Decades later, outdoor school still shapes lives

By ALYSSA BURZYNSKI/Montana State News

A six-hour drive, down highways and dirt roads, heading south from Bozeman stands the small town of Lander, Wyoming.

“After racing up the winding roads of Sinks Canyon for about 30 minutes, dust blowing up behind the van, I laid eyes on a tiny cabin,” said Kelly Hyde. Paul Petzoldt’s original facility, built in 1965 on the Rise of the Sink, has now become the headquarters for Sink Canyon State Park in Wyoming.

Paul Petzoldt could be considered one of America’s most accomplished mountaineers. At 16 he made his first ascent of the Grand Teton, and at 30 was part of the first American team to attempt K2 without oxygen assistance. After Petzoldt had made a name for himself, the Colorado Outward Bound School approached him to be their chief instructor.

Realizing early on that Outward Bound had a limited number of instructors, Petzoldt “saw the need for a school that specifically trained people to be skilled outdoor leaders and educators,” and on March 23, 1965, he branched off and founded NOLS, National Outdoor Leadership School.

Soon after, in early June, the first NOLS group was issued their equipment and rations. Over the course of that summer, three wilderness excursions occurred. Approximately 100 male students were brought to the Hidden Valley Ranch trailhead, stocked for the next month in the Wind River Range according to Henry Wood, a NOLS instructor.

Petzoldt had not become rich from his mountaineering endeavors. “Money was always elusive during the early years at NOLS,” says Wood, however there was no shortage of enthusiasm and imagination. During a 1979 interview Petzoldt was asked about NOLS’s early years.

“We were experimenting all the time,” he said. “We were trying things out. If they didn’t work, they got kicked out.” Five decades later NOLS continues to follow this developmental style.

The National Outdoor Leadership School’s mission is and always has been “to be the leading source and teacher of wilderness skills and leadership that serve people and the environment.” The first few days of NOLS, are spent in a Wilderness First Responder course.

“At first I was bored and thought it was a waste, but by the time I had finished NOLS I had used many of the skills I had learned three months ago in our WFR class,” Hyde said and continued to describe a few incidents where her knowledge was put to use.

The Wilderness Medical Institute designed WFR courses to “provide you with the tools to make critical medical and evacuation decisions in remote locations.”

“NOLS built a community that shares a commitment to wilderness, education, leadership, safety, community and excellence,” says Annie Shorling, a NOLS instructor.” There is a bond between NOLS alumni, a heightened understanding. “We have all been broken, freed of societal pressures. Those values have redefined us, they are who we are, what we do and how we do it.” NOLS alumni hold themselves to these standards, pushing to be the best person that they can be, accepting those for who they are and loving them for what they are not.

NOLS helps students achieve a heightened state of conciseness. Living in the wilderness, removed from the distractions of modern civilization fosters self-reliance, judgment, and respect.

“We were stripped of everything that was familiar, and honestly I felt free. It was ok to be sad or happy,” explained Hyde. “At first it was a bit weird meeting 18 new people and knowing I would have to spend the next three months with them. At my first evaluation, our instructor told me ‘to survive out here you have to work as a team, your strength will come from our community or better yet our family,’ and he was f—ing right. Like even the people that I didn’t like I had to love them, I needed them to survive”

Another emphasis is leadership. “We encourage the evolution of judgment, personal responsibility, and awareness of group needs.” But more importantly NOLS values a leader with integrity, accountability and humility. “As a course leader I encountered risk at almost every other turn,” say Shorling.

Risk management is an important course theme, believing to stem from good judgment, experience, training and knowledge. “Recognition and management of risk is critical to both the development of leadership and to the safety and health of our students and staff,” according to the NOLS values.

We seek excellence in all we do,” said Petzoldt. Maintaining excellence is not easy, one has to constantly monitor and question his or her decisions. They must learn from their failures and celebrate both sides of the coin.

Petzoldt’s dream has grown substantially since buying used army supplies in the mid-60’s. Currently there are 16 bases on five continents, hosting students ages 14 to “as long as you are physically able,” according to Wood.

“Don’t get me wrong, NOLS is amazing but it was also the most physically and mentally challenging thing that I had ever done,” claims Hyde. Once you are out there everyone is in the same boat; you are all going to suffer, but with suffering comes growth and successes.

Hyde was in the beginning of her third month, and three weeks before coming home “I had a break down, I thought to myself, what the hell made me think this was a good idea?” Her sleeping bag was wet, socks frozen “and all I wanted to do was go home.”

However, everyone in her group came to her aid, similar to what a family would do. “NOLS has left me with this: embrace everyone, even if you don’t want to. It is important to love someone for their faults just as much as you love them for their positive qualities.”

– Edited by Codie Wyers

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