05 February 2005

The NOLS Experience

Participating in the NOLS Outdoor Educator Semester in the Rockies changed my life. It sounds melodramatic, or like some canned advertisement, but I did not overstate my opening sentence. The 94 days I spent with my NOLSie crew, experiencing the wilderness, experiencing eachother, getting certifications, and getting feedback, gave me a most solid foundation for the life of a wilderness professional. Immense personal growth through a totally bad ass experience: NOLS gave me that.
Gathering in Lander, WY, the 14 students and their noble course proctor Russell met for the first time. We were all expecting challenges, excited and nervous. The first part of our course was Winter Camping. We traveled around the Wyming range in February on telemark style skis, telemarking being something none of us had done before. We carried backpacks and sleds full of feul, gear, food, and layers— lots of everything. We needed a lot to live for over two weeks on snow and regularly subzero temperatures. We learned about avalanche safety, and how to find 'lanche victims with beacons, but we were never in an avalanche ourselves. We learned to make quigloos, igloo like structures that were really extremely comfortable, and inside a quigloo the temperature could sometimes be a balmy 30 something degrees! We built quigloos when were were base camping for a few days and practicing our tele turns (and tele falls) on our own private backcountry slopes. We were in a winter wonderland that was constantly beautiful. It was an environment I remember as constantly challenging— simply getting into my sleeping bag was at first a 30 minute process. I had never winter camped before. I kissed the bus when it arrived and noticed how funny it was to walk on firm ground after nothing but spongy snow.
Next we had ten front country days to become WFRs, Wilderness First Responders. This 80 hour course entailed lots of class time and note taking, but the real value of the WFR course was in the scenerios. We practiced doing head to toe assessments and SOAP notes for victims of all sorts of adventerous accidents. Learning proper medical procedures gave me invaluable confidence in an inherantly risky line of work.
The next part of the course was the wonderfully epic 28 days in the Dirty Devil Canyon in southern Utah. In a bold move of decisiveness (decisiveness decidedly not being our group's strongest strength) we elected to leave our watches behind. 28 days without watches. A full lunar cycle is a wonderfully symbolic amount of time to live by only the rythm of the earth, by the light of day and the dark of night. Prolific beyond the duration of our trip was the experience we were having. We were navigating our way through and over complex canyon systems, practicing risk management, and learning much about complex group dynamics in a our sizable group (18 in all). We hiked at night during a full moon. We all got stressed out when food ran low. We were caught off guard by a powerful windstorm. We waded through the silt of the Dirty Devil and drank it's cinnomin water. We baked calzones and cinnomin rolls, and learned to appreciate the grit sand the wind seasoned every meal with. It was cold and windy. We got lost. Canyoning requires rapelling and anchor building to "drop" side canyons, so we did plenty of that. We got close. The experience was both so real and so magical.
Finishing off the semester was rock climbing. There were a lot of new skills to learn, rope management, gear placement, top roping, lead climbing, anchor building, and multipitch climbing. I soked it up. I dare say I loved it. The climbing section of the course made it possible to challenge ourselves individually. We were base camping, so we lived relatively luxuriously and ate really well. We climbed on limestone at Sinks Canyon right outside of Lander first and did mostly sport climbing, and then we went to Split Rock and learned about traditional climbing on granite. It was sweet.
A big part of any NOLS course is the feedback you get from peers and instructors. For me it was the first time I really heard about features of my personality that were challenging to be around. I was pretty defensive I can remember, but I worked on the feedback I got and became someone who's easier to get along with. I also changed my diet after the course to include... everything. I was no longer a picky eater and liked pretty much any food set in front of me. I value every quirk of every personality I spent those 94 days with. My NOLSie friends are lifelong brothers and sisters; we don't do a very good job keeping in touch, but how can we forget eachother? We are connected by the experience we shared, 94 days with NOLS.