Max Turgeon and Louis-Philippe Ménard: Alpinists and Ice ClimbersThe alpinists and ice climbers Max Turgeon and Louis-Philippe Ménard share their secrets for success in Canada and what it's like to climb on the world stage.
The workout with the Canadian alpinists and ice climbers Max Turgeon and Louis-Philippe Ménard begins at 5:00 p.m. on a warehouse rooftop.
To the south, the skyscrapers of downtown stretch from the Saint Lawrence River to the tree-covered Mont Royal.
To the north, the imposing Olympic stadium dominates the view. Thirty minutes later, as I’m gasping for air after a nonstop session of throwing colossal medicine balls, rowing on a machine, and enduring countless squats, Ménard and Turgeon inform me that the warm-up is over. “You must be joking,” I say. But, as I soon find out, North America’s hottest alpine duo doesn’t fool around.
Like Haston and Scott before them, or Tackle and Donini, Louis-Philippe “L.P.” Ménard, 30, and Maxime Turgeon, 26, have emerged as an alpine team in which the sum is immeasurably stronger than the individual parts. While each man is a skilled climber, especially on ice, the pair’s combined exploits are world-class. In the past three years the two have put up some of the hardest and most committing alpine routes in the world, such as Spice Factory on Mount Bradley and the Canadian Direct on Denali.
“They are clearly taking North American alpinism to new places,” says Will Mayo, a friend and himself one of New England’s premier ice climbers. “They really are cutting-edge.” One significant factor sets these two young Canadians apart from the legendary duos of old—their decidedly urban lifestyle.
The largest city in the province of Quebec, Montreal is also the second-largest city in Canada and the second-largest French-speaking city in the world. Unlike Toronto or Paris, however, its inhabitants have a reputation for being more than eccentric and less than hard-working. Montreal oozes with everything opposite to the strict doctrines of Catholicism, which until recently held the entire province in a clutch. Culturally, the city seems to lie at the crossroads of Europe and North America. The high quality of the public transportation and coffee, and the tightness of jeans, give it a distinct Euro feel. Turgeon and Ménard have lived in or near the city their entire lives, and take great pleasure in introducing visitors to the hip cafés and quirky bars that are never more than a stone’s throw away.
While hundreds of miles from world-class mountains, the region is endowed with an abundance of ice, including routes in downtown Montreal, and contains a tightly knit community of ice climbers. Ménard began climbing almost a decade and a half ago. The two met in 2002 at a climbing slide show Ménard was presenting at their university, the École de Technologie Supérieure, but with Turgeon at the time a neophyte they did not climb together at first. Turgeon left for a year to study abroad in France, finding plenty of time to hit the crags as well as the books.
Ménard puts it bluntly. “He was a climber when he came back!”
In the winter of 2004 they climbed their first ice route together—the third ascent of the 1,150-foot La Rue Vers L’Or (VI M7+ WI 6) in the Malbaie region of Quebec. Located 300 miles northeast of Montreal, the Hautes-Gorges-de-la-Rivière-Malbaie Park is a wilderness mosaic of green mountains, steep rock walls, calm rivers and, in the winter, big ice. In the same area, Ménard and Turgeon climbed the 1,100-foot La Loutre (V M7+) and Turgeon has free-soloed the equally long La Pomme D’Or (V WI 5+). After La Rue Vers L’Or, the two realized that they worked well as a team and decided on a spring trip to Alaska. Turgeon, by this time, had made some forays into the mountains, though Ménard had not; in preparation for Alaska, Ménard ventured to Mount Katahdin in Maine.
Ménard had never been on a glacier before Alaska. “I bought this ‘how-to glacier travel’ book and read it furiously on the plane. I even brought it to basecamp and studied it at night.”
Though neither one had ever set foot on anything resembling the Ruth Gorge, they cleaned the place up. In a three-week stint in May, the two repeated three classic routes, the 4,000-foot Escalator on Mount Johnson (Alaska Grade 3), the 3,000-foot On the Frozen Roads of Our Incertitudes (V WI 5+ M6) on London Bridge—on which they brought only three ice screws—and the 2,700-foot Ham and Eggs (V 5.8 AI 4) on the Moose’s Tooth. This sustained route is a calf-burner par excellence, and many suitors wait indefinitely for better ice conditions. Turgeon and Ménard completed their ascent in six hours, at night.
