NOLS Spring Semester in the Rockies 1989

     This was the first day of the rest of my life.  I had never gone camping, cross-country skied, or backpacked before.  I had no idea what was in store for me during the next three weeks.  There I was, 21 years old, late January 1989 on skis with a heavy backpack and making tracks into the woods outside of Jackson Hole, WY.  The National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), based in Lander, WY,  gave me and 16 other students a ride to this meadow and dropped us off with three instructors to begin our Spring Semester in the Rockies.  It was a 95 day semester broken into five sections:  winter, desert, whitewater, climbing, and horse packing.  I received 16 credits from the University of Utah in biology and natural history.  Winter section lasted approximately 3 weeks.
     Just three years earlier in 1986, I graduated high school with no idea what to do with my life.  My high school counselor saw that I had gotten all As in French (4 years) and suggested that I major in French with the goal of returning to the DC area to work as a translator for the State Department.  I attended Hollins College my freshman year and then did a one year exchange program at Washington & Lee University my sophomore year.
     At W&L, two of my friends (Jack Moore and Chris Walburgh) had already completed NOLS Semesters, and they inspired me to register for a semester outdoors. Chris (RIP Chris Walburgh)  http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?cropsuccess&id=100000216874433#!/groups/19639487026  , also told me about Greenpeace one day while we were studying in the library, so that summer when I returned to DC I responded to an ad in the paper looking for Greenpeace canvassers.  I went door to door raising funds and awareness to aid Greenpeace’s campaigns (oceans, forests, toxics, nukes) and decided to take my junior year off from school and pursue doing a NOLS semester in the spring.  During my sophomore year at W&L, I started rock climbing with Chris and his best friend, Rick, but I had never done any camping or anything else outdoorsy.  There was something about Chris that I wanted to be like too. He was a deep thinker, and I could tell his outdoor adventures had given him something that I didn’t have yet.  I wanted to experience it too.  I worked for Greenpeace until January, then I flew to Lander, WY to start a new adventure (much to my parents’ chagrin).
     We skied during the days through pristine forests and camped in quinzhees at night.  It was tough learning how to cross-country ski while balancing a big backpack.  The instructors dragged sleds behind them full of supplies.  I learned how to stair-step sideways when going up a hill on cross-country skis and when we didn’t have our packs we worked on tele-skiing, carving beautiful curves in the powdery snow.  The forests were lush with fir and spruce and other evergreens.  It was quiet and peaceful.  Just getting from here to there required focus on the moment.  The rhythm of my breath was loud in my head and strenuous tasks took my full attention.  We learned snow science such as avalanche forecasting, types of snow,  and wilderness first aid for hypothermia etc.  We built snow kitchens to cook our camp food and built camaraderie with our quinzhee mates.


To make a quinzhee, it takes lots of snow and lots of hard work.  First, we made a huge mound of snow. Then, we literally climbed on top and stomped down on the snow to pack it down so it was very dense.  Once enough snow was packed in a dome shape, we used shovels to carve out a tunnel, first straight down, then horizontally to the dome, then straight up into the dome.  Then, we carved out the inside of the dome and a floor upon which to sleep.  The temperatures outside were 20-30 degrees below zero at night, and I think about four people could fit in one quinzhee.  Our body heat and subzero sleeping gear got us through the nights, but it sure was cold when we had to get up and night, tunnel outside and go to the bathroom!

Above is a picture of a snow kitchen.  We carefully carved out the snow to create a place to cook and sit.  We always hung up our sleeping bags on our skis at camp so they could dry.

This is a picture of some of the group members piling up snow in a dome. Jon is on top of the dome packing it down. The picture is a little blurry, but he is there.  As you can imagine, this process took some time and it came at the end of a long day of skiing.  Even though we were exhausted, we enjoyed working together to create shelter for our groups.

It’s easy to get a sense of the pristine beauty of the land from looking at this picture.  The snow was waist-high in some places.  We prodded through it, creating corridors to travel from camp to camp.  Every day we came across beautiful vistas and breathtaking imagery in the snowy meadows, forests, and mountains.  My eyes opened up to a brand new world.  Living outdoors for weeks during the winter was hard work, and I will admit I complained a bit.  Not only was I getting used to being away from civilization, but I had never faced such hardships just to exist.  I missed people at home, and I was tired a lot of the time.  I had always been athletic, playing soccer and doing gymnastics and cheerleading, but this kind of physical exertion was something I had never experienced.  I had also never been in such bone-chilling cold conditions.  A highlight of those three weeks was one night when we were sitting around talking and drinking hot chocolate, we got a gorgeous treat – the Northern Lights!   The sky was luminescent, a white/yellow hue, and it danced in streaks across the starry night sky.  We were in awe, looking upon the sky in amazement.  I had never even heard of the Northern Lights before, so it was an incredible learning experience for me. Talk about experiential learning!

