Donor Profile: John Ohlson

“I’ll never forget when my son David, who was eight at the time, came across my climbing gear and asked ‘What’s that, Dad?’ I hadn't been climbing much because work and family responsibilities took up most of my time. After David asked me that question, I made the time.” --John Ohlson
Mary Hsue Mary Hsue
April 17, 2014

Anyone walking by the Seattle Program Center on a sunny day would be hard-pressed to miss climbers ascending the trio of rock columns in the courtyard, one of which is aptly named Ohlson Peak, in recognition of a major donor to the basalt columns fundraising effort, John Ohlson.

A Humble First Ascent Ohlson is a board member, Peak Society donor and first ascensionist — of the basalt columns. He and his son, David were the first to climb the columns and sign the summit register in 2011. (He modestly added that David led the route.)

Ohlson proudly shared this moment as well as the memory of how he first heard about The Mountaineers when he sat down to chat with me before a climbing committee meeting. “I was a Boy Scout growing up, we had an assistant scout master who was a Mountaineers member. When I learned that he took a different scout group up Mt Rainier that summer, I thought that was really cool.” Ohlson said.

He went off to MIT for college and returned to Seattle for the summers. One summer he decided to call The Mountaineers to inquire about climbing Mt. Rainier. “I learned it would not be possible to climb with The Mountaineers without taking the Basic course first.” Ohlson goes on, “it was only offered in January, so it would have been impossible for me to take the course while in school back east.” That’s what inspired him to dream up the 9-day Intense Basic Climbing course.

After college, Ohlson landed a professorship at the University of Southern California. “I tried to climb by myself and scared myself a few times, so I took a course from the Sierra Club and really liked it.” Ohlson decided to come back to Seattle after retiring as a VP in a satellite communications company and promptly joined The Mountaineers. “I joined to learn the ice climbing part of mountain climbing — there’s not much ice in southern California.” Ohlson climbed a lot in California so he applied to achieve Basic Climbing equivalency. “Basic equivalency was my first experience with The Mountaineers and possibly the most significant.” He goes on to say “Two of the volunteers I met during basic equivalency are two of my really good friends today – Gene Yore and Cebe Wallace.”

Inspired to Volunteer

When asked what inspires him to volunteer, Ohlson provided an interesting response, “In the 80’s the Sierra Club stopped offering climbing trips because they became more interested in environmental lobbying than providing support for the climbing program. They took the dollars slated for liability insurance for climbing and used it for lobbying purposes. Quite honestly, that’s one thing that motivated me to be on The Mountaineers board — to be sure we continue with our climbing mission.”

“I’ll never forget when my son David, who was eight at the time, came across my climbing gear and asked ‘What’s that, Dad?’” Ohlson said. “I hadn’t been climbing much because work and family responsibilities took up most of my time. After David asked me that question I made the time.” David is a former EMT and working his way through medical school. Most people know him as a Himalayan climber and the director and a producer of K2: Siren of the Himalayas, a documentary film that premiered at Banff Film Festival in 2012.

Why he Gives – in His Words

"Climbing has been a wonderful thing for me over the years. I’ve especially enjoyed seeing the influence on my son. I want others to have the opportunity. Strong donor support for our youth programs – all of our programs actually – gives The Mountaineers the ability to provide for the next generation to learn and experience the same thing. Indirectly, a lot of people who have strong feelings for the environment these days were just like me in my mid-20’s – all I wanted to do was climb. The Sierra Club was promoting environmental issues as part of their climbing program. I learned a lot about the places I liked to hike and climb. The “Leave No Trace” name did not exist back then, but being nice to the environment and saving it for future generations was a growing feeling. Over time I became somewhat of an environmentalist and I got that by being involved with an organization that promotes that ethic. I think the majority of young people today who are interested in climbing don’t care much about the environment or volunteering. After a few years getting out there with The Mountaineers, however, the ethic soaks in. They become more interested in saving wilderness for future generations, mentoring and volunteering. Also, at The Mountaineers I knew I would gain an instant group of friends and be at a place where everyone learned how to be out there safely. It has been very rewarding for me." -John Ohlson 

Name: John Ohlson, member since 1999 
Retired electrical engineering professor and communications executive 
Seattle, proud Ballard High School graduate 
Alpine climbing

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