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Reaching New Levels on a Southwest Climbing Course

“These students had a broad spectrum of prior experience climbing. They came in with a variety of goals and expectations relating to their prior experience climbing. Most were excited for the ability to focus on technical skills development and have the extra time allowed for that due to the course having a base camp structure,” said Program Supervisor Sydney Hartsock of the Southwest Rock Climbing course that just came out of the field.

 This is a new course type for NOLS, and it’s been so well received that we’ve added another date this year: April 16.

SRO 2015 Student Group
 Photo by Naresh Kumar

Whether you have experience in climbing or none at all, NOLS Southwest Rock Climbing course provides you with the climbing resources needed to achieve your goals.  To help you become an experienced climber, the instructors introduce the fundamentals before jumping into climbing. During this phase, students learn to properly tie knots, use helmets and harnesses, build anchors, sport and traditional (trad) climbing principals, and more. From here, students and instructors settle in with each other and set goals based on their abilities. A student’s vision and action will determine what he or she will achieve during this course no matter what their prior experience is.  

 Once the students become comfortable with their technical skills, the team works together to climb through deep canyons, rocky domes, and tall spires in the Dragoon Mountains. There, students begin with climbs that are found to be easier so they can get a feel for the sport while progressing at their own pace. After accomplishing these climbs, the group is challenged with tougher climbs that may seem impossible at the time, but while building strength, knowledge, and working together as a team the students push themselves beyond limits that were present before. Eventually, students become competent with their climbing skills and exposed to vertical cliff rescue, fixed line accession, lead climbing, aid climbing, and multi pitch climbing.

 Besides learning technical skills, the group also develops a broad range of leadership skills in the Southwest. When climbing and hiking to new destinations, the group relies expedition behavior, communication, and self-awareness. These skills help the students stay focused on the task at hand and guide them in reaching their goals.  In all, students leave the NOLS Southwest with a set of skills that allows them to pursue future expeditions.


Permalink | Posted by Michael Betz on Feb 2, 2015 in the following categories: Leadership, Southwest

Life on the Borders

 “Semester on the Borders students experience two very distinct and complimentary bioregions on this course: the desert Southwest and the Pacific Northwest marine environment. I can't think of another course that integrates such extremely different environments into one expedition,” said NOLS Instructor and Pacific Northwest Operations Manager John Harnetiaux.

 Over the course of 86 days, two NOLS locations team up to offer an adventure like no other. The Semester on the Borders expedition offers five sections throughout the course. First, students experience some of the best rock climbing in the world in the Cochise Stronghold in Arizona or Joshua National Park and Taquitz in California. During this section, students develop an extensive amount of confidence that guides them into lead climbing when ready. 

 “The highlight is experiencing the daily contrasts of the desert environment. It might be 80 degrees during the day, and then drop down to below freezing later that night. Gaining 1000 ft. of elevation in the Gila, Galiuros, or Santa Teresas can change the ecosystem dramatically, with the flora and fauna being remarkably different within this relatively short gain in vertical distance,” said Harnetiaux.

 After this section is complete, the course gets to experience a whole new environment in the Pacific Northwest.

 “NOLS Semester on the Borders was the perfect practicing ground, and this trip seemed to cover interesting topics, and a wide range of climates while maintaining an outdoors educator travel life feel,” said recent Borders graduate Zachary Piña.

 Being able to make the transition to a marine life expedition is a tremendous goal for everyone on the journey. During the two sections in the Northwest, students learn two more technical skills. Sea kayaking and keelboat sailing provide further lessons in becoming an extraordinary leader.

 “The SWNW section is 3 weeks long. Each student gets more time navigating, more time trimming sail, more days as "First Mate" than any other keelboat sailing course we offer," said NOLS Instructor and Curriculum Publications Manager Ben Lester. "For a skill as complex as keelboat sailing, that extra week is super valuable for cementing learning.

 While traveling through the waters of British Columbia’s coast and reaching the Strait of Georgia, students each have the opportunity to be the first mate of the boat. The first mate is given complete control over the crew and in this position is able to truly follow his or her vision and action.

