NOLS – is ‘Leadership’ worth the expense?

I recently took a National Outdoor Leadership School course in Outdoor Education, Mountaineering in the Pacific Northwest. It was a 31 day course in which we were to learn outdoor skills, leadership & teamwork, environmental ethics and risk management among other things. On the last day of the course the branch manager asked us to rank our experience from a 1 to 10. I am sad to say, I gave it a 5. The course could have been amazing, and could have blown my mind. Alas, my course instructors were unable to fulfill and facilitate that learning for me. And I’m still a little bitter about it, one month later. After this time away from the experience, reflecting, I realized I learned a little about myself, but nowhere near what other experiences since have taught me. Maybe NOLS was a facilitator in this change, but it was going to happen without it regardless.

As far as the course went, we spent 20 days in the Cascade Mountains, and 10 days climbing at Smith Rock. I had never spent time in the cascades and mountaineering was new to me. Before the course I was excited to have this new skill set, and have new experiences. As soon as I got to base however, my excitement dwindled. I was under the impression that this was an ‘outdoor educator’ course, and that my course mates would be knowledgeable about the outdoors and outdoor lifestyle. My expectations were wrong, or at least off. It wasn’t that other students didn’t have a passion for the outdoors, most of them did. But their experience and interest in taking the OE course in particular seemed to stem from ‘it fit my schedule’ to ‘AmeriCorps paid for it, and I had to do something’. The drive to become an outdoor educator, at least the way I perceive the title was lacking in 70% of the students. This defiantly made the trip interesting with outdoor skill set ranging from those who had only gone backpacking once to those studying outdoor education.

I don’t want to say I hated NOLS. That’s far from the truth. I just felt like that one ‘kid’ in the group that nobody understood. I was wedged between the role of eager student, and reluctant teacher. Reluctant, because I didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes. I had a very hard time asking my instructors to teach me what I wanted to learn. We spent so much time learning the basics, that the ability for all of us to focus on more detail and awareness was impossible if not incredibly taxing. I helped teach knowledge I had and then was criticized by instructors for not taking over and showing off. I taught many of my co-students valuable knowledge, but because I was helping them perform instead of demonstrating high performance myself, my skills were noted as insufficient.

I found my course incredibly frustrating above all. I learned a bit about leadership, but the hard skills (at least in the climbing section) were not new to me. Perhaps it’s my fault for taking a course where I have experience, but if that were the case I would have expected the NOLS administration to direct me to another course. The reviews my instructor gave me during the course pointed out where I could improve in terms of attitude, but in no way told me what I was lacking in skill-set and leadership, or how to fulfill the NOLS learning standards sufficiently. As such my final review was poor, and the grade a shock. I felt that I had improved in all the sections I was told I was lacking, and yet, I still failed in many areas.

Overall I suppose I’m just disappointed. I tried to be outgoing, ask for feedback, and help teach others.  I took this course for graduate level credit from the University of Utah, and perhaps my mentality and expectations were beyond what was appropriate. I have outdoor awareness and skill, and I believe this knowledge was harmful in the way I was perceived by the instructors. I think my fellow students valued my input, and yet my teachers struggled to see what help I needed to become a better leader. And it’s all about leadership in the outdoors isn’t it?

Was it worth the money? That has yet to be seen. I took it for credit, so I’m still in the process of writing papers. The poor course grade is making me lean towards no. Was it worth the emotional stress? Probably not. I haven’t been this upset about something that I could have had more control over in years, if ever. Worth the leadership experience? Yes. I had the chance to teach others, and lead our group through unknown terrain. That’s something you don’t get the chance to do everyday. Would I do it again? Defiantly not. Would I recommend NOLS? Only to someone new to the outdoors and taking a course in a field where they had a completely blank slate.

I didn’t learn all I’d hoped for. I’m excited to continue my research for the graduate papers. I’m hoping that the connections I make and things learn through my research will make up for my less than mediocre NOLS course experience. I’m hoping with this article I can set most of it behind me. I’ve learned some things about myself, and the education system. If you’re looking for greatness, you have to find it yourself. Seek it from the realists and experts. And you must always come without any expectations.

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How to Learn to Snowboard – Canadian Rockies and Crested Butte (Part II)

Canmore was epic, and I was hoping Crested Butte would be too. I wasn’t disappointed. The 20 hour drive was a little long, but well worth it. We ended up stopping in Golden to visit friends before heading ‘home’ to Crested Butte, and taking them with us.

David n Natalie watching Tess race!

I spent the next 3 days on the mountain, actually learning how to snowboard for the first time. I’d been boarding before, years ago, but never had any control. Thanks to my new friend Tess (a competitive racer) I finally understood how to actually ride.

Learning to snowboard isn’t easy, but is totally doable if you put your mind, and ass to it. I kicked my own butt the first day. And then Tess kicked it harder, when she wasn’t training. Then the mountain kicked it the last day, and I ended up getting a mild concussion, my first ever. (Yes, I was wearing a helmet)

Mike, David & Tess… (I took the photo!)

Regardless, I’ve decided to make a mini list of how to learn to snowboard, and what to bring with you.

  1. Guts – Don’t be scared to fall. You’re going to end up bruised and broken, no matter how quickly you pick it up. Go for the ‘hard’ stuff. It’s a LOT easier to learn, and understand what’s really going on with steeper terrain than it is on the bunny hill. The bunny hill isn’t for boarders, it’s for children on skis, just don’t do it.
  2. Heart and Determination– No matter how hard you try, the mountain is going to slam you. Doesn’t matter if it’s ice or powder, you’ve got to keep going. If you quit when it gets rough, you’ll never actually understand what you’re doing wrong.
  3. Mentors – I had three. Tess was a patient and experienced teacher, willing and excited to work with a determined novice. Mike and David we’re both telemark skiing all weekend, but provided so much moral support I cant help but to mention them.
  4. Gear – I was determined to learn, and bought everything I needed. Being comfortable, and in your own shoes (literally) can make a huge difference on how long you can stay out there, and how hard you can push yourself. I’m not against renting, just be picky! And research what will actually fit you and your perceived style.

