NOLS in the Wind Rivers, Wyoming (July 1973)

Up until 2008, our adventures were retained only as memories and on Kodachromes. While our memories may have faded (just a bit), the Kodachromes haven’t – and we have a lot of them. So we’re digitizing a select few to bring some of our past adventures into the 21st Century. This is one of those.

The National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) was founded in 1965 by Paul Petzoldt, a legendary mountaineer and fixture in the Teton climbing community. I had completed a basic mountaineering course with the Mazamas in 1972 and was looking for a way to learn more about mountaineering and how to get around in the backcountry. A guy I was rock climbing with at the time (Kim Fadiman) had done a NOLS Mountain Guide course (now it’s called the Wind River Mountaineering Expedition) the year before, was very enthusiastic about it, and convinced me it was just what I needed. So I signed up and soon found myself at the NOLS “Lumberyard” (whose main building burned down in 1974, taking a lot of gear and supplies with it) in Lander, Wyoming on a nice day in late June of 1973.

Arriving in Lander the day before the course started

At the Lumberyard we were kitted out with our backpacking gear, some food (after that was exhausted we’d resupply at hidden caches placed by packers), and mountaineering equipment. Then our external frame packs were weighed. Mine came in at 90 pounds! o_O Kinda puts a different spin on today’s ultralight obsession, doesn’t it? Suffice to say that while my mountaineering and backpacking experience was minimal at this point, this still seemed like a lot – particularly since most of our travel would be off-trail and cross-country. NOLS was an early adopter of synthetic sleeping bags and these primordial ones were bulky and heavy. Our gear also include such idiosyncrasies (of which there were several) as a two pound block of lard for extra or emergency energy (it would eventually get used for just that). And my full leather boots alone were a solid nine pounds! But I’d taken the King’s shilling (so to speak) and the mountains were waiting…

Loading our gear at the Lumberyard

I recall keeping a journal of this adventure but it seems to have gotten lost somewhere in years past. Fortunately I annotated the 35mm slides I took (with a Kodak automatic camera!) and kept them, so I was able to roughly reconstruct our route from those skimpy notes.

Our approximate route: in (red), evacuation (blue), lavender (out); numbers are [keyed] to the photos below

So tottering under our loads, we were bused from Lander to our first camp on the banks of the Big Sandy River on the west side of the Winds, where we started to get to know our course instructors.

On the banks of the Big Sandy River

Our lead instructor was Jim Halfpenny, who subsequently went on to become a well-respected author, scientist, and educator, with a special interest in environmental ecology, animal tracking, and carnivores.

Jim explains how things are going to go

From the Big Sandy, we were bused north to Fremont Lake, where we were introduced to our canoes. We spent a couple of days on the lake, learning how to paddle and steer a canoe and also how to right one that had overturned. This proved to be a shocking introduction to just how cold waters from the mountains could be.

On the shores of Fremont Lake [2]
Phil and Mary work at canoeing

We eventually paddled our way to the north end of the lake where we set up camp and started learning the NOLS way of camping. For example, small cooking fires were acceptable but you had to remove the surface soil first, have the fire, then put the soil (and any turf) back so no fire pit was visible. It was the start of the Leave No Trace (LNT) ethic, of which NOLS was one of the pioneers. The highlight of this camp (and of the course) was a visit by NOLS founder, Paul Petzoldt (1908-1999).

Kim demonstrates a LNT cooking fire while Paul Petzoldt (arrow) looks on [3]

From the head of Fremont Lake, we started a wandering 40 mile or so trek toward our putative goal, Gannett Peak, Wyoming’s highest point. Just north of the lake, we crossed raging Bridger Creek by means of a Tyrolean Traverse,

Rigging the Tyrolean Traverse across Bridger Creek [4]
Crossing Bridger Creek barely above the water

worked our way past Triangle Lake,

Going cross-country near Triangle Lake [5]

and north to an unnamed lake at the base of Gutierrez Peak (11,363 ft / 3,463 m).

Sunset on Gutierrez Peak [6]

From there we worked our way east to Moya Canyon, past Island and Wall Lakes, and then up to the Continental Divide just east of Lake 10842.

On our way toward Moya Canyon [7]
Crossing Moya Creek [8]
Heavy packs and soft footings lead to a roll-over on the way to Wall Lake [9]
Evening at Lake 10842 [10]
On the Continental Divide [11]

Getting off the Continental Divide required executing a series of rappels some 1,000 feet down a snow-covered glacier, the surface of which seemed intent on sliding out from under us. Glissading was vetoed because it was a long slope with a questionable run-out and, with our heavy packs, who knew if we could stop in time? 🙄

Starting our rappel down the glacier (note color difference between fixed and sliding snow)
Looking down the glacier

We eventually arrived at Lake 10988 (also called Middle Alpine Lake) at the base of Golden Eagle Pinnacle (about 12,500 ft / 3,800m).

