Susan Johnson isn't a huge fan of heights. But she rappelled 22 floors down the side of the Ecolab Corporate Center in St. Paul Friday, in honor of her son Wade who died mountain climbing in China.

"It's part of the circle of life," said Johnson, of Arden Hills. "I got him started rock climbing when he was a kid and he got me rock climbing when he died."

Johnson was among dozens of normally earth-bound Minnesotans who dangled from the top of the downtown St. Paul building during one of Minnesota's most unusual nonprofit fundraisers.

The "Double Dog Dare" was the first nonprofit rappelling fundraiser, organizers said. The challenge drew about 80 hardy souls who raised at least $1,000 each for the Northern Star Council of the Boy Scouts of America.

"We have leadership breakfasts, recognition dinners, golf tournaments ... and things like clay shoots, where you shoot clay pigeons," said council spokesperson Jenny Hedal. "But this has topped the list in terms of reaching a broad audience."

Among the intrepid folks donning climbing gear and helmets throughout the day were Tom Rassieur, curator at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, who happens to be getting married Saturday; Jim Bradshaw, a Twin Cities funeral services owner who rappelled the first time at the age of 69; and David Miller, the general manager of the St. Paul Hotel.

Ecolab employees, including some who spent the day watching odd people hanging outside their office windows, also joined in.

"How often do you get to rappel down your own corporate headquarters?" joked Christopher Diller, an Ecolab engineer, after removing his straps and climbing gear.

"Plus scouting is something near and dear to my heart, It's a double whammy for me."

A mom's story

But Johnson's story was unique among the group. Her son Wade was killed by an avalanche in China in 2009 while filming an adventure film. He was 24 and an avid climber and outdoorsman.

Wade Johnson, a 2007 graduate of Carleton College, belonged to the Carleton Association of Nature and Outdoor Enthusiasts, better known as CANOE. On Friday, his mother wore a gray T-shirt from that club as she descended the glass skyscraper.

"I think he'd be cheering," said Johnson, a criminal defense attorney.

Johnson, 64, acknowledges she's an unlikely climber. She began climbing shortly after attending Wade's memorial service in Boulder, Colo. There she learned that her normally safety-conscious son had climbed the Flatirons mountainsides in Boulder without ropes.

"I thought, 'If he can do it without ropes, I can do it with ropes,'" she said.

The following Christmas Eve day, Johnson joined her son's best friend and his mother for an indoor climb at Vertical Endeavors, a St. Paul rock climbing facility. She later returned to Boulder to make the climb herself.

She continues to climb indoors regularly, and also tries to keep a sense of adventure in her life to honor her son's own adventurous spirit.

While she got a kick out of repelling 300 feet down a skyscraper, she missed the challenge of climbing up.

"The real thrill of climbing is the way up, the feel of the rock," she said.

"But how often do you get to go down a 22-story building? It's a hoot."

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511