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Ain't no mountain high enough

Cover Story
|Written By Jeff MacKinnon
Ain't no mountain high enough

Imagine, if you will, Leo Leduc passing time in an airport bookstore in 1990 when he sees Dr. Seuss’ last book Oh, The Places You Will Go, just after it is published. The Canadian diplomat spies it on the shelf with the other new releases and smiles to himself as he thinks of his children, Kevin and Sandra. The Leducs, you see, lived the book in the 1970s and 80s. Long before it came to be in print, Leo made it a real-life movie and the kids got to star as themselves.

The places they went. The places his daughter continues to go. “My father very much believed in taking us wherever he felt like going and seeing the world,” Sandra, a lawyer, says in the days following her most impressive adventure, climbing Mount Everest. “I get it from him.”

Leo Leduc was 56 when he was killed in a motorcyle accident in Moncton, N.B., in 2000. He hit a vehicle that had abruptly come to a stop ahead of him.

Sandra says he led the family on a tour of the world to satisfy his thirst for adventure. As an adult, she continues to follow his teachings, having been to 60 countries by her current age of 34 and continuing to see as much of the world as she can. In June of this year she began a stint with the Representative Office of Canada to the Palestinian Authority, working for the Canadian International Development Agency in Ramallah, West Bank.

She describes her father as “an adrenaline junkie”; it is also what Leduc comfortably calls herself. But after challenging herself in anonymity for many years, she was thrown into the public eye and a media whirlwind last May when she successfully attempted a most-treacherous trip, climbing the world’s tallest peak. The Canadian media wasn’t asking for her phone number in 2011 when she returned from an equally dangerous trip, living and working for two years in Afghanistan, but they followed her every move up Everest.

Leduc reached the top of the world on May 26 on her second summit attempt. Six days previously, her party had to abandon its initial attempt due to weather. That itself came a few hours after six people had died trying, including another Canadian woman, Shriya Shah-Klorfine of Toronto, in what was an especially unwelcoming spring climbing season made more difficult by what many believe were over-crowded conditions.

While climbing, Leduc would pass by some of the climbers who had perished during their summit attempt on May 19. It is said that some 80 bodies remain on the mountain, there as a reminder of the risk to those ascending to 8,848 metres in dangerously thin air.

It was Leduc, a newcomer to Twitter, who typed the now-famous 12-word description of the scene on Everest that was used in countless media reports in May: “Lots of dead or dying bodies. Thought I was in a morgue.”

Leduc would later tweet that her oxygen regulator had frozen on the way down from her first summit attempt, forcing her to climb back down to Camp 4, located at 8,000 m, without oxygen for about three hours. The area on Everest above Camp 4 is commonly referred to as the “death zone” because above that elevation, the human body begins to deteriorate rapidly, with vital organs shutting down due to the extreme lack of oxygen. Most climbers use bottled oxygen above 7,000 m which, at the summit, lowers the physiological elevation of Everest by some 1,000 m — climbing without oxygen is a truly dangerous exercise because rational thought seriously decreases while chances of frostbite and exposure dramatically increase. In fact, statistically, climbers who do not use oxygen are two times more likely to die on Everest than those who do.

Leduc’s first memory of being in her father’s adventure movie goes back 30 years when she was four. She remembers arriving in Los Angeles from Gatineau, Que., where her father was beginning a four-year stint at the Consulate General of Canada. The Leducs landed in a world famous for its eccentricities and made even more challenging because Sandra and her brother Kevin spoke only French.

Sandra has not forgotten sitting in a car outside the Los Angeles International Airport, looking out the window with a puzzled expression as her father Leo spoke with a stranger in a language that to her was gibberish. Then, conversation complete, he took the wheel and drove his family off into the Southern California sun to begin another family adventure. It took Sandra just three months in L.A. to become fluent in English. She followed that with Spanish and, as an adult, mastered the ability to read and write Hindi, Arabic, and Dari, one of two official languages of Afghanistan.

Sandra was not scared by Los Angeles, but rather excited by the possibility of living in a new place. She and Kevin would become so attached to it that she says at one time they knew more about the U.S. than they did their own country. She was a “dip brat” and was already conditioned to be on the move. Borders were not barriers to the Leducs, but merely passageways to other experiences.

