‘Scending ‘Sota: rock climbings rise in the land of 10,000 lakes

From Olympic athletes to industry titans, almost 2,000 miles away from epicenters like Yosemite, a little-known community is crushing walls

Samir Ferdowsi

Minnesota is flat. 

Peaks are mounds and valleys are riverbeds. Yet, in a place where the skyscrapers in downtown reach as high as one can get, one sport has gripped the population with an unconditional allure: rock climbing.

Brought here in the late 1980s by a vagabond crew of Minnesotans, rock climbing has stuck. Originally, one could only access limited outdoor ascents in Taylors Falls and Red Wing. Indoor climbers only had a single rope atop a brick wall inside a Roseville outdoors retailer. Now, with a young generation crushing in a new style, the sport’s landscape is putting on a new face.

“Most people have never heard of Minnesota,” said Olympic-bound climber and University of Minnesota graduate Kyra Condie. “Some people say they’ve heard of it but don’t know where it is. … But, I always make sure to say I’m from here.”

Minnesota has erupted into an unrecognized, yet world-class, hub for those in the pursuit of going up. 

First pitch: Minnesota’s base

Minnesotans have infiltrated the climbing universe — whether the world knows it or not.

With 14 major gyms and counting, nearly 2,000 outdoor routes and Olympic-bound talent knotted together, the state is on track to reckon with the western U.S.

“To me, Minnesota climbing culture is like a giant, unknown underground community,” said world champion and Minnesota-based climber Alex Johnson, who coaches in the Twin Cities. “It’s like we’re here, you don’t need to know about it — but we’re going to keep crushing.”

Johnson began her climbing journey in St. Paul, where she made a 20-minute drive to climb at least four times a week in 1997. Now, she’s a professional athlete for The North Face and was the first American to ever win a Bouldering World Cup title on U.S. soil.

‘Scending everywhere from California to Thailand, the Minnesotan holds firm that the state has climbing at its core. 

“We’ve had badass climbers come out of Minnesota,” Johnson said. “But globally and nationally, it’s like an underground, probably because people think there’s no rock climbing.”

While Johnson has made an international name for North Star State climbing, one climber has stayed local to spark these flames internally: the godfather of Minnesota climbing, Jeff Engel.

Engel crafted countless routes — some of which are only accessible by raft, in a true Minnesotan fashion — allowing widespread access to Minnesotan cliffs.

What used to be the edge of nowhere now hosts full-fledged climbing festivals that have grown substantially in participation and popularity each year.

“Everything in Minnesota is such an outdoor community, and climbing has just become a part of that,” said Angie Jacobsen, 2018 festival participant and featured climber in “Jeff’s World,” a feature film on Engel’s home turf. “Climbing is almost a natural progression.”

While going back to college, Jacobsen entered the world of heights like most climbers from the state — first climbing indoors, then finding a crew before heading to outdoor crags after a year of practicing indoors.

“Once you become aware of it and are an outdoors person, which so many people in Minnesota are, it’s a natural draw,” Jacobsen said.

However, the transitional trailblazers are quickly losing ground. 

Pitch two: the crux

Minnesota’s climbing community is faced with a friction-inducing dilemma, pitting old traditions against inevitable progress. The problem? An exponential increase of indoor gyms.

Minnesota’s gym boom over recent years has put a new generation en route to indoor-only climbing — something the “OG’s” say they’re not inclined to accept. The Olympics will see climbing as a featured event for the first time ever come Tokyo 2020, and the state has adopted this new era of indoor climbing with immediate speed.

“I have seen both an influx in private equity dollars and eyes from people who have no care for the outdoors or climbing’s heritage — it’s culturally shifted,” said Nic Oklobzija, who authored the Minnesota Bouldering Guidebook. “This is probably the first year in my life where people are heavily identifying as ‘gym climbers.’”

Starting as both a belayer and a hold maker, Oklobzija says he could count the number of gym climbers since 2004 solely on his hands.

