Thursday, July 16, 2015

NOLS and What It Meant to Me

This quote is one of my all-time favorites, from one of my all-time favorite movies and never did I feel its meaning so much as when I went on my NOLS course. As I explained in my Roadtrip to NOLS post I had completely changed the direction my life was headed and decided that leading backpacking/outdoor trips was the new trail in life that I wanted to blaze and one of my first benchmarks on that trail was attending a NOLS Outdoor Educator course for Backpacking and Rock Climbing. Doing this course was for me a journey, an adventure, a learning process, a growing ladder, a challenge, and a reward all rolled into one. I learned so much more than I thought possible; about the outdoors, the industry itself, about being a teacher, being a student, being a leader, being an active follower, and above all, just being. Throughout the course I also not only gained 15 new amazing friends that were/are on a similar journey of life that I am, but I also gained a better understanding of myself, and those two things alone made this course priceless.

Let’s start at the very beginning; Lander, Wyoming - NOLS headquarters. This is where the magic happens; where fresh-faced students arrive from all over the country/world and where weathered ones return, grinning from ear to filthy ear and smelling like dirty hippies from being in the backcountry for 21 days or more, equipped with more stories to tell than a Vietnam Vet. I had already been in the area for a couple days camping, hiking and getting acquainted with Sinks Canyon and I was pretty pleased with what I had seen thus far, but I couldn’t wait to really sink my teeth into the course and all that it had to offer. The first order of business was meeting everyone and exchanging the small pleasantries that go along with initial greetings and in doing this I could already feel the buzz of electricity in the air from the excitement and anticipation that we all held and shared, ready to begin this adventure that, for me at least, was one of the best decisions I had ever made in my life.

We had a lot of prep work to do before we even could enter the great wide outdoors, from renting any gear we might need, getting a lesson on how to properly pack a pack, to packing all of our rations for our entire trip ahead of time. 
Rationing out our food