Leduc’s entrance into the world in 1977 followed that modus operandi. Her mother Ginette flew from Indonesia, where they were living while her father worked for the Canadian embassy in Jakarta, to give birth in Singapore because of its then more-trustworthy health care. Three days later, her mom and her were back on the plane “home.” Three days old and she’d already crossed the first of many borders. By the time she was eight, Leduc had lived on three different continents. Kevin, who is 15 months older, could claim one more continent by the age of nine. He was born in 1976 in Caracas, Venezuela, where their father was working at the Canadian embassy.

The Leducs returned from Indonesia to the Ottawa area for two years before leaving for Los Angeles. Possibly her most important experience as a youth came during the two years her family spent in the Ivory Coast, where they moved when she was eight. The African nation is one of the world’s poorest. According to the Human Development Indices of 2009, more than one-quarter of its population lives on less than $1.25 per day. “It was extremely difficult at first,” she says. “The poverty struck me and I have very vivid memories of the place even though I was only eight. I think being exposed to that led me, at an early age, to having a better understanding of the world and how lucky we are in North America.”

The fact Leduc succeeded in summiting Everest was no surprise to those who know her. She is known to finish everything she attempts and — not surprisingly, really — is considered to be an over-achiever dating back to when she was admitted to McGill University’s Faculty of Law in Montreal at the age of 17. “Sandra does things because she wants to do them, not because of what anyone’s expectations of her are,” says friend Kristin Janson, a lawyer with the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. “She has an adventurous spirit. She’s gone cage diving with sharks and she’s taken vacations and trips that other people wouldn’t take.”

Which brings Leduc’s story to Afghanistan, a country whose mere name sends shivers down the spine of most Canadians. On the day Janson was interviewed for this story, Taliban gunmen entered a hotel near the capital Kabul and killed 18 civilians during a 12-hour standoff. Kabul is where Leduc met Janson; they were both posted at the Canadian embassy and working for Foreign Affairs. Leduc was employed in its political section for two years, returning to Canada in September 2011.

Leduc spent her first year in Afghanistan living in a three-metre wide blast-proof shipping container with two tiny windows that didn’t open, according to a story written for JustInfo, a Department of Justice publication. Living in a compound meant Leduc and other embassy staff were confined to an area that equalled one city block. “We spent most of our time in a compound but the reality is that we lived in a war zone,” Leduc says. “You live with that fact. You set it aside and you do your work and chances are nothing’s going to happen.”

In Kabul, Leduc provided advice and political reporting on rule of law matters including justice and corrections sector reform and human rights issues. She worked in close collaboration with senior Afghan officials and United Nations and other stakeholders in the international community to develop and recommend strategies for reform in the country. Those two years were naturally tough on her mother, whose reaction to being told of her daughter’s latest destination was one of the world’s most unappealing places for foreigners was “don’t go.” “When she came back, she told me she had made a number of trips outside the wire in the province of Kandahar [a former Taliban stronghold],” her mother says in an interview that took place two days after seven people from the United States base were killed in that city by a suicide bomber. “But she’s happy doing what she’s doing. As long as she’s happy, it’s OK with me.”

Much earlier in her career, Leduc spent a year — from the fall of 1999 to the fall of 2000 — in New Delhi, India, as a junior professional consultant in the legal unit of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. She learned she had been short-listed for the position on the day of her graduation from law school. “My parents were really displeased when I told them because I hadn’t done my bar school yet. They thought I was giving up on what I had been studying for years to achieve,” Leduc recalls. “Despite having been brought up in that lifestyle, they couldn’t believe that I was thinking of taking my practice abroad, at least so soon after graduation.”

She says it was the best year of her life at the time. It also confirmed she was on the right path.

Following her father’s death, Leduc articled in the Hague with the Office of the Prosecutor in the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Because she was bilingual, she was also asked to work on appeals relating to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda as the appeals were being heard at the ICTY at the time. After her articles, she returned to Ottawa to be close to her mother for a few years. “When you have those experiences — like at The Hague and India — it’s very hard to go back to a typical legal career which largely revolves around business law,” says Leduc.

She indeed tried working in that area in a major firm. She spent eight months after returning from India at Borden Ladner Gervais LLP in Montreal, providing advice on commercial and labour law matters. She went there to see what the big firm experience was like; BLG was attractive because of its work in international law.

