Must love long walks in the mountains …
NOLS is a diverse and fascinating community, something reality TV star and NOLS grad Ames Brown can attest to.
“It’s the people that make it exciting,” Brown said of NOLS after completing his second course.
Brown shares that enthusiastic energy, grinning from ear to ear fresh from the field on a Wilderness Horsepacking course.
His smile might be familiar, given his participation on The Bachelorette, season two, and Bachelor Pad, season two. Though he found enduring love on neither, Brown found a different love on his first NOLS course shortly thereafter.
“This is like the best organization. I never expected to fall so much in love with it,” he raved.
Brown first came to NOLS in March, signing up for a Himalaya Mountaineering course just five days before it started. Having never slept in a sleeping bag before, Brown knew he would be challenged.
“It’s such an ostensibly difficult thing, but it wasn’t difficult at all,” Brown said, which he credited his instructors for.
Even the truly tough moments Brown relishes.
“The low points are actually the high points on a NOLS course. Adversity’s the best part … the opportunity to be creative,” he noted.
He followed his mountaineering course with a horsepacking course this month, something else in which he’d had no prior experience. This is the same reason he selected a sailing course for his next NOLS experience.
“It’s fun to start new things later,” said the 32 year old."I realized NOLS has expertise in all these different areas, and you might as well try it."
In addition to all the outdoor skills he’s racking up, Brown has seen a distinct change in himself, calling NOLS “transformational.” The curriculum and experiential learning foster a sense of humor, boost self-confidence, and demand self-awareness.
“Both the Bachelorette and NOLS strip you of all your worldly, like your occupation and all that background, and it only matters who you are and that determines your success or failure,” Brown said.
“And, you can find love in both situations and I did not find love in either case,” he laughingly added.
You never know, there’s always Baja Coastal Sailing.
Congratulations to Jamie, Andrew, Jesse, Deborah, Kurt, Chris
Saturday night, a few truly outstanding members of the NOLS team were recognized for their work. Each recipient of the 2011 staff awards was given a standing ovation by the crowd in attendance at the reception and a plaque.
Our first award recipient is an instructor and program supervisor. She took her Instructor Course in 2002, and since then she has accumulated just over 200 weeks in the field.
Jamie has taught four instructor courses and countless instructor seminars. She is a “go-to” instructor for the staffing office, as she is a backpacking, mountaineering, winter, and climbing course leader. She is known for her excellent work ethic, superb attention to detail, and commitment to training staff.
NOLS Pro has noted her “high-quality work, extensive expertise, and ‘can-do’ attitude.” These qualities were exemplified on the India Air Force Mountaineering Course on Denali. Jamie worked tirelessly to provide a safe and successful expedition that greatly improved NOLS’ relationship with the India Air Force. Once again, she proved invaluable when she agreed to fly to India at a moment’s notice to help support the instructors and students who were involved in the recent and tragic fatality.
Jamie has also worked as a mountaineering program supervisor in Alaska and is presently a winter program supervisor at the Teton Valley. As a program supervisor, she shines under pressure, has great vision and action, works exceptionally well as a member of a team, and is an advocate for staff.
Andrew Knutsen—In town
Andrew started his NOLS career in 2006. He cheerfully helps employees no matter how busy he is or how hard the question might be. He has a high level of expertise and can fix most problems or answer most questions on the spot. If he can't, then he'll do some research and keep digging until he finds the answer. While he primarily works with in-town staff as information systems desktop administrator, he willingly helps any NOLS employee work-related or not.
One question on our annual evaluations is, “what have you done to improve yourself and your position?” Andrew’s response exemplifies a great work life balance. He got certified as an OS X Apple Technical Coordinator and expanded his house sitting from cats and dogs to include horses.
Andrew is a great ambassador for NOLS. He is an avid hiker and proud member of the long-distance hiking community. He often shuttles folks who are on the Continental Divide Trail between road heads and town, which puts NOLS and Lander in a good light and also supports the use and preservation of our classroom.
He is an actor and has participated in a number of theatrical productions in Fremont County such as Man of La Mancha and Guys and Dolls. In November, he will play the role of Robert Starveling in A Midsummer’s Night Dream.
