On Projects, Training, and the Future of Climbing: An Interview with Alex Johnson

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with 2-time World Cup Gold Medalist, 5-time National Champion, and professional female crusher, Alex Johnson. Here’s what she had to say about her current climbing insights, ambitions, and of course, I asked her about her favorite beer, too: Alex Johnson. Here’s what she had to say about her current climbing insights, ambitions, and of course, I asked her about her favorite beer, too:


With the coming of the fall season and a return of sending temps, what are your projects for the season?

Fall is my favorite time of year. Usually I take a lot of time off in the summers to let my body rest, regroup, and have some fun before the season starts again. Fall will be mostly climbing around Vegas, getting fit again, and then I will eventually head back out to Bishop to take on The Swarm (V14).

 

Related: Climbing Destination Guide: Bishop, CA

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Now that you’re living in Las Vegas, is Red Rocks your favorite place to climb?

I think so. There’s so much and it’s so fun in Red Rocks. You can just go out all day, and not worry about your skin at all, thanks to the sandstone. It’s great. Bishop is really fun, but it’s also reeeaaaallly sharp.

You occasionally sport climbing (such as in your RV Project Birthday Challenge); do you foresee yourself getting more into that realm or will bouldering always be your primary style?

Since moving [to Las Vegas] I’ve sport climbed more than I have over the past eight years because the season is so hot for Red Rocks that we have to go up to higher elevation in Charleston and sport climb. It’s mostly an off-season thing. I like it; I don’t love it. It’s a little easier on the body than bouldering. They’re so different though; it’s like a sprinter going for a long jog—it’s just not my passion.

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How about trad climbing, any enticement there?

Trad climbing terrifies me. I think trad will be something I will get more into when I’m older. But now, I basically feel like I’m free soloing every time I do it … I’m actually less scared when I’m highball bouldering, which is weird, but it’s a different mental state for me. There are those moments when you just cannot fall and you know that if you’re a few millimeters off you could get seriously hurt. Sometimes I’ll just know I’m not ready to do a highball because you really have to fully commit and if you don’t, you can’t do it—or you will really get hurt. I guess falling just can’t be an option in your mind at all, and when my head is in that state of mind I know I’m ready to go for it.

 

Related: Off the Deck: Learning to Love Highballs

 

You’ve been competing since age 11; how have you seen the sport evolve in both positive and negative ways?

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I was introduced to climbing a little differently. I didn’t have a team that took me outside and my parents didn’t climb, so I didn’t grow up climbing outside. So right away indoor competing was the sport of climbing for me—and then eventually I started falling in love with real rock climbing, going on trips outside, and even up until, geez, almost 2012, climbing was still: train in the gym, go compete, and climb outside when you can. And eventually I didn’t like it any more. It just didn’t have me the way it used to have me, and all I wanted to do was climb outside. So it sort of just totally changed my game plan.

I’m over competing because I have to train in the gym. In order to stay at the top of the game you have to train at the gym year-round, almost every day. And that’s what rock climbers are doing now. They go to the gym every day, year-round, and go outside maybe once or twice a week … MAYBE.

And I just wanted to climb outside, so I would go on these 8 or 9-month road trips. The first was in 2011-12 in my mom’s van. I started in Wisconsin and went down through Colorado, Utah, Yosemite, Bishop, Vegas, Hueco, then back up to Vegas, Bishop, and Yosemite. And it was amazing. I was all by myself (well with my dog Fritz), and I would just meet up with people along the way or just go climbing by myself—and that was the trip that totally changed me. I was like, okay, I’m done. I’m not climbing in the gym every day. That’s not rock climbing to me. Rock climbing to me is getting up and going rock climbing.

So would you say the sport is kind of splitting, between indoor and outdoor climbing?

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I think so. It’s definitely possible to do both and be really good at both.  Shauna Coxsey climbs V14 and wins World Cups; Anna Stöhr climbs V13 and wins World Cups. But it’s harder to maintain being able to win World Cups and climb that hard outside, because they’re so different. Indoor competitive bouldering is not the same as outdoor bouldering. The movements are different, you have to use your feet differently, and transitioning from one to the other is really hard. It’s possible to be good at both, but for me right now, in order to be good at both, I need to spend significantly more time in the gym … and I don’t want to. I can’t commit to just going inside and training all day in the gym. And that was part of the allure with Las Vegas. There is a gym here but there are so many rocks around me that it doesn’t even feel like an option to me.

 

Related: 6 Training Games for All Levels of Climbers

 

Your career has enabled you to travel abroad; as a professional athlete do you get much time to explore the culture and engage with locals or are you climbingAlex Johnson image -7 right away?