 The Semester on the Borders includes a Wilderness First Aid (WFA) course before stepping foot in the outdoors. This section is taught by NOLS Wilderness Medicine Institute instructors, and upon completion students receive WFA and CPR certifications.

 Piña reflected on finding his way to-and in-the Borders.

 “Deciding on one place was difficult and choosing both, seemed to be the best choice, as it provided a glimpse at the life of a traveling outdoor educator, which ultimately is the direction that I am still heading towards,” he said.







Permalink | Posted by Michael Betz on Jan 22, 2015 in the following categories: Alumni, Pacific Northwest, Southwest, Wilderness Medicine Institute

NOLS Southwest Celebrates Wilderness

What better way to celebrate the Wilderness Act than to get out and enjoy a piece of public lands?

NOLS Southwest teamed up with Arizona to do just that in November. Dozens of organizations welcomed thousands of individuals to the Wild for Wilderness Festival at the Sabino Canyon Recreational Area. NOLS Southwest hosted one of the activity stations placed along a two-mile trail to educate. NOLS staff taught kids how to read and draw topographic maps from play dough models. Adults learned about map and compass and GPS navigation.


Photo by Jehan Osanyin

Gila District Manager Tim Shannon thanked NOLS for its role in protecting and enhancing Wilderness recourses: “The future is bright … the future is our next generation of wilderness supporters," he said. "Most importantly, it is the children … and the grandchildren that are learning about wilderness from you."

Permalink | Posted by NOLS on Dec 2, 2014 in the following categories: Environmental Stewardship & Sustainability, Southwest

NOLS Thanks In-Town Staff

Each year, NOLS hands out a few awards to instructors, community members, alumni, and in-town staff to recognize their hard work, dedication, and positive changes in the world.

Please join us in congratulating this year's NOLS in-town awardees Alexa Callison-Burch, Debra East and Chris Agnew!

Alexa Callison-Burch: We feel blessed everyday that we get to work with Alexa

Alexa came to NOLS in the summer of 2006 when she completed her first NOLS course, an Absaroka Backpacking course. She is remembered by her instructors, as being passionate about wilderness, having excellent expedition behavior, and fulfilling a role as a mentor for other students. She was engaged with all aspects of the course. This promising performance led her instructors to encourage her to complete a fall Outdoor Educator semester as a step toward becoming an instructor.  She completed her instructor course in the spring of 2007 and began working field courses. Since that time, Alexa has worked over 60 field weeks as a hiking and sea kayaking instructor providing many students with inspiring energy and education as they embarked on their own wilderness expeditions. She is committed to providing each student with the opportunity to have life changing experiences on every course she works.

In 2011, Alexa completed a Wilderness EMT course in Lander. She then went on to complete an Instructor Training Course with NOLS Wilderness Medicine Institute in November of 2012. Since that time, she has worked WFRs, WFAs, and WFRRs. She is a natural fit given both her organizational skills and teaching acumen.

Alexa’s in-town career began in the NOLS Field Staffing office in 2009, where she helped match field instructors with their courses and students. She moved over to NOLS Rocky Mountain as the evacuation coordinator in 2010. In this role, Alexa has modeled excellence by helping our instructors and the branch manage the diversity of infield challenges and evacuations that arise. She is known and admired for her calm and patient communication style that allows her to support students and instructors in the field. Alexa’s care and empathy for each individual student is felt by all. We have become a more compassionate school due to her influence.


Debra East: For her commitment to inclusion and can-do attitude

Brad_christensen-20141011-8882After years of running the underground bed and breakfast for NOLS field instructors, Debra began her official NOLS career in 2003. Over the next four years, she shared her skills and passion with such varied departments as purchasing, admissions, marketing, and WMI. In each of these roles she was valued for her upbeat, positive attitude and willingness to do whatever needed doing.

Since joining NOLS in a full-time capacity in 2007, Debra has committed her energies to excellence in customer service. A recent recipient of a Moving Hands Scholarship with American Sign Language interpretation noted, “Her clear and detailed communication, support, and encouragement makes me all the more sure that the National Outdoor Leadership School is the place to be when studying and appreciating the outdoors.” 