Jesse started her career in 2000 as a student on a Himalaya Backpacking course. She has been a staple at the Rocky Mountain Branch since her Instructor Course in 2005. Thirty-five of her 41 courses have been based out of Rocky Mountain.
From the beginning of her career, she has continually worked to improve and expand her skills. In 2007, she took the initiative to expand her winter skills by taking a NOLS snowboarding course in the Teton Valley.
She brought her extensive horse background to NOLS and quickly became an integral part of Three Peaks Ranch. She played an important role in finalizing the Horse-packing Instructor Notebook.
In 2008, she became a program supervisor at Rocky Mountain and split her time between Lander and the Ranch.
In October of last year, she left her job in-town to focus on full-time course work. She joined the annual faculty program, and, in the past year she worked an unbelievable 35 weeks in the field. Students of her last course noted her passion for teaching, knowledge of the NOLS curriculum, great sense of humor, and her extreme fitness—perhaps the result of 35 weeks in the field in one year.
Not surprisingly, she was not present to accept her award because she was in the field proctoring an Outdoor Educator Semester.
Deborah Nunnink—In town
Deborah is known for working and living the values we all hold dear at NOLS. She has been a key member of the NOLS community and the Lander community since 2002. She has exemplary expedition behavior and always does more than her part. She is committed to education, wilderness, and leadership.
As operations director, Deborah has transformed many ways that we do business, and her commitment to efficiency has made it possible for NOLS to prosper in challenging times while other organizations have been challenged. She helps our individual schools better themselves and has helped develop many key employees at NOLS. She strives to build programs and operating areas that are sustainable, effective, profitable, and fun.
When she was interviewed her for her job, a former boss stated she enjoys having contests and playing games with fellow employees. He also made it clear she almost always wins those games (he actually seemed a bit perturbed about this). What he didn’t say was that when she is on your team everyone wins and so does our mission.
Executive Director John Gans wasn’t able to attend the reception and admitted, “One of the hard parts of being away for this annual meeting is that I am not personally able to award this recipient. She has given so much to our organization and has been a real key to our success.”
Kurt came to the school in 2007 on a river instructor course in Utah. He has been working consistently since then in our programs in Utah, Idaho, India, and Brazil and will work in Patagonia this spring.
Since 2007, he has accumulated over 100 field weeks working river, sea kayaking and hiking courses. In 2011 he spent 28 weeks teaching classes on the water.
He is well known for his laid- back style and his excellent student outcomes. He is a fantastic coach on the river, and students comment that he is fun yet informative, respectful, and has an incredible passion for the outdoors and paddle rafting. His self-awareness, commitment, communication, and creativity are reflected over and over in his performance evaluations and are what make branches so happy to have him back.
A recent evaluation noted he did a great job of not only coaching students, but also his junior staff. He held students to high standards while respecting the knowledge they had gained from their previous semester sections. He sat down with his patrol leader and charted out the next steps in his development to course lead.
He is not able to be here as he is presently canoeing on the Amazon with semester students.
Chris Brauneis—In town
Chris first came to NOLS in 1992 on a Fall Semester in the Rockies. He worked in the Rocky Mountain issue room on and off for several years before taking his instructor course in 1997. Since then, he has worked 146 weeks in the field.
In 2004, he began work in the Rocky Mountain Program office in both the evacuation coordinator and program supervisor roles. He has shown extraordinary patience and professionalism in answering hundreds of parent phone calls.
The staff who nominated Chris for this award said the following:
“I personally am more successful in my job for having him as a friend and co-worker, as are dozens, if not hundreds, of others at NOLS.”
“His presence at the branch makes me want to continue to prioritize field courses in Lander, and I can’t imagine working in town at the RMB under a different supervisor.”
Chris is also known for his random-acts of kindness such as personal emails thanking employees for doing some aspect of their job or offering to help an employee out either personally or professionally.
In 2007, Chris became the Rocky Mountain program director where he currently oversees the supervision of 350 field staff annually. His dedication to the student experience is always forefront in his actions.
Please join us in congratulating each of these remarkable members of our team—this year's employees of the year.
