Alex Johnson bought a trad rack. She admits that she doesn’t know how to use it yet, but is excited to learn. She’s been one of the biggest names in competition bouldering for almost a decade, but now, she’s ready to move on.
Johnson’s not burnt out from climbing though—it’s just the opposite. She has a new climbing mentality and she’s more psyched than ever.
Q&A with Alex Johnson – The Pro Life and Growing Up as a Climber
How long have you been climbing for?
I started climbing when I was eight years old, and now I’m 26, so for 17 or 18 years now.
Becoming a professional climber was not something I consciously wanted to do as a kid. I actually wanted to be a pro basketball player and make it into the WNBA. I played basketball from 10 to 15 and really loved it. I also ran track in high school.
I went to college on a track scholarship. My senior year in high school I won the state title for pole vaulting and my team also won states. It was the ultimate fairy-tale send off. But in college, I realized I didn’t really love it and decided to try the climbing thing.
Track felt like an extension of high school and I needed to break away, to do my own thing. I started dropping class after class to climb and eventually dropped out of school.
In 2008 I went to Europe for a bouldering World Cup and did very well. I was the only American there and everyone took me in, everyone was so nice. After that is when I decided that I wanted to try to make it as a professional climber.
Have you ever had second thoughts about that decision?
I have second thoughts all the time. It may sound arrogant, but I feel like I have potential for other areas in life. In my alter-ego lifestyle, I could see myself as a lawyer in New York City.
I definitely feel like I don’t want to waste the gift of ‘brain.’
Climbing full time can actually lack intellectual stimulation. I’m hungry to learn, which is not a component of my current lifestyle.
I’ll be going back to school in August though. I’m enrolled at the College of Southern Nevada—a community college in Las Vegas—to study graphic design and maybe take some classes in marketing.
I’m actually kind of nervous. I feel like a little kid going back to school after summer vacation, I mean, I have to go back to school shopping and everything.
I’ll be dabbling with classes this semester, taking a couple of things to see if I like them. I may transfer to a trade school or to a university after two years. We’ll see how it goes.
I think I’ll actually like the structure. I have a lot of free time now, too much free time. I think I’ll appreciate climbing more when I’m not doing it all the time. I think having the a structure will be really good for me and will motivate me to try harder, to make more of my time—I know that sounds backwards.
Are you burnt out from climbing?
Not burnt out at all, it’s just that intellectual stimulation is missing. And I think part of it’s that I just want to do more moves. I’ve been mostly bouldering my whole life. It’s the opposite of burning out, I’m motivated to do more.
I’m excited to branch out to sport climbing, trad and multi-pitch. I actually bought a trad rack for the first time, I have no idea how to use it [laughs], but I’m excited to learn!
I know more about who I am as a person now, and what I like and what I’m doing is finally starting to line up.
What do you do to keep it fresh?
I definitely don’t always seem motivated, that’s what I envy in other climbers—being psyched 24/7—something I’ve never been able to do and feel bad about. I always think, why can’t I stay as psyched to climb year round.
Taking summers off helps. Climbing has never felt like a job since I always take time off. When I was just bouldering, I needed to take a full summer off but now that I’m branching out to other types of climbing, I’m always motivated to climb.
It’s really nice to take a break from bouldering but not stopping climbing altogether. Climbing year round in other disciplines helps keep me going.
“I don’t know that comp climbing will always be there for me. I’m not saying I’m retiring just yet, but kind of moving on—passing the torch to the next generation.”
What inspires you to climb?
When I was younger, I was motivated by comp results and media attention. Now my mindset is to climb for fun. I’m inspired by cool, hard lines.
I don’t know that comp climbing will always be there for me. I don’t feel bitter towards comp climbing, which is a good place to walk away from. I’m not saying I’m retiring just yet, but kind of moving on—passing the torch to the next generation.
I don’t feel like it’s my place anymore, and I think Angie Payne feels the same way. Our generation had it easy, there were only like three climbers. Now there are so many more climbers and they’re so much stronger.
I’m so glad I’m not 17 right now.
I’m not walking away with any bitterness though. Competition climbing has made me the person I am. I owe it to my coaches; I wouldn’t be where I am without them.
So you’re moving away from bouldering and competition climbing, something you’ve been doing your whole life; what are your plans for the future?
I’m really excited. I feel like the world is wide open now, which is intimidating, but my mentality has changed significantly from, got to keep up, got to send hard, to I’m going to do what I want and have fun with it.
I’ve wanted that for a while now, but wasn’t ready to make the change. I’ve always felt this pressure to stay relevant in the climbing world by climbing hard, but I no longer feel that way.
I feel like I’m growing up as a climber—going from a one-dimensional comp climber to sport and trad and climbing things that inspire me.
I recently joined Team Trango. I’ve only sport climbed up to 5.13c, which for women in this day and age is not impressive or ground breaking, but Trango took me on anyways.
I really appreciate that Trango sees past numbers and sees me as a person. It speaks to the team that they have and the team they want to make. I’m really excited to be a part of that.
I’m ready to start using ropes now! I’m also excited to spend more time developing new boulder problems. Working on The Swoop opened my eyes up to a whole different world. I have so much more appreciation for people who put up FA’s after that. I’m looking forward to doing more.
I think climbing in other disciplines will increase the longevity of climbing for me and I’ll get more from the experience.
So yeah, I feel like I’m definitely growing up as a climber.
Would you ever try ice climbing?
I’m really intrigued but it makes me kind of anxious. Maybe if someone wants to pull me up something [laughs]. I don’t know, I might just start with trad for now.
Photography by Michael Lim. To view more of his work, visit his website: mlimphoto.com