wyoming

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After finishing the NOLS course in the Wind River Range, I went right back out into the mountains for a short trip with a college friend to climb a peak we had passed by on the course. Wind River Peak, at 13,192 feet, is the highest peak in the southern portion of the Wind River Range, and was a prominent landmark for the first several days of the NOLS course as we walk below it. And as the topo map shows, the ascent to the summit is amazingly straightforward from the northeast along a feature I heard referred to as “The Ramp.” I’m sure you can guess what that is by the map snippet below.

WindRiverPeak

It was a straightforward hike, but certainly not an easy one, especially as we brought our packs up and over the peak, dropping down the south side of the mountain to Tayo Lake. The descent was also fairly simple, if time-consuming due to picking our way across boulder fields for a few miles. We were rewarded at the end of the descent with the icy waters of Tayo Lake, and a freshly-maintained trail heading down to the valley. A volunteer crew from the Sierra Club was on a work trip for the week, which certainly helped speed up the end of the day for us.

I’ll let the pictures do the rest of the talking here, since as I write this I’m still getting adjusted to life at home after all that time in the mountains. From the summit, there are plenty of views across much of the range, and I could see plenty of places I know I’ll have to visit again later.

Second Deep Creek Lake at the base of Wind River Peak.

Second Deep Creek Lake at the base of Wind River Peak.

Third Deep Creek Lake below the cliffs of Wind River Peak.

Third Deep Creek Lake below the cliffs of Wind River Peak.

Temple Mountain and Frozen Lakes from the summit of Wind River Peak.

Temple Mountain and Frozen Lakes from the summit of Wind River Peak.

Tayo Lake, from the long descent of Wind River.

Tayo Lake, from the long descent of Wind River.

Looking back from a crossing of the Popo Agie River.

Looking back from a crossing of the Popo Agie River.

Greetings from somewhere in between! The month-long instructor course I took at the National Outdoor Leadership School has concluded, and I’m about to move on to the next piece of this summer. Before I tell you about what’s next, though, I’d like to give a little report on the NOLS course.

The end of May in Wyoming. And I was expecting flowers and sunshine!
NOLS is an outdoor school whose primary focus is leadership skills (as the name implies). Our instructors stressed this point, since NOLS sometimes has a reputation as a hard-skills school. Hard skills don’t take long to learn, they explained. The ability to successfully lead a group in the backcountry, or even in other settings, is a much finer skill– much more difficult. The purpose of most NOLS courses is to develop that ability (mastering it takes a lifetime), and the purpose of this particular course is to train instructors for NOLS.

The classroom in camp. Class time was concise, with more emphasis placed on practice.
After meeting my fellow instructor candidates in Lander, Wyoming, at NOLS’s international headquarters, we had a day and a half of orientation to get acquainted with the school’s mission, history, and how courses generally start. The group consisted of twelve students from all over the US as well as a few from Australia and Kenya. Our three instructors had hundreds of weeks of experience in the field between them, and were highly recommended by others we met in town. Soon enough, we were thrown into the field to begin the meat of the training.

Camp at 10,000 feet.
We arrived at the trailhead late in the afternoon amid a wet snowstorm. It was late spring in the Wind River Mountains, and it had been a very dry winter according to the locals, but for those of us from different climates it seemed plenty snowy. The Aussies, who hadn’t seen falling snow more than once or twice in the past, were as excitable as young kids in the new conditions. “Now I know how people feel when they visit Australia and see a kangaroo for the first time,” one of them said. The novelty wasn’t all fun, though– these kind of conditions could easily happen on a student course, and, as instructors, we would need to facilitate a group of students (some of whom may have never hiked or camped in snow) to adapt to the environment.

Fly fishing! We didn’t catch much, but I’m hoping to get more practice at some point.
By the third day we had climbed to 10,000 feet in elevation, and we didn’t get below 9,000 feet for the next thirty days, aside from a day-hike to a trailhead to meet a resupply team. This was a very different experience from my usual backpacking excursions– packs were heavier (mine ranged between 35 and 65 pounds depending on group gear and food, although in future courses I can lighten that considerably), daily miles were shorter (for various reasons, including that we were off trail for all but one or two days), time between resupplies was longer (9, 11, and 12 days, which is a lot of food), and the food we cooked was a lot more elaborate (yeast breads, lasagnas, fudge, brownies, cakes, and so on). There were classes on fly fishing, geology, snow travel, group development and dynamics, weather patterns, and much more.

Second day of being stuck on Hoth (12,000 feet elevation, high winds, snow… glorious).
The first snowstorm cleared by the third day, but there was no shortage of adversity for our group. For the first week, several of the group suffered from a cold that was making the rounds. About halfway through the course, just after we had crossed the Continental Divide, one of the students suffered a severe ankle sprain while coming down a long boulder field. The next three nights tested everyone’s resolve and skills, as a blizzard rolled in and pinned us at a completely exposed 12,000 foot campsite. White-out conditions and 40-50 mile per hour winds made life very difficult (there’s a long story in there, but you can use your imagination). Later in the course, melting snow made for exciting river fords and thick clouds of mosquitoes. Amazingly, until the 32nd day we saw only one person not affiliated with our group. That means our small group of fifteen was an almost completely insular community.

Spring finally begins at lower elevations. Off trail navigation is so much easier out west!
I can’t do a fully detailed trip report for the month in the wilderness, so some pictures and the overview will have to do. If you’d like to know more about the school, I’d highly encourage a visit to their website– and if you’re a student thinking of taking a course I’d be happy to talk more. The course I took while in college was the single best life-changing experience I’ve had (yes, much more important than the Appalachian Trail hike), and this instructor course was nothing but positive.

River crossing during spring melt was all about wet feet.

While every instructor candidate on our course was approved to work for NOLS (the course is described as a 30 day job interview), not all of us were placed on courses for this summer. I returned to New England a few days after the course ended, with the possibility of working some NOLS courses later in the summer and/or next summer. Not to worry, though. I have some exciting plans for the rest of the season, and I’ll let you know about those soon. I’m sure you can guess what they are.

Arriving early means more time for naps.