Permalink | Posted by Casey Dean on Oct 18, 2011 in the following categories: Alaska, Alumni, Environmental Stewardship & Sustainability, India, Instructor News, Leadership, Mexico, New Zealand, Northeast, Pacific Northwest, Patagonia, Professional Training, Rocky Mountain, Scandinavia, Southwest, Teton Valley, Wilderness Medicine Institute, Yukon
Coursemates honor Thomas Plotkin
Students and instructors stand on a solitary path that winds through the Milam Valley in the foothills of the Himalaya Mountains. The Gori Ganga River rushes by below. They stand together to hang a few brass bells to memorialize their lost coursemate, Tom Plotkin or, as they came to call him, “T-Plot.”
These students, Tom’s family and friends, and the NOLS community lost a truly outstanding individual when he fell off the trail here nearly two weeks ago. A week later, on Sept. 29, his coursemates and instructors returned to honor Tom’s memory, hanging one large bell etched with his name and moniker in a shrine in a nearby village and a few small bells from a branch on the trail where he was last seen.
Bells are traditionally hung in the entrances of temples or shrines or on high passes of the region, often with prayer cloths hanging from the hammer, to carry sound and energy across vast distances. As the wind picks up the prayer cloth and the bell rings, a connection is believed to be made between the hearer, the message of the bell, and cosmic energy.
“Any time that bell rings, it resonates the students’ feelings toward Thomas’ soul for peace and happiness,” NOLS India Director Ravi Kumar said explained.
This group started traveling and living together Aug. 23; they were 29 days into the semester course when Tom fell. They had completed the first aid portion of the course and had moved into the backpacking section. Since the accident, the semester course members have received support from additional staff rushed to the area and a counselor.
After the solemn occasion, the students continued their NOLS experience in India, embarking on the next section of the semester. They are now immersed in a cultural experience Tom, who helped teach his coursemates Hindi and sought answers to world hunger, surely would have relished. Students will explore the culture of a village in the Munsiari region for approximately two weeks before moving into a second backpacking portion.
Events like this rock NOLS to its very core. Thank you for your support, care and concern. Join us as we keep Tom's family, friends and coursemates in our thoughts and prayers.
NOLS Grieves Thomas Plotkin Tragedy
The NOLS community is saddened to share the tragic news that Thomas Plotkin, a student on a Semester in India course, is lost and presumed dead.
Thomas was 20 years of age and was a taking a semester off from his studies at the University of Iowa, where he was majoring in international business. A talented scholar-athlete, he played both ice hockey and lacrosse while maintaining high academic standards.
In his NOLS application, Thomas expressed the importance of teamwork and leading by example. He wrote of mentoring his younger teammates as a high school senior lacrosse player.
“I tried showing them through my own actions that if they worked hard and stayed disciplined, they could achieve great things down the road,” he wrote.
This commitment to leadership followed him to NOLS. His instructors report teamwork was strong within his group—that every member had an important role to play.
The Minnetonka, Minnesota native was the leader of the day for his coursemates when he twisted his ankle and fell while hiking a historic well-traveled trail in northern India. It is believed he fell into the Gori Ganga River approximately 100 yards below the trail. After three days of exhaustive searching, Thomas has not been found, but recovery efforts on the ground are ongoing.
The entire NOLS family aches with the loss of this incredible young man.
Mourning the Loss of One of Our Own
When NOLS Executive Director John Gans told me over the phone one of our students had slipped from a well-traveled path in India, I heard in his words a margin of hope. But something behind his words told me he was visiting the darkest abyss that any parent, teacher, or person of leadership can face. I heard the pain in John’s voice say, “We have lost one of our own.”
With passing hours, we would learn about Thomas Plotkin. He was physically strong, balanced in body and mind. The best among us would have welcomed his company. His fall from this trail was unpredictable. Nonetheless, in a brief moment, he was gone. Our words cannot follow him. Our words cannot fill the emptiness. Our words cannot bring sense to the loss.
It is natural for us to ask, “What might NOLS do differently?” but today, we find ourselves without practical answers. Instead, we face the unanswerable. I realized if we cannot learn by studying the path where Thomas fell, perhaps we must learn from the paths where he did not fall. We can honor Thomas by honoring the best that is in NOLS.