In 2008, Debra stepped up to become the WMI admissions supervisor. In this role, she has mentored many individuals. One former employee shared, “She allows employees the opportunity and space to navigate their positions and thrive while she stands nearby.” Another reached out to say, “I can’t thank her enough for giving me confidence as a worker and a woman in the workplace.” Debra’s employees hope one day to receive her highest compliment, a new database feature named for them.

Debra’s passionate and tireless work to help NOLS be a school that welcomes everyone has resulted in significant increases in students supported through scholarships, Veteran’s Administration funds, Segal AmeriCorps Education Awards, and most recently 529 Education Awards. Her work to develop an agreement with Western State Colorado University helped students benefit from, and NOLS secure, nearly $1 million in tuition dollars this past year. 

Debra goes above and beyond to build relationships with students she supports. After this most recent Wilderness Medicine Expedition for physicians and nurses, three students shared it was their interactions on the phone with Debra that solidified their decision to take the course—because their questions and uncertainties were so well addressed.


Chris Agnew: For his outstanding contributions to our students and mission

Brad_christensen-20141011-8841Chris took a Spring Semester in Kenya in 1998, and his instructor wrote, “Mr. Energy had a positive effect on every situation he was involved in. He plays hard and works equally hard. He assumed leadership roles and actively learned the stations on the sailing dhow. He was a role model of good expedition behavior to the rest of the expedition members.” Another instructor added, “His undefeatable positive attitude, sense of humor, navigation ability, and easy-going style all contributed to his selection as small group leader.”

In May of 2001, Chris took an Instructor Course at NOLS Rocky Mountain and followed that by working his first course—a July North Cascades Wilderness Course—as a patrol leader.

He has worked climbing, canyon, hiking, and mountaineering courses. Most of the work was accomplished at NOLS Pacific Northwest, but some at NOLS Rocky Mountain, Alaska, and Southwest.

In January of 2007, Chris transitioned into administrative work as WMI staffing manager at NOLS Headquarters. Staff who worked with him during his in-town years commented that, “he is exceptionally strong in the area of judgment and decision making. He is a critical and organized thinker who weighs the variables quickly and makes sound decisions. He is an articulate and direct communicator who quickly grasps the tenor of the conversation at hand regardless of its impromptu or challenging nature."

Since 2010, Chris has served as Pacific Northwest director with additional oversight over both NOLS India and NOLS Scandinavia. During his time in this role, NOLS has increased the number of students we educate on our Scandinavia program, moved to a more permanent location in Sweden, and created a legal entity in that country. We have also expanded our course offerings at the PNW with the addition of new courses like the Pacific Northwest Spring Quarter and the Pacific Northwest Mountaineering and Sailing and introduced adventure age programming. In India, NOLS has maneuvered through numerous, complex Indian bureaucratic systems and introduced the Himalaya Cultural Expedition. In addition to his directorship responsibilities Chris also currently serves on the leadership team for the NOLS Strategic Plan goal for Exceptional Student Experiences.


Permalink | Posted by Casey Adams on Oct 15, 2014 in the following categories: Alaska, Instructor News, Pacific Northwest, Rocky Mountain, Scandinavia, Southwest, Wilderness Medicine Institute

Get to Know NOLS Southwest

NOLS Southwest Director Lindsay Nohl made her way back to the computer after a weekend of mountain biking just in time to share her favorite aspects of operating in the American Southwest. Read what she had to say about the region below.

Brad_christensen_20121013_3646If you had one sentence to describe your staff, you would say:

Our NOLS Southwest staff is a group of caring, smart, and creative individuals who thrive on going above and beyond to create the best experience possible for our students. 

How long have you been NOLS Southwest Branch Director?

​Four and a half years​ as branch director. I also spent two years as assistant director (2006–2008) and two years working in three different positions operations assistant, rations manager, and outfitting manager (2003–2005).

How did it all begin for you?

“I knew I wanted to become a NOLS instructor from the first week in the field,” recalls Lindsay. “And, at the end of my course, I knew I wanted to give others a similar life-changing experience.”

