I first met Ryan Johnson in Juneau, where we teamed up with Tim Banfield. I could tell that Ryan was open, honest to a fault, and super solid in the mountains. On our first adventure together we sent a major new ice line near Juneau, and later that fall we made it to the far reaches of Kyrgyzstan. We didn’t send our chosen objective—an unclimbed line of thin, alpine ice on Kyzyl Asker—but suffered high on the face and retreated knowing we had done our best with the terrible weather. The trip had everything that we craved: intense suffering and starvation, a new technical route in Kyrgyzstan on the Ochre Walls, and some of the best pitches we had ever climbed in the alpine during our attempt on Kyzyl. These experiences—bookended by legal shenanigans (we ventured sans visa or permit into China to attempt one of the world’s most coveted big wall ice/mixed lines) and social misadventures in countries where we were total outsiders—forged an indelible bond between us that set the stage for an enduring friendship focused around alpinism, personal growth and fatherhood.
As a climber, 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 big wall 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 arguably the most motivated winter climber in Alaska’s history, and undoubtedly one of the more talented alpinists in North America. 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.
After climbing the Cassin Ridge on Denali, 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. Though it made him a great living and allowed him to travel extensively, he grew tired of this lifestyle. It was just too tough to maintain climbing specific fitness and the mental edge he 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 played mentor to countless up and coming Juneau area climbers and expanded 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 AI 4 M5 A1), and his final first ascent (unknown difficulty) with Marc-André Leclerc climbing right up the guts of the North face of Main Tower. Local ice testpieces he completed over the past few years include Tideline (420m WI 6) in Tracy Arm and Milagro De Plata (330m WI 6) 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 WI 5) and Path of the Fallen (310m WI 5) in the nearby Suicide basin. Ryan also climbed in places like Nepal, Kyrgyzstan, and China, on peaks like Pumori. He also completed the first ascent of Mr. Casual (600m AI 5 R) on the Ochre Walls in Kyrgyzstan, after he and I put in a strong effort on one of the world’s most coveted big wall ice lines 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.)
Over the past few years Ryan focused his energy wholeheartedly on being a compassionate father to his son Milo and building his career as an alpinist with great intention, opening Tongass Fitness and offering 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. The dojo assisted some of his close, local friends in pulling off high-end free climbs in the 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 was a wonderful climbing partner, and 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, or as a coach through some of the tough decisions of early fatherhood. We shared too many great and meaningful times together to count, but my experience is not unique. Many people thought of him as their best friend due to his openness and encouraging nature.
His family, friends, and the climbing community lost a caring and driven human being and he will be dearly missed.
From Ryan’s writing on his personal blog:
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.
To donate to a GoFundeMe campaign to support Ryan’s two-year-old son Milo, visit https://www.gofundme.com/ryanandmilo.