Alex Johnson: Pro Climber

posted by dpm on 03/12/2012

The subtitle might take you back a bit. Pro climber? Isn’t that an oxymoron and if not, what does that mean? Climbing is one of those rare sports where the rules regarding ‘pro status’ aren’t very well defined. If you play football, expectations are very clear; get the ball across the line, do it well, and earn a couple million dollars. You get bonus points in the media if you’re attractive, charismatic, or display qualities of character. Then again, you could be a drug dealer or run an illegal dog-fighting ring and continue to make a few million as long as that ball is still crossing the line.

Climbing is different. There’s not a ton of money in competition winnings so athletes rely mostly on sponsorships which are largely misunderstood by most climbers. For a sponsorship to work, the sponsor has to be willing to associate their product with the athlete. Though former dog-fighter Michael Vick is still raking in cash from the NFL I don’t think any company out there wants to associate their product with his hated face. In climbing, that means that not only does the athlete have to climb well to succeed but they have to behave as well.  The athlete has to display characteristics that the sponsor wants associated with their product. It’s all about image and that is hard to fake. It works best when the athlete is genuine and that’s where Alex Johnson comes in.

Alex ‘gets the ball across the line’ so to speak with over a decade of hard ascents under her belt. She’s won two World Cup gold medals in bouldering and won five national championships. She’s climbed a handful of V12’s including the Mandala in Bishop and slews of V10 and V11 boulder problems all over the country. But it’s Alex’s persona that makes her really stand out in the climbing world. She’s charismatic and easily makes friends wherever she goes. She’s well-spoken as we saw during last year’s Lead World Cup in Boulder, which she commentated live online. This past winter she’s been on a tear, putting down hard problems all over the southwest from Bishop to Vegas to Hueco. If you’ve been out there you may have run into her out at the boulders. She’s the one always smiling; carrying around her pint-sized Chihuahua named Fritz. We caught up with Alex just before she stepped off the rocks to head towards ABS Nationals in Colorado.

Fritz calls the shots in the Johnson household. She's just finished looking at the pictures in the latest DPM. (She can't read). Photo: Alex's Facebook/Chris Chen

DPM: Alex, you’ve been killing it this past winter! You just sent Lethal Design (V12) in Red Rocks, Barefoot on Sacred Ground (V11) in Hueco and a ton of other hard problems. What were some of the highlights that stick out for you from your recent extended road trip?

Alex: The highlight this fall for me was probably my time in Yosemite Valley. It’s hard to narrow it down to just one boulder problem here, but I guess I would have to say the iconic Thriller. The thing about the Valley is that I didn’t climb my “hardest” problems there, but everything I did was worth five stars, and so rich in history and some of these problems are world famous classics that I’ve been hearing about my entire life. The second most exciting send would have to go to The Ninth (V6) in Bishop, CA. I’ve dubbed it my scariest boulder problem so far! It’s one of the tallest things I’ve climbed, and the V6 part is not as close to the ground as you’d hope!

"My scariest boulder problem." The Ninth (V6). Bishop, California. Photo: Aaron Karres/Alex's blog

DPM: How are you able to take the time to travel? Do your sponsors support your trips? What are some of the financial challenges associated with being a pro? 

Alex: Everyone knows climbing isn’t the richest sport out there, but with that being said my sponsors definitely help me out a lot with my trips, and if not for them I wouldn’t be able to do what I do. I recently began working with The North Face and I’m really looking forward to what will come from this. I still try to budget my trips accordingly, and that’s why I’ve been sleeping in my van for the past four months instead of staying in hotels. I struggled a lot financially in Europe last summer because I was spending so much more than I was making traveling to world cup competitions. This year I’m staying stateside and it’ll save me a ton of money.

Lethal Design (V12) Red Rocks, Nevada. Photo: Ben Spannuth

DPM: How does sponsorship work in the climbing world? What do your sponsors offer you and what do you bring to them in return?

