In the rich caravan of climbers whom we meet at the crags, people come and go. Some, like the flowing of mountain streams, make a daily ritual of their appearance on the stone. Others show up every weekend, while outliers make the scene only once a month, or less. Climbers who’ve shared the bonds of a ledge or a rope can go for years without seeing each other face-to-face, and pick up right where we left off, immune to the passage of time. Some people, however, cease returning to the rapture of the steep, or even to the light of a new day. Every now and then, we hear of someone who’s died, and the news reaches into us like a muted shockwave. Ray Olson, climbing-gear designer and sewer extraordinaire, itinerant cragsman, and personal friend of mine, was one of those people.
Story by Roy McClenahan, published in the current Zine, Volume 16, now available. Banner photo of Ray by Greg Epperson.
Ray was a gearhead. He was proud of the stocky, torch-red ’56 Ford pickup he drove to the crags in the ’80s. During our winter-climbing sojourns in Joshua Tree, he parked it amongst the monzonite boulders and prickly desert verge. Like a faithful pet, the faded red truck was poised and ready to be run. Ray was a small-framed, solid character, and the truck was a well-constructed, muscular short bed; so man and machine were in sync. When he first came to Boulder in the early ’90s, his ride was a ’70s model Plymouth Duster two-door sedan. Much like his ’56 Ford, the Duster sported an oxidized-burgundy paint job. And like Ray, with his angular face tinted copper from long days at the crags, it hung low and reflected a bad-boy character. And I should tell you that Ray wasn’t just short—if he breached five feet in height, it was only by a hair’s breadth.
Born Raymond J Olson, July 22, 1957, Ray’s interest in climbing was rooted in a love of the mountains. Before he first started rock climbing in 1975, in San Diego County’s Deerhorn Valley, he was into backpacking, scrambling, and peak bagging. Ray’s initial climbing footwear, the blue-suede Royal Robbins boots, were a hybrid design with ankle protection for wide cracks, and fitted with lug soles for biting into the steep scree slopes of approaches. The rigidity of the steel shank was supportive for standing in aid slings and encouraged the pointing of toes on small edges and nubbins. Climbers who learned in that rigid footwear had a tendency to focus on the precision of their footwork, because smearing wasn’t really an option. Ray would’ve had to adapt his style to the limitations of his footwear. Adaptation is the foundation of a gear designer’s magic, and adapting to limitations proved to be something Ray J was very good at.
In 1977, Ray saw an opportunity to flex his creativity in the marketplace and began making things that weren’t readily available, like chalk bags. John Gill started using chalk in 1954, and its popularity rose during the 1970s. Many climbers loaded a small stuff sack with that white powder and attached it to a sling worn bandolier-style across their chest or clipped it to their swami belt or climbing harness. These crude stuff sacks were not ideal. Those in the know were using purpose-built chalk bags made on home sewing machines or acquired them from the few manufacturers of the time, like Strawberry Mountain Works. Distribution was somewhat thin in the mid-1970s. One of the first simple chalk bags commercially available was done by the resurrected ’60s hardware brand DOLT. Ray conscripted his mother’s sewing machine and sold his wares piecemeal to fellow climbers.
Curiosity led Olson to improve on the available harnesses, like the ubiquitous Troll Whillans Sit Harness, designed for Chris Bonington’s expedition on the South Face of Annapurna. Ray used padding and formulated his own design, emulating Bill Forrest’s integrated swami and leg-loop configuration. But in tackling the harness project, he was breaking sewing needles and throwing his mother’s prized machine out of timing by working with ever-thicker stacks of webbing, nylon, and stiff foam.
In 1979, Ray spent his savings on an industrial sewing machine. Ray the gearhead had upgraded from amateur tooling to that which the pros used. He set up shop in his parents’ garage in Chula Vista. With full run of the garage, cottage-industry style, he had the confidence to design and market his own products more aggressively. Ray was quick to acknowledge his influences. Of a harness-and-leg-loop pairing he called the Super Swami,Ray said: “No ‘firsts’ here—clearly an adaption of Bill Forrest’s swami/leg-loop idea. Built in gear loops? Troll Whillans innovation—I just made them ‘more’ integrated. Padding? Clan Robertson, I saw them do it first—mine was only on the waist and thicker.”