We officially started our course with a rather short hiking day to Roaring Fork Lake since we had been up since about 5am getting everything ready. We had been given a lesson at the trailhead on foot care, staying found, and then once we got to camp we learned how to make some tasty cheesy bagels while getting acquainted with our Whisperlite stove, followed by a very humorous, yet very necessary talk on how to poop in the woods. For those that don’t know, NOLS practices Leave No Trace, in fact, they pretty much invented the principles and this lesson covered all you ever wanted to know about Leave No Trace pooping since we would be practicing that for the next 17 days using ‘natural’ tp and for a little added humor, rating our poops on a star system from 1-5.
MSR Whisperlite
Pooping positions
Camp Kitchen Cooking Time
We were initially grouped with 2 to 3 other people, and those were the people that we would share a tent with, cook with, and also divide the weight of all of those said supplies with, including our food. So basically we had to learn to work together, or learn to work it out. These were not, however, the same people that we would hike with throughout the day, as they wanted to split us up so we could interact with different personalities and hopefully not get sick of anyone too quickly. We also switched our groups every week of the course so that we could get to know everyone just as intimately and get that true family bond that makes you all so comfortable that burping and farting became a reoccurring role in our nightly meetings. Each day when dividing hiking groups we needed to make sure that each group had a fully functioning setup for staying overnight in case we did not make it to the pre-determined destination.
Our 2nd Camping Spot
The following day we headed to an unnamed lake with some amazing scenery. On the way there we had our first experience of the course of getting in lightning position as we were hiking in the middle of the woods when a storm started. We stayed here for 1 night getting more acquainted with NOLS processes and each other. This is where we started our nightly GASSE (Greetings, Announcements, School, Schedule, Entertainment) meetings that would continue throughout our course and also wrote out a contract for the course explaining certain things we wanted to include and some things we absolutely wouldn't allow (bullying, know-it-alls, etc...) for the duration of the course. Some examples of things that we wanted to include were embracing challenges, a secret handshake, watching the sunrise, respecting others, self awareness, patience, encouragement, leave no trace, hugging it out, having a positive attitude and staying sexy, aww yeah! Working on this process as a group set the tone of togetherness that continued throughout the rest of the course.
Our diamond tents
First couple of days that we were out in the backcountry we followed the lead of our instructors and also chose one of them to be our mentor throughout the rest of the course. I honestly have to say that I don’t know exactly what the criteria is for hiring instructors at NOLS, but they were all amazing. The qualities that each of them brought to the course were not only beneficial, but one of the highlights. You know and realize from the beginning that these people are not just instructors doing a job, but they truly have a passion for the outdoors and genuinely live and breathe this stuff. Our head instructor, Kurt, was from a lineage of NOLS greatness; his dad had been the director of NOLS for many years and that is where he had met his wife, who was involved in many ground-breaking female mountaineering expeditions in the 70’s. Kurt is currently the Program Director of a YMCA outdoors camp in MN and still instructs at NOLS whenever he can. Our female instructor, Allie, came from lots of great outdoors experience, including sailing and wilderness therapy, and was a true vagabond, living out of her car at the time of our course. Our 3rd instructor, “Oh. My. Gosh.” Rob was an inspiration all around. He was one of those people that had contagious energy, gave incredible speeches, had hiked the AT, and was on his way down to the desert to be a lead instructor for a lightweight backpacking course right after ours ended. Combined, these 3 instructors helped this experience be so spectacular that one of my goals in life now is to be an instructor for NOLS.
Sometimes when I think about my life now and how I left a career that I went to school for, a great, spacious, centrally-located apartment in Los Angeles that I had lived in for 7 years with a life spilling over with comforts for a new career, a new path of uncertainties where I don’t know where the next paycheck will come from, where I don’t have a home, and where I’m not so certain of my future for the next 5 years like I used to be, I have to wonder whether I have flipped my lid and may have made a drastic decision that I might eventually regret. And then....oh, and then I get out into the wilderness and do experiences like this and I realize why; why I am willing to survive on less; less money, less things, less certainties. Because I know with all of this less, there will be more; more happiness, more fulfillment, more adventures, more challenges, more growth, and last but not least, more satisfaction overall with my life. And that, in my opinion, is worth more than a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. In fact, I feel like I have already found that pot of gold and it pays me every day in different ways, I just have to keep my eyes open to the treasures that are all around me.

Throughout our course we were constantly reminded of goals; group goals and also our individual goals. We were encouraged to write these out and share them with our mentors and constantly think of ways of how to achieve them. This was such a great practice that it is one that I continue to employ to this day.
Heading over an unnamed pass
The following day we split up into our three hiking groups and went over an unnamed pass into the Stough Creek Basin, where we dumped our heads in the lake and picked fresh blueberries. Ahhh, this is the life...

Alpine lake bathing
This is where we also got a lesson on fly fishing and a few of us tried our hand at it with some success. Fresh fish for dinner, score! 