Alex: Being a sponsored athlete means you have reached a level of success to become an important positive ambassador for the sport you represent, and you’re held accountable for all your actions. Being sponsored doesn’t just mean you’re physically good at what you do. It means that along with your athletic ability, many other factors are taken into account, for example, your personality. Being positive and active in the community, because whether or not we realize it in our small sport, we ARE role models. I think it should be difficult to get sponsored, like in surfing or snowboarding. We would have a more select group of positive role models and icons in our community for reasons other than just ability.

DPM: Describe the importance of character in being a pro climber.

Alex: Character is colossal in our sport. Especially with our community as small as it is, the chance of running into someone twice is extremely high. Impressions are key because you never know who’s watching. What if you’re having a curse-word-filled melt down under a boulder problem and just around the corner in earshot is a kid who looks up to you accompanied by her/his parents? Or you could run your mouth off to someone not knowing they’re the local rep of the company you’re trying to get sponsored by.

Hanging out with the kids at the Circuit Gym's PCI Pro Clinic in Portland, Oregon. Photo: Alex's blog.

DPM: You keep a blog and log your ascents online where anyone can see what you’ve been up to. Do you think transparency with your accomplishments is a part of fulfilling your duties to your sponsors or is it just a way for your friends to keep up with you?

Alex: (laughs) Honestly my account is for myself. If I didn’t keep a record of my ascents somewhere I would have no clue in the world what I’ve sent, tried or just walked past. Why not just write my climbs down in a notebook if it’s only for myself? Because then I can’t see what everyone else thought about them! As for my blog, I love writing; it’s what I was going to college for, and I need it to live. All I’ve been doing lately is rock climbing and if I don’t have something mentally stimulating I’ll go crazy.

DPM: A lot of women and young girls look up to you. When I mentioned to my wife that I was working on this interview she stated bluntly, “I like Alex, she’s not a ho-bag.”  I laughed, but it reminded me of something you wrote on your DPM blog a while back:

The annual bouldering competition (Outdoor Retailer 2010) was fun as always. It was also unbearably hot, as the desert usually is in August, and the scantily clad girls were out in full force. I understand how dreadful the summer heat can be, but some of the outfits are beginning to cross the line. It’s out of respect for my fellow female competitors, and the respect that I hope they have for themselves, that I wish for the provocative attire to be taken down a notch. Yes, we all know sex sells, and that sadly it seems the less you wear, the more you’re photographed. But I believe trying to gain publicity using your body is pushing our sport in a negative direction and it’s sincerely disappointing. My desire is for women climbers to be notarized for their personalities, ethics, morals, professionalism, etc. Much further down the list lands climbing ability or accomplishments, and never should seeking attention for clothing, or lack thereof, come into play. Women are strong and powerful, and beauty can be portrayed in many ways. Over-sexuality doesn’t always have to be one of them. Come on, girls, leave something for the imagination.

You said it well there but can you elaborate? How do you think this drives the sport in a negative direction?

Alex: I’ve climbed in a sports bra before when it has been super hot out. I fully get that, and I do it all the time. And it’s not specifically tops, I think it’s the combo of a skimpy top and booty shorts. If it’s hot and you’re out climbing with your pals, I’m all for it. But it’s different in an indoor, climate-controlled comp setting with children and grandparents watching, and I believe that there’s a time and a place. I just think that if we as professional athletes portray that you need to be under dressed to get into the media then that’s what the younger generations are going to mimic, believing it’s looks and not talent and personality that gets you attention.

Lethal Design (V12) Red Rocks, Nevada. Photo: Ben Spannuth

DPM: I also noted some frustration regarding the perception of women at the boulders in your recent blog post.

Some mild comments started being made about what was the best beta, foot placement, blah blah, and then they start talking about how if you dyno skipping the crimp it’s V8, but if you use the crimp it’s V6. This went on for about ten more seconds until somebody referred to using the crimp as the “girl way” just as Julie was trying it. And that was about as much as I could handle, having done the problem (yes, it’s just one problem) both ways, by myself, with one crashpad and no spotter.

“It’s V7 either way!” I shouted to the douche clan. Naturally none of them took me seriously because that day I was only a female spectator, watching the real men work their tuff proj, so what did I know? Had it not been a crucial rest day I would have burned them off so hard!