Golden Eagle Pinnacle over Middle Alpine Lake [12]

It was at this camp where the accident occurred. One of the students dove into the freezing waters of the lake and the shock he received by doing so managed to massively dislocate his shoulder. It was bad. But there were no sat phones or SPOTs in those days to call for help and we were way back of beyond here, in terrain not hospitable to helicopters. The instructors figured it would take as long for someone to go out for help as it would for us to rig stretcher (from small trees) and just carry the guy out. So we did, carrying him, initially cross-country and then on trail, over Angel Pass and out to Elkhart Guard Station. Then we turned around and hiked back to Lake 10988. It took three days round-trip to cover this 40 mile route, sleeping on the ground and taking only minimal rations to save weight. And people wonder why I’m always wary of the possibility of an injury in the backcountry.

After recovering somewhat from this evacuation drama, we continued north to a camp site known as “Shangri La” (and also not shown as such on any maps) on the North Fork of Bull Lake Creek. It was a nice place to camp and we spent some time there before pushing on over Elsie Col and down to our farthest north camp on the Dinwoody Glacier, in sight of Gannett Peak.

Sunny days at Shangri La (note LNT fire pit directly behind shirtless guy) [13]
Jumaring over Elsie Col at 13,000 ft (3,960 m) [14]
Gannett Peak (arrow) from Elsie Col

Up to this point, we’d had a little weather – rain & thunderstorms – but nothing that much hindered our progress. But we soon learned that Nature always bats last. The morning we made our one and only bid for the summit of Gannett, a ferocious snow storm (nay, blizzard) rolled in and we had to call the climb when we reached the Gooseneck Glacier. 😥 It was a huge disappointment after all we’d been through to get here but also a lesson in making coming back alive THE priority. A later (2007) private climb of Gannett was also denied the summit by bad weather.

Waiting out the storm on Dinwoody Glacier [15]

In those days, the end of the course involved a “survival” hike – without the instructors – out to a designated trailhead with no food except for what could be foraged along the way. So we divided into groups each with a student leader, who was responsible for getting their group to the trailhead. But after we’d gotten rid almost all of our food and the instructors had left, the snow storm came back, pinning us down on the glacier for two days. During that time, we lived on that lard we’d been carrying for just such an emergency. We were running out of lard recipes when the storm finally abated and we could head off to wherever we were supposed to go. Living off the land sounds easy and romantic unless you’re carrying a pack and have to make at least 12 miles a day to reach your extraction point on time and it takes more energy to find food than to just keep walking. We kept our stomachs busy with bluebells and an unlucky trout or two. My since lost journal became a list of menus. Going cross-country was too slow a proposition, so when we found a trail, we simply followed it south past Lake Louise,

Exhausted and hungry students at Lake Louise [16]

and on to North Fork Lake where we encountered a wilderness patrol ranger. This was a lucky break since one person’s feet had completely given out by this point and the ranger was able to get him out on a horse.

The seasonal wilderness patrol station at North Fork Lake [17]
Ranger Jim Blaha (center) organizing a horse for a student with bad feet

The ranger told us to stay on the trail and it would eventually take us to a trailhead on Boulder Lake. And so, some 40 miles after we’d left the glacier, we stumbled out of the wilderness into a swanky lakeside lodge. I think we scared them but they still let us call NOLS, who sent a bus to take us back to Lander to get cleaned-up and debriefed. I seem to recall eating a whole box of dry cornflakes on the way back (despite that, and the blocks of lard, I still lost 25 pounds during the course).

On the bus back to Lander [18]

Aside from teaching us, inadvertently, about emergency rescues and what it’s like to be very, very tired and really, really hungry, the course was also supposed to teach us mountaineering and leadership skills. For me, the mountaineering part came easily but I struggled mightily with the more socially-demanding leadership part. But that was on me, not NOLS. If I’d accepted then what this course revealed to me about how I got on (or not) with others in group situations, my future might have been an easier journey. At the time, however, this was a life lesson experienced, but not necessarily learned. I just wasn’t wired that way (and am not to this day). So, instead, I spent years building a small repertoire of social coping skills – enough to allow me to lead private and club mountaineering trips in my own “unique style.” I like to think, however, that the NOLS experience is what guided me, possibly subconsciously, to a career in science, where socially inept geekiness proved more acceptable (and now, thanks to Big Bang Theory, may even be temporarily fashionable 😉 ).

So ended one of the most physically and mentally demanding experience of my life – one whose intensity was never to be repeated. But one which I wouldn’t have missed for the world…not even for another box of cornflakes. 🙂

My NOLS graduation patch from 1973
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6 comments

    1. As I was recollecting this trip with 40+ years of hindsight, yes, there were some cringe-worthy moments. But that was a less risk-averse time. I’m guessing today that these expeditions are conducted differently (for example, the leaders leaving the students at the end was abolished in 1992). Overall, NOLS has a good safety record and has become one of the leaders in the assessment and mitigation of risk associated with outdoor activities.

  1. Ninety pounds!!?!! Ah, to be young and crazy again–well, maybe not! How heavy were the women’s packs?
    Really enjoyed this write-up and pictures because I’ve only heard bits and pieces of this trip.

    1. Thanks – I’m getting a lot of use out of the slide scanner! 1973? Young & clueless was more like it. As I recall, there was no differentiation on this course – the men and women carried packs of similar weight and participated equally in every activity.

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