You never knew when someone will find their calling.
Marc-Andre Leclerc was just five years old when he discovered his life’s passion. Rifling through a mountain encyclopedia fired his imagination and set him on a path to becoming one of the world’s best young climbers.
“It had all these images of people climbing Mt. Everest or whatever, and it looked like an adventure,” the Agassiz native said. “Back then I wanted to be an astronaut and a bushwhacking Indiana Jones-style explorer too, but I’ve wanted to do this since forever.”
Leclerc started his climbing career indoors and was good enough to win a national title as a 12-year-old.
But as much fun as he had scrambling up plastic walls, he was always drawn to the real thing.
When he was 11 years old, Leclerc remembers doing “extreme” hiking.
“Or at least it felt extreme because we’d be climbing super-steep forested embankments and the hikes were very long,” he recalled.
He climbed his first real mountain that same year.
Leclerc went with a friend’s family and tackled the Welch Peak in the Cheam Mountain Range (elevation 2431 metres).
“We hiked up to a lake underneath the peak, and then three of us continued up to the top,” Leclerc said. “I remember being one or two hundred feet in front of them, finding my own way up the mountain, and it was really cool. That’s what I remember most. Just behind ahead of them, scrambling up on my own and feeling really good about it.”
When Leclerc was 14 he had a 16-year-old friend with a driver’s license.
“We went on adventures together, climbing all over the Chilliwack Valley,” he chuckled. “We didn’t know what we were doing and our techniques were hilarious. We had the kind of equipment people would have used in the 1960s or 1970s, going up there with hammers, spikes and helmets that were too big.”
Leclerc is 22 years old now.
He’s scaled hundreds of peaks over the last eight years and has earned a reputation as a fearless trailblazer, a man who does what others will not do.
“The most enjoyable part of climbing for me is type-two fun,” he explained. “Type-two fun is when you’re kind of suffering and it’s not that fun, but afterwards you remember it as the best experience. My strongest memories, if I actually went back and relived them would be like, ‘What the hell was I thinking. This is terrible!’”
Climbing in the southern Patagonian ice fields in South America provides some of these moments.
Last winter, Leclerc and a friend tackled a series of massive granite horn-like peaks, and did several things no one had done before. That included finding a new route up the north face of the largest one, the daunting Cerro Torre.
“It was summer there, but the top of the mountain had been pasted with a thin sheet of ice,” Leclerc explained. “When the sun came up, the ice delaminated and all these little pellets were raining down on us from a thousand feet above. I was bombarded. My fingers were bleeding and it was pretty dangerous.”
“We had to climb through a raging waterfall at one point and we had to camp on this crazy little pedestal halfway up the mountain.”
They reached the peak at sundown the next day and were rewarded for their effort with a windstorm that made standing impossible.
“We were just crouching to take our photos, then we had to rappel down the face in the dark,” he laughed. “We rappeled all night. The sun came up and we still had a thousand feet to go. We had so many gnarly things happen, but when we finally stumbled onto the glacier at the bottom we were so happy we’d finished the route and had that epic adventure.”
“If we hadn’t had all that it still would have been really fun, but it wouldn’t be burned into my memory quite so deeply.”
Another memorable moment occurred in his own backyard when he tackled the northeast buttress of Mt. Slesse.
The last group to take that route did so in the 1980s, using ladders and slings to help themselves up.
Leclerc wanted to solo it with minimal equipment — just his hands, feet and some ice tools.
“Slesse was the most inspiring mountain when I was growing up, I love winter climbing and I thought free-soloing it would be a real good expression of adventure and skill.”
Near the top, about 2,000 feet up, the mountain almost thwarted him with a 15 foot section that looked too difficult.
But Leclerc found a way, as he always seems to do, and enjoyed his reward.
“It comes from years and years spending a lot of time in the mountains, where following natural lines becomes almost intuitive and subconscious. After 12 years of doing it, it’s built up to the point where it’s natural,” he said. “It was a difficult and engaging climb, but once I was at the top I was able to relax because I wasn’t worried about getting back down.
“There are incredibly beautiful summits in the world that I have trouble enjoying because I’m thinking, ‘OK, this is really nice but now I’ve got to get back down.’”
As wonderful as Slesse is, it’s Cerro Torre that keeps drawing Leclerc back.
With financial help from his main sponsor (Arcteryx), he’s returning to Patagonia in two weeks for his next challenge.
“I want to climb Fitz Roy (also known as Cerro Chaltén in South America) in winter and I’d like to try a new route on the east face of Cerro Torre,” he said. “I’ve been eyeing up this line that is really epic looking.”
Leclerc isn’t getting rich doing this.
At least not yet.
But he sees no reason to stop as long as he’s having fun.
“I see a lot of kids I went to school with who are in their 20s, stressed out about finances and not doing anything fun,” he said. “I can see myself doing this at least another 10 years, traveling, checking off climbing goals and just having experiences.”
Follow his adventures online at marcleclerc.blogspot.ca