Skip to main content
Sarasota Thursday, Sep. 10, 2009 13 years ago

Mountain climber tackles new challenges

by: Loren Mayo Black Tie Editor

You’d never guess it by his lean and toned figure, but upon turning 60 last February, Jeff Olson felt lousy and out of shape. Olson craved adventure, yet lacked motivation. The effects of aging were setting in.

When a friend from Washington invited Olson to join him in climbing Mount Rainier — a 14,410-foot volcano and the largest glaciated mountain in the lower 48 states — that was all it took to light Olson’s fire and get him back into a regular workout routine. It would be his first climb since Mount Kilimanjaro 10 years earlier — but there was another obstacle. Someone would need to stay home with Olson’s wife, Ann, who requires around-the-clock care.

Ann Olson was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1985. At first, it progressed slowly, which allowed her to work part time as a nurse. She used a cane and walker, but eventually needed a wheelchair.

The disease took its toll on Ann Olson’s lifestyle and kept her cooped up inside. It was no longer feasible to live in Olympia, Wash., so the couple moved to Sarasota in 2003 and Olson took a job with Apollo Sun Guard.

It was company friend and climber, Peter Whitaker, who contacted Olson in February to extend the climbing invite for late July. Olson had previously climbed Mount Rainer as practice before climbing the Himalayas, Mount Everest and Machu Picchu.

“Being 60, I was not sure I could still climb Mount Rainier,” Olson said. “It’s a lot of shock on the knees and strenuous climbing in dark, moonless nights with only our headlamps to see.”

His friends told him to start climbing stadium stairs, but Olson was already one step ahead: He thought he’d try climbing the stairwell of his downtown Sarasota condo building. Wearing a 40-pound pack, Olson climbed 100 flights of stairs every workout — a total of 4,400 stories in preparation for the climb.
Olson’s close-to-home workouts allowed him to return each morning just in time to help his wife get out of bed.

“I have to assist Ann consistently,” Olson said, “but I’ve always needed adventure in my life. I need to stay strong for Ann.”

He also added to the mix aerobic and swim workouts at the YMCA with a personal trainer, bicycling 26 miles on the Legacy Trail every Saturday and Bikram hot yoga in a 105-degree studio for 90-minute workouts.

No matter what, the Olsons have managed to stay amused, finding activities they can do together.

“We used to go camping and hiking before I was diagnosed,” Ann Olson said. “Now, I enjoy driving tours through Alligator Alley and the Everglades. I can spot things from the car, like epiphytes. I can also see alligators.”

Before and during Olson’s climbs, Ann Olson prays for her husband, trusting his research and strength, knowing he’s climbing up 13,000 feet and sleeping in tents inside craters.

“My thoughts in the mountains are of the purest kind, dwelling only on the Milky Way and my good fortune for having this time to commune with nature and other people (who) don’t think I am crazy for my passion,” says Olson of his climbing adventures.

Join the Neighborhood! Our 100% local content helps strengthen our communities by delivering news and information that is relevant to our readers. Support independent local journalism by joining the Observer's new membership program — The Newsies — a group of like-minded community citizens, like you. Be a Newsie.

Related Stories