As Brette Harrington contemplated new climbing projects this spring, her home stomping grounds in British Columbia, while comforting, were also claustrophobic—every mountain face was a former companion of her late partner Marc-André Leclerc. Leclerc died in March on the descent from a new route in the Mendenhall Towers, on the Juneau Ice Cap, Alaska, with Ryan Johnson, who also perished. So instead of remaining in British Columbia, Harrington decided to head north: “I felt pulled to return to Juneau after losing Marc here in March,” she told Rock and Ice via email. “It’s a new place for me, so it’s not loaded with memories the way our home in BC is.”
Along with the Swiss alpinist Caro North, Harrington made her way up to Juneau late this May. They set out for the white desert of the Ice Cap, barren except for the spiky rock towers that pierce it. The duo didn’t know what they would climb, but knew there would be more than enough to choose from. On the first day of ski touring, Harrington eyed a beautiful line—“a thin ice gully up a steep face”— on a formation known as Southern Duke Tower. It was aesthetic, pure, and surely challenging—everything they were looking for. They made camp and prepared for a seige the next morning, June 2.
Though they planned to climb the next day’s tower and other objectives on the Ice Field in single-day pushes, Harrington knew the place would require them to have a steely resolve—part of the reason Caro North was such a good partner for her. The two have shared a rope many times: in Indian Creek, in Squamish and on the formidable towers of Patagonia, in winter no less. Harrington said, “Both Caro and I enjoy the diverse spectrum of climbing. In this sense, we have a wide variety of options that allow us to do interesting adventures from skiing, ice, rock, mixed, scrambling, etc. … One of her biggest strengths is her endurance; she is able to push onwards and doesn’t tire quickly.”
After camping on a plateau between Southern Duke and another tower, Princess Peak, North and Harrington set off into complete white: a fog hovered above the glacier, the disembodied summits above floating in mist. They descended 1,000 feet to reach the east face of Southern Duke, and started climbing. Two pitches up the opening gully the ice was “rotting out in the spring warm-up,” which made swinging ice tools a precarious exercise. The two women transitioned to “insecure mixed climbing” for the next three pitches up a steep rock buttress separated by intermittent ledges of snow.
Pitches 6 and 7 constituted the crux of the route—”technical dry-tooling up thin corners and vertical face, then exiting on a slab ledge covered in snow.” From there, they climbed “perfect alpine neve” up a 90-meter couloir, which brought them to the final summit prow. Switching into her rock shoes, Harrington climbed a “stellar crack system through a series of roofs” to bring them to a massive cornice guarding the summit. They topped out at 10:00 p.m, capping a 12 hour push from the ground. Their new, 500-meter-long route up the northeast face entailed difficulties up to 5.10b, M5+ and 85-degree ice. After celebration and hugs, they descended to their skis and slid back to camp.
Harrington told Rock and Ice, “We dedicated our route to Marc and Ryan because [they] drew us here to the Juneau Ice Cap. … I know they would be proud of our line on the Northeast Face of Duke: for the vision and creativity to imagine the line, then having the courage to commit to it and find our way to the summit. Marc loved long, epic adventures and I know he would have truly enjoyed our climb.”
Harrington and North kept exploring the empty Ice Cap after Southern Duke. They skied 20 miles north to Devils Paw and skied a steep, 1,000 meter couloir there. Before heading back to civilization they established one more climb, a five-pitch, 5.10+ on the west face of the Taku Towers. Though both were tired that morning, they enjoyed the day and found the rock quality exceptional.
Though not explicitly dedicated to Leclerc, this second line—and all the future ones Harington will surely do—are, in some way, informed by her relationship with him, she said. “He and I climbed together for so long, that much of his knowledge and philosophy have seeped into my own thoughts, as mine did with his.” Exploring the Ice Caps of Northern British Columbia and Alaska—skiing, kiting and climbing—was one of Marc-Andre’s dreams. Harrington said, “So in a way I feel like he was with me for this adventure.”