In 2004, Lindsay’s dream became a reality. Read more from this previous interview with Lindsay here.

What is your favorite aspect of running courses in your part of the world?

I think that the desert is a magical place and I love being able to send students out to discover the beauty in the places that we operate. It makes me smile to think of a student climbing up a huge granite dome at Cochise Stronghold or walking through patches of sunlight in a deep rocky canyon of the Gila Wilderness.  

What unique or particularly appealing aspect of this branch do you think potential students should know about?

Students often tell me that coming back to the NOLS Southwest base "feels like coming back home" after they have been out in the backcountry. We have a beautiful 10-acre campus with an open-air ramada complete with an outdoor "living room" where our students hang out while they are in town. Our small in-town staff all live on-site and really get to know our students throughout their course experience. Our students are part of the NOLS Southwest community the minute they show up for their course.

What would you say most surprises students when they arrive or during their course in that part of the world?

The desert environment and the huge amount of plant and animal diversity they will experience as they travel through the desert "life zones" at different elevations. NOLS Southwest sits at 2,500 feet and is littered with huge Saguaro cactus, mesquite trees, and creosote bushes. Students see coyotes, javelina, and roadrunners on our school property. When they get up into some of the various mountain ranges like the Gila National Forest in New Mexico (7,000–10,000 feet), they will be hiking through spruce-fir, aspen, or ponderosa pine forests and may encounter deer, black bear, bighorn sheep, or wild turkeys. Elevation creates such a stark contrast in the desert.

Anything else you'd like me to include when we brag about your branch, staff, or part of the world?

I know I'm a tad biased, but the Southwest is home to the best sunsets on the planet.

Permalink | Posted by Casey Adams on Jun 23, 2014 in the following categories: Alumni, Leadership, Southwest

Welcome, NOLS Fellows!

By Christina Sallis, Diversity and Inclusion Intern

With summer just around the corner, things are starting to pick up at all NOLS locations around the world. We are excited to introduce a new group of NOLS Fellows to help out during this busy time. The NOLS Fellowship program was started in 2012 to create a pathway for people of color in the United States to pursue a career in outdoor education and to offer Fellows the opportunity to inspire people within their own communities to connect with the outdoors.

Image-1Tracie Williams will be joining the NOLS Rocky Mountain community in May, bringing tons of enthusiasm and interesting experiences with her. Tracie swears she can cook any gourmet meal in the backcountry with a stove and a casserole dish, she hitch-hiked across the U.S. and Canada, and has lived out of her car with a bird for a summer. She can usually be found with her best friend and dog, Merlin, and we are excited to have both in Lander for the summer.

Floyd Gossett was intrigued by stories he heard from NOLS grads during his travels. He recently took a Baja Sea Kayaking course at NOLS Mexico, where he experienced Floyd firsthand what NOLS has to offer and decided he’d like to get more involved. Floyd will head to NOLS Teton Valley this summer to fulfill this goal, where his laughter, stories, and barbecue skills will surely be appreciated.

Elsie Freland hails from Lander, Wyoming and has been around NOLS most of her life. She took a NOLS course out of NOLS Rocky Mountain when she was just 17 and looks forward to returning to NOLS as the NOLS Southwest Fellow. Elsie graduated from college last May with an art history degree and a minor in religion. She can be found pursuing her passion for the arts at museums, plays, and painting in the studio.

MicaNOLS Pacific Northwest is excited to have Michaela Cohen-Fuentes (Mica) join the community as a Fellow this summer. Mica did a Wind River Range expedition out of NOLS Rocky Mountain that sparked her passion for the outdoors. She has lived in Italy and Mexico and can speak French, Spanish, and Italian. She loves hiking, biking, reading, and exchanging travel stories.

Look out for these awesome Fellows and the work they will be doing with NOLS this summer. Welcome to NOLS, Fellows!

Permalink | Posted by Casey Adams on May 14, 2014 in the following categories: Alumni, Mexico, Pacific Northwest, Rocky Mountain, Southwest

Radio Stars: NOLS Southwest Course

Odessa, Texas NPR affiliate KXWT interviewed NOLS Southwest instructors and students before they hit the river Monday morning. The instructors shared their passion and believe in a NOLS education with Marfa Public Radio, and the students rattled of the many reasons they were there and goals they have for their Spring Semester in the Southwest.

