Stock trucks and enthusiasm: The early
In the mid 1960s Paul Petzoldt saw the need for a school that
specifically trained people to be skilled outdoor leaders and
educators. For a couple of years, Paul had been working at the
Colorado Outward Bound School as their Chief Instructor and had
first-hand experience with the limited pool of instructors. Hence,
he founded the National Outdoor Leadership School on March 4,
1965, in Sinks Canyon near Lander, Wyoming. The original facility
was located at the Rise of the Sinks where the Sinks Canyon State
Park Headquarters is found today.
On June 8, 1965, the first NOLS
students were issued food and gear. They were loaded into stock
trucks and driven to the trailhead at the Hidden Valley Ranch
where they were dropped off to spend the next month in the Wind
River Range. That summer, there were three wilderness courses
consisting of approximately 100 male students.
The only resources not in short supply during the first several
years were enthusiasm and imagination. Money was always elusive
during the early years at NOLS. Most of the clothing used by students
during the 1960s and into the early 1970s was U.S. Army surplus
from the Korean War, purchased in Cheyenne and Denver at surplus
warehouses. These garments became parts of the "NOLS uniform"
and were "issued and deissued," (these phrases originated
during Petzoldt's days with the 10th Mountain Division during
World War II and are still in use today).
Equipment and clothing
commercially unavailable was designed by Paul Petzoldt and manufactured
by seamstress Thelma Young. In an interview in 1979, Paul spoke
about the early years of NOLS: "We were experimenting all
the time. We were trying things out. If they didn't work, they
got kicked out."
30 Days to Survival and the rise of NOLS
NOLS rapidly developed during the first five years. In 1966, NOLS
courses allowed women to be students and in 1967 NOLS started
offering courses specifically designed for boys ages 13-15 years
old (later to be known as Adventure Courses). But there were two
major events that brought NOLS into the limelight. In December
1969, Life Magazine wrote an article on Petzoldt entitled "Last
Mountain Man? Not If He Can Help It." Then in January 1970,
the Alcoa Hour, a television show similar to The Mutual of Omaha's
Wild Kingdom, ran an hour-long episode called "30 Days to
Survival," which featured NOLS. These events were significant
because enrollment went from 250 students in 1969 to more than
750 in 1970.
The 1970s were marked by rapid growth. Just between 1970 and
1972, NOLS ran the first instructor course and expanded to Mexico,
Alaska, Idaho and the North Cascades.
On July 14, 1975, due to disenchantment between Paul Petzoldt
and the NOLS board of directors, Petzoldt was removed as NOLS'
executive director by the board and given the title of "senior
advisor". Jon Hamren was appointed executive director after
Paul's departure from July to December 1975. Peter Simer then
stepped in as executive director in December 1975.
By the end of 1976, NOLS employed about 40 instructors and,
during the 1976-77 season, NOLS educated 1,523 students. As the
decade of the 1970s drew to a close, NOLS had more of an internal
focus and was becoming well entrenched in the field of outdoor
The 1980s at NOLS were marked not by dramatic growth, as had been
the case in the 1970s, but by staff and instructor training with
an increased emphasis on safety, public outreach, involvement
with environmental issues, financial security, controlled growth
and conscious planning for the future.
Many people began to realize that more training might be necessary
in specific course areas. Many seminars and conferences for instructors,
such as whitewater instructor seminar, cliff rescue, soft skills
and a Wilderness EMT training, were presented.
While instructors were honing their skills, the administration
of NOLS was growing in size and professionalism. There were 45
full-time staff members at the NOLS headquarters in 1980. The
NOLS board added more positions and was drawing increasingly from
an international pool. In August of 1983, Executive Director Peter
Simer left NOLS; he was replaced by Jim Ratz in March 1984. Under
Ratz's leadership, an effective alumni association was established
in 1984, which drew graduates back together, got a scholarship
drive underway in 1986 and in 1988 established the NOLS Alumni
Fund. Ratz was also instrumental in recognizing Paul's contribution
as founder of NOLS and getting Paul the recognition he deserved.
Under Ratz's leadership Paul was made President Emeritus.
During these years, NOLS also became more focused on public
outreach programs. More people were becoming familiar with NOLS
philosophies and techniques through conferences, training programs
The 1990s began with the opening of NOLS Patagonia in northern
Chile. This was the first branch formed since the Kenya facility
in 1974. Through the 1990s NOLS continued to concentrate on similar
themes of the 1980s: high quality courses, outreach programs,
Leave No Trace, public policy, instructor/staff development, etc.
There was also a revival of expansion into new course areas. The
school opened a branch in the Yukon Territory of Canada and NOLS
Pacific Northwest began running courses in Australia and India.
In 1995, Jim Ratz stepped down as executive director and was
replaced by John Gans. Under Gans' leadership, the school began
to redefine what new directions it was capable of taking. In 1999
this energy accelerated as NOLS Teton Valley opened in Driggs
Idaho, NOLS purchased the Wilderness Medicine Institute and NOLS
Professional Training was formed. NOLS Professional Training provides
seminars, customized training, consulting services and program
reviews to outdoor educators and programs around the globe, including
In 2001, NOLS ushered in a new era in the school's history when it began construction of its international headquarters building in downtown Lander. The new facility was part of a larger project, the International Base Camp Initiative, which, at its completion, would create a Lander-based NOLS campus. Additionally, the project included renovations to the historic Noble Hotel, classroom space and research facilities.
In November 2002 the international headquarters building reached its completion providing a centralized operation center for NOLS courses worldwide.
In February 2003, NOLS was deeply affected by the Space Shuttle Columbia tragedy. The entire crew of seven astronauts participated on a NOLS Professional Training course August 20-31, 2001 in the Wind River Range of Wyoming, and the news of the break up of the shuttle was very difficult for the NOLS community.
In June 2003, NOLS closed its school in East Africa, deciding the region's political and social future is just too uncertain to continue enrolling students there. The decision was a hard one for NOLS—founded in 1974 NOLS East Africa had a special place in the hearts of many graduates and staff. The NOLS legacy in wilderness education, however, will continue in East Africa. Countless guides and park rangers learned Leave No Trace skills at NOLS, and some local staff might start their own wilderness education program.
In early 2004, NOLS launched a number of significant marketing projects including the production of a NOLS television series called Backcountry Boot Camp, filmed during a Wind River Mountaineering course. NOLS was also rated the “#1 Adventure Camp” by Outside magazine, finding a spot on the Outdoor Life Network. Also, in August the NOLS solar and vegetable-powered bus rolled out of Lander to promote NOLS, leadership and alternative energy in communities nationwide.
In January 2007, the Noble Hotel renovation concluded and re-opened to the public. Additionally, the International Base Camp Initiative exceeded its $10 million dollar goal. In February, NOLS launched a sustainability initiative, with the goal of creating a comprehensive, long-term plan to reduce the school's global environmental footprint.
For more than 40 years NOLS has become the leader in wilderness education. NOLS is now the largest backcountry permit holder in the United States and runs courses from 14 locations worldwide. NOLS has gone from 100 students in 1965 to more than 120,000 graduates to date.
As NOLS enters the 21st century, it remains committed to the quality of courses and programs that it offers, as well as to the wilderness environment that serves as our classroom.