The best mountain climber of the century was an unknown young Canadian

Marc-André Leclerc died at age 25 after achieving peerless free solo ascents on forbidding walls of rock and ice. A documentary, ‘The Alpinist,’ has pulled him out of anonymity

Marc André Leclerc during one of his climbs in Canada.

Marc-André Leclerc wanted to be brave in a world he never entirely fitted into. Diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, there were few forms of expression he could choose from to demonstrate his worth, but when he was eight years old he began to read books about adventure and climbing and decided that he wanted to be an alpinist. In his case, it was the only door open to him: a world without rules, without limits, wild, and a way of life where he would not need anybody else and in which solitude could prove to be his best friend.

On March 5, 2018, he died along with his climbing partner Ryan Johnson in an avalanche after carving out a new route on the North Face of Mendenhall Towers, in Alaska. Leclerc was 25 years old and barely known to the wider public, but it is fair to say that it could be decades before another climber manages to achieve what the Canadian did on his own: the first solo ascent of the Infinite Patience route on Mount Robinson’s Emperor Face; Torre Egger in Patagonia in winter; a solo ascent of The Corkscrew on Cerro Torre in 18 hours… as well as numerous free solo first ascents (without ropes and harnesses) on rock, ice or a mixture of both.

The elusive Leclerc

Curiously, the best climber of the century had flown under the majority of radars. Leclerc’s brief passage through the world of mountaineering leaves behind it an astonishing intensity that has been masterfully captured in a documentary titled The Alpinist, directed by Peter Mortimer, who was also responsible for Valley Uprising and The Dawn Wall. When Mortimer first heard about Leclerc, he experienced the same thing as everybody else: after reading about a climb in Patagonia he was intensely impressed, but the more he tried to find out about Leclerc, the less he found. It is not just that the Canadian did not use social media – he didn’t even own a cellphone. But it was clear that the climbing community was witnessing an extraordinary athlete capable of scaling any remote peak.

Alex Honnold – the subject of The Dawn Wall – admitted feeling like a novice alongside Leclerc. Even though both climbed without ropes, their motivation, their playing fields and their philosophies of life had nothing to do with each other despite both starting out in similar fashion: two guys who did not fit any mold.

Today, climbers and alpinists have achieved the status of athletes and gained wider public popularity, and as such, climbing is experiencing unprecedented growth. Honnold won an Oscar and is one of its greatest exponents. Ueli Steck was so before him. These days it is not enough to be very good at the discipline. You also have to very good at selling yourself. But Leclerc seemed to be the missing link between the generation of hippies and outsiders of the 1970s, people whose only desire in life was to climb, and the present, which is much more focused on forging a career and driven by sponsors who encourage an active presence on social media.

A life less ordinary

His ability to live in line with the bare necessities of climbing led him to sleep in an apartment stairwell, or in a tent, to hitchhike from A to B or to seek solace in the woods of Squamish, a hotbed of climbing in the western Canadian province of British Columbia. Lacking cash to travel, he started to fill the voids between one climb and another with cheap drugs, becoming lost until he was rescued by another climber, Brette Harrington, whom he met in Squamish in 2012. Harrington, herself an accomplished alpinist, helped Leclerc to rediscover what he loved and they traveled the world together, hand in hand, from wall to wall.

Leclerc’s main desire when on a mountain was to experience an adventure, to enjoy the simplicity of climbing without chasing any sporting achievement, recognition or reward beyond communion with his environment and his inner self. To live a life as full as it was simple, basic. He could have been famous; he could have earned a lot of money; he could have thrust out his chest and shouted to the world how exceptional his ascents were. He could have, but he wouldn’t, because weighing these angles didn’t even occur to him.

What for, if he was already happy? Less is more, he understood. His example is a breath of fresh air, as unexpected as it was necessary for an activity that is subject to more and more posturing and false modesty than genuine passion. It has become necessary to look beyond Instagram for what really matters in the world of mountaineering. The images that open the documentary or those of him climbing at Stanley Headwall are as beautiful as they are terrifying. Hours after watching you can still hear the sound of his ice axe and crampons on the rock and feel the fragility of those anchors while imagining the calmness and dexterity required not to make a mistake when climbing without ropes.

Leclerc’s story is much more than just another story of climbing: it is a story of his commitment to life, a much simpler life that will inspire some and confound others

Today, only a few people remember Leclerc, so it is fortunate that The Alpinist is on screens (it is available on Filmin.es). Its makers followed and filmed Leclerc for two years, and he died just as they were finishing editing the final movie. The film leaves a melancholic aftertaste, not only because it records his death and features the testimony of those who were close to him; it is Leclerc’s demeanor, his child-like smile, his genuine closeness, which leads one to wonder how much he suffered before he found his path in life, when his mother took him out of school to teach him biology or geology in the open air.

Leclerc’s story is much more than just another story of climbing: it is a story of his commitment to life, a much simpler life that will inspire some and confound others. But thanks to The Alpinist, Leclerc will not fall into obscurity, not only because during his brief existence he redefined the limits of what is possible in mountaineering, but also because of his extraordinary capacity to find happiness with the bare minimum and to extract the energy he needed to face life from the mountains that he climbed. It is enough to watch him with a hula-hoop in the documentary to understand that he was at peace with himself.

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