Regarded as a giant in the world of mountaineering and outdoor gear, the Midwest Mountaineering store opened in Minneapolis long before any of the big outfitters came on the scene. Peddling gear and advice for backpackers, climbers, paddlers, and skiers, the shop has become a mainstay on not just a local level, but is also known as one of the top outdoors stops in the country.
Midwest Mountaineering started organically in response to an unmet need, according to its owner, Rod Johnson. Local climbers and outdoorsy folks had limited options when it came to access to equipment in 1970, so Johnson, then just 21, wrote to several companies and got dealerships in order to buy products at wholesale prices. He even experimented with hitchhiking to California and lugging back gear to Minnesota in order to save money on shipping. He would then turn around and sell to his friends out of his tiny kitchen in Minneapolis.
With a two-year degree from the University of Minnesota and no solid plans for the future, it wasn’t until Johnson took off on a low-budget, round-the-world trip that same year when it occurred to him that he might be able to make a career out of selling outdoors gear.
“I was on the Amazon River — just solid-green banks on either side — and I thought, ‘This is boring, I should do something with my life. I’m going to go home, move things out of my kitchen and open up a storefront,’ ” he recalled. “So I did that on Hennepin Avenue in June of 1971.”
Since then, Midwest Mountaineering has blossomed into a place that deals in not just gear but experiences. In addition to hiring knowledgeable employees, Johnson has traveled the world in search of adventures to share with his customers. From climbing mounts Denali and Kilimanjaro, to backpacking 1,000 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, to putting up new routes on Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming, to paddling through New Zealand and China, Johnson, 66, is intent on gathering intelligence to then put back into the business.
Fresh off a scouting trip with his wife to Yosemite National Park, which he’ll report on at the store’s Outdoor Adventure Expo, the Minneapolis native discussed his enthusiasm for adventure and why he made it his life’s mission to share that passion with other people.
On getting hooked on outdoor adventure
My parents would often take us camping at the state parks in the summers. As soon as we would get to our campsite, my brother and I would take off and hike all the trails by ourselves, even when we were very young. We’d also scramble around on rocks without a rope, but it wasn’t until 1969 when I joined the Rovers Club at the University of Minnesota that I really started climbing. The first place I went was Taylors Falls and shortly afterward we went to Devils Tower in Wyoming and that’s what really got me hooked. I was naturally good at it and I loved the excitement and adventure of going up a sheer rock cliff.
On his shop’s humble beginnings
I had $500 left over from student loans and that wasn’t much to start a business with. At that point it was all survival. I rented the first store space on Hennepin Avenue for $50 a month. There was a little divider where I could fit a small bed, so I lived there, too. It wasn’t until about five years later that I even made enough money to pay taxes. When we moved to Cedar Riverside in 1976, a banker stopped by and offered to lend us money — that’s when it became a real business, rather than just a fun thing to do. It has just grown from there. As I made money I had to start hiring employees — now we have over 80 employees.
On the career path he never guessed he’d take
In the beginning, I thought I never wanted to be a businessman, because sitting at a desk and pushing paper wasn’t what I wanted to do. But I’ve been able to develop Midwest Mountaineering so that I can actually meet with customers and help them with their outdoor adventures, and I’ve gotten to go on a lot of adventures myself, so I’m not a traditional businessman.
On Midwest Mountaineering’s mission
Our mission is to encourage people to be active outdoors by getting them excited and giving them information and recommending good gear. Being outdoors is tremendously good for a person — you get the chance to unwind, relax, and leave worries and cares behind. We try to play an active role in getting people outdoors and make it a social thing, which is why we do the Outdoor Adventure expos, diva nights, and pint nights. When people can come together and have a glass of wine or a beer and look at outdoor gear and exchange stories, it becomes more a part of their life.
On the local outdoors community
Minnesota is a huge outdoors state. People just love being outside here, whether its backpacking, hiking, camping, hunting, fishing or biking. There are a few other areas like this — parts of California and the Denver and Seattle areas — but Minneapolis ranks right up there with them. In addition to Midwest Mountaineering, we have three REIs, and a whole bunch of hunting and fishing stores. We have the Superior Hiking Trail just over two hours north and numerous other areas around the state, too.
On getting outside in the Twin Cities
I cross-country ski around the Twin Cities a lot. I also go to Fort Snelling State Park and hike along the Mississippi River. It helps that we have a dog, so it’s a combination of exercise for both me and the dog. Along the Mississippi there’s the bike and walk trail at the top and then halfway down there are dirt trails. It feels like you’re just out in the middle of nowhere on those trails. It’s a great getaway right in the Twin Cities.
Mackenzie Lobby Havey is a freelance writer. She lives in Minneapolis.