A Mountaineers Legend: Recognizing John Ohlson

In this piece from Mountaineer magazine we celebrate leader John Ohlson, the first-ever recipient of our Mountaineers Legend award.
Tiffany Ban Tiffany Ban
Communications Associate
June 19, 2021
A Mountaineers Legend: Recognizing John Ohlson

The word “legend” often evokes tall tales, stories whose veracity is less relevant than our collective belief in the incredible. Amidst the giant lumberjacks, sea monsters, and ‘there be dragons’ marks on the map, however, there do exist flesh-and-blood legends. Their footsteps are a little smaller and their voices a little softer, but they are there, crafting history.

One individual has made such an impact on The Mountaineers. His contributions were so consequential, in fact, that as an organization we had to craft a special award just to recognize his efforts – The Mountaineers Legend Award.

While this individual was the inaugural recipient of the award in 2020, we know that in the future there will be others. The Mountaineers community attracts dedicated and passionate volunteers; people who truly make up the heart of our organization. The Legend Award recognizes those extraordinary individuals who have advanced our mission in countless, exceptional ways over the course of many years. By leading courageously, giving generously, and sharing selflessly, Mountaineers Legends inspire others to become their best selves through the transformative power of the outdoor experience.

The first recipient of The Legend Award, and the person whose contributions were the inspiration for the award’s inception, is John Ohlson. John is a Mountaineers member, Super Volunteer, and member of our Board of Directors. Had it not been for many of John’s countless acts of service for the organization, The Mountaineers would not be what it is today.

7_End of the Line Banff.jpgJohn climbing End of the Line in Banff, Canada. 

A legend in the making

John recognized his love for the outdoors as a young child when he was a Boy Scout. “I loved going out in the woods and the mountains,” he said. “I always wanted to see what was around the next corner or up the next thousand feet.”

His inquisitive nature led him to MIT and Stanford. He taught Electrical Engineering at USC and the Naval Postgraduate School as a Full Professor. He then joined a satellite communications company in Silicon Valley. “The toughest transition I ever made, hands down.” John retired at the age of 60 and climbed non-stop in the six years following his retirement before slowing a bit, ice climbing in the winter with rock and glacier trips in other seasons. He loved every minute of it.

As a young father, he shared this love of the outdoors with his children. John’s two daughters and son accompanied him on many hikes when they were young. During this time, work and fatherhood left little time for alpine pursuits, but John recalled a story that revived his love for climbing, and initiated a lifelong passion for his son.

“In the mid-80s, around the time we were doing a lot of hiking, my son David saw some ‘stuff’ in one of my closets,” John recalled. “David said, ‘What’s all this stuff?’ I said ‘Oh, that’s my old climbing gear’, and he said ‘CLIMBING GEAR? Let’s go CLIMBING!’” John did make the time to take David climbing, and when he did, “he just went nuts over it. At that point, in my early 40s, I thought I was totally over-the-hill for climbing, but the bug bit him enormously, and it bit me again. I’ve been climbing on and off – mostly on – since that time.” 

David went on to summit both Everest and Denali, among other notable achievements. John proudly states that his son’s climbing “has now moved far beyond any of my climbing skills.”

John’s own start in climbing originated from college fishing trips with his buddies. They’d hike to little-known mountain lakes where his friends would fish, but John couldn’t get into the fishing part. Instead, he wanted to scramble every nearby peak while his friends sat with their rods and reels. After “scaring the dickens” out of himself a few times scrambling, John decided he needed formal training and enrolled in a climbing course with the Sierra Club while he was still a graduate student at Stanford.

It wasn’t until after John retired and planned to move back to his native Washington State that he became involved with The Mountaineers. He earned his Basic Alpine Climbing equivalency while on a short visit to Seattle, completed a couple of climbs with the club, and then completed the Intermediate Alpine Climbing course while he was still living and working in California. He flew back and forth between California and Washington for lectures and field trips, completing the entire course in a year, a feat in and of itself!

John says that one of the primary reasons he joined The Mountaineers was that he figured there would be a Mountaineers way of doing things, which “makes for safety in a climbing environment. If everybody knows the same skills, then if you have an accident, people are going to be rational and logical, and will know what to do. And that was true.”

The year he graduated from Intermediate Climbing he also became a climb leader, joined the Seattle Climb Committee, and became the Seattle Branch Safety Officer. In this role, he processed and investigated multiple climbing accidents over the years. Several years later, John joined our Board of Directors, serving as Secretary for a term, and has been on it ever since, an experience he has deeply enjoyed.