Frrrrresssh fish!!
After our first couple nights camping and hiking in the backcountry our instructors elected the first Leaders of the Day or, LOD’s. These leaders would lead for 3-day periods and basically run everything like our regular instructors would; get the chance to assume leadership responsibilities including leading their hiking group to the next destination, organizing logistics, planning routes, managing risk, running the nightly meetings, etc… This was a chance for each of us to practice being a leader in a controlled environment and get valuable feedback at the end of each day. Everyone would have an opportunity to be a LOD throughout the course and I was chosen as one of the first, along with my fellow course-mates Chris and Rachel. I was super excited to have been chosen so early, but I also knew with that would come the fact that the first leaders would probably ‘get’ to make some of the mistakes that later leaders would learn from. Nevertheless, I was ready and eager to lead my group and keep them animated about everything along the way. We are ready, we-e are ready!!!
My amazing hiking group
On my first day leading we were headed to a spot right below Tayo Lake. I was sad to leave the spot that we were already at because it was so beautiful, but little did I know that the more we hiked on this trip, the more grand and majestic the views would become. It was the first actual long hiking day that our group had experienced and the main trouble with this day was that there was a somewhat misleading sign on the trail. Luckily for my group, my mentor Allie challenged me to question the sign and really look at the map instead. Doing this ended up meaning that we were the only group that did not get lost on the way to our destination. Everyone else ended up at our next destination Coon Lake, which no one could say the name of without laughing for the rest of our trip.
The calm before the storm
That afternoon after we were greeted with some rain and a marvelous rainbow, we finally saw everyone climbing into camp and we had to decide whether we were going to try for Wind River Peak the next day. Wind River Peak was not going to be an easy feat, at 13,192 ft. we would have to wake up at around 4 am the next day after being soggy and tired from the current day to hit the peak at a reasonable hour. I wasn’t sure what everyone was going to decide but after a poll around camp, everyone was in. Wind River Peak, here we come!
Early morning summit hiking
We started out in the dark with one of the other LOD’s, Chris, leading. He had taken a bearing the day before of the summit and lead us for the first part of the trek entirely in the dark and did an amazing job, not only where the instructors impressed, but I think Chris was as well. This was a first for him and he truly excelled. I don’t think anyone was surprised though, as Chris came into the course as one of the most experienced outdoorsmen; a hunter, backpacker, rock-climber, general dirt-bag and a full-time camper-dweller (jealous of that one). After Chris I started to lead everyone up the rocks to the summit. The going was slow, or so I thought, but everyone seemed to be doing great. I got pulled aside twice on this portion of my leading; once to tell me that I needed to slow down, and once to tell me that I needed to speed things up to get to the top, by two different instructors. Needless to say, at this point I was torn as to how my pace should really be. After a while our 3rd LOD, Rachel, switched over to negotiate the rest of the boulders and led us to the top. Getting to the summit and taking in the spectacular views was an exhilarating feeling that made the climb up there worth it and literally took your breath away, partly from the wind, but even more so from the view.

After a while exulting, taking the necessary shots to later put on Facebook, and even watching one of our instructors wail some Backstreet Boys while letting his long, mane-like hair down that hadn’t been released in years, we headed down. On the way down I was going to lead again and someone said something about not wanting me to lead because I was too fast. I know that may sound ridiculous as something to be upset about, but at that point and time I was, and was trying to hold back tears the whole way down the mountain. I suppose it wasn’t the ‘why’ they didn’t want me to lead, which actually isn’t such a bad quality, but the fact that somebody said that they didn’t want me to lead in general that just really made me upset. Going on this course we were all trying to do our best to exemplify exceptional leaders and it was a bummer to hear that negativity about me leading. At the end of the day when the LOD’s got together and talked with one of the instructors I broke down about it and he asked if I wanted to talk about it in the nightly meeting. I said no. Of course what got brought up in the meeting that night, but why I was upset. Grrrr. At that time I was somewhat peeved for him bringing up what I said I didn’t want to talk about with the rest of the group, but in retrospect it was one of the best things he could have done. At that point I let down my guard and everyone could see my vulnerability and the pressure that I was carrying around about trying to be a great leader and I could feel and hear everyone’s support for me. They let me realize that my imperfections with leading were nothing to be really ashamed or worried about, everyone has 'em.
The real Coon Lake
The next day following our peak ascent we finally headed to the real Coon Lake and this was my third and final day of leading. We got into camp pretty early and got some time do some laundry, work on our classes we might teach, which could be anything from Fire Ecology to US Land Management to Stove Repair to Stages of Group Development. For every class that we taught we had people that volunteered to give constructive feedback along with our instructors so that we were constantly equipped with the proper tools to improve.

