March 19, 2018

In Memoriam: Ryan Johnson

My dear friend Ryan Johnson passed away with Marc Andre LeClerc while descending after completing a cutting edge first ascent on the North face of Main Tower in the Mendenhall Towers last week. It was really tough week being there in Juneau with our mutual friends and Ryan's family but I wouldn't have wanted to be anywhere else.

Ryan and Marc Andre's final new route ascends the central ice line up the center of the concave wall to the right of the central buttress, the central buttress being 'Rain, Heavy at Times' (24p 5.10d). Photo Kieran Brownie/Paul McSorley.

Ryan Johnson was a unique and talented individual who cared immensely about his family and community from Juneau to the climbing community at large. During the course of his career as an climber, he accomplished hundreds of technical first ascents in the Juneau area from difficult waterfall ice and mixed climbs to first free ascents and challenging alpine climbs in Alaska and around the world. He put as much passion into fatherhood as he did into his climbing, and loved his 
son Milo more than anything else.

Ryan and Milo in Juneau. Photo: Unknown

Ryan was a visionary and a dreamer with the motivation, skills, and dedication needed to accomplish what many others considered difficult, impossible, or inadvisable feats. He and Marc Andre LeClerc’s final first ascent, an ephemeral patchwork of ice and mixed terrain climbing through a granite bigwall on the north face of the Main Tower in the Mendenhalls, is just one of many outstanding accomplishments in his career as an alpine athlete. Ryan was one of the most motivated winter climbers in Alaska’s history, and undoubtedly one of the more talented alpinists in North America.

Ryan with Tim Banfield during the first ascent of Bathtime with Toaster (400m WI5) in Suicide basin, 2012.
After climbing the Cassin, onsighting M10 and completing a variety of testpiece ice and mixed lines as a young nomad, Ryan began a lifestyle based around difficult physical work in the mining industry where he built a reputation for being the little guy who could outwork the big guys. He grew tired of this lifestyle though it made him a great living and allowed him to travel extensively. It was just too tough to maintain climbing specific fitness and the mental edge needed to climb cutting edge routes. He made a decision to dedicate his life to developing a local climbing community in Juneau, and expanding the range of his first ascent activity in the nearby mountains while planning for far off Himalayan projects. As a result, Ryan has played mentor to countless up and coming Juneau area climbers, expanding the paradigm of what they thought was possible.

His local testpieces in the Mendenhalls include Balancing Act (450m 5.11c), the first free ascent of the South Buttress of Main Tower (600m 5.11a), Fall Line (1100m AI3 M5), The Great White Conqueror (750m, a sandbagged AI4 M5 A1), and his final first ascent (unknown difficulty) with Marc Andre LeClerc climbing right up the guts of the North face of Main Tower. Local ice testpieces he has completed over the past few years include: Tideline (420m WI6) in Tracy Arm, Milagro De Plata (330m WI6) at Bart Lake, two monstrous ice lines that set the standard for multi-pitch ice in Alaska. Even closer to home, he sent Bathtime with Toaster (400m WI5) and Path of the Fallen (310m WI5) in the nearby Suicide basin. Ryan has also climbed in places like Nepal, Kyrgyzstan, and China climbing on peaks like Pumori and completing the first ascent of Mr Casual (600m AI5R) on the Ochre Walls in Kyrgyzstan, also putting in a strong effort on the world’s most coveted big wall ice line on Kyzyl Asker. This demanding line was finally climbed in 2016 in ideal conditions by Ines Papert and Luka Lindic after over 15 attempts by some of the strongest alpinists in the world.

At one of many shoddy bivies in Kyrgyzstan and China back in 2012. This just before completing the first ascent of Mr Casual (600m AI5R) on the Ochre Walls.

Over the past few years Ryan has focused his energy wholeheartedly on being a compassionate father to his son Milo and building his career as an alpinist with great intention. He opened Tongass Fitness and offered online coaching to aspiring alpinists to supplement his income as a carpenter. He and close friends built a ‘frozen dojo’ to assist them in staying in rock climbing shape throughout the dreary Juneau winters. This has assisted some of his close local friends in pulling off high-end free climbs in contiguous United States in short travel windows from home. Ryan kept a low profile, and always meant to get around to documenting the hundreds of ice and mixed first ascents he completed in the Juneau area in minimalist fashion, a project that may yet become a community effort.

Ryan below the imposing Suicide wall, the day before his first ascent of Path of the Fallen (310m WI5).

Ryan was a wonderful climbing partner, a thoughtful and compassionate friend. He was always there for me when it counted, whether it be to shield me from falling ice, suffer together through interminable open bivies, as my best man, and as a coach through some of the tough decisions of early fatherhood. There are a variety of standout experiences we have shared, but my experience is not unique. Many people name of him as their best friend due to his openness and encouraging nature.

From Ryan’s Writing:

“There is a moment early in the morning where I've found myself high on a snow covered ridge having just pulled over the top of a face or skinning to a fresh line. I am with a good friend and there is less ahead than there is behind and a new day is dawning. The air is filled with potential energy; who knows what the day has in store? This is my favorite moment in life. I reach an awareness that I have only found in the mountains with good friends.”

His family, friends, and the climbing community lost a caring and driven human being, and he will be dearly missed.