For most Southern California climbers throughout the 1970s and ’80s, Yosemite Valley was a siren song. One needed to be footloose, working seasonal jobs. For years, Ray kept his schedule loose. He maximized his climbing time by selling his wares directly to climbers at the crags. He also had a couple of close friends, Dick Cilley and Dan Grandusky, working as a grassroots sales force. From a Rock and Ice interview with Olson in 1986: “I see that the opportunity not to have to make a living on a day-to-day basis gives me the liberty to create things; whereas manufacturers who are forced to compete in the ruthless, cold-blooded world of business—they’re the ones under the gun.”
Ray’s fledgling arrival in Yosemite was relived in a 2007 SuperTopo post: “Tom Kimbrough and Dave Yerian were my first Yosemite climbing partners ever in like ’77. I remember on my first trip to the Valley I took the bus. Near the Valley the bus stopped, this guy gets on and sits next to me. It was Daryl Hatten and yes, he did proceed to break out beers and drink them on the bus, offering me one of course. Once in the Valley he introduced me to Yerian, and we all got hammered. I integrated the word ‘hammered’ into my vocabulary that first night in Yosemite. All the greats were there that spring. I doubt, as a seriously challenged kid, that I would have made it without climbing and without the success of making gear. Climbing saved my life.”
Though he climbed in the mountains—Mexico, the Tetons, and Colorado—he remained a rock climber at heart. During his interview for Rock and Ice with Heidi Pesterfield, Ray said, “I have always come back to the crags. Yosemite, to me, is the end.”
In the ’80s and ’90s, Ray was a dedicated Yosemite climber. Partnering with Tim Wagner, he climbed classics in Tuolumne Meadows. In The Valley, they ascended the severely overhanging Leaning Tower. With Kevin Fosburg, he made an ascent of Washington Column’s South Face. Later, he and Kevin breezed up one of the benchmark multipitch 5.11 Yosemite free climbs: the Rostrum’s North Face.
Steve “Crusher” Bartlett reflects on Ray Olson’s mastery of the severely overhanging Yosemite boulder problem, Bachar Cracker, “I knew Ray back in the day when he lived out of a classic ’50s truck, in J Tree and the Valley. He was colorful, creative, very bright, and great company ’round those endless winter campfires. And Ray was not afraid of anything or anyone. In the Valley, on Bachar Cracker I watched him nonchalantly campus through one-finger-jam pull-up after one-finger-jam pull-up. He was so strong!”
Ray had mastered the art. His favorite Yosemite standards attest to this. Try hanging on to the thick-fingered challenges of Mirage or Tips or Butterballs; you’ll see Ray exercised mastery on fierce rock climbs.
In the early ’90s, Ray lived at Paul Sibley’sMacho Acres in the rural hamlet of Marshall, Colorado. Perched at the edge of a mesa on the outskirts of South Boulder, Marshall is located just east of the fabled Eldorado Canyon. It is surrounded by prairie grasslands and ponderosa pine forests. One day Ray, in his Plymouth Duster, lumbered up the bumpy dirt driveway, bald tires crunching over rice-crispy gravel toward my sewing shop on the hill above Paul’s antique stone-walled house. I spied the diminutive Ray sitting low in the seat, peering over the top of the large steering wheel through his jet-black wraparound sunglasses. With his aquiline nose tilted up so he could navigate properly, Ray’s arrival was a happening in itself: a brooding, lurking, low-riding spectacle that was totally Ray. Olson, with a bull rider’s neck and biceps rounded handsomely from years of pumping iron, emerged from the Duster. He stood with his hips pressed into the fender, the palm of one hand caressing his prized slab of automotive sheet metal. “Dude! No more Ford. I’m all about Mopar now.”
Whatever tool or vehicle Ray possessed, he thoroughly vetted it for its place in the gearhead pantheon. The Duster was a Mopar product, which comprises Dodge, Chrysler, and Plymouth. He wanted to know everything about Mopar, their parts distribution network, and the things that set their cars apart. Wherever it could be found, Ray was into soul. Whatever he did, Ray was deeply invested and passionate. His enthusiasm was infectious, and he made you want to root for him.
