[Outdoor Issue 2015]

Kickass climber Alex Johnson on first ascents and finding home in Las Vegas

The Swoop, a thrilling V10 and one of Alex Johnson’s first ascents in Red Rock Canyon.
Photo: Max Moore

She drinks her coffee with butter. Her Chihuahua runs 8-minute miles. And she can hang her entire body weight on two fingers. Something tells me Alex Johnson would be good at Two Truths and a Lie. At the moment, the 26-year-old professional climber is laughing about drunk marmots while gripping the side of an 18-foot boulder.

“They chewed through the cans!” another climber says as Johnson works a problem called All Nightmare Long on the imposing hunk of chalk-tattooed sandstone. This is the first time she’s ever touched it, but her movements look memorized. In a way they are, considering she started climbing at a Wisconsin gym at age 7, won her first U.S. title at 12 and has since notched five national championships and two Bouldering World Cup golds. She’s still competing at the highest level, taking second at the American Bouldering Series final in February, but Johnson has “honed in on outdoor projects.” Not just first female ascents, though she’s racking them up. First ascents, period.

All Nightmare Long

“So many other areas have been so tapped out, and I can go exploring here in a canyon and find things that haven’t been climbed, and then I can make them my own, clean them up and make the landings safe. I’ve never done that anywhere else, and it’s cool to be a contributing factor to more rock climbing,” she says, sharing some of what drew her from the climbing mecca of Boulder, Colorado, to Las Vegas a year ago. From the scope of the developing landscape and the climbing community’s inclusive vibe to the cheap cost of living and the shocking urge to nest, Johnson casually says she might stay forever. “I’ve never felt more at home anywhere else, and I lived in a couple different climbing cities. This is the first place that I’ve been able to stay and not constantly be thinking about where else I would want to move. ... It’s the first time that I’ve felt that way, and it’s interesting. It’s different.”

Since they moved into a place near the road to Red Rock Canyon, Johnson and her climbing partner and manager Kati Hetrick have been checking off boulder problems and longer routes in the world-class playground. With Johnson’s tiny pup Fritz sprinting along, they haul their crash pads into the wilds looking for classics and anything untested that has the right balance of beauty, difficulty and fun.

The Swoop was one of those, on a richly striated boulder knifing to the sky with a “really, really, really scary landing.” Johnson thinks maybe that’s the reason no one tried it. She spent days cleaning the holds and perfecting the sequence of moves to the crux, which she describes in a video about the project as “a committing jump.” You have to see it to know what she means, but picture blasting into a fully extended grab anchored by the fingertips of one hand and landing on an edge sloping in gravity’s favor. When she nails it and gets to the top in the video, she pounds the rock like a stoked kid.

The Swoop's big move.

The Swoop's big move.

The Swoop is one of two climbs she’s put up in Red Rock so far (in the midst of climbing as many established problems as she can cram into her days). The other, Critically Acclaimed, is a stunning line on a 30-foot highball. Keep in mind that there are no ropes in bouldering. Just the pads and a bag of chalk. Hetrick says, “There’s a point where you just can’t fall.”

They met at a competition four years ago, when Johnson was getting back into the formal side of the sport after burning out and Hetrick was breaking in. She says she got Johnson into training, convincing her to give up the Taco Bell and the “off-the-couch” model with this thought: "What if your talent met hard work? What would happen? ... She went from getting sixth at nationals to competing in the World Cup four months later and beating all the Americans and getting fourth in the world,” says Hetrick, whose work with and connections through Johnson were the foundations of RedPoint, her business managing athletes and consulting for big outdoor brands.

Johnson, who climbs full-time thanks to sponsors like the North Face, Evolv and Nicros Climbing, says she can only train like that maybe twice a year, that it’s all her body can handle.

“And your brain,” adds Hetrick. “It’s a technical, physical and mental sport. Very equal parts. … You could be completely fit and ready and know the technique, but if your head’s not there, you’re not gonna do it.”

