What a wild ride the last 7 months has been. It’s been an interesting road seeing where my limit lies, but also testing how far I can push my limits. I took a 2 week road trip in January going through El Paso, Durango, Boulder, finally ending up in Lander, Wyoming. The trip ended with me starting a 3 month NOLS Wilderness EMT course. I completed my course at the end of April and never wrote anything outside of my personal journals on the course. I thought it might be interesting to try and sum up the experiences I went through with 22 other people for 3 months with a retrospective look. So here goes nothin’.
I feel like it’s only right to start with the beginning of my road trip in January, since it was kind of an awakening to the fact that I’d be away from home longer than I’ve ever been before. Roads are an expansive place. Driving for 9 hours to El Paso I had so much excitement and eagerness to climb and get where I was going. After getting there and talking on the phone with my mom while I laid in the back of my truck on a sleeping pad a lot of the reality of my decisions set in. I was only 9 hours from home, but in reality I was 3 months away from home. My journey had only just started. I remember having to suck back tears on the phone with my mom so she wouldn’t be worried. I don’t think I had even thought about the fact I was “on my own” in a sense for the next 3 months.
NOLS has a sort of grandiose image in my head for being such an amazing organization that produces some excellent outdoor educators. And being a NOLS alumn carries weight for me. Some of my best friends I have now are all NOLS graduates from hard courses. And I think the harder the course you do the more confidence you have with saying “I’m a NOLS alumni”. I don’t think my course was the hardest by any means, but I do think it’s one of the harder courses NOLS offers, and definitely one of the hardest academic things that exists. The course combines a lot of things into one INSANELY jam packed semester of work. The main focus is Wilderness Rescue and rescue skills.
We started off with a 4 week EMT/WFR section (“section” being the term for each part of a semester). We heard a lot of warnings the first couple days of that section, like “This is going to be a lot of information coming at you in the next 4 weeks” and “At NOLS we liken it to drinking out of a fire hose”. And they’re not joking: our days were 8 hours of learning medical information and practicing skills. That doesn’t include the two nights a week of the last three weeks, on which we practiced our “practical skills” till 10:30pm. If we didn’t keep pace, we’d fall so far behind it would almost be impossible to catch back up. So we studied, on an average night, from 6:30 till 11:00 or 12:00pm. Luckily, we were on what is possibly the best campus in the world for such an insanely intense semester. The Wyss Campus is nestled in a beautiful canyon, on a fairly large piece of land providing plenty of space for students to hike and explore the hills on their off time. It was easily one of the more beautiful places I’ve been. I attribute part of my success in that section to that place; it would’ve been a chore to NOT study when the campus is designed to be a EMT student’s dream.
Part of that section involves going to the Lander and Riverton ER and doing clinical hours to get experiences with real patients. Some of the most rewarding work I think any person can do is to help other people when they’re at their worst, which was definitely the case with workers in the ER. They’re usually having terrible day, and it was our job to help them in any way they needed it. There were several patients that were just shocking to meet, and people who I had never met the likes of before. We saw drug abusers, alcoholics, people close to death, people choosing death, people fighting death, and death itself. The change was very obvious in our group of 21 students after those clinical days and nights. And towards the end of a course is when the intensity really kicks in. Our last week of the EMT section is nothing more than testing: Tuesday we had our EMT exam, Wednesday the WFR exam, Thursday was our practical skills exam, and Friday was the National Registry of EMT’s Exam (NREMT). I can’t remember a time in my life where I have been more nervous about a test than that when your $20,000 course depends on your success in 4 consecutive exams. And I can’t remember a time where I was more happy than the Friday after my NREMT exam was over and I had passed the hardest course of my life. And that was just the first 4 weeks!
The pace doesn’t let up though. 2 days after we were done with our EMT course our group of 21 students was split in two groups and put on a bus headed for the Canyonlands of Utah. We were backpacking and canyoneering for 22 days in some of the most beautiful canyons in the country. I would say this section tied the EMT section for difficulty for me. The physical aspect of carrying a 60-70 pound backpack for 7-10 miles a day is hard, but it’s the mental ware of knowing you’re operating at new heights that’s so hard. This was really uncharted territory for me and it was scary at times being so unsure of if I could even complete it. I remember writing in my journal the second night and saying “22 days is a dark looming number when it’s only day 2”. The days were long and the nights were cold the first week. We learned backcountry cooking, Leave No Trace principals, communication & leadership skills, and a lot about the 14 other humans around us (11 students and 3 instructors).
I learned so much from my fellow students on that section about strength and mental fortitude. One day I think back on so often on harder days is when our oldest in the group (30) was sick on a longer hiking day. For me throwing up has always been my shut down point, if it happens I just can’t deal. This guy had been throwing up for probably 2 and a half days at this point and is hiking at pace with the rest of us with the same weight on his back. I remember looking back while walking through the brush and seeing him stop walking to brace himself on his knees and throw up, wipe off his face and keep walking past me as I looked on dumbfounded. I asked him as we walked what in the world keeps him going, because had that been me 2 days deep into throwing up everything I ate, I would’ve been on the first EVAC van out of there at that point. He said to me “You can let yourself down, and you can’t let your team down” and walked on. There have been few impactful things said to me in life that have drastically changed the way i’ve thought and that’s definitely one of them. I would say the Canyons section taught me more about mental strength than I had learned anywhere previously.
