Nicholas Olson, son of fallen climber Brendan Olson, makes USA Climbing nationals
But the Minturn teenager will skip the event to attend a class at Brown University
The national governing body of competition climbing in the United States holds a national championship each year, and Nicholas Olson was excited to qualify during his first year in the junior division.
But unfortunately, Olson said, he’s going to have to skip the USA Climbing nationals this year. Brown University accepted Olson into a summer school class, and he says if he plays his cards right, he might be able to parlay it into an early college graduation. If possible, Olson said, he’d like to try to obtain an undergraduate degree in three years, rather than four.
Olson, 17, will begin his senior year at Battle Mountain High School in August. He says he has his schedule packed full of advanced placement classes, which gives college credit to high schoolers, and is looking forward to a robust year.
Through Nicholas, one can see ripples of his father, Brendan Olson, a local climber and a member of Vail Ski Patrol who was killed in 2015 after a fall from a rock climb in Canyonlands National Park in southeastern Utah.
Nicholas Olson said he started climbing as a way to handle the grief of losing his father while spending time with his mom, longtime local Virginia Olson, and his older sister, Camille.
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“It was a family thing for me, my mom climbed for a long time and my sister climbs, so it was just a way to try something new and discover a new way to deal with it, through being with my family and doing something that my dad really enjoyed,” Olson said.
While he’s currently taking an intro to public health class at Brown, Olson finds one of his favorite areas of study in reading about the history of the western United States, something his father enjoyed, as well.
“He kept a copy of the Journals of Lewis and Clark, and he’d read ‘Desert Solitaire’ all the time,” Olson said.
Watching from afar
Olson is hoping to attend Brown University full time starting in the fall of 2022-23; applications open on August 1.
But climbers have been receiving more opportunities as college athletes, something which has not gone unnoticed by Olson. He says he could also see himself attending a school like the University of Colorado, which has a climbing team and allows him to compete in USA Climbing’s collegiate climbing series.
“It’s not in the NCAA yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see it going that route,” Olson said. “The sport is just growing a lot right now, especially with it being in the Olympics for the first time.”
If he ends up going in that direction after high school, Olson said with a laugh, he may come to regret skipping USA Climbing nationals for the class at Brown this summer. But in the meantime, he said, he’s enjoying the experience, staying on campus and soaking in the atmosphere.
“It’s really beautiful here,” he said.
Olson still plans to follow the USA Climbing national championships from his computer in Rhode Island.
“The bouldering qualifications are on July 13, and if you qualify, you then move on to bouldering semifinals and finals, which are July 14,” he said. “July 15-16 are rest days, and then on July 17 the youth lead climbing qualifications begin, and semifinals and finals are on July 18.”
Olson qualified for USA Climbing nationals in both the lead climbing and bouldering competitions. He said he was somewhat surprised to qualify, being in the younger end of his division. Olson will still have a chance to qualify as a junior competitor again next year.
He credits some of his success to the abbreviated schedule, which was amended from its normal format due to COVID-19.
“Usually there’s a regionals competition, a divisionals competition, and then nationals,” Olson said. “But this year they cut it down to only a regionals division, and took the top four from bouldering and lead climbing, and I was able to get a top four in both.”
Ever the student
Olson said he loves the basic fun to be had in climbing, but ever the student, he also likes the sport for the lessons learned on the wall.
“It teaches you how to handle stress really well and stay calm, and work on time management,” he said.
He said he was fortunate in the fact that the youth climbing program to which he has belonged for years is now being serviced by a much larger amenity at Eagle Climbing + Fitness, a 10,000 square-foot gym with numerous bouldering spaces and sport climbing walls that exceed 40 feet. The former space didn’t have such luxuries, and coach Larry Moore had to work the team harder to make up for it.
“Larry could be a little hard on us, especially when we were younger, but it built character and the culture of the team, where we all tried to work as hard as we can and keep each other accountable,” Olson said. “It helped build a really good community around everyone we were climbing with.”
Olson said he later learned that Moore had been working for much of that time to see the new gym built. Ben Rathbun put up the walls in the gym, Moore said, and asked him if he needed help.
“Once he finished the walls, he was hired as a manager,” Moore said.
Rathbun started working with Olson then. Moore said he saw Olson develop his skills as a climber under Rathbun’s tutelage. The team was a little disappointed to see Olson have to miss nationals, Moore said, but everyone is excited for Olson’s opportunity at Brown.
“Tough decision for him, but the right decision,” Moore said. “This is an academic move that has the potential to change his life dramatically.”