Climbing Full Circle

Alex Johnson’s Story

By Alex Johnson

I grew up in the small town of Hudson, WI, about half an hour from the original Vertical Endeavors in St. Paul. I first climbed on a portable wall at a local fair and got hooked immediately. After that, my mom looked into places where I could go to get the full experience and Vertical Endeavors–St. Paul was it. VE’s climbing camps became my ultimate happy place. At the end of each day, I was that one kid who they couldn’t get to stop climbing. Camp would end, but I couldn’t stop climbing. When I finally did leave the gym each day, I had sore arms, raw hands taped up like mummy’s, and the biggest smile on my face.

When I first started climbing at VE, the entire left side of the gym didn’t exist. The current front counter was a bouldering cave and the only bouldering area in the gym. There was one climbing team, and it had less than half a dozen kids on it. I grew up in that gym, spending 3-4 hours a day, 4-5 days a week there. When B2 was built, the age restriction was 13 and up and I was too young to boulder. That rarely stopped me though. I would constantly sneak up to B2 and climb with the “boys” anyway. Back in these days, B2 was the home of crushers I looked up to like: Jim Merli, Brian Camp, and Phaydara Vonsavanthong. When I finally turned 13, I got a shirt that said “I’M FINALLY 13” and wore it up to B2 all the time. Jim, Brian, and Pi helped shape me into the climber that I am today, even though I was probably an overly-psyched little girl who was constantly crashing their sessions. They saw something in me, invested in me, and each became the closest thing I had to a mentor at that age.
I began climbing through the ranks. I grew up in VE, climbing my way through the local, national, and global-level ranks. I won my first American Bouldering Series Youth Climbing National Championship in 2002 at age twelve and won the Adult National Championships the following year. My climbing career was taking off and I continued to accel in competitions winning two World Cups. Shortly after high school, I left the Midwest and went west to focus on climbing outside. I took off in my mom’s GMC Safari van and traveled all over from Joe’s Valley in Utah, to Hueco Tanks in Texas, and Yosemite in California. Next on my list was the Southwest.
Next stop: Las Vegas. I never spent much time in the Southwest and did not know what to expect aside from warmer weather which was good enough for me. As I approached Las Vegas I was blown away. A red rock landscape that seemed out of this world, an abundance of rock in such a concentrated area, and endless climbing possibilities full of first ascents waiting for me. I found my new home. I signed a one year lease which turned into five fantastic years spent bouldering, sport climbing, establishing first ascents, and guiding.
Something was missing. I loved the Las Vegas and the climbing community, but after some time felt stagnant in my career. Now what? “Reinvent” myself as a climber and suddenly start climbing trad? That isn’t me. I did everything I thought I wanted to do as a climber to leave my mark, but something had been missing. I was so lucky to have the life of a professional climber, I made my own schedule, climbed all day, and had all the free time in the world, but I didn’t feel like I was doing anything worthwhile for other people, and that selfish feeling started getting to me.
What’s next? I went back to college four times in my life for various things each time. I was doing graphic design and website design for a little while but did not find a full-blown passion in either subject. Meanwhile, I had always been teaching youth clinics, coaching, and giving presentations at gyms, universities, and other events.  No matter where I’ve been, I’ve always sought out opportunities to coach simply because I loved doing it. Strangely enough, I never considered it a career option until the opportunity was presented to me.
Coming Full Circle. This past December I got a call from VE, the gym I grew up in, to become the head team coach. So I got to thinking: I could have a stable career, I could be close to my family (free dog sitters!), I could utilize all the knowledge and experience I’ve learned in the last 20 years as a competitive climber. It was the missing link in my feeling of being unfulfilled. I loved Las Vegas and the climbing community there, the desert at the southern tip of Nevada hold a special place in my heart (And in Fritz’s heart. She is not a snow dog.), But it was time for a change. So I said yes, packed up, and moved back to Minnesota. My climbing career had been selfish, and I was thoroughly excited to take everything I’d learned and experienced and make it about others. Having the chance to be the mentor that Jim, Brian, and Pi were to me, at the facility I grew up in, felt like coming full circle to me.

I’m excited and proud to be representing Vertical Endeavors as the Head Climb Team Coach. I can’t wait to see where we can take this program!