Nostalgia for Vail is strong for elite climber Alex Johnson
Photo: Rick Lohre

Nostalgia for Vail is strong for elite climber Alex Johnson

Posted by: Tom Boyd

Vail is a nostalgic place for 33-year-old climber Alex Johnson, who found herself on yet another podium here Saturday, in spite of thinking her competition career was over two years ago.

The Midwest native, who took third in the North American Cup Vail women’s bouldering competition behind winner and Olympian Kyra Condie and runner up Catherine Harty on Saturday, June 11, 2022, notched her first ever victory here in 2008. At that time, the event was her inaugural World Cup bouldering competition as well as the very first IFSC Climbing World Cup event at the Mountain Games.

With a competition career that has spanned more than 20 years and includes two World Cup wins and five U.S. Championship titles, Johnson was suddenly in prime position to notch one of two available spots for an American woman to compete in the first ever Olympic bouldering event in Tokyo 2020.

Then COVID-19 hit.

Alex Johnson has a perspective and attitude that only comes with experience, even after COVID-19 derailed her Olympic run in 2020. She took third at the North American Cup Vail at the GoPro Mountain Games Saturday, June 11, 2022. Photo by Rick Lohre.

“I was planning on that being my last season. I was the highest ranked athlete on the team. I was thinking, I’m going to go out with a bang; 2020 is going to be my year. That’s the year all of the World Cups were canceled because of COVID.”

Johnson lost her ranking and her chance to compete in the Olympics.

“I mean, all of my Delta Sky Miles carried over during COVID. If my U.S. Team status carried over, things could have been different,” she said. “I took most of 2021 off, climbed outside, had an amazing season, maybe the best season of my life.”

Johnson repurposed the superhuman fitness she’d achieved vying and training for an Olympic spot to send the notorious Swarm, a V13/V14-rated cliff in Bishop, Cali. It ranks as her highest send to date, although she holds status as the first female to ever ascend V12-ranked Clear Blue Skies off of Mt. Evans in Colo. as well as Book of Nightmares and Lethal Design in Nevada.

“I prefer climbing outside,” she says. “There’s less pressure. You can pick the boulders and say, this suits me perfectly, my size, my strength, my style. I can push limits farther outside, but inside competing is testing limits in a different way. It’s really challenging and I still enjoy it.”

Johnson decided to return to competition late last summer, charging back with her hair on fire to win the North American Cup in Albuquerque, NM. She seemed surprised to find herself in the finals in Vail on Saturday, but was clearly having a great time, waving amiably to the crowd after making final valiant attempts on the problems she couldn’t quite conquer in the final round.

‘Adult strength’

Even if she couldn’t conquer all the problems, the veteran had no problem conquering nerves. After all, she’s been here before. In the semi-finals she paused at the top of the wall to fist-pump fellow veteran Carlo Traversi, who, at 34, was the oldest contender in the men’s field.

“It was like, hell yeah, dude. We’ve been here for 14 years. Vail is so nostalgic. It’s so great to be back,” she said.

Although she views Vail as a special place, like any competition anywhere, things don’t always go as planned.

“When competing, you have to be on that day, at that moment. The boulders have to suit your style. It’s really hard to be consistent. You could be the fittest you’ve ever been and then not make finals. It always depends on the setting, whether the climbs suit you, who’s having a good day, who’s having a bad day. That inconsistency can be really frustrating.”

Johnson attributes her continued success in competition to the mental and physical strength she has built after two decades of hard-earned experience as well as a new Zen-like approach to each event.

“When I was a kid, I was doing well in comps, but I wasn’t strong,” she says. “Now I have adult strength. It’s hard to explain, but I feel stronger and more powerful as an adult athlete. Maybe I’m not as limber, but I have a lot of experience. I feel my confidence is lower every time I come back because I know that I’ve been out of the game and I know the style has changed and there’s more girls getting better and better. Having such low expectations coming back is really helpful. Not having any expectations and just going all out is beneficial.”

Johnson plans to travel to Phoenix, AZ to compete in a North American Cup in lead later this summer, but will first stick around Colorado for several weeks. She’s got her eye on sending a couple of iconic climbs in Rocky Mountain National Park  — V13 Top Notch and V14 Jade.

“I have a whole month ahead of only climbing outside and then competing again in August. We’ll see how that goes,” she says. “I’m mostly doing it for fun. If I make the World Cup team again, I’d do it, for sure, but I think the ‘no expectations’ thing is the way. I’m just enjoying it.”

Alex Johnson was a fan favorite in 2008 when she made her Mountain Games Debut and has been ever since, including in 2022 at the North American Cup competition. Photo by Rick Lohre.

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