Minnesota is largely flat.
Yet one vertical sport has established a solid foothold: rock climbing.
Brought here in the late 1980s by a vagabond crew of Minnesota residents, 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, and with sport climbing making its debut at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, the sport is putting on a new face.
"Most [competitive climbers] have never heard of Minnesota," said Olympic-bound climber and University of Minnesota graduate Kyra Condie. "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. With 14 major gyms, about 1,700 outdoor routes and Olympic-bound talent knotted together, the state is on track to reckon with the U.S. West.
"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.
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 outdoor clothing and equipment company and was the first American to win a Bouldering World Cup title on U.S. soil.
Ascending everywhere from California to Thailand, the Minnesota resident says the state has yielded top-notch climbers. "But globally and nationally, it's like an underground, probably because people think there's no rock climbing [here]," she said.
While Johnson has made an international name for North Star State climbing, one climber has stayed to fan the flames locally: the godfather of Minnesota climbing, Jeff Engel.
"Minnesotan climbers really are passionate about what we have here and make great strides to take care of it," Engel said.
Engel crafted countless routes, some of which are accessible only by raft, allowing access to Minnesotan cliffs, such as original routes in Sandstone.
The area 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."
Minnesota's climbing community is faced with a friction-inducing dilemma, pitting old traditions against new. The rub? An exponential increase in indoor climbing gyms.
Minnesota's gym boom over recent years has put a new generation on a route to indoor-only climbing — something the original climbers say they're not inclined to accept.
"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" and works as a national Level 5 routesetter for USA Climbing. "This is probably the first year in my life where people are heavily identifying as 'gym climbers.' "
"I would quit climbing if I had to be climbing inside all the time," Oklobzija said. "I've always seen it as training."
While many in a past generation would agree with Oklobzija, gyms are sprouting up around the state.
While tension persists between indoor and outdoor climbing enthusiasts, the sport's newest members in the state are not as indoor-inclined as they may seem.
"You have the traditional people — who we'll probably turn into — but then you have us hooligans," said University of Minnesota climb team captain Jacob Hammer. "We bring creativity and energy to everything we do."
He said the hope is to get everyone back in fresh air. "The goal is to not have two separate communities," he said.