FROG was an acronym forFrom Ray Olson’s Garage. It was also Ray’s nickname. Ray’s FROG climbing packs had a rugged design aesthetic. In the early ’80s when he was really cranking them out, he was into the German techno band Kraftwerk. The angularity and synth-pop approach to their music matched Ray’s technical musings. Inside my shop on his first day in Marshall, I pointed to a series of my handmade rucksacks hanging from the wall and told him I liked seeing identical products lined up together, everything the same but with different colors. To that, he paused, turning inward for a moment, then offered, “You like that because it’s sexy.” Repetition of otherwise identical items in different colors equals sexy? Of course it does, especially if you were Ray Olson. The Frog’s personal taste could trend toward ’80s new wave and even punk. His chalk bags featured graphics of skull and crossbones, Mohawk hair treatments, and all that post-punk counterculture stuff. Ray gravitated to things that were roughhewn, like the thick-soled Dr. Martens boots he wore.
In 2007, after a hiatus, Ray returned once again to Boulder, Colorado. Ray J was on the rebound. He brought us up to speed with one of his early SuperTopo posts: “OK, status report—I’m 49, building my own computers and still designing things. I am having a blast w/ digital. I’ve been straight-edge sober for 4 years and am working out again. I’d like to go to Europe and check it out. No injuries and the brain seems to be working fine again…I am very psyched for design, for business, for making money in the outdoor industry.”
Both his parents had passed by then, and he and his brothers, Bob and Mike, came into some money. Ray, the aficionado of American steel, had “sold out” and indulged himself in the purchase of a late-model metallic-blue Subaru Outback. In his shiny Subaru wagon, Ray took me for a ride toward the Arapahoe Pass trail on the Continental Divide, west of Boulder. All he could talk about was how he wanted to trade it in for a Subaru Forrester. He wanted a version of the car painted olive drab, like a US Army green, with matching rims in the same color. It was about Ray aligning his image with his design priorities.
Military grade is a term that identifies products that are built to a higher standard. Ray was an early adopter of this approach. Knowing how tough climbers were on their gear, Ray’s number one priority was to make sure his stuff was built to last. In 2007, Ray’s good friend and climbing partner Jeff Almodovar said, “I still have three of the backpacks he made for me; some design features are used to this day in climbing packs.” His harnesses were so well constructed that twenty years after he sold the last of them, a handful were still in the field. Hearing of this, Ray broached the subject gently, addressing liability issues. “I kinda hope this is just a polite thing you guys are saying, something that I appreciate—but I pray that no one is still climbing in any of the harnesses I made. Shit starts to get brittle after about 10. Thinking Ann and I cranked out the last ones probably in the summer of ’86.”
In the mid-1980s, at the height of his success with FROG climbing equipment, Ray brought on Ann Pond, his girlfriend. Ann was fit and athletic, had thick blond hair and wore studious eyeglasses. She was intelligent, well liked by us climbers, and very fond of Ray. Ray described the inspiration for an innovation he brought to waist-pack design: “I was at the beach with Ann, had twisted a big fatty for the PM sundown show. I was looking at the lid I’d made for a day pack; it had pleats and was lying in the sand just so. It looked like a fanny pack, I thought. I sketched the idea, made the first one that night.”
After a decade of FROG, Ray moved into the mainstream, where he worked as a designer in the heart of the outdoor industry. He took his design of the pleated Back Pocket to the company now known as Black Diamond. “Chouinard Equipment paid me a 5% wholesale royalty on the design. I used the money for a summer in Yosemite, and for bolts and replaced anchors at the Cookie, Sunnyside Bench, Woodson, and etc. So, from a doobie on the beach to safe anchors for y’all—that’s how it went!”