Tess napping between races, we spent a few really long days on the mountain!

I’m hoping to visit Crested Butte again in 2012/13. She knocked me out and knocked me on my ass, but I’m willing and ready to take the challenge to stay upright and conscious. I highly recommend the mountain and the town. The culture is amazing and I’m looking forward to shredding my face off this winter. Thank you Crested Butte for being a beast and a teacher.

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The Long Awaited Canadian Rockies and Crested Butte Trip Post (Part I)

Ice Climbing in Canmore and Banff National Park

Ok, so I’m a blogger not a writer. I’m also a procrastinator. Which means things in my life that I have to get done, get done late, and things I don’t -updating my blog- get done really late. So here we are, a month and a half after my trip, posting an entry…. (or  four months before I finish it).

Jumping right in! Sometimes I think this is one of the best personality attributes I have, other times… maybe not. Regardless, a friend of mine (whom I hadn’t seen in years) and I met up at the climbing gym back in November to hang and chat. She mentioned she was going to Canmore to do some ice climbing and a little skiing in the next few weeks. Being the awesome person I am, I invited myself to go along with. (She was all about it though.)

Fast forward to early December and I’m hoping on a plane to Calgary, excited, nervous, and wondering why I decided I could afford this trip. In case you’re wondering, the border patrol dude at the Calgary airport was really nice. He asked me why I was tired and who I was visiting, smiled and sent me on my way with my one way ticket, no problem. I have a few discrepancies on my record that I’ve heard the Canadian government doesn’t take a liking to, and thankfully I had zero problems entering Alberta.

As it turned out, the friend I went to visit broke her tibia her first day skiing (ever) at Sunshine Village in Banff. I knew she had hurt her leg before my arrival, but we weren’t sure if  she broke it until she went to the doctor after I got there.  I was hoping to climb with her all week; now we were hoping she’d be able to walk normally in a month. My options became watching movies all week, or making new friends… you could guess that I chose the latter.

In any case, I highly recommend traveling to the Banff area if you like ice. There is an INSANE amount compared to the midwest…. and as far as I’ve heard, anywhere else in the world. I only ended up climbing 4 days (out of 6) and I’m already itching to go back.

On day one my two new friends and I headed to Bow Valley to meet up with some of their pals in Grotto Canyon. Shaira and I decided to hit up Grotto Falls first, a solid 55m WI2. Shaira lead it like a pro, and I’m pretty sure she only placed one screw…. but it was a super easy, super fun, cardio speed workout of a climb. It’s easily climbable in one pitch with a 70m rope, and a rappel descent to a super easy/safe midway point.  Then we headed over to the main area, and I hopped on Hers (15m WI4) and His (15m WI4+) on top rope. Then I got to play on my first ever mixed route, Sketch and Sniff (15m M6+). Wrapping my mind around mixed climbing wasn’t too hard, but I will admit, it took some quick thinking. I was actually quite nervous, like the first time I ever tried leading or bouldering. In any case, I hang-dogged up the thing, but had a great time, and then did some laps on Hers to prove to myself that I wasn’t a horrible climber after all…

Hafner Creek approach

Day Two: The kids wanted to have a crag day so we headed to Hafner Creek.

yours truly on Swank

Once we get there I soon find out, it’s gonna be another mixed climbing day…. We all warmed up on a WI3 route and then the mixed madness began.

I started on Half a Gonk (M6), followed it with  Californication (M5) and finished on Swank (M8-)… all on top rope. After successfully climbing 3 mixed routes, I decided that I like mixed climbing… but I’m thinking I still prefer a good ice route.

winking on Rogan's Gully

On day three I decided that I’d had enough of this mixed nonsense, and implored my keepers to find a good long ice route to spend the day on. Unfortunately, it was super snowy, and avalanche conditions weren’t the best for doing routes. We headed to Cascade Mountain in Banff hoping to do Rogan’s Gully (III WI2/3). After a romp around in the snow trying to find the climb, we finally made it to the base. It ended up being a party day, with 6 climbers… 3 leaders, 3 followers. However, due to poor conditions, and someone getting an ice shard in the eye, we ended up bailing after the second pitch. I would love to head back and finish her someday. It was still a fun trip, but definitely not quite the epic-ness I’d hoped for.


I spent my last day climbing in Kananaskis County at Thomas Creek. We ended up heading to Snowline, a really beautiful 100m III WI4. Nathan lead the first pitch, Shaira lead the second, and I soon realized I hadn’t led a single climb this trip. I was planning on leading the second pitch, but ended up getting the worst case of the ‘screaming barfies’ I’ve ever gotten on the way up the first pitch.  Apparently it’s hard to climb and pull screws while following when it’s really really cold out. This was probably my favorite day, mostly because the route was pretty, and with just three of us climbing, there was a very cohesive group.
It was worth getting the barfies to hang out (literally) and chat about ice while belaying, and taking in our surroundings.

looking down from the top pitch 2 on Snowline

So I only got four days of climbing in before we had to head to Colorado… but it was still a great first experience in the Canadian Rockies. I was sad to leave, but also getting super pumped about the chance to learn how to snowboard at Crested Butte.

(to be continued….)

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