The NOLS Experience
Every year, more than 3,000 students begin an epic adventure by enrolling in the National Outdoor Leadership School at one of their 14 locations across six continents. Headquartered in Lander, Wyoming and celebrating 50 years in 2015, NOLS is the largest nonprofit wilderness educator worldwide.
Andy Blair, assistant director of NOLS Rocky Mountain, says that the majority of enrollees are in their late teens to early twenties and seeking high school or college credit, granted primarily through the University of Utah. Older students come from many different walks of life, whether to advance their career, start a new one, or take a sabbatical.
NOLS courses award credit hours in various fields of study, including environmental science, biology, leadership techniques, and risk management. Students also have the opportunity to earn CPR, wilderness first aid, Leave No Trace ethics, and other certifications.
“There are as many reasons to take a NOLS course as there are students,” says Blair.
When Cole Medders signed up for the Spring Semester in the Rockies, he fulfilled a long-held desire to move out West and explore the wild. The course began in February with a winter camping excursion in Wyoming’s Absaroka Mountains. The group practiced backcountry skiing, avalanche rescue, and built igloos to take shelter from the elements, which Medders says was the highlight of his NOLS experience.
“It felt like you were really surviving out there,” he says. “It got down to -20 or -30 degrees some nights and we were way out in the middle of nowhere in the mountains, just surviving this environment that people aren’t really supposed to be in. It’s very empowering.”
In the red rocks of Nevada, they studied the desert’s topology and practiced lead, sport, and multi-pitch climbing. The next 20 days were spent hiking over 150 miles of canyons in Utah’s Grand Gulch area.
Medders was evacuated out of the canyon section with a lower back injury and stayed in Lander for about a week while undergoing physical therapy, but was able to rejoin the group for the last leg of their journey, rafting down Utah’s Green River through Desolation and Gray Canyons.
An environmental science and chemistry major at Baylor University, Medders now plans to pursue an outdoor education degree as well. After the conclusion of a six-month internship with NOLS in December, he will enroll in an instructor course.
Ben Corso chose the Southwest Outdoor Educator Course in hopes of furthering his career as an adventure guide and gaining team-building skills. He first heard about NOLS in 1989 and had long considered enrolling. After reaching a crossroads in his life about a year ago, he says he felt the time was finally right.
His group of 10 students and two instructors spent a month backpacking in the mountains outside Tucson and climbing Arizona’s Cochise Stronghold, summiting Bassett Peak. Corso says the multi-pitch climbs—higher and more physically demanding than anything he’d ever experienced—pushed him out of his comfort zone. For someone who once suffered from a fear of vertical heights, it was a time of transformation.
“My whole perspective on what’s uncomfortable changed,” he says. “It was absolutely grueling and exhausting, but we really bonded. There was just a lot of teamwork involved.”
Corso says he now has the confidence to take people multi-pitch climbing, and a three-month guiding excursion he participated in this summer wouldn’t have happened without his NOLS experience.
“I got a lot of what I was looking for, and things that I couldn’t really even put into words—the sense that I’m capable of doing much more than I give myself credit for,” he says. “It’s a 30-day outdoor experience. How can you not be changed by that?”
Wilderness knowledge isn’t a prerequisite to take part in NOLS, and courses are open to everyone. However, students are encouraged to be as fit as possible.
Along with internship opportunities, NOLS offers approximately $1.5 million in scholarship funds every year. Qualifying students could have up to a third of their tuition covered.
“NOLS courses are physically and mentally demanding experiences, and they can be extremely positive and life-changing if you are in the right space for them,” Blair says, adding that many of his former students use the leadership skills they learned in the backcountry every day, across various career fields.
Upcoming courses for spring semester include programs in the Southwest, India, and Australia, sailing in Baja, backpacking in the Rockies, and the longest NOLS offering: Year in Patagonia, a 135-day expedition through some of the most remote parts of the Andes with an emphasis on cultural immersion and Spanish language skills. The Wind River Wilderness Course—the original program created by legendary mountaineer and NOLS founder Paul Petzoldt in 1965—remains the most popular.
“We take people to places that are what the world looked like for the last several million years,” Blair says. “I believe that a knowledge of wild places is valuable to us as a society, and as a species.”
Learn more about enrollment, financial aid, internships, and career opportunities at nols.edu.