The following day after finding and doing the Coon Lake Sneak and walking along Sandy Creek Basin we went up and over Temple Pass to be presented with the first view of Temple Peak and the Temple Peak Basin. A-mazing! At that point I literally was in tears...again, but at least this time they were tears of joy. I had thought that every pass that we went over until that point had presented the most beautiful vista I had ever seen but the landscape just kept outdoing itself.

Taking a break on the random bed in Sandy Creek Basin
We had to finally prepare to meet our horse packers at Big Sandy Lake to get our new set of rations after being in the backcountry for a week and the process went rather smooth thanks to Allie prepping us on how everything should go and before we knew it we were off again hiking to our next destination: Cirque of the Towers.
Ration Day Rainbow

Cirque of the Towers
Enter the Cirque of the Towers. Amazing place, amazing space. We spent a few days here, getting lessons on local birds, how to make bagels from scratch, trying to catch an amazing sunrise that didn't quite hit our expectations, and even experiencing our second lightning position event when a storm rolled in and thundered through the majestic walls of the cirque, reminding us of exactly how small and insignificant we are compared to nature. We eventually had to leave, but when the chance came to return, even for a brief moment, I jumped at it. One of our instructors thought he left his headlamp back here and my tent-mate left his socks so we had a team of 6 that went on a day-hike back and forth to our old campsite to recollect everything that had been lost keeping those Leave No Trace principles alive. It was seriously a mad dash to get back to the rest of the group, who spent the day climbing above our campsite to get a good view from higher up. I volunteered because I was one of the fastest hikers of the group but didn’t quite realize what a challenge I was getting into. That trip was one of the hardest of the course for me, but I was glad I did it because I finally got to push myself physically, which I didn't feel I had the opportunity to do so much up to this point.
Lonesome Lake in front of Pingora's Peak

After Cirque of the Towers our next sweet camping spot was a short 3 miles up to Bear Lake. We stayed here for 2 nights and were treated to a spectacular sunset behind the rock face. This is also when the rain started. The rain that would pretty much deluge on us for the rest of our course, including part of climbing camp. Bummer in the summah brah.
We then headed downhill to the north end of Sanford Park. This was a tranquil spot with a big meadow where we learned how to make cinnamon rolls, the proper way to cross rivers and a little spattering of first aid. There was already a pre-established fire pit by the water so we were able to have a fire that night for our meeting, which was a treat...until....we heard some grunting noises that sounded incredibly close. Uh-oh, what was that? Continuing on in our meeting and then....again...grunt grunt. All of a sudden Chris hollered for all of us to shut off our headlamps immediately and start backing up slowly. That grunting noise was a moose and he was either trying to find a mate or trying to fight! Oh shnapper-bazzle! We all started backing up slowly with a bunch of the guys in front with the bear sprays. In the midst of the confusion one of the bear sprays was opened and sprayed unintentionally. Cough, cough. Sniff, sniff. Eventually enough time went by where we didn't hear any activity so some of the guys returned to the campfire ring to pick up everything that we left in the midst of the confusion. They took someone's headlamp that had a green light because apparently Moose are actually attracted to white light, but they can't see the green. Needless to say, that was probably one of the most exciting nightly meetings that we had the entire course!