Now, he sees an erosion in the sport that is only curable by respecting the past and getting people back outside.

“I would quit climbing if I had to be climbing inside all the time,” Oklobzija said. “I’ve always seen it as training.”  

All together, Minnesota has seen 14 major gyms stake a claim in less than 15 years — a major feat for a Midwestern state, many climbers say.

The University is no exception to the trend, having seen the Recreation and Wellness Center open its doors to a professional-grade climbing facility in 2013.

“We are really here to serve students, but that doesn’t mean we’re here to serve subpar climbing walls,” said University climbing instructor Bryan Karban, who also runs the University’s outdoor program, Center for Outdoor Adventure. 

Stating benefits from mental health to increased social interaction, Karban said the escape of heading to the Rec’s wall, in some ways, is unmatched.

“It provides that spectrum of experience and excitement that you can have from day one to day 600,” Karban said.

In the 2012-13 school year, the year before the RecWell was built, the University saw 359 climbing passes sold from September to May, and had an average of 25 people per day come to climb, Karban said.

Last year, the gym sold more than 1,200 memberships and averaged 102 climbers per day— totaling more than 25,500 participants over the course of the fiscal year, he said. 

These numbers have been constantly increasing since the wall’s debut, according to RecWell data.

Despite climbing at private gyms for the majority of her training, Condie, a Shoreview native, made appearances at the Rec. Now on the shortlist of Team USA Climbers for Tokyo 2020, Condie’s journey started in one St. Paul gym, Vertical Endeavors, a location responsible for lighting the gym-craze fuse.

“When I was 11 years old, I was not only the youngest person climbing in the steep bouldering cave … but also one of the only girls,” Condie said. “Back then, to be really ‘in’ the MN culture, you had to really be dedicated to climbing. And when I say dedicated, I mean it. These were people who could be found driving three-and-a-half hours back and forth to find boulders up North every weekend, scoping Google Earth in search of new potential on weeknights.”

Towering on the outskirts of downtown St. Paul, Vertical Endeavors gym opened in 1992 and helped lay the foundation for the state’s climbing empire. In the process, it pumped out international climbing legends like Alex Johnson, Kyra Condie and Noah Ridge.

“After seeing what was going on in the industry — and not being able to climb all winter — more and more people were picking up the sport, and I realized we were here in Minnesota … with no gym at all,” said Nate Postma, founder of the gym. “I just thought to myself, ‘Wow, wouldn’t it be great if we had an indoor place where all our problems could be solved?’”

From an access standpoint, they were. 

Pitch three: topping out

Visions of a coherent community are on the horizon.

While tension hangs with older generations, the sport’s newest members in the state are not as indoor-inclined as they may seem. Programs at the University and other gyms across the state are focusing on shifting back to the indoor-to-gym mentality.

“You have the traditional people — who we’ll probably turn into — but then you have us hooligans,” said University climb team captain Jacob Hammer. “We bring creativity and energy to everything we do — bringing that to climbing is really fun.”

Hammer, who is helping launch new training programs with the COA, said the hope is to get everyone back in fresh air.

“The goal is to not have two separate communities, that’s where I see it going,” Hammer said.

Many say to those in the youngest stages of their passion that positive mentality transcends. 

Fourteen-year-old Zoë Nutsforle says outlook for Minnesota climbing isn’t too bleak, during Boulderfest North 2018, the first national climbing competition to be held in Minnesota.

“I just want to keep trying and get better, and everybody is rooting for you no matter what — that’s so nice.”

Five-year-old competitor Jack Miller has a positive attitude, too. 

“I always want to come back and do more and make new friends,” he said, his arms barely long enough to reach between holds.

The steadfast love for rock climbing is only transitioning: from young to old, mentor to first time on a crash pad, Minnesotan climbers are hauling the addiction of altitude to levels unthinkable in a state hidden in the northern forests. 

The community is rapturous, and it’s going nowhere but up.