Saturday, May 21, 2016

My NOLS Course: Part 1

Last spring, an admissions representative for NOLS, the National Outdoor Leadership School, came into one my Outdoor Education classes at SUNY Cortland to speak about what NOLS was, what a course was like, and included the tidbit that a Trip Leader course would transfer in as credit for my Master's program. From there, I was sold! I have always regretted not looking into studying abroad in my undegrad due to complete fear of the unknown experience, new people, flying, and spending the money, so I decided that my interest in doing NOLS was not going to be like that, and from there, the rest is history...

I elected to do a 9-day Trip Leader Backpacking course (mostly because 9 days was a lot of time to commit to being out of work and school as it was!) in the Gila National Forest in New Mexico, from April 21st - 29th. The following is an account of my experience...

PS - I'm about to use the word "backcountry" a lot... that refers to the great wilderness, where you're a ways out from civilization, human influence and comforts!


April 20th - Fly Out

I am not being over-dramatic whatsoever when I say one of my greatest fears about deciding to do this course was that I had to fly from Syracuse, NY to Tucson, AZ all by myself. I have always been a nervous flyer, having not done it much at all, and had never flown alone before... ever. I don't know if it was the fact that I flew to San Diego in January, or that I had bigger fish to fry in terms of my nerves, but this was legitimately the first time in my "adult" years that I have boarded a plane and not sobbed upon take-off due to flight anxiety... in fact, I didn't shed a single tear, the entire time! This definitely started my trip off on a high note.

Aside from that, my second flight ended up being delayed several hours. By the time I got to Tucson, I was exhausted. I found dinner, ate in my hotel room, and conked out at 8PM their time (11PM my time), having been up since 5AM my time.

April 21st - Prep

This day started off with a 6AM wake-up call (fine by me, felt like 9AM), and my last, luxurious shower for the next week to follow! 

This day was very logistical - we left the hotel and went to the NOLS Southwest branch, where we went through our gear, our anticipated route, met our instructors and fellow students and played some name games, broke off into cook groups, packed our packs, loaded them up into some NOLS vehicles, and drove about 4 hours from the branch to our trailhead for the next day.

By then it was later in the day, so we had dinner, set up our tents, and had an evening meeting discuss all sorts of baseline expectations for the course, including our "expedition behavior," or EB, how we wanted to treat each other/be treated on the course, and what good EB might look like.

From there, it was off to bed!

April 22nd - Backpacking, day 1!

The next morning was another whirlwind of information, and one of the longest days of my life, looking back! We learned how our stoves worked (they were a brand a lot of us had never used before), made breakfast, received a briefing on the backcountry bathroom situation (hole digging, and NOLS is also a fan of natural toilet paper for #2 - aka smooth, clean rocks and sticks - though I personally brought baby wipes too just in case), learned about the "Leader of the Day" model, and split off into our small hiking groups for the day. They were 11 students and 3 instructors total, but we traveled in small groups of 4 or 5 to minimize our impact upon the environment whilst hiking, as well as to enjoy each other's company more intimately.

We had about 7 miles off-trail ahead of us that day to get to our "X" for camping that night, and didn't start hiking until noon, so we knew it was going to be a long day, but at the beginning of it, there was so much beauty to take in! Being from such a different ecosystem and having literally never been in a desert-ish/forest area, I was astounded at our environment.

What ended up happening was a LOT of time spent crossing the Gila River and bushwhacking through trees and thickets. I made the ill-fated mistake of just sporting my shorts and gaiters that day (I mean, I'm from NY and I'm in the desert, gotta wear shorts right??), and ended up getting really scraped up from all of our thorny encounters.


We crossed the Gila River SO many times... We should've counted.

Wet feet, all day, every day (at least the first 2 anyway)

This day was a hard one for me personally. I was still settling into my new backpack and was having a lot of shoulder pain from it being improperly adjusted - luckily, that got fixed about halfway through the day... and then a new problem set in. Sorry if this is TMI, but there's no such thing in the backcountry - I ended up having a "stomach bug" situation in the form of diarrhea, lucky me! In the backcountry, this is not a lot of fun, considering you're hiking, hiking, hiking... and you have to dig a hole! It was uncomfortable, but I was trying not to share my issue as it was the first day, what a pathetic impression!

Toward the end of the day, we thought we were almost at our X based on the map, and when we arrived at what we thought was our location, we swiftly realized it was not. Oh man! That was so depressing. From there, we realized we were much more behind schedule than we thought and still had a few miles before we would make it to our X. 

So, we started to press on. We made it about another half-mile before we came to another point where we'd be crossing the river, and my hiking mates knew I was struggling (I was starting to feel fatigued from my sickness at this point too) and it was starting to get dark. On my behalf, they suggested perhaps stopping, while our instructor also wanted to get a feel for the group, because it's good EB to keep pushing to the X even if it's dark... and I just lost it at her question of whether we could keep going or not. It was the first day, it was a long day, I felt awful and was trying to hide it, really just wanted to stop - and there come the waterworks! Blah.

We ended up stopping at that point, with the intention of getting rolling ASAP in the morning. I barely choked down a few bites of plain pasta and sent my sorry self to bed full of pepto bismal, hoping to sleep it off.

Day 2 - a much better day!

So, that next morning, we did just as we intended and were woken up by our instructor at 6AM, just barely as the sun was poking up. We packed quickly, and hit the trail... or, the river. Nothing like wet feet and legs to wake you up first thing in the morning! Illness-wise, at this point, I didn't feel sick (pepto magic!), but certainly didn't have an appetite either. Looking back, the only logical thing for this stomach problem that we could come up with was a change in diet issue...

After a short half hour on the trail, we came across the group that was in front of us! They hadn't made it to the X either and were waking and cooking breakfast - news of my stomach problem quickly spread, and people were asking me how I felt and how I was holding up (no such thing as TMI in the backcountry, like I said!). 

After hanging out with them for a bit, we all packed up and continued in our small groups to the X, our meeting location from the day before to wait for our third group that hadn't caught up to us. 

When they did arrive, we split into 3 new groups and were ready to tackle that day's hike of 5.5 miles roughly, which was entirely on trail (hallelujah!) and included an elevation gain of 1400 feet over a ridge, coming back down the other side of the ridge, and then camping somewhere along Turkey Creek on the other side.

The best part about this hike was it was leading us from just being in the Gila National Forest to being in the Gila Wilderness area, the first protected wilderness area created in the US!

The views from the ridge were amazing. 

My group's instructor and Leader of the Day this day did a fantastic job of pushing the group on this steep, challenging part of the hike - we certainly did not want to stay on the hot, exposed ridge for longer than we had to, so we kept going at a good pace thanks to their guidance, and then when we finally found shade we took a long, relaxing lie-down break to reward our efforts. This day was particularly rewarding for me after the day we had beforehand, as it restored my confidence in myself that I could do a full day without falling apart like I had the day before (mentally, anyway)! 

I did fall on the side of my leg toward the end of our hike, which would come back to haunt me, more on that later....

Day 3:

To be continued!

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