Greetings from Canyonlands National Park, Utah.  After re-rationing in Lander, we spent four weeks backpacking and camping in remote canyons for our desert section.  There was a sharp contrast in the weather and landscapes.  It was hot and sunny, and there not a snowflake to be seen.  The landscape was dry and rocky. Shrubs, cacti, and brush grew from cracks in the rocks.  The sandstone canyons carved by erosion over geologic time, leaving contours of the past to be explored.  I traded in my sub-zero gear for t-shirts and shorts, quickly becoming friends with the sturdy hiking boots and gaiters that protected my legs from the desert brush.

After day hikes of around 10 miles through the desert, we stopped and made camp, frequently without tents because the weather was so mild at night.  We spent more than one night at this camp. It was my favorite one because of the beautiful wall curving around my sleeping bag. I felt sheltered and surrounded in beauty.   I wondered how long the rocks had been there and what stories they could tell me about time if they could speak.  It was surreal to sleep in a place that used to be under water, evidenced by artistic curves in the rocks.  It reminded me of the passage from the Tao Te Ching:  “Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield. As a rule, whatever is fluid, soft, and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard. This is another paradox: what is soft is strong.”

I stopped to look back at my friends hiking behind me one day and saw the thunderclouds above them illuminated by the afternoon sun.  We were hiking across high plains with woodlands instead of down low in the sandstone canyons.  I remember my feet and back started hurting all the time during desert section.  The backpack was heavy, and the road ahead and behind stretched as far as the eyes could see.  As I rested and waited for my friends, I contemplated the smell of the sage drifting in the air and electricity brewing above.  I rested my weary muscles and found determination to continue step by step into the future.  What other choice did I have after all?  In these moments, I learned about pushing myself slowly through challenging tasks until completion.

I felt on top of the world in this picture.  We came upon this vista on a pass through the canyons.  The round, pillar type sandstone formations in the foreground are called hoodoos.  The La Sals are the mountain range visible on the horizon.  My attitude shifted during this section. A former climbing instructor and friend advised me to ‘always volunteer and never complain’ while on my NOLS course.  During winter section, it was harder to do for whatever reason.  In the warm sun of the southwest, my mind opened up like a blooming cactus. I started going with the flow and doing whatever it took for the group logistics to run smoothly.  We learned about the flora and the fauna of the desert and explored the ancient Anasazi Indian history of the land.  We were challenged with a day spent in solitude and a four-day small group (student-led) expedition.  I was voted by the group as one of four students who would take a small group from point A to point B where we would meet our instructors four days later.  It was a performance assessment, a perfect chance to show all that we had learned about orienteering, map-reading, travel, and survival in a desert landscape.

We all made it alive, and met up as a group again to wait for the bus to pick us up and take us back to headquarters.  After four weeks, we emerged as a stronger group and stronger individuals.  Our clothes bore the sweat and dust from our travels and labor.  Those four weeks in the desert taught me to open up my senses to my surroundings and to value and respect the fragile environment of which we are all a part.

Rock climbing was the third section. We spent approximately three weeks at Split Rock, WY learning the ropes so to speak.  I had some background experience in this sport, so I was able to take those basic foundations and apply them in my daily practice.  We camped in tents on the granite slabs, did morning yoga, and then after breakfast, we would head up to some top-roping areas for instruction and practice.  We had a variety of practice with cracks, faces, single, and multi-pitch climbs.

This particular problem was difficult for me.  The route traverse slightly to the left and then continues up to the left side up the crack.  The problem is the traverse always resulted in the ‘barn door’ effect and I would fall off the curve in the rock before I could make it up the crack. I tried and tried again but was never successful.

Cenotaph’s corner:  really fun corner route. I did this one repeatedly!

Rappelling class:  The hardest part about rappelling is all in the mind.  It takes confidence to sit back for the first time and give your body weight to the system.  It’s counterintuitive step away from stable footing on the top of a rocky ledge! Once you trust that the system will work, it becomes second nature.  Just lean back like sitting in a chair and slowly walk down the rock using your feet.  The brake hand stays behind and below, and small amount of rope is let out at a time until finally reaching the bottom.  Learning to climb rocks and to rappell down them requires trust.  Trust is another very important life skill.

This is the site of our multi-pitch climbs. We spent many days climbing different routes in scorching sunlight as well as in rain storms.  These routes would take all day to complete as there were three to four pitches to get to the top and then rappelling and hiking a long way down.  I felt invigorated by the heights and exposure.  We had beautiful views of the sage brush plains below, a winding river, and mountain ranges off to the distance in several directions.  The skies were painted with color and with the dark rumbling of frequent afternoon rain showers.

Here we are on the summit of one of my favorite multi-pitch climbing days.  We worked together building anchors and belaying each other. We encouraged each other when we hit difficult positions on the routes.  We believed in each other and ourselves.  These types of activities taught me to focus on the moment at hand and to learn to recognize fear and turn it into a positive power.  I learned to take difficult tasks and break them down into small steps, one move at a time.  I learned to listen to the voice inside that said, ‘I can’ instead of ‘I can’t.’  We smiled with this enthusiasm and confidence as we posed for this picture and then sat down to enjoy a well deserved lunch together on the summit.

