Unbroken: The Alex Johnson ProfileShe was half of the biggest comp rivalry in America, many-time National Champion and winner of two of the first three World Cups she entered. Then a compounding series of events left Alex Johnson so far out of the game she thought she had lost her grip.
The first rays of sun crept across the frosted sagebrush and cacti of Calico Basin, Red Rocks. Alex Johnson pulled the hood of a tiny pink jacket around her chihuahua Fritz’s head and set off on foot. Before she crossed the short expanse between a neighborhood and the mountainside, the sun caught up and began turning frost to dew, warming the backs of her legs with the promise of another fine day. It was April 2012.
Johnson passed classics like The Pearl and The Monkey Bar Traverse, turned the corner and, leaving the sun behind, dropped her bouldering pad and stopped for a lap on her favorite V2, a tall brown face dubbed The Pork Chop. Shouldering her pad again, she walked down into the wash, then up the river-smoothed cobbles, a lone climber with a tiny dog zipped into the front of her jacket. Alex (or “AJ,” as she is known in the climbing-comp world) had no reason to hurry; she still had hours before the sun would breach the canyon walls, and for once she knew she wouldn’t need any extra time to complete her objective—a stout compression V12 perched high atop a hillside pedestal.
“I don’t usually wake up and know I’m going to send something that day,” Johnson had said weeks earlier while sitting creekside in Eldorado Canyon, Colorado, where we’d met to talk and soak up winter sunshine. “Well, in comps I do.” She paused, and looked uncertain. “Or at least I did.”
That conversation was in February of last year, and Johnson was fresh off her second disappointing finish, fifth place, at an American Bouldering Series (ABS) Nationals. The year before, she had been fourth. Top five in the country may not sound bad, but Johnson is used to standing on top of the podium, not next to it. She wasn’t placing blame for her performance, but she wasn’t taking the change lightly, either.
“I realized that I can’t just show up [and win] anymore,” she said, dangling her feet over the icy water, “’cause everyone else is getting stronger.”
Nearby in Eldo, her good friend Kati Peters arranged crash pads under a tall creekside V9 with a landing of rocks and half-submerged logs.
Alex glanced back at Kati to see how soon she would be needed to spot, and then continued. “Before, I didn’t have to try to prepare for comps. It was usually just me and Puccio.”
Alex Puccio was Johnson’s main rival in major U.S. comps as the two girls spent from 2007 until around 2010 flip-flopping on and off the top of the podium. Sometimes they even tied. Now Puccio lives in England, and for Johnson things have changed.
“When I had to start trying hard,” she said, “I didn’t know how. Other people put more effort into training for plastic in the last two years than I had, and it showed, because they beat me.”
Kati didn’t fall in the river, but she didn’t send either, and between the fits of laughter and the warm winter sun it was clear, for that day at least, that topping out didn’t matter too much. Times like that bright day in Eldo, climbing outdoors with friends, are how Alex has spent her last several winters.
Other climbers may have been training for plastic, but Johnson has been on the open road, living out of her van in Bishop, Joe’s Valley, Yosemite, Las Vegas and Hueco. Some hard projects went down on those trips, and Alex even indulged in a brief but productive highballing stint in Bishop that her mother prefers to believe never happened. She climbed problems with off-the-deck cruxes and bad landings on 20- to 40-foot boulders: doing Mesothelioma (V7), Golden Shower (V10), and the one she calls the scariest, due to its receding landing, The Ninth (V7, R/X), all on the same day. She also made the second ascent of Wills Young’s Golden Age (V8).
“She has taken things to a new height,” Young observed at the time on his Bishop Bouldering Blog, “by getting off the deck on some of the area’s taller problems.” He added that he and his wife, Lisa Rands, a former world-champion boulderer and accomplished highball climber, were both impressed.
Not quite a year earlier, simple reporting on Young’s blog had sparked one of Johnson’s unhappiest experiences in climbing. After she sent the famous V12 The Mandala, Internet trolls began picking apart the viability of the problem’s various starting positions. With snide anonymity, they suggested the “version” that Alex had climbed be called “The Mandala Light” and graded V10 or V11.
