HANGING thousands of feet up a mountain without a rope is dangerous enough – but it’s even more perilous when you’re gripping ice that could crack or melt at any moment.
In the ever more death-defying world of tackling sheer walls of rock newcomers have started to put even Alex Honnold of Free Solo fame in the shade.
But for the star climber in a major new documentary the thirst for more and more challenges proved to be deadly.
The Alpinist charts the adventures of a young Canadian climber called Marc Andre Leclerc whose willingness to take on any vertical terrain without any protection took the sport to new levels.
Tragically, while the film was being made the 25-year-old daredevil went missing in Alaska.
I didn’t know life could be so painful. After he died nothing mattered
It’s believed that he died in an avalanche on the way down a mountain.
His girlfriend of six years, Brette Harrington, who also climbs without a rope, tells The Sun watching the film was hard because: “It is painful to be in touch with that every day. It is so sad.”
After his death in March 2018 Brette says: “I didn’t know life could be so painful. After he died nothing mattered”.
Fight the fear
Despite that, she continues to ‘free solo’ – take on mountains without a rope, harness or even a helmet.
Living without fear when a tiny slip could end your life was something Marc taught her.
Until she met him, Brette made sure a rope tethered her to the rocks in case she fell.
“It can be scary”, the 29-year-old American says “ but you have a shift in mental perspective where it starts to get harder and you have to pay more attention and you have to control and manage your fear.
“If you think about slipping you have fear in a biological sense and you tense up, so you have to manage your biological responses and know you are completely capable of climbing it without falling. Be aware of the fear but don’t engage with it.”
The top climbers, like Honnold, can earn millions from sponsorship.
Be aware of the fear but don’t engage with it
These extreme sports stars post images of themselves in precarious spots across the globe on social media sites and generate huge clicks.
Marc used to sleep on a stairwell in his early days of mountaineering, because he had so little money.
But once he caught the attention of the sport, he earned a sponsorship deal with the outdoor clothing firm Arc’teryx which funded his expeditions all over the globe.
He took on mountains in Scotland, Canada, the United States and South America.
Nerves of ice
What set Marc apart from others, was his ability to tackle any kind of environment, both ice and rock.
Honnold says in the documentary, which was made by the team behind Free Solo and The Dawn Wall: “People think that what I’m doing is crazy, but it is safe in a lot of ways. It’s on rock, the medium is super solid. Then I see Marc Andre free soloing on snow.”
While he appeared to have nerves of steel hanging from sheets of ice, Marc was afraid at times.
Marc had to judge whether the frozen water was strong enough to hold his weight as he used just his upper body strength to pull himself up.
Brette says: “He definitely did have fear and he just managed his fear on such a great level, but he definitely got scared in certain situations.”
Fatalities among the most adventurous mountaineers are alarming.
Several free soloists have perished in the past decade.
While on average four people die every year tackling Mount Everest.
Reinhold Messner, who made the first solo ascent of Everest, questions whether the buzz justifies the risks.
He says: “Maybe of all the leading solo climbers of all times half died in the mountains. This is tragic and hard to defend.”
If death was not a possibility, coming out would be nothing
But he says there is no thrill without genuine peril: “For going on an adventure you need difficulty. If death was not a possibility, coming out would be nothing.”
The main threat to life and limb are the elements.
Weather systems are unpredictable at high altitude and storms can suddenly crash in, leaving climbers stranded.
Pursuing snow routes requires careful calculation.
You can’t control what the mountain is doing. And that, by far, is the biggest danger
Marc had to assess whether the temperature might rise and cause the ice or snow to melt on his ascent or descent.
The other major risk is avalanches, which can happen at any moment.
Marc said: “You can’t control what the mountain is doing. And that, by far, is the biggest danger. I know it is dangerous”
It is most likely that a sudden collapse of a shelf of snow – known as a cornice – was what led Marc to lose his life in Alaska.
The final climb
Brette joined in the search for him and his climbing partner Ryan Johnson, 34, after they went missing while coming down the 2,500ft high north face of the main tower of Mendenhall Towers.
Having spotted signs of their equipment they came to the conclusion the two men had been buried in an avalanche. They were unable to recover their bodies.
She explains: “Marc had never been there before and there were big cornices and they attempted to descend a gully and either cornice failed and triggered an avalanche or an avalanche came, but my perception is that a cornice failed.”
Ironically, the Alaskan climb appeared to be less treacherous than one Marc had been planning to go alone on 5,200ft high Mount Washington in Canada.
Brette had cautioned against it because of all the crevices.
There was no film crew in tow on the day Marc died because he often didn’t tell the documentary team what he was doing.
Going it alone
The Canadian felt that if there was a cameraman next to him on a climb it wasn’t true ‘soloing.’
Occasionally, he might do the route alone first and then do it again with the cameraperson close by.
Even when the production team bought him a mobile phone he wouldn’t answer it, so they had to track him down.
Talking as if Marc is still alive, Brette says: “He is kind of shy, he doesn’t like peeping into who he is.”
Yet, he did open up in the documentary about his troubled past.
Marc admitted to getting heavily into the climbing party scene at one point and to taking far too many psychedelic drugs.
He said in the film: “It got to the point where I couldn’t do anything without drugs.”
Fortunately, when he met Brette he calmed down and rediscovered his passion for the outdoors.
He could see all the elements
Out on the mountains he was at ease and content, not needing artificial highs.
Brette says: “He loved climbing. He was so confident, he could see all the elements, he could grasp the whole picture, some climbers get tunnel vision and make mistakes.”
Marc didn’t follow the rules, choosing to mix things up, sometimes using a rope and sometimes not.
He wasn’t a purist, he just loved climbing.
It is his dedication to taking on rock faces in ways no one else had before that will be his legacy, thinks Brette.
She concludes: “A lot of climbers are inspired by what Marc has done. He spent 90 percent of his time focusing on climbing and I don’t see that in anyone else.”
The Alpinist is in cinemas now.
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