My first downhill skiing experience was with Ray at Eldora Mountain Resort, above Boulder. We were a couple of ex-pat California crag rats in our midthirties, silently riding the lift while cold-powder snow clung to the trees. Ray could tell you everything you needed to know about how to weight a ski to do a telemark turn, and there he was, a neophyte himself, on the easy runs with me, leading the way as we got our game on. “Check it out, Roy. All those years we spent in Yosemite and Joshua Tree, man oh man, that was the stuff…now we are kickin’ back on a ski lift together, here at Eldora, in Colorado of all places, a boatload of years down the road. It’s like looking at the past through a telescope!”
Ask any rock climber from Southern California about crack climbing in San Diego, and they will enthusiastically answer, “Mount Woodson!” It’s a perfect training ground for the parallel-sided cracks of Yosemite. Ray loved crack climbing. His wingspan was five inches wider than his height, and with this excellent ape index, he enjoyed the advantage of leverage. In the 1960s, Archie Moore, a boxer who fought from 1936 until 1963, ran a training camp at the foot of Mount Woodson. He trained George Foreman and Muhammad Ali. He called it The Salt Minebecause he worked as hard training there for fights as anyone toiling in a salt mine. When Ray Olson wasn’t developing durable goods for climbers, working out on his crack machine, or doing sets of weighted pull-ups, he was training like a boxer at Mount Woodson.
Many of the climbs in the San Diego area are on large, egg-shaped boulders and are often climbed as high balls or toproped. Mount Woodson has brutal parallel-sided cracks of all sizes. The finger-width cracks are among the more popular targets, adorned with names like Hear My Train a Comin’, California Night, and Driving South. Driving South is an overhanging 5.12- thin crack and ranks high on anyone’s tick list. Ken Turley fondly recalls being schooled by Ray on the climb. “I once belayed Ray on TR. He placed a pinky jam over the lip, cut his feet, did a one-arm pull-up, and walked the rest of the moves to the top. I gave it a shot and couldn’t do one move. Ray literally hauled me up like a sack of potatoes.”
To find out where Ray extended himself the most at Mount Woodson, you’d want to have a go at Laverne, a coveted first ascent. “I had been eyeing Laverne, right above the road, forever. It was a drizzly day, and I drove out there with Bill Ramsey in my red ’56 Ford F100. As I recall, the start is an eliminator, overhanging thin power locks straight in up a perfect wall. Bill fell when his foot tore off one of those dark little circular diorite flakes. I sent it next go. I felt Laverne was near the top of the 5.11 grade.”
Brad Rassler speaks to Ray Olson’s intensity in those years: “Mount Woodson, in the mid-’80s, a bunch of us were standing around a problem fairly low on the hill, chitchatting. As Olson chalked up, he became pensive. Then he called for the conversation to cease. He wanted no beta, no cheering. He wanted to climb in silence. He was an amazingly powerful, elegant climber.”
The white-and-pink boulders dotting the slopes of Mount Woodson are composed of Woodson granodiorite. Deerhorn Valley’s rocks, formed from Corte Madera Monzogranite, are a bit darker in hue. Both areas feature rock that is generally smooth and lacking in face holds, but split with tantalizing cracks. Deerhorn Valley is peppered with Easter Island–shaped monoliths and shark-tooth spires, somewhat larger than the boulders of Woodson. Both areas are heavily vegetated.
As Ray was one of the first climbers to explore Deerhorn Valley, he and his climbing partners had to cut trails through the deep brush just to steal a look at prospective climbs. Often working alone, Ray went heavily laden into the dense chaparral with a large pack of tools and climbing gear, including machetes, limb saws, and pruners. He cleared narrow paths through hillsides of tightly laced California sage, manzanita, thick scrub oak, laurel-leaf sumac, California buckwheat, and the treacherous poison oak. Once at the base of a project, if he liked what he saw, using shovels and his retinue of tools, he extracted brush, levered boulders aside, and leveled the soil to make comfortable seating places and convenient landing pads for racking up and belaying.
Longtime friend Ron Amick recalls, “Ray was a character. Intense and driven in almost everything he did. He had a wonderful acid brashness and, despite his size, was physically imposing and even intimidating.”