A year and a half after those events, Johnson was still angry when we met for a second interview, in a Boulder coffee shop this past September. “I started with my hands no higher than the original first ascent,” she said, “but I had my left hand where [Chris] Sharma put his right, and my right hand was below it.”
She demonstrated the position, nearly knocking over her coffee. “Tons of people have done it that way—men have flashed it that way, taken the grade, and no one says a word about it,” she said. “It was infuriating that I did it the same way, and all of a sudden it’s wrong. And it’s easier. It’s wrong and it’s downgraded.”
The experience turned her proudest ascent into something she’d rather forget. Not that a female ascent being downgraded is new, she was quick to note. Her tone softened as she cited other women such as Jody Hansen, who was the first female to send Rumble in the Jungle, a V12 in Hueco that was then considered soft for the grade simply because a woman had been able to climb it. Lisa Rands gained numerous FFAs—and numerous downgrades. Johnson’s own first V12, Clear Blue Skies at Mount Evans, was quickly downgraded because she climbed it in only a few hours.
“If a girl does it,” she says matter-of-factly, “that’s the grade it is”—and should stay.
Alexandra Johnson grew up in Hudson, Wisconsin, in a family with a long history in competitive athletics. Her father, Duane, competed in swimming and baseball in college at UW-Madison and now works for the manufacturer 3M; her mother, Trish, an ex-alpine-ski racer for Superior High School in Northern Wisconsin, is a manager for a school child nutrition department. Alex and her younger brother Patrick, an avid high-school rugby player, continued the sports tradition. Alex says that her father’s side of the family in particular is “very competitive.”
>“School was easy for her,” Trish said when contacted (and Alex’s report cards, all A’s and B’s that she says she never studied for, agree), “and climbing … She started climbing out of her crib. She was never in the swing, she was on top of the swingset or on the goalpost or up in the neighbor’s tree.” At a summer festival in Stillwater, Minnesota, Alex tried a climbing wall. Later she got to visit a local grain elevator that had been converted into a climbing gym. The gym was having a competition, and Alex talked her dad into letting her enter. Although only 8 years old, Alex won 11-and-under.
The young Alex went on to dominate the climbing youth series in the five-state region of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois and Michigan. As her mother puts it: “We spent a few years traveling around the upper Midwest collecting blue ribbons.” At 12 Alex entered her first adult ABS Nationals in Boulder. She barely made finals but was inspired by competitors such as Emily Harrington and Lisa Rands. The next year she flew to Nationals in Sacramento to try again.
“They didn’t have the 16-and-over rule yet,” Alex says. “That rule is totally understandable to me now, because I won that Nationals and nobody wants a 13-year-old beating them.”
Alex kept winning, floating up almost everything the setters threw at her, and her smiling face was a podium fixture for a few years. She was also competing in other sports—starting her freshman year at Hudson High School, she applied her athletic talent to pole vaulting, high jumping and running the 200-meter dash and the 4-by-200-meter relay. Her junior year she was fifth in the pole vault at the Wisconsin State Track and Field Championships. She’d been torn between her two sports, but a good finish at that huge state event made up her mind, and she quit climbing almost entirely to work toward the following year’s State Championships. Her hard work paid off. She won in pole vaulting, helping carry the entire team to a State Championship and earning her a scholarship to Minnesota State University. The championship, she still says, stood out above all she had won before or has since. “Track is a well-known sport that’s been around for a very long time. It’s huge. Climbing is a really small sport.”
Alex burst back onto the climbing scene in 2008 by winning the first-ever Bouldering World Cup in America, held at the Teva Games, Vail, Colorado.
At the time she was happy with her results and her experience. She signed up for the following season, arranging to spend her winter climbing outside in the United States with friends, then put in spring and summer traveling and training with the world-dominant Austrian climbing team, which had kindly included her in travel arrangements. The World Cup tour was growing in size and popularity, its online feed was getting more and more hits, and athletes were getting more attention and opportunities in media and from sponsors. She figured that, finally, the changes in the sport that she hoped for were slowly taking place, and that she could become a real professional: “I thought that having a job I would enjoy could be a reality for me.”
What happened next was a resounding crash to earth. By summer there were days when she wouldn’t even get out of bed.
Johnson says, her coffee temporarily forgotten, “I wasn’t eating, wasn’t training. Watching Glee and talking to Taylor [Nystrom] were the only things I looked forward to.”