They had a more ambitious goal, though—to put up a hard new route. Before the trip, Turgeon had spotted what appeared to be a new ice line on an old picture of Mount Bradley’s impressive north face. Because of warm weather, the line had evaporated by the time the two arrived in the Ruth, but as the trip progressed they decided to give the face a go. They were two-thirds of the way up when a falling rock ripped out one of their packs, along with the solid piece of pro to which it was clipped, sending it 3,000 feet to the glacier below, and ending their first attempt. They later found the errant pack at the bottom of a crevasse. At the base they also found Kevin Mahoney and Jack Tackle, two of North America’s most prolific alpine climbers and Alaska regulars.
Mahoney recalls, “Jack and I had just landed and were skiing around to check out conditions. As we skied by Bradley, a glance at the northeast face stopped us short. An intriguing and obvious line: runnels of ice protected by dry corner systems with a few spicy snow traverses. We were instantly tempted, and as we started to ski toward the base we noticed two pairs of ski tracks.” Mahoney and Tackle waited for the two climbers above to get off the face and then introduced themselves. Tackle recalls the Canadians as “super psyched but humble.” He adds, “It was like they were just out for another day of climbing.”
Turgeon and Ménard returned for a second attempt at Bradley, packing three days of food and fuel and a sleeping bag to share. The opening pitches had deteriorated even further. Turgeon managed to free the headwall crux pitch, which they had previously aided, at 5.10 R M7.
Ménard, in turn, freed the other two aid pitches: “When I saw Max free the headwall pitch, it was so inspiring; it’s like I wanted to pay tribute, so I really focused on freeing these two aid pitches.” One, a steep chimney to a groove, he led by headlamp at 3:00 a.m. They called that the Pepper Grinder pitch. The other was the Curry Overhang, the third M7 pitch.
High on the route and utterly exhausted, the two dug in for a second bivy. “We were all wet and hypothermic on a suspended mushroom somewhere in Alaska, with no visibility and heavy snow,” recalls Turgeon. After a short, nerve-wreacking rest, they climbed on.
Ménard says, “We didn’t have a clue where the summit exactly was, we just pushed on and stumbled on this plateau at the top of everything.” It was close to midnight and some 47 hours after their start.
Turgeon calls the plateau “total salvation.”
With the 5000-foot Spice Factory (Alaska Grade 5 WI 5 M7 5.10 R), two unknowns had put up the hardest route of the season in Alaska. It was just a beginning.A year later, in the spring of 2006, Turgeon and Ménard returned to Alaska.
Because Ménard has what Turgeon calls a “real job,” he was only able to take two weeks off. When he finally arrived at the Kahiltna basecamp, Turgeon already had a new route on the south face of Mount Foraker (done with Mayo) behind him.
“I had no expectations,” says Ménard. “I only wanted to get some experience at high altitude before our trip to Pakistan.” Unlike Bradley, which albeit large in stature is a mere 9,104 feet high, Denali rises to 20,320 feet. With this limited goal the two followed the herds up the West Buttress. Forced to sit out some weather and getting wrapped up helping rescue a climber with cerebral edema, they abandoned the West Buttress, skied into the East Fork of the Kahiltna, and camped below the giant South Face.
“When you do the West Buttress, you never see the mountain,” says Ménard. “From the East Fork, it is spectacular.”
They spotted a pillar between the American Direct and the Japanese Direct and decided to contribute a Canadian version.
During the first half of the route, the weather held and the rock was warm. Weather deteriorated, however, and after 58 hours of near continuous climbing covering 8,000 feet of challenging terrain, they arrived at the top of the face in a whiteout and nasty wind.
“We were barely able to put each foot in front of the other and were falling every 10 feet,” recalls Turgeon. With him in front, they wandered aimlessly near the top of Denali.
