As Jackie Ebert, the operations section chief for Juneau Mountain Rescue, spoke outside the Army National Guard hangar at the Juneau International Airport on Tuesday the sound of a helicopter overhead sometimes interrupted her.
It was a welcome sound.
Juneau resident George “Ryan” Johnson, 34, and British Columbia climber Marc-André Leclerc, 25, were due back March 7 from climbing the Mendenhall Towers but still have not been spotted. The weather has greatly hindered efforts, as a snowstorm March 7 dropped two or three feet of snow on the area, Ebert said, followed up with days of snow and wind that stopped rescue helicopters from flying for very long.
Six days into the search, the weather finally started to clear Tuesday morning. It allowed for the National Guard UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter being used in the search to spend most of the day circling the Towers and looking for clues that could lead to rescue. Alaska State Troopers spokesperson Megan Peters said searchers were assessing the risk of deploying searchers on the ground in the area.
As of mid-afternoon Tuesday, Ebert said there were no conclusive findings to share from the flights. She said it’s JMR policy to share updates with family members of the climbers prior to releasing information to the media and public. For those looking to keep up with the progress of the search, she posts an updates on the JMR Facebook page, including a full press release at around 10 p.m. each day.
Ebert drank from a mug that carried the image of a Blackhawk helicopter Tuesday morning as she said she was optimistic about the weather forecast.
“I think that the next precipitation cycle isn’t supposed to start until Wednesday, so it looks like we should have a good weather window through the rest of today at least, and maybe into tomorrow morning,” Ebert said. “Then maybe a little bit of (precipitation) and then clear into the weekend. Things are positive.”
Every time searchers go up to the Towers, they return with photos and extensive observations. Based on examining these photos, the deep snow has been shifting around quite a bit, Ebert said. From what they’ve seen, the terrain changes fairly often near the Towers.
“All signs from our flights currently have pointed to a high level of avalanche activity,” Ebert said. “The Mendenhall Towers have their own set of problems not just unstable snow, but rock and ice fall.”
There’s been a massive outpouring of support for the search. Two GoFundMe pages (entitled “Marc Leclerc, Ryan Johnson search” and “Ryan Johnson Assist/Milo Fund”) have popped up, raising a total of more than $50,000 for a variety of costs. The money, according to the descriptions of the pages, is being used to help Leclerc’s friends and family travel to Juneau and assisting with the search. One of the accounts says that in a worst-case scenario, some of the money can be used to create a fund for Johnson’s 2 and a half-year-old son Milo.
Both Johnson and Leclerc are extremely experienced climbers. Johnson has scaled the Towers — which rise nearly 7,000 feet over the Juneau Ice Field — multiple times and received a $3,000 American Alpine Club grant earlier this year to scale 13,832-foot Mt. Hayes in the Alaska Range.
Leclerc has quickly become an international name in the climbing community. John Irvine, Manager of Global Community Marketing at Arc’teryx (an outdoor equipment company that sponsors Leclerc), referred to Leclerc as a “prodigy.” Despite the attention and the attention, Irvine said Leclerc is humble and enjoys sharing his passion for climbing with others.
Ebert said it makes it easier to stay positive when the two men are so experienced and capable.
“All signs could point to a successful rescue at this point, so we’re just going to keep going as long as we’re able to go with the support of the Troopers,” Ebert said. “We’re going to go through our boxes and through our search plans and basically exhaust every resource that we have, especially for a search like this and the level of their abilities, we know that if anybody can do it, these guys can.”
• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at 523-2271 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.