Alex Johnson: Tell me a Real Story
Johnson laments what she sees as the commodification of climbing news and media at the expense of real, affecting stories.
I used to read stories in climbing magazines like Rock and Ice all the time. I remember licking my thumb to flip pages, hanging on the words of someone I’d never met, drawn in by literal cliffhangers.
Back then there wasn’t the immediate satisfaction of watching a thirty second send video, or hearing about a noteworthy accomplishment over social media. I would sit at the gym (or on the toilet) and physically hold a magazine and read a story. Not interviews, or “Hot Flashes,” but stories, written by someone out there actually doing it. Some were adventurous, some humorous, some heartbreaking, some had the purpose of spreading wisdom. But they were legitimately engaging. I really felt like I could get to know someone, the real them, while reading their honest recounted experiences. These days, I feel this is a significant thing missing in our sport.
To me, interviews are impersonal; there’s a cold stiffness in answering staged questions. People always come across as bored, like they’ve been asked the same generic questions a dozen times before. (They probably have been.) And now noteworthy sends can be summed up in a mere sentence online. “So-and-so sent this climb rated X.” Maybe you could throw in how many days they spent on their elusive project, and how they had to overcome “heinous obstacles” such as weather or bad skin.
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I’m more attracted to the rawness. Feeling emotionally invested or moved by someone or something—even seemingly insignificant—can hold so much more weight inspirationally than a name and a grade, however much fame accompanies said name/grade.
“Oh, topping that hard climb was emotionally taxing for you? Thwarted by a snowstorm and a split tip? Wow, tell me about your unique journey.”
“You trained really hard for that competition for a few weeks and didn’t get the results you wanted? You must be so sad. How ever will you muster the strength to go on?”
These are weak excuses for raw emotion. Or maybe it’s just that nobody can write about these experiences in a way that interests me, though it seems that everyone these days is trying. It could also be that nobody is really being honest. Everyone is too afraid of offending someone, potentially losing a sponsor, or coming off as “politically incorrect” to be really real. But in the days of my original heroes—people like Obe Carrion, John Stack and Jason Kehl—it seemed as though that thought never crossed their minds. They just were who they were, unabashedly, unapologetically and unafraid. Nowadays everyone is under the impression they need to be perfect in the eye of the public to make it anywhere in this sport. Hello, have you seen Valley Uprising? How did we get here, so far away from our roots? Where have all the characters gone?
Where are the real fucking humans?
I don’t blame them (ahem, us) for hiding behind bubbly social media personas and hesitating to post anything confrontational for fear of either A) being torn down by a random anonymous person on the internet with an opinion he or she thinks is so important it needs to be typed out and posted, preceding the notion that you should “stick to rock climbing”; or B) Losing or disappointing fans or sponsors because of differing opinions. I’m guilty of it. We all are. “Please the masses. Portray this persona.” If someone chooses to “unfollow” you because your beliefs are different than theirs, I’m not sure you really want them as a “fan” anyway.
The internet sucks. I miss stories. Real stories. All I ever see when I scroll are snippets on sends, gear reviews, safety instructions, accidents, etc. The last piece of climbing media that moved me was “Cold” by Cory Richards, circa 2012ish? His emotion was so visceral you couldn’t help but become invested, literally on the edge of your seat, even though you know he survives in the end because he presented the film himself.
But these types of films come but once a year, if that. Even then they are sometimes lacking depth. Tell me something new, interesting, moving. I want to feel something. I want to read a story, like the ones I used to.
I want to try to tell a real story, too. I’m not sure what it even is yet, or if it’ll be anything of significant interest, but whatever comes out of it, I want it to be honest and entertaining and real.
ALEX JOHNSON is a professional climber and head coach at Vertical Endeavors in Minneapolis, MN. She’s been climbing for twenty years, won two bouldering world cups, and was a National Champion in each bouldering, sport and speed. Alex has put up many first ascents and claimed dozens of first female ascents up to to V13. Her favorite author is Chuck Palahniuk.
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