It was Leduc’s experiences at McGill, which is known for its strong human rights program, a summer at boutique firm Hart Saint-Pierre in Montreal in the summer of 1999, and her work at BLG that led her to believe what her experiences abroad confirmed: she was drawn to public law issues and not meant for the world of corporate law.

She admits though to being sucked into the law firm hiring period at school, where students battle for the best grades in the hopes of attracting the biggest firms and biggest paycheque. She doesn’t decry her experience working in law firms however. She believes both firms she worked for provided her with critical legal, and even diplomacy, skills, particularly as they relate to client service and delivery. “Success in private practice is largely driven by good networking abilities and client satisfaction,” she says. “The best private practice lawyers are generally excellent time managers and are able to communicate highly complex issues to their clients effectively. These skills are highly transferable”.

As well, Leduc says working at Hart Saint-Pierre afforded her the opportunity at the start of her career to have carriage of files with a huge amount of responsibility. Working with BLG gave her an opportunity to test her interests in various areas of law and learn from leading lawyers with diverse practices. “Her desire to push herself to the limit, to challenge her fears and live life to the fullest probably explains why she ends up doing all these crazy things such as jumping out of a plane, traveling to remote places, or living in a conflict zone,” says Karina Boutin, a friend of 25 years who is a lawyer at the Permanent Mission of Canada to the United Nations in New York. “This is possibly when and where she feels the most alive.”

The seed to climb Everest was planted during a hiking trip to Nepal in 2000 near the end of her time in India. She visited Everest’s base camp and saw the famed sherpas coming down the mountain and the thought entered her mind that it was a real thing that she could do and not just a dream. The fact it would take several years — in her case 12 — was not a deterrent. Leduc began preparing by taking on smaller mountains, enrolling in climbing courses, and becoming accustomed to the effects of altitude — “I just went higher and higher.” She began spending all of her vacation time climbing and is now working her way through the Seven Summits — the highest peak on each of the world’s seven continents. Everest is the fifth she has topped. Vinson Massif in Antarctica is next. “[Everest] was harder than I thought because we had such an emotionally and physically trying experience on my first summit attempt,” says Leduc. “I also had a friend who told me — I had climbed another mountain with him, Denali [aka Mount McKinley] in Alaska — that I would find Denali harder. I was expecting Denali to be harder but it wasn’t. Everest was much, much harder.”

Leduc has found herself defending the climbing community to some degree upon returning to North America. Media reports focused both on the fact that inexperienced climbers — it was Shah-Klorfine’s first climbing trip — were handing over thousands and thousands of dollars to be hand-held up the trail. Also, Everest had become a perceived tourist destination. The combination of a photo showing a long line snaking its way up the mountain and Leduc’s “morgue” tweet caused a sensation. “People are saying ‘well, it’s just a tourist trap’ and that any sherpa will carry you up the mountain and that’s a complete misconception that people have,” says Leduc. “I don’t know where they got this idea that sherpas carry people and that you can just walk up the mountain and it’s not a climb. The fact that people call it a trek — and I’ve even heard my friends call it that — means that people don’t understand what the mountain is about.”

The trip also was an eye-opener for Leduc regarding the power of social media. She had opened a Twitter account prior to going on the trip as a means of giving her friends and family status reports. When she left for Katmandu she had 63 followers. She would not become aware that thousands of people began following her during the climb. She could not believe anyone outside of her group of friends would be interested in anything she had to say. “[My friends and family] understand my personality and they understand that even though I was tweeting matter of factly there was a lot of emotion underlying that,” she says. “What other people think about that I don’t really care. They don’t know me.”

Laurie Skreslet doesn’t know Leduc, but has an idea of what makes her tick. In 1982 the Bragg Creek, Alta., man became the first Canadian to summit Everest, also on his second attempt; he fell into a crevasse and broke multiple ribs in his first crack before finally making it to the top. “Different needs drive us,” he says. “We share them all, but the level of importance varies, depending on our upbringing and other aspects of our personalities. If you happen to have a strong need for adventure, it really doesn’t get satisfied unless there is an element of risk.”