The purposefulness and care NOLS instructors and their students take to fully engage with the world stands as an antidote to a society full of spectators. Our students, students like Thomas, stride up mountains, sail across oceans, and romp through canyons with hearts open to a greater good and minds geared toward preparation, competence, and service. Thomas wrote in his NOLS application his goal for this course was that the “simplified life based on meeting one’s basic needs will help [him] understand what is truly meaningful and provide [him] with a new perspective on human nature.” The best among NOLS groups are those most capable of the greatest service, and Thomas was on this course in pursuit of his potential. What our students give to each person is measured by need, and what they expect from each person is measured by ability. NOLSies, Thomas among them, weigh their meaning not by what they can take from life, but by what they can give to life.
Each of us is a blend of dust and divinity. We each have the capacity to be heroic, and we are, each and every one of us, mortal. In a time when we are reminded of that, it’s not the answers to questions that will heal; it is community and family. Now, I find myself turning to our community in a new way. When I first joined the NOLS Board, I was taken aback at how frequently NOLS people hug. My attitude toward such gestures has since softened. There is too much good exchanged among NOLS people to be wrapped in words or conveyed in a handshake. Just as Thomas’s mother told the Minneapolis Star Tribune, there is realness to a hug.
“He would smile and put his arms around me,” she told the newspaper. “When he hugged me, it was so real — so much tenderness. I’ll never forget it.”
Tori Murden McClure
NOLS Board Chair
Transforming lives in the hills
As part of the Semester in India, all students spend ten days in a village home stay high in the Himalayas. For this semester section, we partner with Malika Virdi and her company Himal Prakriti to support student environmental and cultural learning. The good work Malika is doing in rural Himalayn villages was recently profiled by the Times of India.
Field Notes: Independent in India (FSI 2)
The day after our last re-ration of food, we decided to spend the next 3 days hiking towards the Nanda Devi base camp.
The first morning, we met at the Nanda Devi temple. It was beautiful, adorned with ribbons & flags & bells. Our instructor Prani led us through ‘Puja’ – a prayer, & then students prayed by holding a burning half coconut, ringing a large bell, & bowing.
Due to sketchy bridge, we were unfortunately not able to get to the base camp, but had a great time hiking along the Shalang Gad, with a great view of Nanda Kot.
On November 1st we started our ISGE (Independent Student Group Expeditions), split into 3 small groups & hiked & camped for 5 days without instructors. The route was fairly relaxed & we hiked through the gorgeous Milam valley at a leisurely pace, stopping often to drink chai at local chai shops. We also learned how easy it is to make friends for life in India.
It was incredible how quickly the scenery climate & environment changed, as we dropped in elevation, traveling along the Gori Ganga River. Trees were suddenly adorned with color, woods populated by many bird species & villages filled with life.
One of the groups made a good friend in a 15yr old named Ganesh, who helped them find camp in Lilam, & gave them a gift of oranges. They were impressed with Ganeshs sense of style & were shocked to find out that his favorite music was Hannah Montana, Alcon, Byonce & Michael Jackson!
All the students groups met up for the last night together in jimi-Ghart. This morning we awoke early in order to meet jeeps, at 10 in the morning, to take us to Munsiari. Awaiting our arrival – instructors, wonderful food & real showers with water that falls from the sky vs the usual bucket bath. We are sad to say goodbye to 2 of our instructors, but are really excited to move on the home stay section!
- Julia, Muff, Stephanie, Elsa, Anne, Abby, Bridgette, Tom, Avi, Jamie, Cameron, Nick, Kalen, Sarah & Rachel. (Friday November 3, 2010)
Field Notes: Milam Hiking Section, Fall Semester in India (FSI 2)
Greetings from the Milam Valley! Since our last update, our group has reached a new highpoint (literally) at 15, 300’ – Birjegang Dhura pass. We’ve slept through a snowstorm at 12,000’ & braved very cold conditions, but as we write this, we are graced with clear skies, warm sun & a steady wind.
We are in Martoli (population 1 – as most of the villagers head south for the winter) waiting for a food re-ration to arrive. Luckily, our new friend Raju, the lone citizen, has been kind enough to serve us delicious lunch, & many cups of chai. He has even supplied us with new wool hats & sweaters made by his wife.
