Snowy weather thwarted a helicopter search for two experienced climbers overdue from a trip to the Mendenhall Towers this weekend, Alaska State Troopers say, but the search will resume today or as weather allows.
Juneau man George “Ryan” Johnson and Canadian Marc-Andre Leclerc haven’t surfaced from a climbing trip they were expected to return from on Wednesday evening, according to a Thursday AST dispatch. Trooper spokesperson Megan Peters said in an email to the Empire Saturday that the pair’s status is still unknown.
LeClerc and Johnson were attempting to summit the Mendenhall Towers, a 6,910-foot formation of jagged rock jutting up from the Juneau Icefield, about 12 miles north of Juneau behind the Mendenhall Glacier.
Before climbing the towers, Leclerc and Johnson stashed gear needed for the ski out, Peters said, and that gear hasn’t yet been picked up, indicating the pair hasn’t yet made it down from the Towers. That’s as much as AST knows about the pair’s status as of Saturday.
“What is known is they made it to the top and they did not make it back to their gear to ski out,” Peters wrote.
Alaska State Troopers, Juneau Mountain Rescue and the U.S. Coast Guard began a helicopter search Thursday using MH-60 Jayhawk helicopters from USCG Air Station Sitka. The search and rescue team made four flights with search teams onboard Thursday, according to a Saturday night JMR press release.
“Passes were made of the climbers’ planned Mendenhall Glacier exit route, along with their probable ascent and descent routes on the Mendenhall Towers,” the press release reads. The team was able to locate Johnson and Leclerc’s stashed gear during these flights, but snow and wind limited further access, JMR said.
The team tried again Friday to access the area but were again turned away by poor weather conditions, according to JMR Operations Section Chief Jackie Ebert when reached Friday afternoon.
Ebert said by phone Friday evening that the search and rescue effort enlisted the help of an Army National Guard Blackhawk helicopter, which was unable to get off the ground Saturday, again due to poor weather conditions.
Another rescue attempt will be made today if weather allows, Ebert said in an interview Saturday afternoon.
“We’re on weather hold but we’re still planning to fly with them (the Guard) tomorrow,” Ebert said. “As soon as we get the weather, we do have the clearance to fly.”
During the weather hold, the search and rescue team has continued to work with the climbers’ friends and family to establish a timeline of Johnson and Leclerc’s expedition.
The National Weather Service has forecasted warmer weather for Juneau today, with rain likely and highs around 40 degrees. Clear weather at sea level doesn’t necessarily mean rescuers will be able to reach Johnson and Leclerc, USCG spokesperson Lt. Brian Dykens told the Empire on Friday, as conditions at the Towers can be different than what’s seen on the ground.
“The weather in Juneau isn’t necessarily the same as the weather by the Towers,” Dykens said. “Even if it clears up in Juneau, we still have to see what the weather is like on the icefield.”
Both Johnson and Leclerc are well-known climbers. Johnson, 34, has pioneered routes on the Mendenhall Towers, while Leclerc is internationally known for climbing feats in Argentina and Canada and is listed on the Arc’teryx outdoor company website as a rock climbing athlete. Emails to Arc’teryx weren’t immediately returned on Saturday.
Johnson is the co-owner of Juneau business Tongass Fitness with partner Logan Lott. In a Friday phone interview, Lott said Johnson is an ambitious, experienced climber who has survived close calls in the outdoors before.
Lott said he’s worried the pair do not have a satellite phone or an avalanche beacon with them, a fact reported by AST’s Thursday dispatch. Climbers have told the Empire in interviews this week that there’s cellular service near the Mendenhall Towers and climbers will sometimes opt to pack cellphones instead of satellite phones. Leclerc posted a photo on Instagram from the climb, suggesting he had a cellphone with him.
Text messages Lott sent to Johnson on Monday afternoon went unread, which isn’t typical of his friend and business partner.
“I’m worried about him, more so than anything,” Lott said.
Peters couldn’t confirm Leclerc’s age, but a September 2017 article in Climbing Magazine listed him as 24 years old and of British Columbia.
• Contact reporter Kevin Gullufsen at firstname.lastname@example.org or 523-2228. Follow him on Twitter at @KevinGullufsen.