One man’s dedication

John Ohlson’s list of contributions to the club are truly impressive, both in what he has contributed and how long he has been paying it forward.

One of his biggest gifts to The Mountaineers was the work that he did on the Seattle Program Center (SPC). When getting the current PC ready for move-in, Gene Yore, who was the SPC Renovation Project Manager, told John that they could use some of his electrical engineering background to help route electrical utilities (power, phone and Internet) into the building.

“Gene and I, two PhDs, well outside of our comfort zones (him with an aerospace degree and me with satellite experience), went out and mapped where all of the manholes were. We had to run cables through these to get utilities to the renovated building, and to find out where the power was currently coming from, because we had no idea,” John said with a chuckle.

When John took on the role of Building Committee Chair, he worked tirelessly to make the transition from the old Mountaineers building to the new PC as smooth as possible. He renegotiated the lease for the PC, which originally only included the upper portion of the building, and was able to get the basement included in the lease, allowing for expansion of our instruction area. In addition, because we had spent more money on the building renovation than anticipated and all the money spent on the renovation was going against our rent, there was going to be a lot of credit left at the end of the lease that would end up being lost. John and the President of the Board at that time, Eric Linxweiler, approached the city and renegotiated the lease to extend it 10 more years, allowing us to use up that credit. That negotiation saved one million dollars in future rent for The Mountaineers in today's dollars.


John also had a hand in bringing all of the climbing walls in and around the PC to fruition. The walls have not only become essential to Mountaineers instruction, they also serve as gathering places for our community.

If you’ve ever climbed on the bouldering wall in the basement, the basalt columns in front of the building, or the friction slabs on the north side of the building, you’ve unknowingly reaped the benefits of John’s handiwork. In the case of the bouldering wall, you’ve come face-to-face with his handiwork in a literal sense. John lovingly hand-painted the entire thing with three coats of paint and crushed glass.

The basalt columns were actually inspired by one of John’s family trips. The Ohlsons stopped at the rock shop in Vantage on their way home from Montana and John noticed a miniature display of basalt columns. He thought, “If I could get some big ones like that, that would be really great for climbing.” He and Gene Yore got right to work on making it a reality. They hand-picked the columns from a quarry near Moses Lake, selected the spot in front of the building for erecting them, and saw to it that the columns were installed in the most stable way possible – a challenge that required a massive underground concrete slab with 16 steel pilings extending 35 feet below ground.

17_Basalt Columns Construction.JPGBasalt Columns being placed near the entrance of the Seattle Program Center.

While many of John’s contributions can be seen, touched, and climbed on, others are less tangible but equally as important. He came up with the idea for the Intensive Basic Alpine Climbing course and taught the course for multiple years, authored and edited sections of Editions 8 and 9 of Freedom of the Hills, and set up the subtenant leases in the basement of the PC as an additional income stream for the club. He helped in the renovation of the Tacoma Program Center by serving on our Renovation Steering Committee, and has played a key role in fundraising for The Mountaineers, leading major fundraising projects and participating in others. He also signed on as a charter member of Peak Society, The Mountaineers annual giving program.

A legend is recognized

Last year, in January of 2020, Lorna Corrigan (the Board President at the time) presented John with the Legend award at The Mountaineers annual Volunteer Appreciation Dinner. Today, John displays a smaller version of the award in his home in Kirkland, while the larger award adorns the Summit Room of the Program Center.

For so many of us, the COVID-19 pandemic meant canceled plans in 2020 and 2021, and this was no different for John. He and his son David had long planned their fourth climb together of Cathedral Peak in Yosemite in May of 2020 to celebrate John’s 80th birthday, but they had to cancel. Undeterred by any obstacle, vertical or viral, John forges on, thinking about the future of The Mountaineers and what will come next. You’d think that with his endless list of achievements thus far, he would take some time to kick back and enjoy the fruits of his labor. Yet John shows no signs of slowing down.

A living legend in the truest sense of the word, John Ohlson is both a servant and a leader, providing an example for us all of what deep, sustained commitment and generosity look like. We are deeply grateful for John and all that he has done, and we look forward to honoring those who will follow in his footsteps as a Mountaineers Legend.

cropped for blog - John Award3.jpgJohn receiving his award. 

This article originally appeared in our Summer 2021 issue of Mountaineer Magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, visit our magazine archive.

Lead image of John Ohlson climbing in the Grand Tetons. All images courtesy of John Ohlson. 

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Dan Lauren
Dan Lauren says:
Jul 10, 2021 06:25 AM

Well deserved award John, thanks for all your contributions over the years!