This month, on October 8th through 10th, the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) will celebrate its 50th Anniversary with an alumni reunion full of events and merry-making. The celebration will take place in Lander, Wyoming, the school’s home base. In attendance will be Liz Nichol, RMFI’s Office Manager, who completed her first NOLS course as a student in 1967 and went on to work as an instructor with both NOLS and Outward Bound in the 1960s and '70s.
Introduced to hiking by her father, Liz spent much of her childhood exploring the mountains of Switzerland and England. She attended high school on the east coast of the United States, during which time she was a founding member of the “Walt Whitman Rock Climbing Club” and would go climbing most weekends at Carderock and Great Falls along the Potomac River. It was from a fellow club member that Liz first heard about the brand new NOLS program in Wyoming.
NOLS was founded by Paul Petzoldt, “an Idaho ranch kid who climbed the Grand Teton on a dare, in jeans and cowboy boots, and went on to become one of the first climbing guides in Jackson Hole, was a trainer for the 10th Mountain Division, and helped found the first Outward Bound School in the U.S.” writes Liz about the influential man with whom she worked. Motivated by the challenge he faced in finding experienced leaders for Outward Bound, Petzoldt founded NOLS in 1965 in order to fill this need by offering a well-rounded experiential education program for future wilderness guides and trip leaders. Additionally, with the birth of the Wilderness Act, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson the year before, Petzoldt knew that the influx of people into wilderness areas would make education in wilderness immersion and conservation essential in preserving pristine wildlands in the face of increased human visitation.
Liz enrolled into a NOLS course in the summer of 1967, following her first year of college, and went back the next two summers to work for NOLS. Liz shared with us her memories of these first few years:
“I felt like I had found my place in the world. Those early days were pretty informal. Paul led one big group into the Wind River Wilderness. We were divided into patrols, and mine was the one girls’ patrol with three boys’ patrols. I think that summer was the first year girls were included at all. We carried old army surplus pack frames to which were strapped three large stuff bags: a polypro sleeping bag on the bottom, clothes & stuff in the center, and food in the top. We would carry about 10 days worth of food, mostly things available in the average grocery store, macaroni, rice, dried potatoes, margarine, cheese, beans, nuts, dried fruit and veggies, “fruit crystals”, Jello, two pounds per person per day. We slept under tarps (no tents, and lots of mosquitos), cooked over fires in a billy can, eating out of an insulating double beer can. Surplus wool army pants and double sweaters (the bottom of one sweater sewed onto the bottom of another sweater to eliminate that midriff gap) were our uniform.
A classic NOLS course is 30 days on a backpack trip in wilderness. Never coming out to civilization, we learned well how to not only survive, but to be competent and comfortable (except for the mosquitoes) out there. Camping, cooking, climbing, fishing, flora, fauna, geology, first aid . . . One of Paul’s great teachings in an emergency situation? “Sit down and smoke a cigarette” (and take the time to calm down, think things over, don’t act impulsively).
The first course I worked was as an unpaid assistant. The second I worked for my choice of a piece of equipment, and I chose a fishing rod. I think the next course I actually got paid $300."
From 1970 to 1973, Liz took a brief hiatus from NOLS while living in Europe and traveling overland to Nepal. She returned in 1974 when she took the brand new NOLS Instructors Course, and rejoined the NOLS team of instructors. The next several years Liz worked NOLS courses in the Uintah Mountains of Utah, Prince William Sound, and courses with both NOLS and Outward Bound in Baja California and the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico. It was during these years that Liz got to know fellow instructors Scott Fischer and Wes Kraus, which led to her outfitting the food for one of their Mountain Madness trips to Denali, and then to being a member of Fischer’s famous 1987 American Everest North Face Expedition. While on the 1987 Expedition, Liz witnessed first-hand an unfortunate result of increased visitation to the Earth’s highest peak: the accumulation of trash on the mountain. Motivated to take action, Liz organized the Everest Environmental Expedition of 1990, a trip to clean up trash where climbers would camp, and later formed the Everest Environmental Project, a nonprofit organization that ran several subsequent trips to continue this work.
A friend of RMFI’s late founder, mountaineer and environmental champion, Mark Hesse, Liz has been involved with our organization since its early years and has been a staff member since 2003. She currently serves as Office Manager, handling our daily administrative tasks, our financials and bookkeeping, and being the all-around “rock” of the office, holding everything together. Much more than your average office manager, Liz’s early wilderness leadership experience continues to benefit RMFI in a number of ways. Our program staff regularly garners her insight and consultation when we consider taking on new projects, working with land managers and funders, and navigating the logistical challenges associated with our work. Additionally, her passion and enthusiasm to collaborate with others in the land conservation field makes her a magnet for forming beneficial partnerships with interested community members and leaders in the environmental field.
Although we will miss her warm and magnanimous presence while she is away at the NOLS 50th, we can’t wait to hear all about her trip to see old friends and colleagues back in Lander, Wyoming, the place where it all began. As Liz shared with us, “NOLS was certainly my foremost formative experience, where I met the lifelong friends that many find in high school and college, and where I learned skills and a comfort being out for extended periods in the back country. It is exciting to be heading back to Lander this week to celebrate NOLS 50th anniversary. We old timers will bemoan our surgeries and arthritis, and pass some good stories on to the younger generation.”