Screen Shot 2014-03-06 at 7.31.32 AM

Listen to the interview here.

Permalink | Posted by Casey Adams on Mar 6, 2014 in the following categories: In The News, Instructor News, Southwest

Leadership in the Wilderness: The First Darden/NOLS Course

By Alex Fife

UVA-Darden-web-logoAs the last light faded and I clicked on my headlamp, two things had become clear: 1) it is very dark in the wilderness, and 2) this was not going to be a simple walk in the woods. Though night had fallen, we still had to cover a considerable distance before reaching and setting up camp. I thought back on the day: we had hiked at least six miles, first across an expanse of cactus and thorns and then through a rocky canyon with gnarled Arizona sycamore trees. When not hiking, our time had been filled with instruction on fundamental outdoor skills such as how to cook with a camp stove, read a topographic map, and the multistep process for going to the bathroom in the woods. It was the beginning of a class unlike any other offered at Darden.

Photo by Kenny Schulman

This January marked the first Darden collaboration with the National Outdoor Leadership School, NOLS for short. In addition to running custom programs for companies like Google and, NOLS Professional Training has offered courses for a number of MBA programs. Jake Freed, Assistant Director of NOLS Pro and one our instructors, believes that “the wilderness actually draws many parallels with the landscape business school graduates will face. It is an ambiguous, dynamic setting where decisions with real consequences must be made, often with incomplete information.” Dr. Freed notes that the course structure encourages participants to “practice leadership skills in a challenging, unfamiliar environment where it is OK to fail and where both success and failure ultimately lead to profound learning.”

When asked about Darden’s decision to collaborate with NOLS, Professor Yael Grushka-Cockayne responded that “The Darden/NOLS field elective was about experiencing leadership. The idea was to empower our students by allowing each and every participant to discover their capabilities as leaders, while operating in a unique and challenging setting. When the decisions you make as a leader can result in your team hiking in the dark, getting lost, or not having enough water, outcomes are direct and consequences clear. Leaders and team members alike are called to think and care for each other in new ways and to rely on trust, extraordinary teamwork, non-selfish behavior and mutual respect.”Our course took place in the Galiuro Mountains in Arizona. Never heard of the Galiuro Mountains? Neither had we, but being in the desert in January sounded reasonably warm and the course description spoke of an area “renowned for its rugged terrain, spectacular Sonoran ecology and beautiful vistas.” It is also a treacherous place where, in the words of second year student Amanda Miller, “EVERYTHING will bite, prick, or sting you.” So it was with a mixture of excitement and trepidation that 13 second year students, Yael, one alum, and three NOLS instructors ventured into the wilderness.

Photo by Kenny Schulman

The objective for the week was clear: to hike south through the mountain range, a distance of roughly 40 miles through canyons and high mountain passes. While our NOLS instructors would serve as advisors, Darden students were responsible for almost every aspect of the expedition. Every day, three students would act as expedition leaders, each responsible for leading a small team from dawn until dusk. These leaders would plot the course for the day, draw up contingency plans, and make dozens of critical decisions along the way. NOLS instructors would give their advice when asked, but would not intervene if a leader made a mistake.

“We had to make real managerial decisions in the middle of nowhere,” said Amanda Miller, “We had to manage our peers in uncharted territory.  We had to use a compass and a topographical map to figure out how to get down mountain faces by the light of a headlamp with no trail in sight.  We all learned about our leadership styles and how they can evolve when you move between carefully planned scenarios and chaotic uncertainty.”

“We were able to exercise both our leadership and active follower skills while receiving concrete feedback from our Darden peers and NOLS instructors,” noted Kat Baronowski, a second year student and DSA President, “It was a great opportunity to put into practice a number of the lessons we’ve learned in the Darden classroom.”