Before arriving in Martoli, where we are camped by a beautiful temple & it’s sacred lake., the second ration period of our journey took us from Paton (the site of our last re-ration) to an abandoned school around the valley in Buria. Much to our surprise, we happily ran into another NOLS course (Himalaya Backpacking) as they headed out on the final push of their month long hike.
After hiking for a few more days, we prepared for our climb to 15,300’, which took us 2 attempts due to an originally increasable drainage. Our diligent instructors forged a safe crossable path with ice axes & the following day we successfully reached on our second try. Hiking through snow varying from 1 inch deep to thigh deep, we descended from the pass to a much lower & thankfully warmer elevation.
Recently our hiking days have been shorter & have thus afforded us more time to focus on student taught classes. Subjects have ranged from Yoga to Sitar to the Ganges, but they all relate in some way to Indian culture and/or the environment.
We’ve also been prepping for our ISGE (independent of Instructors Student Expedition) on which we’ll divide ourselves into 3 hiking groups & travel out for 5 days on our own. This is an exciting time for us, essentially an accumulation of our 30 days hiking section – what we have been working towards all month. Until then, our trek will take us back through the Milam valley.
After our ISGE’s we’ll be left with only a few short weeks – 10 days in a homestay, followed by a 12-day rafting adventure down the Holy Ganges River.
(Via Cass Colman, October 28 2010)
A student blogs... from the field!
So far, our semester in India has been an exhilarating combination of beautiful Himalayan sights, long days of backpacking on challenging terrain (now affectionately referred to as the “Himalayan stair-master”), drinking chai in tiny tea stalls on trail and soaking in the local culture. Our group of fifteen students and four instructors has been continually amazed by what we’ve experienced in the one month we have been in the field.
The record rain totals India has received this season have been very evident and continue to be as we encounter landslide after landslide (both major & minor) while on trail. Luckily our days are now full of sunshine and beautiful weather.
The ten-day Pindar Backpacking Section [see this blog for more on this section] introduction to backpacking and living in the field, and set all of us up really well for the 30-day Milam Backpacking Section that we are now almost half way through.
As this blog entry is being written, we are in a tiny village about twenty kilometers from the Tibetan border. We are camping just below the local temple in Paton and happen to be joined by what sounds like a couple of hundred of sheep and their shepherds. The 30-day Milam section has been quite different from our previous section in that we have been much further from villages and the local people. While learning about off-trail route finding, map reading and other very crucial aspects of backcountry travel, we have been crossing extremely diverse terrain.
Today we are expecting our re-ration (re-supply of food) so we are spending the day in camp. We are doing laundry the best we can, planning our next section of travel and preparing our group for our entry into the Milam valley. In 16 days our group will be embarking on our home-stay section in a small village just outside of Munsiari. None of us knows exactly what to expect, but are excited to be truly immersed in the local culture and the day-to-day life. Following our home stay, the final section of the semester will be river rafting on the holy Ganges river. It seems very far away now, but time has been moving by quite quickly.
Would love to share our pictures with you (http://www.flickr.com/groups/fsi_09-13-10/). We will see you all soon and look forward to sharing more of our experience with you when we return.
Anne, Tom, Muff, Julia, Abigail, Jamie, Cameron, Bridgette, Avi, Nick, Kalen, Stephanie, Elsa, Rachel, Sarah, Prani, Cass, Robin & Rahul (and Aparna in spirit!)
Three Days to the Trailhead in Monsoon Madness
“Namaste, mujko unis chai chayi hey [Greetings, we would like 19 chais]” Fall Semester in India student Stephanie confidently asked the chaiwalla (the Himalayan equivalent of a Starbucks barista, except with tea) in perfect Hindi.
Little did I know when I signed up to work the 10-day Pindari Trekking section of the Semester in India that Stephanie’s language skills would be one of the most valuable skills on this section of the course, the other skill being Tolerance for Adversity and Uncertainty. I don’t mean to sound trite –I often chime “Tolerance for Adversity and Uncertainty” every time I refer to a challenge on a NOLS course (and I am not the only one guilty of overusing this phrase). But I mean it this time, I really do!
