John Olson has had epilepsy since he was four years old. He has also summited eleven of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks, also known as “fourteeners.” He has excelled in varsity high school swimming, and has been instrumental in organizing awareness for epilepsy. In June of 2012, John summited Mount St. Helens with his father Tom, as part of an effort to raise funding and awareness for epilepsy. The climb, called “Stop the Eruption,” was a great success and was even covered on national TV. Epilepsy has been a serious condition for most of his life, but the words, “I can’t” are not part of John’s vocabulary!
John, on a hike up Mt Antero
A 24-year-old Colorado native, John has lived most of his life in Centennial and Aurora, Colorado. John has always had a passion for outdoor sports such as hiking, biking, and climbing. However, it hasn’t always been easy for him to live a Colorado lifestyle.
John has complex partial seizures. As a child, he would sometimes have clusters of seizures at night that would last 2-4 hours, and would be almost as traumatic as a grand mal seizure. These seizures brought him to the emergency room twice, and were very stressful for him and his family. John experiences “mystery seizures,” which are particularly frightening since they occur suddenly without any known reason or trigger.
John attended Cherokee Trail High School and was very active in varsity swimming. He competed in the state swimming championships 2 years in a row. John and his father experienced a particularly scary seizure mid-swim during a competition, but John was so determined that he managed to finish the race!
As a teenager, John’s seizures had become so severe and so limiting that he and his family decided to get surgery for John. In 2002 they traveled to Detroit, Michigan for an operation called a right temporal lobectomy. The goal was to end up seizure free. The procedure was performed by Dr. Harry T. Chugani, whom John says is quite prestigious and has many awards. The surgery and hospital stay lasted two weeks and was quite stressful due to bad side effects from the painkillers he was given. The surgery helped him some, but didn’t stop all of his seizures. In 2010 John had a second surgery to implant a Vagus Nerve Stimulator, (VNS). After it was set, the VNS has been a great help to John, and has allowed him to do a lot more activities and to climb higher peaks with more confidence. He now goes months without seizures.
John on top of Quandary Peak, 14,265ft
John started climbing fourteeners when he was ten years old. He had a love for being in the mountains, but needed guidance on how to climb high mountains with epilepsy. One of John’s biggest supporters has been Eric Alexander. Eric has been a family friend for over 10 years, and has been John’s climbing mentor and role model. Eric gained international recognition in 2001 for assisting the blind climber, Eric Weihenmayer, to the summit of Mount Everest. After reading news of this feat, John and his father reached out to Eric to see if he could help John summit Colorado’s highest peaks. Through the years, John has learned a lot from Eric, and wants to follow in his footsteps by assisting more people with epilepsy with outdoor adventures.
John’s father, Tom, has been a huge support in organizing his climbs and fundraising efforts. On June 14th John and Tom climbed Mount St. Helens in Washington. Tom helped John promote the climb to bring awareness to epilepsy and to raise money for The Epilepsy Foundation. They named the climb “Stop the Eruption” because the mountain is a volcano and since seizures are eruptions of electricity in the brain. John describes reaching the top as “phenomenal”. The climb was more difficult than his previous climbs due to a higher vertical rise. The Olson’s had wonderful luck in getting their accomplishment featured on local news, and the national news program, “Fox and Friends”. Tom has also been a huge help in starting a climbing club called “Colorado Climbers for Epilepsy Awareness.” Through their efforts in raising awareness for epilepsy, John says that he has had many people with epilepsy reach out to him, and has inspired other epileptics to start climbing. John’s next climb will be quite an event. John will be leading a climb up Mount Antero with help and support from Eric Alexander as well as Outdoor Mindset. They are already expecting dozens of people to join in on this climb.
Doctors and Treatment
John takes Trileptal to manage his seizures. He is also on other medications to treat his Addison’s disease. The combination of medicines sometimes produces challenging side effects, but John tries not to let this bother him. He also can manually activate his VNS to prevent seizures by moving a small magnet near his chest where the VNS was implanted. John’s current neurologist is Mark Spitz from the University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora. Mark and his medical staff were fundamental in helping John through his VNS surgery, and have been a great support to John and his family for the past 5 years.
John with his father, Tom, on a hike on Mt. Lincoln
Tips and Tricks
John says he has been an over comer his whole life. John’s advice to other people with epilepsy who want to hike fourteeners, is to start small, with smaller local walks and hikes, and slowly work your way up to longer, and higher foothills and mountains. He adds, “You don’t have to worry, you’ll have exciting memories if you just get involved and accomplish it.”
John’s other advice is to “Just Have Fun”. In the future, John hopes to climb all 54 of Colorado’s fourteeners. Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania is another mountain that John hopes to conquer.
When asked if he has had any challenges due to epilepsy, John says, “I don’t really have any challenges because I’m already used to it, I just have faith in God and faith in me.”
Check out John’s Videos here:
Ian is the Outreach Director for Seize The World and he was very excited to have an opportunity to meet John Olson and to write about him. Ian interviewed John at the library in Aurora CO two weeks after meeting him at the Strides For Epilepsy 5k race in Denver where John had stopped by the STW to say hello to volunteers. Ian is excited to keep in touch with John. STW is also excited to stay in touch with John and to get involved with him on future hikes and adventures!