By Elizabeth Miller| March 20
The mantra "swing and flick, swing and flick" carries me easily up the first half of a frozen waterfall—the low-angled ice at the bottom where I'd seen Peter Olson scramble up just minutes before to set a top rope on the route. Then the wall steepens, and this foray into ice climbing starts to feel less like a steep walk in weird boots and more like actual climbing. I swing borrowed ice tools, flick my wrist to sink the pick into the ice, kick the toe-spikes of loaner crampons in, and hope all these shiny metal points hold.
Olson's full-time job is at Santa Fe County, but he's in the business of recruiting more people to the great outdoors however he can. He's race director for the Endurance Santa Fe (formerly Ultra Santa Fe) races of 1 mile to 50 miles that start and finish at Ski Santa Fe, and organizes PhatAss, casually competitive trail runs that have sent runners on trails on winter nights, and for a 12-mile route that climbed four peaks "depending on how lost you got," he writes in his email introduction.
"I like to provide opportunities for people to experience the same things I've experienced as a runner, whether that's freedom, a clear head, or having fun with a bunch of other people," he says. "Running is such a good every-person kind of sport. … It's not like you have to have a certain skill or learn a certain technique or come from a certain economic background."
Whether they show up at these starting lines or not, what he hopes to see are more people outdoors trying new sports or testing their limits, which is how I've landed on a frozen waterfall. He coaches, organizes group events, and takes the occasional random journalist out to climb—in part to offer what wasn't available when he was an aspiring climber and runner.
"I always had to just go out and do things—I didn't always have somebody to show me how to do stuff, so I had to learn by myself," he says.
When he first started ice climbing, it required hiking solo up and down the creek running from his college campus in Duluth, Minnesota, to Lake Superior. The creek dropped 600 feet in a couple miles, so he could learn on short, vertical ice in gear borrowed from a friend. He had just one tool (two would be customary), "ancient" crampons and boots two sizes too big and so filled with three pairs of socks.
I called that hardcore. Olson insists it was fun.
"I think people get a little intimidated when they see these sharp tools in your hands and sharp, pointy things on your feet, but I think it's just so much fun," he says. "I like to bring people and expose them to new things and see the look on their face and see the happiness and joy they feel—I know that's kind of corny. But it's why I coach, and why I put on the runs. I like to give people the opportunity to do more things and get outside their comfort level a little bit."
In September, he waited at the finish line to greet people as they completed the 50-kilometer race at the ski basin. A runner who'd flown from New York City to complete the run for his birthday told him he'd cursed Olson's name every step of the last 6 miles, but in the end said, "This was the best birthday present ever." That runner has plans to return this fall, Olson says.
To prep this summer, he'll organize trail maintenance work and weekly runs starting in mid-April (details at endurancesantafe.com).
"People ask about, 'How much money do you make putting these races on?' And for me, it's not about the money," Olson says. "I don't do it for the income. I do it for the outcome, because I like to see these people cross the finish line and I like to see the sense of accomplishment they've achieved for themselves, and I like to have given them the opportunity to spur themselves or to find something deep within themselves. For me that's what running does; you feel like quitting but you don't. You keep pushing on, and you feel something that gives you a little boost."
Santa Fean organizes more ways for more people to push themselves outdoors📷Ice climbing is just one of the outdoor sports Peter Olson wants you to get into. | Elizabeth Miller