“Suddenly,” Turgeon goes on, “both of my feet cut loose and I flipped over. A couple of seconds later I hit something and started to tumble.”
Ménard fell, too: “It was a freaky, over-the-head and over-Max, all-the-way-in-the-air fall.” They stopped next to each other, insulation spilling out from the gashes in their parkas and pants. At that point the team hunkered down in their shared sleeping bag and bivy sack on the Football Field.
“There was no more question. We had to stop right there,” Turgeon says.
Crammed together in the middle of a storm near the top of North America, the two battled to stay warm and regain strength. When their stove refused to cooperate, they fully realized how exposed their lightweight approach left them. They had to move to stay alive—and so they packed up and stumbled down through the whiteout.
“We zigzagged our way to try to find Denali Pass,” says Ménard, “which neither of us had ever seen before.”
“We found some steps and next saw a camp with 10 tents 1,000 feet below. That was our summit,” Turgeon explains. From high camp the two quickly made their way down to basecamp.
Having arrived in Alaska with no ambitious plans, they had managed to outdo their previous year’s accomplishment with a new route, the 8,000-foot Canadian Direct (Alaska Grade 6 M6 5.9).
The fact that they had contoured around the summit, missing it by perhaps as little as 150 feet, seemed to matter little.
Ménard says, “I had pushed it so far to that point where I thought my guardian angel might not be able to help me.”
Turgeon agrees. “After we reached the ridge, our only thought was to get the fuck out of there. We were on survival instinct and right in the middle of the battlefield.”The rooftop workout is totally absurd. Ménard and Turgeon have earned their endurance and power from years of hard work. For two hours we run from station to station, never recovering. A typical sequence looks like this: 30 pull-ups, 60 “burpees” (a dynamic push-up to jumping jack), eight 225-pound dead lifts; repeat three times. Almost immediately the next round commences, until every muscle is worked close to its breaking point. They learned their method of training from Mark Twight, renowned alpinist and president of Grivel North America. After their success on Mount Bradley, Twight had written Turgeon (in French) to offer him sponsorship.
The workout is never the same, but always involves numerous sets with increasing weights or reps. Much occurs past the anaerobic threshold.
“It has made a huge difference for climbing long routes with a pack,” says Ménard. “I recover much faster now.”
Another component of the workout is team-building. While one person lifts, jumps or pulls, the other offers encouraging words and moral support. The pull-ups, for example, are done together, with both people hanging on the bar at the same time, but pulling up one after the other, each 30 times to complete the set.
“Allez, Max, allez,” Ménard yells as Turgeon struggles to finish a third set of 12 150-pound front squats. They are extremely supportive of my feeble attempts at keeping up. Eventually, Turgeon says I should be proud: “Most people throw up after the first hour.
Some weeks they run through this workout multiple times, other weeks they only get to it once. Often they do the workout with a group of other Montreal climbers, and follow with a rooftop barbeque.
Jutting out from one of the rooftop corners is a two-story extension of the building. Ménard rents the top level and has turned it into a hip studio apartment. Spare, modern Scandinavian-looking furniture graces the room at Feng Shui angles, while climbing gear is neatly stacked into containers in every corner and crevice. Everything below the apartment belongs to Titanium Era, the company he works for as a mechanical engineer.
“I don’t have to commute to work or to my workout,” he boasts with a smile. It’s a legitimate, full-time job, which should theoretically leave Ménard with little time for long expeditions. Luckily, his boss is understanding and allows him to take off twice a year, including a two-month trip to Pakistan. Turgeon is a mechanical engineer as well, but goes on too many climbing trips to keep a steady job. Instead he holds down various seasonal jobs, most recently with a high-ropework company. When in Montreal, he bunks at his parents’ place on the South Shore. With a girlfriend in Chamonix, climbing buddies in Western Canada and roots here, he rarely stays in one place long. Even with their frequent travels and the many choice climbing locations elsewhere in Canada, neither Turgeon nor Ménard has any plans to leave Montreal.
