A Local Adrenaline Enthusiast Discovers the Ultimate Balancing Act
It hits him.
“Man. I’m skiing Highlands with two kids whose dads have died in the last two years in tragic accidents. I’m the only dad here, with three different families. What a strange feeling,” Nelson Oldham pauses, reflective. These two fathers aren’t the only ones. He recalls the local skier who perished on the Laundry Chutes of Mount Sopris.
“He was the first person just gone in my community,” says Oldham, with a snap of his fingers. “I thought, man—he is never coming back. That’s it.”
He pauses. “We both had kids. We’d compare notes.”
Oldham processed his shock while writing a song about it.
Turning 50 in two weeks, Oldham is father to Kate, age 15, a nationally-ranked Nordic skier, and her brother Ben, age 11, a tentative river rat. Paddling class III rapids by his own son’s age, Oldham was drawn to extreme pursuits early on. Spawn of Valley Mill Camp, famed for cranking out star paddlers, he was training other kids by age 14.
Ignoring his Georgetown University degree at 22, Oldham built carbon-fiber Kevlar vessels with Valley Mill Boats, a spin-off from the camp. Mentoring under World Cup-winning paddler Andy Bridge, Oldham’s goal was simple: mastery.
“We were second generation pioneers—where some stuff had been done, some stuff was still being figured out, some stuff was being done a second time, just to make sure it really was a good idea. I was at a point where the limit for me was quite dangerous. When you start doing Class V rapids, you’re basically seriously endangering your life.”
Oldham wasn’t into the adrenaline rush of “fear.” Ultimately, he turned to racing, which placed all of his prior technique and expertise into the crucible of time and endurance—versus danger.
“In racing, you’re getting a real challenge and an adrenaline rush, without Class V rapids anymore,” Oldham explains.
He crushed it. Right out of the gates.
“Nelson’s serious demeanor translates into serious skills on downhill, demanding rivers,” says close friend and fellow kayaking champion Andy Corra. “With his long-boat racing pedigree and steep-creek nerves, Nelson dominated the burgeoning Class V race scene of the late ‘90s and 2000s in the Rockies, while earning several trips to European World Cup and Championship races as a member of the U.S. Kayak Wildwater Team.”
Oldham carved a legendary wake, with two unbeaten records. He owns America’s longest standing paddle race, the 26-mile FIBArk sprint—as yet unmatched in 22 years. His Class V Gore Canyon Whitewater Race record will most likely never be beaten, despite advances in plastic boats and the resultant diversity of paddlers.
Like a drug, adrenaline may be alluring, but can you handle it? Do you even want to?
Oldham holds the long view. “Challenge with less risk is what normal people think about as they get older—realizing the value of their life, or their value to others.”
His identity doesn’t rest in his stories. Alongside partner Julie Oldham, their cafe, Dos Gringos, offers Carbondale the high-quality food/java fix that every roadtripper and local craves. His band, the Milemarkers, brings life to venues and private parties valley-wide with Americana roots rock.
Who’d risk jeopardizing any of this? Over an adrenaline fix? A bar room story?
“We were running Gore Canyon one year—” the King of Gore recalls of his canyon, “the water was really high, the rocks looked different. It was getting dark. My son’s birthday was the next day.” Oldham’s face is neutral. He bears no self-judgement, even in recollection. “Something didn’t feel right. I backed off. My friend, Tommy was about 10 years younger and a better boater. He understood, he supported that decision of mine. Those are the kinds of friends you want to surround yourself with.”
Those are the kinds of friends who help you stay alive, just like fellow soul paddler, Corra; Oldham still plays around with him—wise, seasoned equals with nothing to prove.
“Nelson’s one of a handful of paddlers who can navigate big water drops in a 20-pound fiberglass boat, loaded with two weeks of gear—at speed,” Corra says. Yet the two of them spent five days in May on two gentler rivers, paddling 120 miles with three other friends—for fun.
“It’s a balance. This trip was all about the bocce ball, enough tequila, good food. These are all luxuries we wouldn’t have considered 20 years ago,” Oldham says.
And now? Oldham looks forward to paddling with his son all summer. Endorphins over adrenaline, these days.