Unfortunately, you only get a couple of a days of site-seeing and then you have to climb in the gym to get used to the jetlag and loosen up a little bit. Then it’s competition, competition, competition, maybe another day or two of site-seeing, and then you go home. That’s how traveling abroad was for me. On longer-term trips, like when I was training in Austria for several months, I was more immersed in the culture—getting to use the German I learned in high school.

What is the most amount of consecutive days you have gone without climbing in the past couple of years? And what is your favorite way to spend a rest day?

For the last 3 summers, I’ve taken about 8 weeks off every year, where I’ll go trail running, kayaking, just hang out, drink beer … be a normal human and not be super worried about staying fit or my diet. I’ll hang out with friends, go to the pool a lot; just chill pretty much. I take training for this winter’s outdoor season pretty seriously. I want to do the best that I can, and that’s why I take so much time off for the summer; my fall leading into winter is very intense.

 

Related: How to Recover Faster While You Sleep

 

From where and what kind of pressure do you feel in terms of training, your diet, etc. as a professional climber?

I think most of the pressure put on us comes from ourselves—at least for me. I know my sponsors will be stoked with whatever I’m doing, as long as I’m doing something. ButWhen it’s ‘go time’ for The Swarm for me, it’s really serious, and it’s the most constructive time of year for my training and diet; and all of the pressure just comes from myself. Sometimes you get the illusion that other people are putting pressure on you, but it’s just made up in your head. Sometimes I think, “All these people want me to do this!” but no one is really going to give a shit if I don’t. They’ll be like “Oh you’ll do it next year,” they’re not going say, “Aw bummer, what a disappointment!”

Alex Johnson image -8In becoming an accomplished climber, who has been your mentor in progressing with the sport?

Jessa Goebel. We met when I was younger; she wasn’t my coach, but we would go climbing outside together a lot and have these great life talks. She is very big sisterly. When I’m screwing around she’ll tell me, “You need to get your shit together!” but when I’m doing well she says, “I’m really proud of you.” It’s sort of a big sister relationship.

You used to do track and field as a pole-vaulter. Do you ever get the urge to get up and go pole vault?

No. Never. Never. I have nightmares about it, where I have to go pole vault, and I’m like “Nooooo!” It was a fun high school/college thing, but I’m glad it’s over. It was so repetitive. Everything about climbing is different, every single time you do it. And that’s what keeps me so captivated: it’s something new every time. Even going back to the same boulder problem, you’re going to do it a little differently, and it’s going to feel a little differently. But with pole vaulting, it was like “Yes! I got a ¼ of an inch higher this time than I did last time!

Now I’m going to do the same thing to see if I can get ¼ of an inch higher!” It’s really easy to track your progress. I mean, you run and jump over a bar. Whereas with climbing it’s so all over the board: a V12 could feel like V9 for one person, and a V9 could feel like V13 for another person. It’s total chaos with tracking progress … but at least it’s not repetitive.

How about things like high-lining or base-jumping—is there any appeal for you to try these types of activities?

Not quite yet, but maybe later in life with my desire to trad climb.

If we’re cheers-ing to beers celebrating what an epic year you’ve had 12 months from now, what are the accomplishments you’ve made?

Sending The Swarm and making finals or just getting on the podium at Vail again. This year, I thought I would make finals given how hard I trained and because I’ve made finals in the past pretty consistently. But it was actually the worst I’ve ever done in any event ever in my entire life since I started competing since the age of 11 … It was really weird, disheartening, and just frustrating … So yeah, getting The Swarm and getting to finals at Vail would be pretty rad. A medal would be sweet, but finals are step one.

Beta on Alex …

Preference; Summer or Winter: Winter. Well, that’s hard because I grew up in Wisconsin where I definitely hated winter. But now that I’m in Vegas—where it’s like 110 degrees everyday in the summer and 40 in the winter—I now love winter.

Preference; Coffee or Tea: Coffee

Best Crag Food: Goldfish

Favorite Beer: Moose’s Tooth Raspberry Wheat (Alaska)

Your Spirit Animal: The first thing that came into my head is tiger, even though that is like the most cliché thing ever.

Favorite Place to Sleep Outside: The best time I had sleeping outside was in Chile up in the Andes. We didn’t pitch tents or anything, we just laid out crash pads and everyone slept under the sky. The closest city was like 3 hours away, so there were no lights anywhere. We were just up in the mountains and the stars were crazy. It didn’t suck.

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Alex is a professional climber sponsored by The North Face, Evolv, Goal Zero, Pro-Tec Athletics, Organic Crash Pads, Smith Optics, JTree Skincare, and Gnarly Nutrition. Check out her websiteblog, and follow her on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook.

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