Leduc’s tweets from the Everest’s base camp spoke of the difficulty:

“2 pm yesterday, I decided I was done. Took 3hrs to pack up my gear. Was sitting pretty in front of my tent. But it started to feel wrong.

“At 8 pm I knew I needed to go back up.”

Leduc bristles at the assumption that Everest is just for people with disposable money to throw around to cover the two-month expedition costs. Lawyers are perceived to fall into that category since climbing Everest can cost anywhere from $20,000 to $100,000 depending on the level of logistical assistance provided. Leduc says she opened up a separate bank account and put away all her earnings during the two years she spent in Afghanistan to pay for the trip. She chose a company that offered an unguided expedition up Everest, but wrote in her blog at sandraleduc.com that she also hired a sherpa to climb with her as an insurance policy.

In her blog, she answers the question as to why she made the climb: “Because I’ve been dreaming about climbing Mt. Everest every stupid day for the past 12 years and I finally saved up enough money to do it.”

When she got back to North America, Leduc did not play up the experience, according to one of her friends. “When I saw her for the first time after Everest I had just gotten back from a week in Rome, just a normal trip to visit my sister,” Janson says. “All [Sandra] wanted to do was see pictures of Rome. I said to her ‘Yeah, it’s Rome, it’s not that big of a deal. You’ve been there. I want to see pictures of Everest.’”

There is no better example of Leduc’s need to complete what she starts than her final days scrambling to get her pilot’s licence before leaving for Afghanistan in September 2009, wrapping up a process that took three years of once-a-month lessons. “People at the flying club would poke fun at me because I was a lawyer who couldn’t afford to buy a car because I was taking flying lessons,” she says. “When my posting to Afghanistan was confirmed, I realized I would have failed myself if I didn’t complete my training to obtain my licence. In my last month before going to Afghanistan, I would ride my bike every day after work from downtown Ottawa to the airport an hour away; bike as fast as I could and have a two-hour lesson and then bike home in the dark and go to work the next day.

“My practical flight exam — four hours long — was 24 hours before my flight to Kabul and I had one shot. The night before my exam was the most stressful night that I can remember. It was all or nothing. I was so nervous.”

While taking lessons, she became immersed in the world of flying and it developed into a passion. The year before she left for Afghanistan, she served as an executive on the board of directors of the Ottawa Flying Club. “Flying to me is an extension of travelling; being able to see the world in a way few people get to. I also find that people who fly all share an intense curiosity about the world and a strong desire to take exploration to another level. I especially like that it is incredibly challenging and that few women do it. I love proving that women can do absolutely anything. I actually pick activities — mountain climbing is one of them — that few women do.”

When she returned home to be with her mother following her father’s death, Leduc actually managed to stay put for seven years, moving from her work for the ICTY to the Department of Justice: In 2002, she worked with the human rights law section providing advice and litigation support regarding the Canadian Charter of Rights and international human rights treaties. She then worked for several years in the Canadian Heritage and Parks Canada legal services unit providing advice to senior officials in multiple areas of law stemming from Aboriginal law to labour and environmental law. Finally, she worked for the Aboriginal law and strategic policy section where she provided advice on Aboriginal law matters, including in the context of international instruments negotiations.

Lost in all the talk of adventure and thrill seeking is the fact, those who know her say, that Leduc is quite normal. This is what Janson has learned in their three years of friendship, which include the year they spent sitting at a desk across from each other in Afghanistan. “The first time I met her was right after she climbed Denali and she began telling these stories and I thought: ‘Who is this woman, this lawyer who just got back from climbing a mountain? She’s super intimidating,’” says Janson. “You get to know her and you realize that she’s a girl and she loves shopping and wearing high heels and lipstick. She’s not  intimidating at all.”

Two weeks after returning from Everest and Kathmandu, Leduc quickly left on another adventure that has taken her to another potentially dangerous place — the political tinderbox that is the West Bank. She left June 26 for a two-year assignment with the Government of Canada. Among other things, Leduc will be participating in policy discussions with the Palestinian Authority, other donors, and stakeholders relating to rule of law and legal reform. Her mother is once again left shaking her head. “She calls me every three or four days and she told me she’s already been to three cities in Israel,” she said July 4. “She never, ever stops. She wants to see the world and she wants to meet as many people as she can.”

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