Well, Ray burned off some of that brashness by slashing and burrowing his way through the brush, in search of raw, unclimbed gemstones riven with challenging thin cracks. Here he established his own personal gold mine of Deerhorn Valley first ascents. Ray considered the trail building a type of resistance training, and it helped him to maintain his impressive fitness levels. But, what appealed to him above all was setting his own standard. It goes to the core of who he was when he said, “I think the highest goal any climber can aspire to is to pursue his or her individual desires to the fullest.”
Ray described the adolescent genesis of that standard: “Rock climbing in Deerhorn Valley started in 1975 with three social D-listers from Mar Vista High. We had a new set of stoppers, hexes, a rope, ovals and, most importantly, Basic Rockcraft and Advanced Rockcraft by Royal Robbins. After a few of the initial forays, and the inevitable meltdowns coping with our newfound need for accountability—us beach kids began to move. None of us even knew Mount Woodson existed, and that was ‘a long way away.’ I now recognize how much I benefited from my first two partners. I owe ’em a lot. But, I mean, let’s face it, we were basically spazmodern-incarnate, and if you’d seen the stupid shit we pulled you would’ve said, ‘These idiots are gonna get killed, quick!’”
The young Olson survived, got his bearings, and literally carved his niche. “True, there are no crevasses to fall into, and you won’t need a helo rescue…” said Ray in his 2009 online manifesto, Notes on San Diego Rock Climbing, “but the serious brush guarding and hiding the excellent stone of San Diego County is one of this region’s finest attributes. So if you think that the brush is just too ‘icky’ for you, or feel it is better to let others develop and maintain the access paths, then please, go to Joshua Tree. And if you climb here, and if you get lost in or mauled by the landscape, you’re far from alone.”
The theme of Ray enjoying time alone and courting struggle comes alive in this passage: “We had some way overhanging aid climbs in San Diego, and often, when it was raining and cold, I’d go nailing. Call it the ‘added grit factor.’ The rope would get soaked and muddy, fingers would go numb, chilled to the bone, the whole thing seemed absurd to the max, but it was a gas! Bad weather has its own appeal; there’s something great about getting up, looking out, seeing stormy skies and going for it anyway. And driving home, after some self-belayed torment, the glow of satisfaction went on and on.”
Ray’s proudest climbing accomplishment was the development of his beloved Deerhorn Valley. He left behind access trails, established many new routes, and authored a guidebook. He mixed his skills as a sketch artist with his sardonic wit. The text on the cover of the guidebook was done by clipping out individual letters from various magazines, ransom-note style. His creative impulses were nurtured by doing route development close to home and off the beaten path. “Everyone’s out at Josh believing that’s the hot climbing scene in Southern California. But there’s something real exciting to me about developing a new area. In truth, I always was and will always be a San Diego rock climber. My main energy and best performances were in San Diego. Those hills and that winter weather. God it was exotic and solitary—many of my best memories were roaming around in the hills, soloing a little 5.7 pinnacle all by myself, scrubbing any tiny bits of moss and grain on the fly. Man I had a really fine time”.
One dreary winter afternoon during the mid-’90s, I went to visit Olson at his Spartan apartment in Boulder. He opened the door, and as I walked inside, I could see the blinds were shut. I approached the window and separated two of the rectangular fins of thin metal to check out the view across the noisy boulevard. I glimpsed the ruby red Flatirons, their slabs hibernating under a mantle of snow. Ray had been complaining about all of the time he spent standing around on his feet, working retail at Neptune Mountaineering. He was having musculoskeletal issues and said the routine hours stocking shelves with thermal underwear and talking to customers about five hundred dollar jackets really put a hurtin’ on his legs.
While we hung out and relaxed in his apartment, we got stoned and started to explore ideas. Ray sank into his overstuffed Naugahyde chair. Surfing the couch across from him, I put my feet up on his thrift shop coffee table, while our minds, untethered from worldly concern, levitated like colored balloons. Ray introduced me to his newfound interest in grunge music. At the time he was into Mudhoney and Soundgarden, stuff that had soul and was kind of dark. He switched on some music. Then, drifting back to his usual gearhead instincts, Ray went off on how great liquid plastic was for coating the wrist loops of his custom-made ice climbing leashes. We both knew it was handy for repairing abrasions on packs, and he guessed it might be good for dipping zipper pulls. Plasti Dip was designed for dipping tool handles, so it made everything grippy. And Ray liked getting a grip on things.
