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Recovering bodies of Alaska climbers could be months away

/ 01:47 PM March 17, 2018

In this March 9, 2018, photo provided by Arc’Teryx Equipement shows Arc’teryx athlete Marc-Andre Leclerc of British Columbia is pictured in a climb.Two experienced mountain climbers trying to tackle a new route in Alaska were presumed dead after climbing ropes that matched their gear were found in a crevasse, authorities said Wednesday, March 14, 2018. Marc-Andre Leclerc, 25, of Squamish, British Columbia, and George “Ryan” Johnson, 34, of Juneau, not pictures, were reported missing missing from the Juneau Ice Field, after they failed to return from a climb March 7 on the Mendenhall Towers, a seven-peaked mountain not far from Alaska’s capital city. (Arc’Teryx Equipement via AP)

JUNEAU, Alaska — The bodies of two experienced mountain climbers who are presumed dead likely won’t be recovered for months, a spokeswoman for the Alaska State Troopers said.

Megan Peters said summer is the soonest that authorities could launch a recovery effort in southeast Alaska, though even that depends on snow and ice conditions and the risk to crew members.

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“We like to be able to provide closure to families also,” Peters said. “There are times where unfortunately we’re just not able to do so.”

The agency said earlier this week that George “Ryan” Johnson of Juneau and Marc-Andre Leclerc of British Columbia are presumed dead. The men were reported overdue on March 7 from a climbing trip to Mendenhall Towers, a seven-peaked mountain not far from Alaska’s capital city.

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Poor weather hampered search efforts early on, but a chartered helicopter carrying members of the Juneau Mountain Rescue organization was able to reach the north face of the Mendenhall Towers on Tuesday, according to the troopers. An intact anchor rope was seen at the top of an ice chute and two climbing ropes matching the description of gear carried by the men were seen in a crevasse, the troopers said.

Peters said she wouldn’t be surprised if someone defied warnings about safety concerns and attempted a recovery effort on their own because it’s happened in the past. But she said that is dangerous.

“In my experience of being here for 11 years, I have never seen us not at least try and go back in summertime and see what we could do,” she said. While there’s no date for any attempt, “we don’t forget things like this,” Peters said.

Jackie Ebert, who is with Juneau Mountain Rescue, said by email that the men had completed an ascent of the north face of the main tower. “To the best of our knowledge, we don’t know that it was ever successfully climbed before,” Ebert wrote.

Johnson had climbed Mendenhall Towers multiple times and received an American Alpine Club grant earlier this year to scale 13,832-foot (4,216-meter) Mount Hayes in the Alaska Range, according to the Juneau Empire newspaper. He also completed climbs in other parts of the world, including Canada and Nepal, according to his bio on the website for Tongass Fitness, a gym he co-founded.

Outside magazine called Leclerc “one of the best alpinists in the world,” and his biography on the website of a sponsor, Canadian outdoor equipment company Arc’Teryx, says he completed ascents in Canada and Patagonia.

Ebert said winter climbs, particularly on the Juneau Icefield, from which the Mendenhall Towers jut, have their own set of dangers.

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“While it may be raining in town, the icefield could be receiving feet of snow,” Ebert wrote. Snow instability and avalanche danger are primary concerns, Ebert said.

Shorter days and foul weather complicate winter rescues in Alaska, Ebert said, adding that storm systems in fall and winter come in stronger and daylight during the winter is limited.

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