Alan Nelson 1959-2007
On December 23, 2007 the climbing community lost one of its most dedicated, prolific, and energetic members. After a hard-fought and stunningly brief struggle, Alan Nelson succumbed to a gastrointestinal cancer. His sister Katie, his pastor, and the pastor’s wife were at his bedside. Alan was buried in Estes Park, Colorado. It is difficult to contemplate this thought. He was too indomitable, persistent, and stubborn an individual to let this disease get the best of him. And at 48 he was far too young.
Alan grew up in California, going through the California school system and ultimately graduating from Berkeley with a degree in architecture. While climbing derailed any plans for a stately academic life, he did parlay this technical background into a career in landscape architecture, city planning, and development.
Alan’s climbing career spanned close to 35 years. He started climbing as a teenager in California in the 1970s and continued climbing and bouldering right up to the last few months of his life. His early adventures in Joshua Tree, Yosemite, Tuolumne Meadows, and elsewhere were often captured in his own writing. He penned one of the first climbing guides to Tuolumne: Tuolumne Rock: An underground climber’s guide (1982). His thirst for unforgiving challenges was relentless. His solo ascent of the Tangerine Trip in Yosemite, his second ascent of the bold You Asked For It, and his attempted second ascent of the stunning Bachar-Yerian, were typical of his approach to climbing: bold, powerful, committing. Many of these ascents were documented in the American Alpine Journal (www.American AlpineClub.org/aajsearch). Of the many things that he wrote, his 1984 AAJ article on the attempted second ascent of the Bachar-Yerian, “The Path of The Master,” is one of the most revealing descriptions of Alan’s motivation as a climber.
Alan’s thirst for new routes was endless, and he left a long legacy of excellent and challenging climbs in Joshua Tree and Tuolumne. His popular new routes include 29 Palms (5.11+, 1981), Silent Scream (5.10a, 1982), and Alf’s Arête (5.11-,1987).
Alan moved to Colorado at the close of the 1980s so that he could pursue his career alongside his climbing. He married Teresa Kathleen Keller on May 25, 1996, and with Kathleen, Sean—a son inherited by marriage—and numerous pets, Alan’s home life was hopping, busy, and committing.
Alan’s climbing accelerated in Colorado. He launched into Clear Creek Canyon with a vengeance, and by 1990 had established close to 50 climbs there alone. Route information was compiled in an unpublished guide, A Compendium of Clear Creek Climbs, in 1992, and Alan made this available to anyone who asked. His photo link-up produced an excellent, utilitarian guide. Some of his classic sport routes in Clear Creek are still test pieces today. Among the best are Anarchitect (5.12d, 1990); Ten Digit Dialing (5.12c, 1998); Finger Prince (5.13a, 1994); and Blue Sky Mining (5.11d, 1995).
From Little Box Canyon at Rifle to the East Elk Drainage, Deep Creek to North Table Mountain, Eldorado Canyon to Devil’s Head, Alan’s contributions are too numerous to list, often excellent, and usually very hard. When I think of the time I spent climbing with Alan, it seems that the happiest times were rapping off into some unknown void with Alan looking intently for the new possibilities. He seemed most excited when he was on a distant point, totally committed, as far from help as he could get, working out a solution to some new project.
Like many restless climbers, Alan played the maverick when it suited him. Queried about his ascent of Genius Loci in Eldorado, he explained that the name translated to “Spirit of the Place,” a spirit and place of power, where Alan came to pay his own homage. Most of us never saw this personal, spiritual side that showed up in so much of his climbing. His ascent of Forgotten Years in Rifle was a moving statement to his father. The lyrics of this Midnight Oil tune could have been written for Alan.
Despite his tough-guy climbing persona, Alan’s religious convictions formed a large part of his personal life. He was affiliated with the Friends community for most of his time in Colorado and joined the New Manna International Church after moving to Fort Collins. This strong, supportive community was with him to his last moment. Near the end, Alan spoke freely about the church, the close friends he had there, and the importance of worship in his life. Worship, for Alan, integrated the vast natural world, the world of climbing, and his own profound belief in his family and friends. Alan enriched the lives of everyone who called him friend, and the tears we shed for Alan are a testament to how much he was loved. For myself, every time I put hand to rock something of Alan will be with me. In each persistence, when the odds seem stacked too high to succeed, something of Alan will be with me. Alan left us a legacy of fine and challenging climbs, but he also left a legacy of friends who will not forget the Worshiping Warrior.
Richard M. Wright