“This stuff is killer! It’s the ticket. We should invite friends over with all of their gear and have a Plasti Dip party—we’ll all tool up everything we can think of and tweak our arsenals to get them battlefield ready!” And then, the Frog laughed loudly, rounding it out with a cynical chortle.
His laugh was deep, edgy, and rugged. When he was completely given over to something, he would squeeze his eyes together, fold three fingers vertically between them—the skin of his forehead would furl, and he’d start belting laughter, indulging a pleasure-pain paroxysm. As he enjoyed one of his riotous trips down irony lane, his sturdy laugh was full and robust, sounding as though he were chopping hardwood with his lungs.
Always seeking upgrades, he would’ve modified his own body if he’d only
found a way. To make up for his shortness, he’d
screwed wood blocks to the pedals of that red Ford truck so he could operate
them from the bench seat. In May of 2011, not long before he died, Ray made
this post on SuperTopo: “I have two trick-ass pieces of titanium in my lumbar
spine. They are the latest thing—called ‘pivots.’ My freaking lumbar is strong as hell—no kidding. Amazing.
And the unending nerve pain of sciatica is gone. Saved my life; severe pain
patients don’t last long. Severe pain beats up the brain pretty bad…memory,
cognitive problems. I’m doing my best to heal my body, mind and spirit. I am
undergoing some kind of major spiritual or holistic transformation. My life has
been (or was) an ordeal. Climbing was the best part of the whole thing.”
To all of us in the climbing community, the circumstances of Ray Olson’s death in 2012 are still a mystery. His brothers and nephew were unavailable for further comment, other than to announce on SuperTopo in 2016, “We are saddened, but at the same time we feel an obligation to let Ray’s climbing friends know of his untimely death in 2012.”
In August of 2009, prior to his neurosurgery, Ray had resurfaced on the internet. He’d gone back to San Diego, presumably to lick his wounds, which were legion—and not all of them physical. “New t-shirt art, new accessory designs, and new backpacks, too. How I have been wounded so deeply in my soul by not having my tools to express myself…to make new designs. If I can’t make gear…my sense of self-worth is poor. In a garage in Chula, sewing new designs again: can think of a lotta worse ways to spend my remainder above ground.”
In the ’90s, Ray had some bouts with alcohol or substance abuse or anger—probably a cocktail of all these volatile components. I hadn’t seen him for a while. The Frog had cleaned himself up and was doing the twelve-step thing. He walked up to me in Gary Neptune’s mountain shop to make amends for some sort of scuffle we’d been through. In a very sincere and deeply felt way, offering the olive branch, Ray said to me, “I need to tell you how much your friendship means to me right now.”
Standing there amidst an impressive display of leather-palmed Austrian ski gloves, in a sea of expensive multicolored Gore-Tex jackets, Ray looked up at me through his black, square-framed glasses and said, “I love you, Roy.”
Being confronted by Ray like that was much like when my neighbor’s pit heeler, with her independent nature and powerful jaw, jumps up forcefully and licks my face: when that happens, trust me, you just go with it. Glancing sideways at Gary’s ancient collection of wood-shafted ice axes, I considered escape. Ray Olson took the next step, putting out his hand to seal the deal. I extended my arm. Handling his firm grip and searching the darkness in his eyes, I tentatively offered my own truth: “I love you too, Ray.”
Roy McClenahan started climbing during the mid-’70s in Southern California, where he was mentored by the original Stonemasters. He made his living as a professional guide throughout the ’80s, leading Yosemite Mountaineering School’s first guided ascents of The Nose and Salathe routes on El Capitan. In the ’90s, living out of his custom sewing shop in Marshall, Colorado, the walls of Eldorado Canyon were his oyster. After spending the 2000s scrambling the ridges of the Colorado Rockies, Roy is now retired from climbing, and with his champion mountain-running wife, Lisa Goldsmith, lives in Nederland, Colorado, where they enjoy weekly picnics in the surrounding high country.
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