Kati Hetrick takes on a Kraft Boulders classic, the V7 Monkey Bar Traverse.

Kati Hetrick takes on a Kraft Boulders classic, the V7 Monkey Bar Traverse.

Johnson’s head is clearly there on All Nightmare Long as she makes use of cracks and slight edges. In a few tries, she dispatches the V6 problem. Bouldering grades go from V0 to V16, and she’s one of the only women consistently climbing V12. Given her talent, I ask why she chose to focus on boulders instead of the big-wall stuff that tends to make headlines, and careers. She reframes it rhetorically: If you’re in Yosemite for El Capitan’s 3,000-foot glory, why would you ever climb a little nugget that broke off?

“Bouldering singles out difficulty. It takes the difficulty that could be all of El Cap, and you can compact it into like four moves. So it’s basically the four single hardest moves you can physically do,” she says. (Hetrick calls it the sprint of the climbing disciplines.) It’s about power, body control and finesse, not to mention the aesthetics of the moves, the line and the rock itself. Boulders are inspiring problems to be solved, and Johnson says some climbers will “sit under” one for years until they're able to do it. She gives herself about five days before she takes a break and tries something else. Either way: “You have to have an obsessive personality.”

Overcoming that kind of challenge feels amazing—until comment feeds blow up with arguments over its grade. Johnson experienced that after achieving the first female ascent of a local V12 called Lethal Design in 2012.

“Since then a handful of girls and women have done it, and there have been murmurs of ‘soft’ and ‘downgrade,’” she wrote on her blog last July, getting into the nuances of individual strengths and styles making climbs easier or harder in ways that defy consensus grades. "I cannot express how intensely I feel that, although they are completely necessary, grades in climbing should be more personal. I most certainly am not saying that they shouldn’t hold as much weight as they do, because obviously they’re important in the growth of not only the sport, but the climber themselves, and seeing progression in any one climber in our sport is motivating. But we take grades too seriously. I’m just as guilty as the next person. My desire is that we look at them a little more subjectively." She shared that the hardest climb she'd done was not considered at the top of her ability level, and that the measure meant nothing next to the experience. She urged downgrade bandwagoners to keep in mind that as sports grow, athletes get stronger and boundaries get crushed. And to think hard about how important it is to nitpick a number from where you sit. “Because to someone, that line could be the hardest thing they’ve ever done, and they could have worked their ass off for it.”

At a Mount Charleston crag, Johnson gets in some sport climbing on Short Dog.

At a Mount Charleston crag, Johnson gets in some sport climbing on Short Dog.

Kynan Waggoner has always known Johnson to speak her mind. The CEO of USA Climbing used to set routes for competitions, and he says she was a natural. Becoming a professional takes more than ability, and Waggoner says that as an up-and-coming athlete Johnson accomplished a lot without support because the framework just wasn't there, something he hopes organizations like his can work to change. Chuckling, he mentions a recent stat about whitewater kayaking being the only action sport with less money in it than climbing.

“Climbing, even though the numbers are growing astronomically, is still a very young sport,” he says. This is true of competition climbs indoors and the lichen-flecked problem we're watching Johnson and Hetrick spider up in a shaded gully that we bushwhacked to. “It’s happening in the middle of nowhere. No one sees what’s going on. And in order to be here you gotta love what you’re doing.”

The love comes through in the encouragements these climbers yell when faces are strained and muscles pumped by tough moves—and in the celebratory beers. It’s in Johnson’s constant bounding away to scout every rock. And it’s definitely in the satisfaction she feels about going for V14 as a woman, even though she has yet to conquer one.

“The season that she tried was the first year everybody started to consider, just fathom, that it was possible,” Hetrick says. “And months later, three girls did it, like back to back to back.”

Johnson says it was awesome just to crack the glass. She seems passionate about advancing the sport and her place in it, and sincere in thinking Las Vegas might be the perfect line.

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