Our last morning in the Canyonlands I couldn’t have been more ready to get onto the next section. 4:00am I was up as soon as I heard the first noise in the instructor tent and packed in record breaking time (Guinness book hit me up). The bus drove us from Green River, UT to Vernal, UT to start our River Rescue Section. The NOLS Vernal River base is like the Ritz after you’ve just spent 22 days in the sand canyons drinking water that looks like chocolate milk, bathing in cold streams, and eating sausage and cheese in every meal. The River base has 5 showers with infinite hot water, computers to apply for jobs on, and the ability to use our phones to contact family in free time. All things we had grown to appreciate greatly after almost a month without them. Our instructors were F A N T A S T I C. We had Nate Ostis for our first 5 days of river rescue skills who literally wrote the book for NOLS on river rescue and is easily the most inspiring man i’ve met in my life. They knew river rescue like the back of their hand, all were skilled boaters, and most had been guiding river trips for years. River rescue feels like you’re training to be like a navy SEAL or something. Nate Ostis even looks like he could be a Spec ops operator with his beard and attitude. He held us to such a high standard and we thrived under the pressure. We woke up every morning at 7:00 to start learning skills on the land and after lunch at noon we were in the water till 6:00pm doing what we had just learned on land. Nate would yell things to us while we were swimming in the freezing water like “RESCUE TEMPO!”. It truly feels like you’re hot shit when we got done with the 5 day rescue portion of the 15 day river section.
The other 10 days are spend on the Green River that cuts through Desolation & Gray Canyon making the deepest canyon in the U.S. in Desolation Canyon. The first day of rafting down river is about 8 hours of trying to figure out how to get the boat to go straight while an instructor says “What’s your angle right now” every 30 seconds. Oddly enough if you suck at something for 8 hours straight the universe just gifts you the ability to do that thing so it worked out for all of us. We would row down river for 10-20 miles a day and then practice rescue skills till it got dark out. The section taught me a lot about communication and maybe helped me be able to speak with confidence more so than I had previously. I learned that I’m a directive leader that appreciates brevity and direct quick talks about what to do, rather than long thought out several option ideas. Our group did a lot of feedback on that section to one another, positive and constructive, and that ability to tell someone when you’re unhappy with something they’re doing was very positive for our group.
Leaving the river section was bittersweet, we were moving on in the course but we were only 22 days away from our final moments together. I wrote in my journal on one of the final nights of the river section “I feel like I’m living in a memory already of the times we’re having”. Off we went into the last section of our 3 month course in a van to Unaweep Canyon in Colorado with our climbing instructors.
Our last section was High Angle Rescue, which translates to rescues that involve cliff faces or hard to get to mountainous areas. Our lead instructor was well versed in climbing rescues being on the Yosemite Search and Rescue (YOSAR) team for a few years. She was probably what I was most excited for on this course, her experience and love for climbing were really cool for me, being from a heavy climbing background. We covered a ton of what’s called “Self Rescue” skills in the first 10 days, which mainly involves how do I get myself or my partner off a rock climb if one of us is injured. Mixed in with the rescue skills was just regular old climbing stuff. Everyone in the group did a multi-pitch day of their own choosing. Since my mentor for that section was our lead instructor we did a more challenging and longer route (5.11, 5 pitch route). I can shoot up 5.11 sport climbs all day, however this was a 5.11 crack trad climb and it ended up taking our group of 4 climbers a little under 12 hours to get up the wall and find a rappel spot to get down. It made for my first rappel in the dark and it was nerve racking at first, but once I got loaded onto the line and lowering down I looked out at the pitch black night broken by the incredible glowing moon and stars. That was the height of those first 10 days for me and possibly the entire section.
We left on day 10 for Freemont Canyon, Wyoming to start the Two Rope Rescue Systems skills. The two rope rescue system requires a team that knows what they’re doing to operate it safely and requires a lot of trust from every member in the team. Essentially you lower a rescuer over an edge who is managing a litter who then loads a patient into that litter and then that entire package gets hauled back up to the top to then get EVAC’d out via helicopter or litter carry off the mountain. The skills are not easy by any means, and most involve complicated math to describe how they work. Despite that we all fell into the role that best suited our skill sets and were able to operate 2 final rescues that went off without a hitch. After the final rescue it was only a short time till we were back in the van headed back to Lander, Wyoming for our final ceremonies and graduation banquet.
The feeling of being finished with such a hard course and knowing that we had done well in it had us feeling like the Varsity NOLS team when we were back in Lander. The other NOLS courses heading out were like naive freshmen about to head off onto their own adventures. And boom just as quickly as we had all met one another 3 months earlier my friends started getting in shuttles to the airports and in cars back to where they were from. Just like that my NOLS experience was over and I had to start heading back home myself.
I look back at my life last year and my life this year and it’s insane. I was working in a dark office room at a computer for 8-10 hours a day. Today I sit in Belfast, Maine on one of my off days writing about the experience that brought me here today. I’ve been back home in Dallas for a total of 1 month this year so far and been so many other places in the other 6 Months; Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Washington DC, Maine, New Hampshire, New Brunswick, Quebec just to name a few. I have never felt more in charge of my own life as I have these last few months. NOLS was a truly transformative experience in my life, I would recommend a course to anyone who has ever thought about spending extended amounts of time in the outdoors.