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Alex Johnson: Vacation Climbing vs. Sending the Gnar

I'm torn: Do I climb as many routes as possible on a trip, or focus on that one line that pushes me to my limit?

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I’m in Kalymnos, Greece for the first time. I’m so excited, I feel like such a gumby tourist dork.

There’s really something to be said about “vacation climbing,” which for me is just climbing lots and lots of different routes. For many, the standard sending-the-gnar road trip is the opposite. I’ve lived it: sleeping in a van or staying in a dodgy hotel, and focused on sending the hardest thing possible, trying it again and again and again. But there’s a lot to be lost in that approach, and I have a hard time committing to that type of trip, especially as I’m about to enter my thirties. Now, I want to climb everything!

Time spent sat under the same hard climb for days on end seems, trying the same few moves repeatedly, walking away with or without a send—it seems like I miss too much if I do that. I want to see more and do more; climb classics ranging from V1 to V9, or 5.10 to 5.13. If I do find a really cool line to project, I have a hard time putting more than two days into it for fear of missing out on dozens of other amazing lines. The FOMO is real.

The problem is, I still do feel the draw to climb harder lines that push me to my limit. So do I stick with my vacation climbing or project? There’s an opportunity cost either way…

I’m definitely feeling that here in Kalymnos. I want to try everything, but the routes are so, so long for this boulderer. I haven’t been getting in my desired number of pitches due to the near-vomit-inducing pump I get from 40-meter pitches .

This trip came at sort of a weird time for me. I had just begun a rugged training program, got real fit, and went to Los Angeles for the Woman Up event. It had probably been five years since I won a comp, and LA was a proverbial toe-dip back into the waters. It felt good! So did winning again. I had spent the last few years of my life stagnating a bit, really not doing much competing or professional climbing.

2012 was probably the last time I felt strong. There was that season on The Swarm (V13/14) in Bishop, in 2014 where I was outdoor fit, and the American Bouldering Series in 2016 where I got second. But I wasn’t all-around strong then. I got complacent with my past accomplishments and where I was in life, and didn’t feel like I needed to push myself, or prove myself anymore. I’d felt like I paid my dues: I’d won a few World Cups, been ranked fourth in the World Cup circuit, climbed a slew of V12s—what else did I have to do?

But that stuff has a shelf life. A lot of the kids I coach now had no idea who I was or what my previous accomplishments were before Googling me after I started working with them. While I definitely don’t feel like I have any more dues that need to be paid, regardless of relevancy, I do find myself looking to those higher grades, again.

So being caught in purgatory between vacation climbing and sending the gnar again has been annoying. But what with only being bouldering-fit right now, ten days is nowhere near enough time to gain the necessary endurance for these interminable routes. Alas, the mindset changes back to “just climb everything.”

Still, it’s useful to realize my desire to still send that gnar: After going for mileage for the last five years, I’m clearly getting hungry for hard again. I want to feel tiny holds beneath my fingertips and commit to working moves that feel impossible. Why not?! I’m almost 30; I feel like it’s about time…

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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