Monday, June 15, 2015

National Outdoor Leadership School

A daunting task: capturing 3 months of jam-packed adventure and education across two epic western states. This post won't really do it justice, but let's get down to it...

In mid February I travelled to Lander, Wyoming to attend a 3 month "Outdoor Education Semester" run by the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). I wanted to pick up some new skills and determine if outdoor education was a viable career path. We began the course with classes in backcountry medicine, ending up with a certification as a Wilderness First Responder.

Our medical "campus," the NOLS ranch
Then we started the skiing portion of the course. I was a decent novice before the course, getting down the "blue square" runs by falling once or twice and terrified of black diamonds. After a couple days under instruction at a local resort I moved up in the world to a solid intermediate skier and ran my first black diamond run.

I wouldn't go so far to call myself an "expert." But I didn't die. 
After our instructors were confidant we wouldn't kill ourselves outright on skis, we learned how to skin (skiing uphill) and started off on a 12 day backcountry trip, pulling heavy sleds laden with food and fuel. We constructed "digloos" that were quite cozy in the freezing temps. NOLS has a heavy ecology emphasis and we learned a lot about the Rocky Mountain ecosystem, identifying trees and tracking animals through the snow.

Hauling sleds
A 2-person "digloo" complete with kitchen!
Waiting for sunrise with a cup of coffee in Wyoming
As winter became spring we swapped skis and poles for canoes and paddles. We paddled about 140 miles (and up to Class II+ rapids) down the Green and San Juan Rivers in Utah. I was very excited to learn how to read the river and maneuver safely in whitewater.

The fleet
Desolation Canyon, Green River, Utah
San Juan River, Utah
Whitewater on the Green
The canyon country through which we paddled was some of the most remote country in the American Southwest; John Wesley Powell dubbed the part of the Green River we were on "Desolation Canyon." Despite being so far off-the-grid, we were always coming upon signs of previous inhabitants. Anazasi petroglyphs and granaries, hidden moonshiner cabins, and abandoned river bottom ranch houses.

Moonshiner hideout
Abandoned ranch. Billy the Kid was rumored to rest his horses here. 
At the end of two weeks on the water we hefted heavy backpacks and laced up our hiking boots to explore the canyon country within Escalante National Monument and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. I had been to this area previously, but was excited to return in order to better explore the countless side canyons. And we brought technical canyoneering equipment with us to safely descend some of the narrowest slot canyons.

Escalante canyon country
Backpacking in the slots. Little Death Hollow. 
Too tight for backpacks here. Ringtail Slot Canyon. 
Some slots required swimming. The water only gets a few minutes of sun a day, so it's COLD!
A "keeper" pothole scoured by sandy water. It takes creativity and teamwork to find a way out. 
Parker rappelling into the "Golden Cathedral"
Backpacking thru the canyons was the longest section on my NOLS course - 120 miles on foot over 24 days (the longest time without a shower in my life!). There were a few low points (blisters, gastrointestinal distress) but so many beautiful sights - blooming cacti, mountain lion tracks, lunar eclipse, and beautiful stars. We were fortunate with the weather and I was able to sleep outside "cowboy style" all but 2 nights.

Prickly pear blooms
Mountain lion tracks
Abandoned homesteader cabin
The last section of the semester was rock climbing. I originally had ambitious goals to climb much harder but after 75 days in the field I was frankly too worn out to crush. And we got socked in with the worst weather of the course, 8 inches of snow in May! So I was content to learn all I could about the technical side of climbing - rope management, placing protection, self-rescue, etc. As a result I was able to pass the "industry-standard" rock rescue test 5 minutes under the allowable time.

Travis climbing at Split Rock, Wyoming
At semester's end in mid-May I was sad to leave some of the new friends I made at NOLS but I was also looking forward to returning to home and family. I came away with a number of important fundamental qualifications for the outdoor industry. I learned a lot of "pro-tips" to camp and travel in better style with less impact on the environment. I tweaked some of my equipment and clothing choices to be more comfortable outside. I gained some tools and perspective to help adapt my military style leadership to the civilian side of things.

NOLS Outdoor Educator Semester Spring 2015
Front row: Jonathan, Lyla, Shawn, Matt, Josh
Back Row: Travis, Mitch, Sarah, Tony, Caroline, Andrew, Parker, Hannah, Liz, Jeff
The "Young Guns" in "Unicorn Meadow" (a rare patch of grass in the desert)
Travis, Ahmad, Shawn, Andrew, Parker, Matt
I also had the time and space to think about my future in outdoor education and life in general. NOLS rekindled my interest in natural science and made me realize what a tremendous resource the GI Bill is (which paid for my course). I've got a plan in place moving forward to continue my education in the sciences while looking for opportunities to support outdoor education, conservation, community, etc. With all my travels thus far, I've come to understand that staying in West Virginia is important to me; after all I am the guy with "montani semper liberi" tattooed on my arm. So I'm thinking WVU in 2016!

Since I've returned home it's been a whirlwind of turkey hunting (no luck), family time, a new "secret" project that I'll reveal in October, and getting ready for the summer's big road trip - sorting gear, truck repairs, drying snacks and food. I'm very excited to wrap up my 50 states project, see a number of my good friends, and have some great adventures. My next post will be from the road, somewhere north of Maine!