This attitude irritates me too. As soon as a girl does a problem it’s soft for the grade or “she did it cause she has small fingers” or “if I weighed 90 pounds I could do it too!” Where do you think this attitude of women being weak in climbing comes from? Are men really that insecure?

Alex: Dude I have no idea what these guys were thinking. The world is full of douchebags, and I think sexism is huge in climbing. But I don’t think I’ve had it as bad as Lisa, Claire and Jody have had it, to name a few, where everything they’ve touched was instantly called soft or downgraded. Thank God nobody has tried downgrading The Automator (V13, first female ascent Angie Payne). I could go on and on about this, but I don’t think all guys fall into that negative category. I think maybe it’s ignorance; the man’s man seeing climber chicks only as the damsels in distress. Little do the bros know who’s on team Damsels: Puccio, Payne, Rands, Pidgeon. They don’t know who they’re dealing with!! Girls are getting stronger and guys are going to have to learn to deal with it. On the opposite end of the spectrum there are absolutely guys out there who are psyched to climb with strong girls and are truly motivated and inspired by a strong girl in a positive way. I’ve been lucky to date a few of the good ones. And all the other guys I climbed with in Vegas fit that bill entirely: Paul Nadler, Ben Spannuth, Kenny Barker, Colin Barnes… The list goes on. (Not of boyfriends, of respectful climber dudes. They are out there!)

Diesel Power (V10) in Yosemite is probably soft for the grade since a girl can do it. Photo: Aaron Karres/Alex's blog.

DPM: You’ve managed to maintain a good balance of competition climbing and outdoor climbing throughout your climbing life. Which are you more passionate about? How does one aspect help you progress in another?

Alex: I feel like I’m still trying to find that balance honestly. For years I was so focused on competitions and climbing in the gym that I rarely got outside (plus I lived in Wisconsin…), and lately I’ve been only climbing outside, so it has pretty much flip flopped. I really enjoy what I’m doing now, and even though I may not be in tip-top comp shape, I feel strong outside and I’m having a great time. I like the way I’m doing things now. For me indoor and outdoor climbing help progress each other. No doubt plastic makes you stronger, but climbing outside helps you learn technique and footwork.

DPM: With all this hard outdoor climbing under your belt from the past few months how do you think you’ll do at ABS Nationals this week. (Note:  This online interview was sent out before but received after the comp.)

Alex: During my time in Vegas and Hueco I was motivated and feeling pretty good heading in to ABS Nationals. I felt strong and confident, especially after having done Lethal Design and Barefoot. Now that Nationals has passed, I still believe that I was adequately prepared going into the event. The field was the strongest it has ever been this year, and the only thing between me getting 5th place and 2nd place was one slip on problem #2. Yeah, it wasn’t the best placement I’ve ever gotten, but I wasn’t disappointed with my performance; I was the only girl to flash the first and third problems, and I was pretty happy about that.

Alex Johnson at ABS Nationals 2012. Click the image for women's highlights.

DPM: Is this the end of your current road trip? Do you plan to focus on comps for a while now or are you right back out there on the road?

Alex: I am not yet at the end of my road trip. I actually don’t know when it will end… I’m back at home in Wisconsin for a minute, just using MSP airport as a lily pad for a few events in March, then it’s back to the van. Even though I’ll still be doing American comps, I am not entirely focused on them. My interests strongly lie in outdoor climbing right now and I don’t see that fading anytime soon.

DPM: Final question: If Fritz could talk, what would she say about Alex Johnson?

Alex: In the presumed words of Fritz, I would have to guess the following: “Your singing is terrible, as is your dancing. Please try to keep up with me when we’re hiking and running. And stop using me to pick up guys and get out of speeding tickets.”

Fritz looks forward to a solo ascent of Half Dome with Alex Honnold. Photo: Alex's blog.

Alex Johnson is sponsored by: The North Face, Five Ten, Native Eyewear, Organic Crashpads, Nicros, J-Tree Salve, Sole

Click the image for a profile video of Alex Johnson.