On a blindingly sunny day, March 5, 2018, Ryan Johnson’s face radiated with the kind of satisfaction only an alpinist can appreciate. In a video sent to his girlfriend, he was smiling and calm, spinning in a slow circle to show a panorama of Alaska’s Coast Range. Though he’d reached the table-sized summit of the Main Tower of the Mendenhall Towers massif numerous times before, this occasion must have felt exceptionally special. A few feet away, his climbing partner, 25-year-old Marc-Andre Leclerc, took in the view of granite spires erupting from sea-bound glaciers for the first time.
There is no doubt these men were ecstatic. The pair had just made the first ascent of the Main Tower’s 2,500-foot north face, a concave enormity of compact granite. Winter storms had left it laced with tendrils of ice that hung like whispers in the wind. This was one of Johnson’s ultimate dream lines, and it wasn’t off in some far-flung corner of the world; it was right in his backyard, near his hometown of Juneau, Alaska.
At age 34, Johnson would have certainly been filled with pride to share this grandest of adventures with one of the world’s most famous climbers. Similarly, few would question that Leclerc held him in equally high regard. Johnson wasn’t as internationally well known as Leclerc, but in tight-knit climbing communities across the country, he was widely lauded for his broad skillset that spanned the spectrum between rock, alpine and especially difficult ice climbing. In Alaska, Johnson was highly regarded for his knowledge and exploration around the Juneau Icefield and the Coast Range. On the Mendenhall Tower massif alone, he had established numerous first ascents of entire faces.
Growing up in Alaska’s capital city of Juneau, Johnson had been surrounded by the numerous mountains, covered in old-growth timber, that abut the ocean of this glacially cut fjordland. On rare clear days, the fierce granite spires of the Mendenhall Massif can be seen piercing the sky above the city. From an early age, Johnson took to rock climbing on nearby boulders and to hiking on the ice of the Mendenhall Glacier. After high school, he made many pilgrimages to Yosemite, the Canadian Rockies, the Desert Southwest and the Cascades. He honed a skill-set that he would later apply to the Greater Ranges of Alaska and the Himalaya. In 2005 he and his partner Stefan Ricci made a blisteringly fast 51-hour ascent of the Cassin Ridge on Denali with a round-trip time of 84 hours from base camp to base camp. A few years later, he nearly summited Pumori on the Nepal-Tibet border and went on expeditions to Kyzyl Asker in Kyrgyzstan and beyond.
After attending college at the University of Montana, Johnson returned to Juneau. With rainfall that is measured in feet instead of inches, and no roads that lead out of town, most climbers would dismiss Juneau as a place without much prospect. Johnson took the other perspective and cultivated a community of climbers. To date, no one has been more instrumental in the development of new routes around Juneau. One-thousand-foot WI6 ice routes right above town and world-class rock climbs all bear his name. Slowly, the outside world began to catch on, and Johnson became known as the local climbing expert.
Johnson didn’t really care what you did. He cared how you did it. When he caught word that a heavily funded corporate-sponsored team, replete with a film crew, was planning to siege a route on the Devils Paw–an 8,584-foot peak on the Mendenhall Icefield–it didn’t sit right with him.
“Nobody should be bolting on the Icefield, and it shouldn’t take them a month to put up a new route,” he said.
In the end, the notoriously bad weather of the Taku Glacier kept the team from getting on the route; but just in case, Johnson plotted to invite fellow climbers to help him snake their line so history could be written in accordance to his vision of good style. Yet Johnson was never an elitist: at Kahiltna Base Camp, he gave genuine congratulations to a team of young climbers who had just reached their first minor Alaskan summit. To him it was just a walk-up, but to them it was the hardest thing they had ever done. Even after they left, he was excited for their accomplishment.
After years of selling tours to Princess Cruise line tourists in Juneau, Johnson started talking about his next scheme. High on Denali, Johnson laid out his plan to start a Crossfit gym in Juneau. A few years later, Tongass Crossfit opened its doors. Business was slow at first, but Johnson attained numerous certifications and gained a loyal following in the community. He didn’t care if members were the best athletes, he just wanted them to always give their best. While Johnson worked to help others reach their potential, he was also bettering himself. During this time, Johnson tuned his body into an alpine machine, and his once-erratic thoughts and goals sharpened to a knife-edged focus.
Undoubtedly, Johnson’s proudest accomplishment was his son Milo. Ice climbs and trips to Chamonix were replaced with weekends building sandcastles and going on toddler hikes. Instead of sending friends pictures of new routes, he sent pictures of Milo covered in bath bubbles. Ryan was a 5.11 climber, but a 5.15 dad.
With the start of 2018, monumental things were happening for Johnson–the culmination of several years of specific training and life restructuring. He told close friends and family he’d found the love of his life, his family was closer than ever, his business was expanding, and Johnson had begun a new era in his approach to technical alpinism. By early February, he had already established a massive first ascent with his best friend, Sam Johnson. They had just received an American Alpine Club Cutting Edge Award to climb a new route in Alaska’s Hayes Range. Tongass Crossfit, now Tongass Fitness, was evolving, Milo was learning how to do push-ups, and the future seemed more and more promising.
“Ryan’s storytelling was unparalleled, typically punctuated with boyish giggles and perfectly-timed snorts that turned to rolling belly laughter,” recalled friend Pete Tapley. “My face usually hurt from smiling long before the punch lines hit. He was a pure joy to spend time with–ever positive, even when the situation showed no call to be optimistic.”
On the summit of the Main Mendenhall Tower, Johnson’s final video shows a man who was relaxed and confident. He was more at peace than friends had seen him in years. A few minutes later, he and Leclerc started down the east ridge toward the Fourth Gully by the Fourth Tower. In a few hours, they should have reached their skis and celebrated what should be regarded as the greatest achievement in Mendenhall Towers history. They were never heard from again. Because of heavy snow and dangerous conditions, the pair has not been recovered.
Clouds, tinged in shades of somber gray, get tangled among Juneau’s hillside timbers. They appear to echo the sadness felt throughout the tightknit, maritime community and beyond. Two of our own have yet to come home.
Donations to help support Ryan Johnson’s two-and-a-half-year-old son, Milo, can be made here: https://www.gofundme.com/ryanandmilo.