NOLS Responds To the Unknown
By Kerry Brophy
Reprinted from The Leader, Spring 2002, Vol. 17, No. 2
On a day in September, NOLS students were planning the morning's route through Wyoming's Wind River Range, settling down for a cup of mate in Patagonia, or, on the other side of the globe, crawling into their tents for the night in the Himalayas. It was just another day on NOLS courses around the world-the days dictated by the terrain, the weather and the group. Meanwhile, in New York City, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania, the unimaginable was happening.
In total, 232 NOLS students were out in the world's far-flung places at the time of the September 11th attacks. Another 38 students found their journeys to NOLS Pacific Northwest, NOLS Southwest and NOLS Mexico stymied by the nation-wide ground-stop. More than 100 students were at home packing for their NOLS semesters.
At the NOLS International Headquarters in Lander, Wyo., NOLS Executive Director John Gans gathered his team together to address some difficult questions. It was time for a triaged response and crisis management-the kind of thing these veteran NOLS instructors and staff had been trained for throughout their long careers at NOLS. But nothing could have told them what to do now, no protocols had been set. There were NOLS students around the globe who didn't know what happened or were stranded in airports wondering what to do and where to go. And there were other concerns...; what of the students in the field who might have been directly impacted by the events? NOLS admission officers waited by the phones on that day and the days that would follow.
"There was stunned silence at first, while everyone waited and gathered information," remembers Bruce Palmer, director of admission and marketing at NOLS. "But then around 11 a.m. things were set in motion and we began our response."
The NOLS admission office began running the rosters of all the courses in the field, checking home addresses one by one to see which students hailed from New York City, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania. NOLS risk management and operations departments triaged a response to try to identify where in the world's wilderness areas NOLS courses were and how to get students out if needed. And there were the calls from students on upcoming courses to answer-questions like what's going to happen and is my NOLS course still a go?
It was a lot like being on a NOLS expedition. There was no control over external forces. Instead of bracing for a storm with a mind of its own on Denali, it meant bracing for political turmoil and terrorism that could shift and quake without warning.
The team decided on basic communication plans for students in the field. They drafted a letter to students and their instructors letting them know what happened and that they would be contacted if any news arrived from home. Instructors gave all students the option to call loved ones from cell phones or, if necessary, to leave the course altogether.
NOLS courses are true expeditions-students and their instructors are often days from the nearest road-head. The challenge of contacting all of the courses in the field was a daunting one, especially since the usual means of emergency communication is by aircraft fly-over-a non-option after the FAA grounded all air travel. When calls began to come in for a few students who lost family or close friends, NOLS launched evacuation plans that included long treks into the mountains on foot or horseback. Once out of the field, NOLS helped these students cope with their loss while trying to find a way to get them home in a time of transportation chaos.
In the Himalyas, NOLS India Program Director Krishnan Kutty set out to find a mountaineering course, organizing running parties to relay messages once the group was located. NOLS headquarters made the decision to cancel two courses in India, and the India mountaineering course already in progress returned to the States without finishing the duration of their expedition.
In , NOLS students were also located and informed of the events; they had the option to return home but most remained in the field. All over the world plans were changing. Some people were packing up their gear and hiking out to be with friends and family; others were waiting in airports to start delayed NOLS courses or making last minute changes and opting for a course that started later; and many were staying in the wilderness wondering what was happening beyond the quiet skies.
At NOLS, students learn that an essential characteristic of good leadership is the ability to be flexible, to change with changing conditions. Displaying this leadership quality became especially important following the terrorist attacks. Within days of the events, NOLS' leaders were living in an uncertain time but making decisions just like they would on a NOLS expedition.
"These past weeks have been both terrifying and invigorating," said Palmer in October. "As I've mentioned to a number of colleagues, for the first three weeks after 9/11 every time I picked up the phone I found myself dealing with something I had never dealt with before. Usually not big things, but the context was completely different. I guess everything is different now, isn't it?"
Almost six months later, the storm is not quite over and everything is different. Students who were in the field on September 11th have returned home and nobody is still stranded in an airport. Now is the time in the expedition to keep going, to continue making important decisions that impact students, and to continue learning how to adapt to the changing conditions.