he was motivated: all the requirements for a superstar. But he also needed a tolerance for risk. Marc understood risk and he wasn’t afraid to back away from a project. He did his research, and if the research indicated unpredictable or unacceptable conditions, he chose not to go. On the other hand, when he made the first solo ascent of the Corkscrew route on Patagonia’s Cerro Torre, he initially encountered conditions that were “out of control”. He explained that he was prepared to go down if they didn’t improve. He would move through them slowly so as to evaluate them correctly, and then make a decision. In this case they improved, so he carried on. When I asked what frightened him while climbing, he answered: “Objective danger: avalanches, cornices, falling rocks, crevasses.” After a close call with a collapsing cornice while ski touring on Mt. Slesse, he reflected: “I was thinking about it really deeply. What is the risk worth?”
He must have thought a lot about risk, particularly when he was soloing. The stories of others who specialized in these high-risk endeavours resound with clear finality: Guy Lacelle, Dougal Haston, Dean Potter, Ueli Steck. Like Marc, these men were talented, skilled, well-prepared, strong, driven and smart. They were thoughtful about what they did and they were strategic about managing risk.
Marc is best known for his bold solo climbs, but he made some impressive climbs with his partners as well. I not only admired Marc’s lack of ego, but also his generosity towards the human race, in particular, his climbing partners. Slovenian climber, Luka Lindič was one, about whom Marc enthused about his “bad-assedness”. Colin Haley was another partner, with whom he whetted his appetite in Patagonia, and then went on to scorch those achingly beautiful spires with his speed and vision and boldness. The two had an interesting relationship, which Colin described: “While I think Marc and I shared equal amounts of motivation and drive, he was the stronger technical climber, and, more importantly, the younger climber, and there’s no doubt that if he stayed alive our friendly competition would’ve only lasted so long, before he left me far behind. He continued: “There was no one else I knew of that had a more similar vision of climbing to mine, and especially hard, solo, alpine climbing. In the last few years it felt like Marc-André and I were the only two players in a very special game… Marc-André was one of the most badass climbers on Earth.”
Although Marc expressed his creativity primarily as a climber, he was also a gifted writer. Anyone who has read his account of his solo ascent of Mount Robson will recall his thoughtfulness, his vivid descriptions of place and emotion. Writing is how I first met Marc. I messaged him to compliment him on his Alpinist piece on Robson, “A Visit with The Emperor: Mt. Robson, Infinite Patience”. We talked about writing and he explained how motivated he was to communicate his experiences in a meaningful way. I asked him if he would blurb my book, Art of Freedom, the biography of Polish alpinist Voytek Kurtyka. I still laugh at his response. “Sure, I don’t see any problem with that. What’s a blurb?” Later, he met Voytek, and the circle was complete. Marc had writing aspirations but he was smart enough to know how difficult it would be. He wrote: “One of the great contradictions of climbing writing is that the bigger and deeper the experience, the more difficult it is to write about.” I am quite sure that he would have met the challenge.
Marc had a lot of time for people, and he made a mark on many hearts. His family, his partner, Brette, his friends, climbing partners: all remain stunned, shocked, dumb with sadness. I spoke with Voytek Kurtyka about his brief interaction with Marc in Krakow last year. “Why did this man make, after just one hour’s conversation, a mark in my heart?” he puzzled. “Where did it come from? A few casual words? His face? His way of staying silent?” Many would point to his dazzling smile that radiated generosity and joy. Still, it’s remarkable how this young man made such an impact in such a short time: He was only 25 years old when he died.
Marc spoke with tenderness and respect for his family and his partner, Brette. He fretted about worrying his mother. He talked about the delight of climbing with Brette, about her natural abilities and their synchronicity in the mountains and in life. She, in turn, marveled at his energy, his humour, his absolute devotion to the mountains and to climbing. “We were always off in the mountains with some new objective, and when we returned we spent time doing yoga, recovering, eating healthy, and planning for our next trip. Not a day went by that we weren’t talking about climbing, making plans, or dreaming up ideas. Honestly, I don’t know if more than a few hours went by for Marc without his mind wandering to the mountains.” She reflected on his daily ritual: “Most mornings he would wake up, run down the hallway and check on Mt. Cheam to see what mood she was in”, she said. “Then he would come back, put on some coffee, and check all the weather forecasts.” Brette, perhaps more than any of his other climbing partners, understood his commitment to alpinism. She explained: “Mountain strategy became a science that needed to be constantly checked; then the actual climbing was an art. Being in the mountains was a powerful experience for him, it was the realization of his creativity.”
Despite the tragedy of his death, it’s important to look at his short and meteoric life and find wisdom, lessons, joy; something more than sadness. His climbs will surely motivate anyone who has aspirations for adventures in the mountains. But his tragic ending is a sober reminder about the inherent risks of the unpredictability of the mountains. Today’s alpinists can learn from Marc: from his meticulous preparation, his research, his finely-honed skills, his thoughtfulness. They can be inspired by his vision, then contemplate their own goals and priorities: will they return home safely from the mountains? Their children will want to hear the stories of their adventures. They deserve to hear them.
A year ago, I was asked to write a portrait of Marc-André Leclerc for the 2018 Canadian Rockies Annual. Although it became a painful and heart-wrenching experience, I can truthfully say that I have never met a climber with Marc’s rare combination of thoughtful intelligence, inspired creativity, brilliant talent and unassuming modesty. He was unique. I feel so privileged to have known him and am deeply saddened that his flame burned so briefly.