“Montreal is a great city, very multi-cultural, night life, restaurants, festivals all year long,” says Ménard. They are connected to the climbing community in the province, have a large group of friends from childhood and from the École de Technologie Supérieure, and their families live here.
After a quick shower, Ménard and Turgeon take me to Barbare, one of their favorite restaurants, on the bustling Saint Denis Street. We order a round of local beer and burgers, and talk about their alpine adventures. I ask what makes them a good team.
They look at each other, embarrassed, and Ménard gets up and says, “You go first, I’m going to the bathroom.”
Annoyed at getting ditched with a hard question, Turgeon thinks a while. Finally he begins, “We have the same ideology of climbing.”
By now so much time has passed that Ménard is returning. He adds, “We feel tired at the same time in the mountains, we recuperate the same way, and we are attracted to the same kind of climbing.” When planning trips, they frequently look at photos of faces and pick out exactly the same line to climb.
“It’s amazing,” says Ménard. “Max is usually the one who researches mountains and such, but when we look at pictures or stand at the bottom of a cliff we always come up with the same idea.”
The two climb and train year-round for ice-climbing season. Many fall days, when the weather is perfect for rock climbing, they and friends dry tool at the overhanging cliffs of Saint Alban, near Quebec City. When the ice finally arrives, Ménard and Turgeon are completely in their element. Besides repeating and putting up some of Quebec’s hardest—and frequently remotest—ice routes, they compete in the province’s ice competitions. They always seem to climb at nearly the same level. In 2006, Ménard finished fourth and Turgeon fifth at Festiglace, held annually in Quebec City and drawing an international field. This past year, Turgeon finished ninth and Ménard 10th.
I ask them if they ever argue in the mountains.
“In the mountains—never,” says Turgeon. “Sometimes when we spend too much time in basecamp it can get tense, but there has never been anything major. We are both good at making our own little space. We’re kind of like an old couple.”
Ménard says, “We actually don’t talk much and that’s our main problem! We also plan everything as a team a bit too much, which means we share the same tent in basecamp, same books, sometimes same music … so after a couple of weeks of being close together we just need some space. Once we’re up on a route, we always get along.”
A few hours and beers later, my girlfriend and her friends from Montreal join us. Ménard and Turgeon introduce themselves, and the conversation drifts from climbing to fashion, politics and the upcoming Canada Day. Mayo has jokingly characterized the duo’s personalities as “good cop, bad cop.” When the three women join our conversation, Ménard is charming and gregarious, telling funny stories and taking an attentive interest in theirs. Turgeon is more withdrawn, speaking only when asked a direct question and otherwise content to sip his beer in silence.
The two appear no different from many other young Montrealers. Ménard’s spiked hair and stubby rat tail give him the appearance of your average punk rocker. Turgeon, bulkier, could easily be confused with any number of Quebeçois hockey fanatics. Throughout the evening, they never reveal that they are top climbers, and listen patiently when one of the women boasts of her friend’s “epic” adventure trek in Nepal. Little does she know that the two guys across the table are currently preparing for an expedition to Pakistan that could make climbing history.
Turgeon and Ménard have been to Pakistan before. After their Alaska trip in 2006, they spent only a few months in Montreal before leaving again in the early fall for the Karakoram. As usual, they did not have a clearly defined goal.
“You need a starting point,” says Ménard, “but when you’re there, you’re on your own. Conditions are always different, and if you’re not open-minded, you’re screwed.”
“It worked just like Alaska,” continues Turgeon. “One small step after another.” They warmed up with two new one-day routes in the area, up to 5.10 and M7. After that, they attempted the enormous unclimbed north face of Latok I (23,441 feet) but were turned around by a bombardment of rocks and ice at around 17,400 feet, leaving their faces bloody messes.
Ménard says, “It was too warm.”
“The noise was terrifying,” Turgeon recalls. “We were forced to climb with our heads down.”