Here we are at the bottom after a long hike down.  In one day, we had ascended to the highest heights of our imaginations and then come back down to terra firma to rest and prepare for the next leg of the journey.  I felt so free and so happy, like I could do anything.  After three weeks together on this section, our friendships grew deeper bonds, and we all knew we were sharing special experiences that we would hold forever in our minds and hearts.

The fourth section was two weeks long. We traveled to the Dolores River, CO to learn whitewater kayaking and rafting.  At the beginning of the course, learned how to roll our kayaks in a pool in Grand Junction, CO.  I hurt my neck doing the sideways hip-snapping motion while trying to pull myself up sideways from under water.  Sharp, shooting pain originated at the base of my neck and went down both arms when I tried to move them. I took motrin and sat out from paddling for a while until I felt I could give it a shot.  We were in class 2 and 3 waters, and once I joined the group again, I was able to learn how to maneuver the boat without ever flipping over.

We took classes on river science and how to maneuver the kayaks into and out of eddies. We learned how to avoid snags and how to ride tongues of whitewater rapids.  We learned how one wrong move can get a kayak sucked under water into a hydraulic that will turn a boater over and over like laundry in a dryer.  We learned that if ever thrown from a raft to always point feet down river.  This way, a person can see what is coming and use the feet and legs to try to bounce off rocks instead of crashing into them headfirst!  We took turns being captains and paddlers on the rafts, both giving and following directions and working as a group.

This is a picture of one of my favorite campsites along the Dolores River.  I love the U-shaped river valley and the layers in the canyon walls.  I love the memory of our group camped along the river’s edge, gathered in a circle sharing conversation.  I love the uninterrupted stillness of the scene and the reminder that water brings life to desert areas.  I treasure the remote nature of such an experience, knowing I will never return to that spot again in my life, but thankful for the opportunity to travel at the river’s pace through the land and witness all it had to offer once.

My friends and I soaked up some sun on this rocky slab beside the river as one of our instructors played in the waves.  I can still remember the sound of the white water rushing by and the laughter in the air!

I took this picture of small group in a raft approaching this rapid just upstream of us.  It was a hot sunny day in southwestern Colorado.  The canyons were filled with small trees and brush.  The rapids offered challenge and fun around every corner.  River camping was not as difficult as some of the previous sections, although we did learn a lot about life in and out of boats every day!  We made an assembly line to pass supplies from the boats to and from campsites and worked together as groups to set up and take down camps.  I remember everybody finding lots of humor in the fact we had to transport our solid waste in ammo boxes.  We learned and lived the ‘leave only your footprints’ philosophy of low-impact camping.  We also learned about water conservation issues facing the southwest region.

The fifth and final section was horse-packing.  What a way to end a semester.  This time, we had a horse between every two of us to carry our supplies!  We each rode a horse and took turns trailing the supply horses.  Here is a picture of our group stopping at a watering hole.  We rode along the Oregon Trail in Wyoming.  There were fields of sagebrush interspersed with Aspen groves.

This is my horse, Lil Doc.  She was the smallest horse in the group!  I am only 5’2″ so I needed a petite horse.  She was sweet and mellow.  I picked a wildflower and put it behind her left ear for this picture.

After watering the horses one afternoon, I took this picture of some of my friends and their horses as they walked back to our campsite in the aspen grove  that is barely visible at the bottom of the hill in the distance.  The afternoon sun was getting low in the sky, and we were done riding for the day.  It was a peaceful moment.

This is my friend, Pete, on his horse and holding the pack-horse we were sharing.  We learned how to use the ropes and tie knots to secure the loads on the supply horses.  It was windy, and we wore gloves while riding to protect our hands.

Here we are at one of the campsites surrounded by aspens with their pretty white bark and golden-green leaves.  We were enjoying some laughs as we posed for this picture.  Pete is holding up my book, Illusions by Richard Bach. It was one of my favorites to read on this trip.  It is still one of my favorite books!

This is one of the last pictures I took in the field. It encompasses the beauty of the rugged Wyoming trails we traveled.  The final section gave us a chance to relax a little and reflect on the journey we shared together.  When we finally returned to Lander, we had a celebration and each went our separate ways.  We didn’t know what the future would hold for us, but we completed our goal and 95 days later, we emerged from the field as different people.  I experienced personal growth by entering an unknown world.  I broadened horizons within myself, learning about the diverse world around me and about my place in it.  I pushed myself through uncomfortable and unfamiliar activities and evolved into a stronger, more confident, and adventurous person.  Seeking ways to push myself further and stretch my limits presented opportunities for growth that I never imagined.  I opened up to unimagined and unexpected possibilities and left with the feeling that I could accomplish any task I could dream of.  I felt energized with a fresh view of the world and myself.
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11 comments on “NOLS Spring Semester in the Rockies 1989

  1. Suzanne–I felt the tears welling up here while reading…you captured a lot. If I could go back to any portion of my life, this is one of few places I'd go. It seems, somehow, like we are all still there in some cosmic way. It has been great re-connecting on FB. We should call each other before the madness of school begins… (559) 877-2907 or cell (559) 676-2910

  2. Hi Dave Somehow I just saw your comment after retreading this entry. Those 95 days will always be a part of me. So many amazing memories. I would love to hear how your school year went..will be in touch!

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