Families remember climbers five years after presumed deaths
March 30, 2023 at 5:00 a.m.
When most people look up at the Mendenhall Towers in Juneau, they just see its sharp ridges, the white snow that clings to them and its stark contrast to the open sky.
But, when Ruth Johnson looks at the towers, she sees her son, Ryan.
“He was always a positive and spirited person,” she said. “He lived life to the fullest doing exactly what he wanted to do.”
March 7 marked five years since Ryan Johnson of Juneau and Marc-Andre Leclerc of British Columbia were reported missing after summiting the north face of the main tower.
During the initial six-day search for the men in 2018, rescuers only found the pair’s anchor rope on the fourth tower and two climbing ropes in a crevasse midway down the tower. They were presumed dead shortly after the search, and to this day, their bodies have never been found.
Ryan was 35, and Marc-Andre was 25.
According to Jackie Ebert, operations chief for Juneau Mountain Rescue who ran the operations of the initial search effort, the search is now considered to be a limited continuous suspended search until new information is found.
Ebert said since the initial search there have been no reported sightings of possible new information. She said it’s difficult to say if or when a recovery could happen due to the dynamic nature of location.
“There’s really nothing more that we can go off of at this point,” she said.
Born in Juneau, Ryan was known across the Juneau and Alaska climbing communities for his knowledge of Juneau’s peaks and icefield, and his many first ascents on the Mendenhall Towers.
Marc-Andre was also an acclaimed climber, known for his solo ascents of staggering mountains across the globe and posthumously was the center of a documentary released in 2021 titled “The Alpinist” that outlined his free-spirited way of life and extraordinary ascents.
The impact of the pair’s disappearance and deaths rippled far beyond Juneau — and Alaska. It reverberated across the country and the globe as the climbing community and those who cared for them mourned the loss of two people described as extraordinary athletes and humans.
Ruth said Ryan was always outside filling his days with adventures and filling others around him with joy. He loved what he did and who he surrounded himself with, she said.
“I always tell people that Ryan was born happy. He was just always a loving, supportive, happy little dude from the time he was tiny,” she said. “He wasn’t one to document all his first ascents, he celebrated other people’s successes more than his own, that’s just who he was.”
Ruth said the five years since his death has flown by, but the impact of his absence remains ever-present. She said she finds comfort in knowing his legacy lives on through his son, Milo, who she said is already shaping into quite an adventurer at just 7 years old. She also expressed her gratitude for the support her family has received from the community throughout the past five years.
“It was an event that impacted the entire community, and I just want to thank the community for the amazing outpouring of support five years ago, and for that continued love and support,” she said. “This is an amazing community — I don’t think I’ll ever be able to leave Juneau after what we survived. I feel an enormous debt of gratitude to everyone here for holding us up then and now.”
Serge Leclerc, Marc-Andre’s father, said his son was similar, always outside, always adventurous. He recalled when Marc-Andre was a young boy, and he’d put him on his back for hikes, for camping trips and how happy he always seemed to be there.
Serge said his son didn’t do the amazing climbs and ascents he did for fame or notoriety, he did it because that’s where he was the happiest.
“He was doing what he loved because he loved it,” he said. “His legacy wasn’t one of fame or being a daredevil, it was one of pushing himself to his own limit, knowing himself and just enjoying life. He didn’t wait around for the next day, he just enjoyed life when he could.”
Serge said he hasn’t returned to Juneau since the initial search five years ago, but said he hopes to visit soon. Recently, he said he’s been talking with local organizers and artists about creating a memorial or commemorative piece for the pair to be placed at the base of the summit.
“To me, it was five years but it feels like yesterday,” he said. “It’s hard, it’s a big part of me that’s missing.”
Serge said though not a day goes by when he doesn’t miss Marc-Andre, he expressed gratitude that his son’s final resting place was beautiful, somewhere he knew his son was happy.
“He’s already in the mountains, he’s already where he would choose to be,” he said. “I’ve been out there before, I’ve seen the northern lights and I’ve seen how beautiful it is, and personally, I can’t think of a better place for my son’s resting place.”
Ruth agreed. Juneau can be cloudy, and dark, she said. But on those days when the clouds finally clear and the mountains come into focus, she looks to them and thinks of her son — and that’s something.
“If I can’t have my son, and he has to pass from this life — he’s in the perfect place to be for eternity.”