By Patricia Sullivan Washington Post Staff Writer Tuesday, December 18, 2007
John Christopher Nolen, 74, a well-known Washington-area hike
leader, died Nov. 19 of artery disease, possibly exaggerated by
low blood oxygen, while climbing at 18,300 feet in the Khumbu
region of Nepal. He lived in Carderock Springs.
Mr. Nolen, known as Chris to legions of Potomac Appalachian
Trail Club and Sierra Club hikers, was climbing the 19,000-foot
Pokalde Peak with the Windhorse Trekking Co. of Kathmandu
when he collapsed on a relatively flat portion of the climb, his
hiking partners said. His head struck a rock when he fell, and his
colleagues were unable to revive him.
He had a long history as an outdoorsman but was best known
recently for the Tuesday Vigorous Hike he planned and led for
the PATC and Sierra Club since 2000. The hikes were 15 to
20 miles long and gained 3,000 to 5,000 feet in elevation.
"They were famous for length and elevation gain -- seldom 15
miles and always at least 3,500 elevation gain," said Carol
Christensen, a friend who hiked with him in the United States
and who was on the Himalayan hike as well.
"He was an excellent hike leader, not authoritarian. . . . Although he was 74, he was
always the fastest hiker in the group." A positive man, Mr. Nolen was "having the time of
his life" in Nepal, she said. When his group took a break just before he collapsed, he
took a Global Positioning System reading and noted they were at 18,300 feet,
Christensen said. Another friend snapped a photo of him resting among the rocks,
holding a water bottle.
"He died doing what he loved to do," Christensen said.
Twice a year, Mr. Nolen took week-long backpacking trips to Alaska, the Grand Canyon,
the Sierras, Utah and Glacier and Olympic national parks. Tom Johnson, who led a trip to
Costa Rica about five years ago that Mr. Nolen took, said the then-69-year-old easily
outdistanced others and accompanied him to the top of a volcano.
"Chris was so focused on hiking that whenever he had the opportunity to take an optional
hike, he would always choose the longest, most difficult hike that could be done,"
Johnson said. "He was lost overnight in a rain forest on that trip. It was pitch black, but he
descended down a stream that turned into a waterfall, then followed the moonlight along
the Pacific coast until he found the lodge. He was a phenomenal hiker."
A native Washingtonian, Mr. Nolen graduated from Western High School in 1949. At
17, he and two friends canoed Canadian rivers to the Hudson Bay. He served in the
Army in Texas and graduated from Johns Hopkins University, where he taught electricity
and magnetism while working on graduate studies in engineering there. Mr. Nolen, an
electronics engineer, designed vacuum tube circuits for radar, phased array radar
systems and signal processing systems for a defense contractor before joining the
Institute for Defense Analysis in 1965. In 1983, he moved to SAIC, where his work was in
applied research, radar systems design and strategic weapons system analysis. He
retired in 1993.
He volunteered as a sixth-grade science and outdoor education aide at Robert Frost
Middle School in Rockville. He also placed and checked automatic cameras along the
Appalachian Trail as a volunteer field researcher for the Predator Survey Project with the
A son, Sean Nolen, died in 1988.
Survivors include his wife of 56 years, Jo Ann Nolen of Carderock Springs; two children,
Michael Nolen of Rockville and Kathleen Nolen of Los Angeles; and two grandchildren.
Nolen planned and led
the Tuesday Vigorous
Hike for two hiking and
(by David Green)