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In February 2011 Alex Johnson saw The Swarm, the famous Matt Birch V13/14 at the Buttermilks, and called it beautiful—“stunning.” There that day with Nalle Hukkataival and Kilian Fischuber, she gave it a few tries and to her surprise did a couple of the moves. She tried it a couple days in 2012. More progress. She never envisioned an odyssey of a decade, but maybe that makes the reward all the sweeter.
On a fall trip to Europe she kept dreaming of it—and on December 30, 2013, about to return home, she posted a photo of the problem on Instagram, with a caption simply saying she was setting her sights high: “Bring it on.” She still felt tentative, given what she calls the “big chance” she wouldn’t succeed on something that hard. Within a few days of returning home to Hudson, Wisconsin, Johnson moved to Bishop, California, staying through March; she went to The Swarm every climbing day.
Her first post, on IG and Facebook, with the hashtag #SiegingTheSwarm was January 14, 2014. Fans, media, and social media buzzed, and her sponsors got excited, sharing her posts. At the winter industry trade show, Gnarly Nutrition handed out gift bags emblazoned with her image and the slogan. Joshua Tree Skin Care (she is now with Rhino Skin Solutions) made stickers, one of which she put on the project ladder she carried many times up the normally 20-minute approach to the Beehive Area.
In climbing, tradition has long been to keep silent about objectives until they are done. But Johnson had her reasons, borne of participation in track and basketball and watching UFC coverage and lead-ins. “It’s not just the game, it’s all of these interviews and training stories leading up to the fight or the game, and you get to know the characters,” she says. She found that full-story aspect to be somewhat missing in climbing.
“It was probably an obnoxious campaign for some people,” she says, “but I was getting messages from people that said, ‘You gotta go back, I’m learning from you.’”
While it was intimidating to open herself up to a public failure, she figured whatever happened, she’d have tried hard.
Weeks and months passed; her confidence and spirit ebbed. She didn’t send.
On the first day of 2015, Ashima Shiraishi, age 13, climbed it. Perfectly fair, as Johnson agreed, though, “I cried in a closet.” Ashima, a friend, had called inviting Johnson to meet there and work it together. The send came during a productive trip for Ashima, with V12s and a V13 falling to her first. The Swarm had only seen about a dozen ascents at the time, and as the masses now knew, this was the first by a female. In February, Alex Puccio called Johnson to say she was headed there, and similarly exhorting AJ. Puccio then did the problem in a day.
Johnson tried for a week in January 2015, and another in February 2016. Gnarly Nutrition funded a film titled “The Art of Failure”—about not sending.
Johnson took a big break from the project. She could have walked away for good, just eaten it.
“AJ” started climbing at age 9, and won youth nationals at 12, adult nationals at 13, and the Teva Games World Cup event at only 14—shocking the field. She was on the podium at almost every national in the U.S. for some 15 years starting in 2003.
She left comps for several years and coached at her home gym, Vertical Endeavors in St. Paul, Minnesota, an opportunity that came along when she was feeling burned out on climbing for herself. She loved the kids and their love for climbing, loved seeing them improve and excel. “It was so motivating, we had so much fun, that’s when I got so fit.”
With that, she returned when climbing was confirmed for the Olympics, and stepped right back on the podium.
“I would regret not trying,” she said, and she made the U.S. Team and was actually the highest-placing American (male or female) in bouldering World Cups in 2019, with 13th overall, though not ranked high enough in combined skills to be asked to the Olympic qualifier in Toulouse in November. (Kyra Condie qualified there, the second of the two women allowed, removing Johnson’s chance at the Pan Americans in Los Angeles in January 2020.) Still she had a bye onto the US National Team, and for the first time in her career, she says, would have been a fully funded World Cup athlete. Then 2020 was the year everything was cancelled, but she kept climbing in her garage.
She wanted to go to Bishop and kept canceling and waiting amid the pandemic, talking to local climbers and county officials. Finally, she and her partner, Bree Robles, drove out from their home in Salt Lake City. It was Johnson’s first time back at The Swarm in five years.
In the meantime something else pivotal had happened. In 2018 she had come out, writing on Instagram: “I’ve been dating both boys and girls since I was 17.”
She says now, “I think I just needed the time and space away from it to reset my brain and figure out who I was and become comfortable with who I was. … I could never relax and was never truly free to express myself in my sport because something was always being held back.
“Coming out publicly in 2018 was basically taking off a 50-pound weight. I could finally breathe, I could be myself and that meant I could focus entirely on movement and training and let go of this part of me that I was hiding … I couldn’t go back to [The Swarm] until I came out and was free.”
On March 14, at age 31, on the sixth day of trying The Swarm (four good days and a couple of cold days and cursory tries), she sent. Read the full feature by Alex Johnson here.
Bree Robles, who was watching, says, “It wasn’t, ‘This is the one.’ It was more, ‘I’m just going to try.’
“She finally hit that second move … and she kept hitting each move. I was thinking, oh holy swear word, this is it.
“It was very awesome to be the one human witness of a 10-year project.”