Nystrom, her best friend, told me, “She would Skype me, and there were days where I’d answer and she’d be sobbing and wasn’t able to explain why.”
How did the happy-go-lucky champion go from the top of the world to the pit of despair? “I think it was a combination of being homesick, not having all my super-good friends there, and being in a foreign country where I don’t speak the language,” Johnson said. “The first year it was exciting because it was all new, and the second year it was frustrating because it wasn’t new, and it wasn’t exciting, and I wasn’t doing well.”
In 2011 Johnson failed to make the finals even once, placing seventh in four of nine events (and eighth or ninth in others).
“The curse of the sevens,” she called it when we met, her light tone belying past discouragement. “Six go into finals at World Cups, and I got seventh repeatedly. It was heartbreaking because there were people who were [placing] consistently in the lower teens that would randomly skip above me into finals, and I’d still be in seventh.”
“Living, training and competing in Europe is exhausting,” she said. “More exhausting mentally than it is physically, I think. I was training with the wrong people, I know that now. You can’t train with the people who are consistently at the top, because if you go into the gym and you have an off day with them it knocks your confidence, and I had my confidence knocked quite a bit.”
Johnson, who is just under 5’ 9”, was training with the other female competitors, all of whom were shorter. “The problems they would make up would suit them and they would do them easily and I’d be super scrunched up,” she said, “and then when I would make up a problem they’d complain that the moves were too long. Everything I did was wrong. I was training for other people instead of for myself.”
At the mid-season event in Vail her growing depression was obvious to her family and friends, as the normally good-humored Alex seemed grumpy and embittered, and wasn’t climbing like her usual self. She didn’t make finals for the first time ever at Vail. Her fellow Team USA competitor Daniel Woods was surprised to see her looking burned out.
“I suggested she should take a break from the competition scene and climb outside,” said Woods.
It was advice that Johnson would eventually follow, but at the time she was mired in doubt and unwilling or unable to escape. Instead, after another seventh place in Vail, she refused her mother’s offer of a plane ticket home and returned to Europe with Team Austria to finish out the season. The downward spiral continued.
“I don’t know why I stayed,” she said, and paused. “I didn’t want to be a quitter … and, honestly, I didn’t know what else to do.”
When she managed to drag herself to the gym, it was for short, unproductive sessions. Even a visit from Taylor Nystrom couldn’t raise her from her funk.
“When I visited her in Austria she wouldn’t go climbing, wasn’t training,” Nystrom said. “She didn’t even want to go out for cappuccinos. I think a big part of it was that looking at her life—she was a pro climber, living and training in Europe—people couldn’t understand how she could not be happy. She didn’t understand, either. I think she was so unhappy because she’d always been strong, been able to win, and not feeling like that … she basically lost her identity and didn’t know how to deal with it.”
As Johnson put it, “I thought I would grow with the World Cup season. That was devastating as well. It was three years after my first World Cup win and nothing felt different. I was over in Europe working my ass off and nobody gave a damn.”
Johnson felt let down by the sport she had always loved and for which she had left a college track scholarship, though that in itself was not a root cause.
“I was treading water in college anyway. I couldn’t narrow down my interests enough to choose a career field, and as much as I enjoyed art history and creative writing, I sort of thought school was for suckers,” she said. “So many people graduate and end up jobless or at jobs they don’t want. Why not try and make a job out of something I loved and was good at?”
In August the World Cup season ended, and Johnson finally returned to Colorado.
“I came back to America a broken climber,” she reflected, appearing nearly in physical pain at the memory. “The reason Puccio keeps going back, and I think this is the attitude most competitors have, is she doesn’t want to get shut down. She hasn’t won a World Cup in Europe yet, and she wants to, and she’s going to. I think when people read this they’re gonna be like, ‘Oh, you got your confidence crushed, shouldn’t that be incentive to go back and take down?’ Confidence is not something you can just turn back on.”
It wasn’t that Johnson was climbing differently physically: “If I was weaker it wasn’t by much, and if I was stronger it wasn’t by much. It was completely in my head,” she said. “I didn’t believe I could do anything, and nothing and no one could change that for me. Coming home had to change that for me.”
