My First Semester with NOLS

By Delaney

Hello! My name is Delaney, and I am from Cleveland, OH! I recently returned home after spending three months in Wyoming, Utah, and Idaho. Now that I’m back home, and have access to a computer, a shower, and the internet, I figured it was a good time to write a blog post.  

For the past three months I have been on a NOLS course in the Rockies. I had never gone camping before this trip, and I figured a three-month trip was a good way to start! I spent 17 days hiking in the Wind River Range in Wyoming, 21 days rock climbing in the City of Rocks, Idaho, 16 days tandem whitewater canoeing on the Green River in Utah, 10 days earning my Wilderness First Responder certification on Three Peaks Ranch in Wyoming, and 17 days canyoneering in Grand Gulch, Water, and Slickhorn Canyon in Utah. Here’s a quick snapshot of this course, section by section– 

 

Wind River Range: 

The Wind River Range in Wyoming is an absolutely beautiful mountain range in western Wyoming. We spent our time there learning how to backpack, camp, ration food, fly fish, use bear spray(!), and live with others for extended periods of time. We talked about how to make a positive learning environment and what good expedition behavior looks like. At night, we sang around a campfire, read poems, and got to know each other. We played games all the time; trail games like “contact” or “alphabet DJ,” campfire games like “fantasy” or “Good Day Bob,” and get-to-know-you games like “Hot seat” or “In or Out.” NOLS is a leadership school, and we spent plenty of time learning and practicing leadership skills. By the end of this section, we were confident enough in our navigation and leadership skills that we would be “Designated Leaders” of the day. We’d plan our route, hold the maps, lead on trail, and choose a campsite. These days were incredibly rewarding because we could apply all we had learned from that section. 

City of Rocks: 

The City of Rocks was an amazing place to learn how to rock climb outdoors. Over the summer, I worked at my local rock-climbing gym, and knew the basics of how to climb and belay, but nothing could prepare me for what was in store. We spent every day at a new crag (rock climbing spot), learning a new skill. We learned knots, belay techniques, and anchor-building principals, and applied those skills that very day in a safe and structured manner. By the end of this section, I was able to “trad” climb (a style of rock climbing using protection you place in the rock yourself), lead a multi-pitch (“lead” is another style of rock climbing and doing multiple “pitches” or lengths of the rope ((basically I was up really, really high))), and set up a rappel (going down a rope using my own gear).  

Desolation and Labyrinth Canyon: 

In this section, we learned how to paddle, ferry, eddy out, scout and run a rapid, and line our canoes. This was a very challenging section because of the high-stress of running rapids. It was also super rewarding because this was a completely new skill for me. The rush of spending an hour getting out of our canoes, tying them up, finding high ground, scouting the rapid, choosing a line to run, getting back in our canoes, and hitting the line perfectly so as not to take on any water is amazing. There were plenty of times scouting rapids didn’t work like that, and I joined the “Varsity Swim Team” by (accidentally) flipping the canoe and swimming down the rapid. Worth it. 

 

Three Peaks Ranch: 

This is where I took an 80-hour course to get my Wilderness First Responder certification. This certification is just one step below a Wilderness EMT. We spent long days in the classroom learning about how to treat trauma and medical emergencies in the backcountry. This was a very different approach to medicine for me, because the first step is not to call 911 (there’s no cell service in the backcountry!) and there are no splints readily available. We learned how to treat crazy trauma injuries, like an open pneumothorax, and very mild medical problems, like a stomach ache. My favorite part of this section was when we simulated a search and rescue team with an “Incident Command Structure.” There were three “patients” involved in a severe canoeing accident, and a team of 13 people came to the rescue; equipped with one Incident Commander (me!), two Lieutenants, five rescue teams, two vacuum splints, and one litter. This was the most intense scenario we practiced, and the most interesting. At the end of this section, we took written and practical tests to be officially certified as WFR’s! 

Grand Gulch, Water, and Slickhorn Canyon: 

This was the most expedition-feeling section. We were so lucky the first four sections because we got almost no weather. There was no hiking in the rain or canoeing in the snow. We like to say because of our lack of weather, there was a lack of water in the canyons. The canyons were almost completely dry, which led us to change our route as we scouted for water. We would spend a whole day looking for water, only to find nothing and have to backtrack to our last known water spot. We also spent a good chunk of time trying to get out of the canyon and getting shut down by steep canyon walls and trails that led nowhere. We were much more independent on this section; we chose our own path (water permitting), traveled without instructors, and planned and led each day. This section felt very adventurous; we looked for water, scouted for a path out, found some amazing ruins, spent time sleeping under the stars, and soaked up our last time on the trail together.  

At the end of this trip, our group made a list of everything we learned throughout the section. There were technical skills (like how to use mechanical advantage to get a wrapped canoe off a rock), leadership skills (like how to use non-violent communication), and some life skills (like how to “unzip” an apple). I was astonished as the list continued to grow. I’m still reflecting on how much I’ve learned and grown and changed, and I’m so excited to take these learnings with me the rest of my gap year, into Duke, and beyond.