As clouds swirled, snow blew and avalanche activity changed the layout of the Mendenhall Towers last weekend, the searchers waited.
Responders from Juneau Mountain Rescue made the U.S. Army National Guard hangar at the Juneau International Airport their headquarters as they searched for two experienced climbers who had gone missing on the Towers.
Juneau resident George “Ryan” Johnson, 34, and Squamish, B.C. man Marc-André Leclerc, 25, were supposed to be back from their ambitious ascent of the Main Tower on Wednesday, March 7. When they weren’t back, search efforts began. Snowstorms raged for most of that week and weekend.
As he kept a close eye on the weather reports, Jeshua McMaster also watched as JMR responders prepared exhaustively for the search. McMaster, an Alaska Army National Guard Chief Warrant Officer 3 and the facility commander at the hangar, was piloting the UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter that was taking JMR searchers up to the Towers.
“Even though we were on standby,” McMaster said, “no one was standing by.”
Part of the preparation on the part of JMR personnel was mastering an approach that had never been used to find missing persons in Alaska. The RECCO Rescue System, which is primarily used in Europe, is designed for avalanche rescue.
As JMR Operations Section Chief Jackie Ebert explained, the handheld RECCO detector emits a radar signal to try to locate metal, electronics or other items that would reflect the signal back. Some ski and climbing clothing even has RECCO chips installed in them, she said.
The issue was, for the first few days of the search, they weren’t able to get the RECCO detector close enough to the path of the two climbers. The two men had planned to scale the north face of the Main Tower — a feat that had not been done before. Weather conditions kept search efforts mostly to the south side of the Towers, though.
Finally, on the sixth day of the search, the clouds cleared.
McMaster flew a crew of JMR searchers around to the north side of the Towers on the morning of the sixth day (Tuesday). A few of them, who were experts in monitoring snow conditions, were dropped off a ways away from the Towers to do research about avalanche conditions on the Towers. That was the closest spot they knew to be safe, Ebert said.
The Blackhawk then lifted toward the Towers, getting JMR personnel a closer look. They flew along a ridgeline between the Main Tower and the Fourth Tower, and both Ebert and McMaster said JMR personnel spotted footprints.
They were on the right track.
At the top of a gulley near what’s called the Fourth Tower, according to Alaska State Troopers, JMR personnel saw an anchor in the ice, where the climbers had attached a rope. The pieces were falling into place.
Late in the morning, the Blackhawk needed to head back to the hangar to refuel. They picked up the snow experts and then returned to their headquarters. While the Blackhawk refueled, Ebert and her colleagues made the decision to switch to a smaller helicopter.
They used an A-Star helicopter from Coastal Helicopters, both because it could get a little closer to the Towers and because it interfered less with the RECCO signal.
Aboard the smaller helicopter and equipped with the RECCO detector, they looked up and down the gulley near the Fourth Tower, Ebert said, and located another anchor rope part of the way down.
As they approached crevasses a little farther down, the detector found something.
“They got a RECCO signal and used that to essentially guide the visual search,” Ebert said. “It guided them to that crevasse area and very shortly after, they had honed in on an even more focused area. They were able to visually see the ropes.”
They recognized the orange ropes on the snow based on texts the two men had sent to friends and family, Ebert said. Cell reception is fairly common on the south side and on the summit of the Towers, Ebert said. Leclerc even posted a picture on Instagram from the summit.
Ropes were visible in the background of one of the photos or videos they sent friends, Ebert said, and the ropes found near the crevasses matched the ropes in the photo or video.
The RECCO detector, Ebert said, wouldn’t have picked up a signal from the ropes. The detector was picking up something under the snow. Ebert said it’s only an estimate, but the RECCO detector picked up a piece of climbing equipment or metal around 10 or 15 feet under the snow.
This finding led searchers to their conclusion: the signal was coming from something the climbers were wearing, somewhere buried under the snow. The next morning, Troopers released the news that Johnson and Leclerc were presumed dead.
“I would just say it was an emotional day for everyone involved,” Ebert said. “Juneau’s a small climbing community and we feel the loss as much as everybody else does, and we definitely feel for the families.”
From what JMR personnel can tell, Ebert said, this was the first case in Alaska where RECCO was used from an aircraft to locate missing persons, and just the second time it was done in the United States.
Both the search method and the climb that preceded it were things that hadn’t been seen in Alaska before. Ebert’s eyes widened as she talked about the difficulty of the ascent up the Main Tower.
“It’s world-class,” Ebert said. “It’s amazing. Not many people could do this.”
The waiting continues
Just as the searchers were forced to wait in their pursuit of the two men, they’ll have to keep waiting to recover the bodies.
Both Ebert and Troopers spokesperson Megan Peters said the conditions are too treacherous to go up to the crevasses. There are still some unknowns about the area, including how deep the crevasses are.
“The earliest possible time frame to attempt a recovery effort would be summer,” Peters said. “Snow conditions won’t allow for a safe recovery effort to occur in the winter time.”
Ebert said even if avalanche activity settles down, the terrain in that gulley is steep and severe enough that it will make a recovery difficult during any weather. She said the nature of mountain rescue sometimes leads to situations like this, where they know the general area where the bodies of climbers are but the terrain is unsafe for people to go in and recover the remains.
Sometimes it takes years for families to get closure about their loved ones, Ebert pointed out. She used the recent discovery of an airplane on Admiralty Island as an example. The plane, carrying Brian Andrews and his son Brandon, was reported missing in 2008 and wasn’t found until this past October.
So Ebert and her colleagues at JMR will continue to wait. The families of Johnson and Leclerc will continue to wait. They’ll likely never know exactly what went wrong on the Towers and led to the demise of two renowned climbers.
“It’s all speculation,” Ebert said. “We just don’t know.”
• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at 523-2271 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.