Back in Colorado, Johnson wasn’t motivated to climb or do much of anything else, and went home to Wisconsin to see her family, get her wisdom teeth pulled, relax and figure out what to do next.
After a few weeks she found the psych to spend a day at her local gym, Vertical Endeavors in St. Paul, Minnesota, where she’d always felt comfortable. She had fun, so she kept going. A week or so after those first sessions, she packed up Fritz and the family van and headed west. Her plan was to climb outdoors and occasionally travel to gyms to teach youth climbing clinics for Professional Climbers International (PCI).
“I took a clinic with Tiffany Campbell when I was a kid,” Johnson said. “She inspired me, and I hope I can do that for some of the kids I teach.”
Kevin Jorgeson, PCI president, said that Johnson has done a lot more. “As an instructor, she’s one of the best we’ve seen,” he said. “Alex was instrumental in developing the curriculum and launching the clinics. She motivates the kids to try hard and provides clear, valuable and thoughtful insight to their climbing.”
Johnson was happy to be able to give back to a sport that had brought her many friendships and opportunities (she can live and travel through her sponsorships), and found that as she analyzed and taught movement, her own climbing improved.
On her trip, which she dubbed “The Rehab Tour” for her physical and emotional state at its outset, Johnson started slowly. “I was super unhappy, so I changed my goals,” she recalled. “I began building my confidence back up in a different way.”
On April 3, one of the last cold days of the season, with the chihuahua Fritz as her only companion, Johnson arranged her pad on the pedestal base of the red-and-black patina of the Book of Nightmares, pulled her shoes from her jacket and slid her feet into the cool leather. She brushed the holds, chalked her hands, took three deep breaths, and pulled onto the rock. Her thoughts flashed back to the final problems of so many competitions. To looking at sequences and knowing she could do them. Stick the heel on. Flow through, passing others’ high points. Squeeze two tiny edges, cross over, grab the jug. Success.
Calm, confident and centered, Johnson topped out on the tall brown slab that completes Book of Nightmares, carefully stepping around the loose sections of rock, only Fritz far below offering a whimper of companionship. It didn’t matter. She was smiling, and the expression didn’t feel forced.
Ironically, of the V12s she’s done—Clear Blue Skies at Mount Evans; The Mystery, Maze of Death and The Mandala in Bishop; Diaphanous Sea in Hueco; and Book of Nightmares and Lethal Design in Red Rocks—only Lethal Design has not been suggested for a downgrade, though Alex did the problem easily—on her first redpoint burn after trying the moves. Book took her five days of effort. It’s always that way with grades, she said.
With those five days as the most she has ever put into a problem, it seems feasible that Johnson could, by spending more time on projects, join the very few women—between four and seven, depending on your count—worldwide who have bouldered V13 (one woman has also climbed V14). So far Johnson has only tried the moves on two V13s, The Swarm and Crown of Aragon.
“The Swarm seems doable, though there is one move I didn’t do consistently,” she said. “Crown is hard!”
For the moment, however, Johnson is happy just doing outdoor mileage—her to-do list consists of many notebook pages of V0 to V12. She’d also love to go on a trip with her peers—Angie Payne and Alex Puccio—just to see what would happen.
“Guys go out together and project and that’s why I think the sport of men’s bouldering is being pushed so rapidly,” she said. “Collaboration on outdoor projects with the top female boulderers would be a good thing—we’d get the benefits of group beta development and extra motivation, and it’d be fun!”
She pointed out that women today, instead of seeking out friendly, motivating competition, often worry about stepping on each others’ toes, going so far as to avoid a problem another female is working on. Then, once a girl does finish a problem, it seems like the others all line up to repeat it, instead of seeking out other climbs.
She added: “Something that I never hear the end of is being taller than other girls. I’m tired of hearing how I can reach things because I’m tall. Whatever. Scrunchy problems are harder for me. I can’t toe-hook well ’cause my legs are often too long. There are advantages and disadvantages, and I’m only 5’ 8½” so it’s not like I’m towering over everyone. There’ve been problems where girls complain about being short but guess what, Lynn Hill climbed them and she’s only 5’ 2.” Now Ashima [Shiraishi, age 11] is crushing everything by finding alternatives that suit her size, even if it adds an intermediate or two. Suck it up!” She laughs, but she means it.