Photo by Mark Silvers

Mark Silvers, a second year student and Marine Corps veteran, agreed that the experience was a dramatic departure from learning leadership in a classroom. “It is completely different to lead a team in an environment where a leader’s mistakes can cost daylight, calories, warmth, and morale.” he said, “Darden students aren’t Marines, and the trip provided an extraordinary opportunity for me to adapt my leadership style to a diverse group with a wide range of backgrounds, risk tolerances, and priorities.”

Our NOLS instructors also pushed us to improve our “expedition behavior,” a mantra that embodies good teamwork, active followership, and mindfulness. If you see something that needs to be done in camp, do it. If you have a suggestion for a better route on the map, speak up. If you see a teammate struggling, offer to carry some extra weight to lighten their load. Share the precious last Fig Newton you had been saving when you notice someone needs an energy boost. The Darden team fully embraced this mentality and their small acts of unselfishness had a huge impact on the success of an expedition. I will be forever grateful for the untold number of sacrifices, words of encouragement and respect that my teammates gave me.

Photo by Kenny Schulman

Never was that spirit more critical than on our final day, when we rose before sunrise and hiked five miles to reach our rendezvous point. Bone tired and freezing cold, it took every ounce of energy and will to keep going. Yet despite our miserable state, all I could hear in the darkness (on our supposedly “silent hike”) was laughter and encouraging comments. One student sang a song about breakfast burritos and we chuckled to discover another, in the dim light, proudly sporting his favorite purple long johns sans pants.

As the rising sun filled the canyon with a red glow, I was struck with a pang of sadness that our journey had come to an end. I was going to miss the camaraderie, the cheesy bagels fried over a carefully balanced camp stove, and our intense sense of common purpose. Yet as I hiked the last miles of the trip, I took heart in the fact that the hard-earned lessons of the past week extended far beyond the trail.

Truly, this course was unlike any at Darden.


This post originally appeared in the February edition of the Darden School of Business' news journal, The Cold Call Chronicle.

Permalink | Posted by Casey Pikla on Feb 24, 2014 in the following categories: Leadership, Professional Training, Southwest

Imagine your 2014 summer

Summer is here!

Well, at least the 2014 summer NOLS course catalog is here, and that's even better, because you still have time to plan the perfect summer with NOLS.


We have boxes and boxes and boxes of the summer catalog here at NOLS Headquarters, so request one here. If you'd prefer a paperless version, we've got you covered, too. Download the iPad version of the 2014 summer catalog here.

Permalink | Posted by Casey Adams on Jan 16, 2014 in the following categories: Alaska, Alumni, Amazon, Australia, Curriculum, Environmental Stewardship & Sustainability, India, Instructor News, Leadership, Mexico, New Zealand, Northeast, On The Net, Pacific Northwest, Patagonia, Professional Training, Rocky Mountain, Scandinavia, Southwest, Teton Valley, Wilderness Medicine Institute, Wyss Wilderness Medicine Campus, Yukon

The 12 Days of NOLS

We’ve found the perfect way to get you into the holiday spirit and fight the cold snap with a hearty laugh. Watch NOLS Creative’s newest (and possibly goofiest) release, “The 12 Days of NOLS,” a NOLS variation on the classic tune, to get a taste of the NOLS experience or reminisce about your course! Written with extensive input from the peanut gallery, shot and edited in less than 12 hours, and brought to you with only mild shame, we now ask you to watch the video and sing along.

On the first day of my course Paul Petzoldt gave to me ...


Windpants with a reinforced knee

Two trekking poles

Three Peaks Ranch


Five pounds of cheese

Six dudes belaying

Seven miles a' shwackin’

Eight malt balls missing

Nine quickdraws clipping

Ten backpacks bulging

Eleven toasty hot drinks

Twelve students mapping

 Happy Holidays from NOLS

Permalink | Posted by Casey Adams on Dec 10, 2013 in the following categories: Alaska, Alumni, Amazon, Australia, Books, Curriculum, India, Instructor News, Leadership, Mexico, New Zealand, Northeast, On The Net, Pacific Northwest, Patagonia, Professional Training, Rocky Mountain, Scandinavia, Southwest, Teton Valley, Wilderness Medicine Institute, Yukon

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