After shepherding fifteen students through days of torrential monsoon rains of biblical proportions, and the resulting landslides (which ravaged several villages in Northern India), our four-person instructor team breathed a sigh of relief when we finally reached our trailhead, three days after our scheduled arrival. Had we not been able to effectively communicate with the numerous chaiwallas, drivers, and other villagers we encountered along the way, these three days could very easily have turned into four, five, six days, or more.
And had our students not adopted a Zen attitude along way, trusting our judgment, uncomplainingly going with the flow, and making jokes and singing Disney and Broadway tunes to bring levity to the obviously serious situation, our course could have ended on Day Two.
The distance we covered in our first three days was 160 kilometers (that’s a little over 99 miles) from the NOLS India base in Ranikhet to the trailhead. Typically, the “drive” takes eight hours by bus, with a lunch stop and a visit to a historic temple. This same drive took us three days by bus, jeep, van, and foot.
With initial support from Hindi-speaking employees from the base, Vinay Sirsi, Prasad Gadgil, and Cho Zhang, and of course our Hindi-speaking instructor team member Pranesh (Prani) Manchaiah, we were able to hail down jeeps to shuttle us between landslides, and then hike through the landslides (several kilometers at a time), to reach our final destination.
By day two, we no longer operated like a group trying to get to trailhead. The NOLS course had begun. We started teaching curriculum: how to pitch a tent . . . on the back patio of a restaurant, how to properly fit a backpack before hefting it up the narrow shepherds’ trails (“Himalayan Stairclimbers”) to circumvent roads that had been washed away by rains, how to use an Indian toilet, Hindi communication skills (thanks to Prani), keeping clothes and bodies dry, and Leave No Trace principles (you pack out those biscuit wrappers and Fanta soda bottles).
Disappointment transformed into a true learning experience. We had navigated trails no NOLS course had ever trod before. We had visited villages that likely had never seen NOLS students (let alone foreigners) before. We practiced true tolerance for adversity and uncertainty, with no knowledge of how far our jeeps could carry us before we encountered another slide, or where we would finally pitch our tents that night. The entire group was thrown head first into aspects of Indian culture we would never have had the opportunity to experience had things not gone sideways: including how to travel through India, where to bivouac at the drop of a hat, and what food to eat (and not eat) on the road. The students bonded over the challenge. And the instructor team gelled after having to confer on risk management decisions hour upon hour. When we asked our students what lessons they took home from our first section, they all hearkened back to the first three days, when we were not even on our designated trail.
After the adventurous start, the remaining seven days on trail were relatively uneventful. Once we reached the trailhead, we were once again in control of our schedule and the “epicness” faded away and was replaced by simple enjoyment of our surroundings. After seven days and seven nights of rain, the monsoon came to a halt overnight, we were greeted by a gorgeous rainbow framing views of the Himalayas, and we spent the rest of our days bathed in the sunshine. We jaunted from village to village, taking ample chai breaks along the way to soak in the views, and camped in idyllic meadows, surrounded by cattle, water buffalos, sheep, goats, and monkeys. We passed locals on their daily commutes between villages, hauling 100 pound logs or giant bales of grass on their backs while treading in only sandals over the cobbled paths, and colorful mule trains carrying vital supplies to the remote villages. We hiked over passes adorned with prayer flags and dotted by shrines to the gods of the Himalayas: Shiva, Parvati, Ganesha, Hanuman, and Durga. We caught glimpses of the lofty peaks of these gods’ abodes in the Greater Himalaya—Nanda Devi, Nanda Khot, and others—as we trapsed through Rhododendron forests. The instructor team briefed over hot chai, crispy Pakoras, and steaming Parotas fire-baked in village ovens.
Granted, it was not a pure backcountry experience, but it was not a front country experience either. Mid-country, maybe? Is that even a word? Doesn’t matter, sign me up!
Our section may have been a success, but our thoughts go out to the villagers in Northern India and Pakistan who lost homes, livelihoods, and loved ones in this year’s monsoons. To read more about the monsoons, click here. To find out how to help victims of the monsoons in Uttarakhand, contact NOLS India at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To see photos from this section, check out the NOLS India FSI-2 Flickr Group.
Phir Milenge (until we meet again!).