After getting off the north face alive, they decided to have a go at the legendary, often-tried unclimbed north ridge of the peak. Enduring two days of relentless snowfall in scant bivy gear at the same high point of 17,400 feet, they had no choice but descent. Though they could have tried a hybrid-alpine style, leaving fixed rope on the lower rock section and returning when the weather improved, they didn’t consider it.
“Besides,” explains Ménard, only half-joking, “we have little experience jugging, so we would probably not have been that much faster.”
The Benegas brothers, Willie and Damian, who shared basecamp with the Canadians, reportedly commented, “We’re light—you’re ultra-light!”
The north ridge refused to budge, but Turgeon and Ménard offer only positive memories of the trip. Because they paid for it largely out of their own pockets, there was no pressure from sponsors or the media. Their expedition was low-tech by today’s standards: no Internet access in basecamp, no bolts in their backpacks.
“We did have a sat phone,” admits Turgeon, “but we didn’t really know who to call to get a weather forecast or anything.” Instead they peered out of the tent door every morning.
In the end the trip was successful: They stayed true to their style and stayed alive.The day after the grueling workout, Turgeon invites me to join him and his friend Nicolae Balan—Ménard is busy with “new-girlfriend duties”—for a day of cragging at what he calls “Quebec’s finest rock face.” It is actually Poke-o-Moonshine, in the Adirondacks, New York. At less than two hours away from Montreal, the cliff sees many northern visitors. The U.S. border guard recognizes Balan from the previous day and casually asks him what routes he’s working on today. The day I visit the crag, all greetings and climbing commands are in French. I only meet one other Anglophone all day.
Turgeon climbs sandbag 5.11s with calm and confidence. He doesn’t move quite like a sport climber but his efforts look easy. When there’s good gear he places it liberally, but otherwise wastes little time. He proceeds fluidly over easy sections and occasionally stops to rest and peer up at cruxes ahead. More than anything, his climbing is efficient. Onsighting Matrix, an Adirondacks (stout) 5.11d—one of the few pitches on the entire face Turgeon has never ventured onto before—he does not appear to be working particularly hard, and pulls through the awkward flaring chimney with a few grunts.
Ménard, too, has some hard rock routes to his credit. One weekend earlier, he had climbed the finishing pitches of La Cavale (the Runaway), an 800-foot trad route on the Cap Trinité in the Saguenay Fjord, northeast of Montreal, a longterm project. Having previously aided it, Ménard and Mathieu Landry spent the last few years cleaning and working the route until the crux yielded at roughly 5.13b.
“I’m in love with Cap Trinité,” Ménard says. “I must have been there at least 20 times.”
In August, some weeks after our meetings, Ménard and Turgeon again travel to Pakistan, to attempt the north face of K6 (23,891 feet). Early in the trip, however, Ménard suffers an ankle injury during a warm-up climb. Roped up but without any pro, the two were descending a steep and serac-threatened glacier when Ménard’s foothold gave way, sending him headfirst down the slope, twisting and battering his ankle. He was able to self-arrest just before the rope pulled Turgeon off.
“When I heard him scream, it instantly felt like all the dreams of lines we were imagining together since we arrived in basecamp fell apart,” Turgeon says. “But it was no time for nostalgia. We were miles from human beings and L.P. was crawling. He crawled and dived over crevasses … all night and next morning and finally got to basecamp.”
For Ménard the trip was over, and he quickly made plans to return to Canada. Before setting off on the 25-mile glacier and moraine trek to Skardu, accomplished in an astonishing 12 hours on homemade crutches, Ménard had only one thing to say to Turgeon: “Climb one for me!” A few days later Turgeon soloed the first ascent of Farol East (20,833 feet).
Back in Montreal, a light snow dusting and bitterly cold winds signal winter’s arrival. For the Canadian duo this is no excuse to forego the rooftop training routine. Turgeon is training for ice competitions, Ménard is trying to heal—he fractured his talus bone and tore three ligaments in Pakistan. They already have plans for their next big expedition: to Alaska, or possibly Pakistan or another country in Asia. They have a few different mountains in mind but no exact routes picked out. That can wait until they show up.
Martin Gutmann is working on his Ph.D. in history in upstate New York.