The next few days were the start of days hiking without our instructors. They gave the hiking groups a head start and then followed shortly after. It started raining again before we started our hike that day and continued well after we got into camp and the temperatures also dropped drastically. By the time we had finally figured out spots for our tents that weren't in swampland I couldn't even zip up my own jacket without the help of someone else because my fingers were that cold. We were given a lesson at that point and some sort of game to try to keep us warm, but I think all of us just really wanted to eat and get in our tents and in our warm, dry clothes, which happened shortly thereafter. But the rain. did. not. stop. We were in our tents from about 4pm until noon the next day when it was finally decided that we needed to just buck up and hike out or else we would have to wake up extremely early the following day to complete 15 miles in a day, which most people weren't game to do. And so we started to hike...and then it started to hail, awesome! After awhile it started to let up a bit and we only had a 6 mile day so it turned out to be pretty good decision even though it is never, ever fun to put on soaking wet and cold pants, socks and shoes. Trust.
Trying to grin and bear it in the rain
After camping by the Middle Popo Agie River in Three Forks Park we finally were headed out on our last hiking day, a 9 mile stretch that would take us out of the backcountry, cross over Bruce's Bridge and back to semi-civilization; front-country camping for the rock climbing portion of the course. As we were hiking out our group decided to hike the last stretch in silence, giving everyone an opportunity to think and reflect about the experience that we had already. This same stretch of the hike I had hiked before our course even started and I caught myself thinking how bittersweet this moment really was. It was only 2 weeks ago that I stood in the same exact spot and was checking out my compass while on the trail, practicing for the course that at that point was ahead of me and quickly putting it away when some other hikers surfaced, not wanting them to think I was lost so close to the trailhead. I didn't think that it was possible that in only 2 weeks time you could learn and grow so much, and it wasn't over yet!
Awaiting pickup for climbing camp
Throughout the course it wasn’t all work and no play. Games were definitely a big part of our expedition. Games served multi-purposes beyond just making us laugh. Some games taught us lessons, some games were there just to try to get us to stay warm, and all were examples of games that we, ourselves, could play down the road when we were working instructors as well. One of the first games we played was a way for us to make sure that we learned each other’s names. One of the most popular and most recurring ones was Yee Haw. But, and I think everyone would agree with me, the funniest game of the whole course was one called Fantasy where we saw our course-mates Nate and Sean act out an imaginary plot of a movie that they unknowingly helped create in which they were escape chimpanzees from the zoo.
Playing Yee Haw

Our Fantasy leaders acting our their movie plot
Cooking was also a huge part of our course. The NOLS way of cooking in the backcountry is simply to pack a bunch of basic ingredients, a spice kit, a lightweight NOLS Cookery recipe book and just have at it. We experimented, we learned, we created. Some things turned out bland (this is where I started my love of hot sauce) and some items were a huge success (quiche anyone?).
A twiggy fire to mimic oven cooking
After a couple of weeks of trekking through the gorgeous Wind River Range we set up camp at Sinks Canyon for the climbing portion of our course where we felt like kings feasting on fresh fruit and using toilets that had actual toilet paper in them. Ahh, the simple things in life! Throughout the week we solidified our anchor building skills, got lessons on movement on rock and managing a top-rope site and generally had a wicked good time climbing different routes in the area.
I know which one I would chose....
Chillaxin between climbs
Setting up some bomber anchors
The view from the top of the granite buttress
And then, as all good things must come to an end, so did our trip. It was time to transition back into the 'real' world, finally take that hot shower we all had been dreaming about and gather all the knowledge that we had acquired over the course and keep it at the ready for our new jobs that we would acquire in the field. We were not the same doe-eyed individuals that walked into the NOLS' offices nearly a month ago. We were changed. We were weathered. We were wiser. We were beyond satisfied. We got a taste of what working in the outdoors was like and we wanted more.
Wild Beasts from the Wilderness
Allz cleanzed up for graduation night
One of the biggest lessons that I learned on this trip is that an Outdoor Educator is not just an outdoors lover; they need to be a meteorologist, psychologist, psychic, therapist, comedian, story-teller, teacher, biologist, naturalist, friend, adventurer and conservationist all wrapped into one. And that is why the people that I've met in this field so far have been some of the most passionate, smart, hilarious, amazing, good-natured people that I've ever known. We are not in this career for the money (most would laugh as they read that and look down at their tattered clothes that they probably originally bought in a thrift store). We are in it for the passion and the love of what we do. We can't imagine being somewhere else, especially behind a desk (cringe). Our offices are the crisp, clean-aired mountains, the rowdy rivers and the steep rock faces and we wouldn't change it for the world. We're out there because we love this amazing environment we've been given and we wanna spread that love to future generations so that it can be loved, protected, and enjoyed for centuries to come too.

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