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On Eating a Lifetime of Oatmeal and Racing for the Most NOLS Field Weeks

By Worth Allen, NOLS Intern
Reprinted from The Leader, Summer 2002, Vol. 17, No. 3

  John Grunsfeld
  History in the making: NOLS Instructor Steve Goryl, left, passes a flag honoring the most NOLS field weeks to Marco Johnson, right.
Imagine spending a month living in the wilderness. OK, that’s easy—nearly all NOLS grads have done that. So, imagine living outdoors for a year. Still think that you could do it? How about living outdoors for nine years? For most, the idea of living in the wilderness for nearly a decade is no more fathomable than living in space for a similar length of time. Two NOLS instructors, Marco Johnson and Steve Goryl, have made a reality out of this unimaginable idea.

Having worked a mind-boggling 452 weeks in the field during a decades-long war of attrition, Marco recently took Steve’s place as the senior NOLS instructor with the most field time. Although he has worked primarily in town during the past few years, Steve is still leading the chase pack with an equally astounding 440 field weeks.

What exactly goes into all those weeks in the field? For starters, we estimate that Steve and Marco have consumed well over three tons of NOLS rations, including unthinkable amounts of oatmeal, cocoa and peanuts. Following repeated severe overdoses during his earlier courses, Marco now refuses to allow his spoon anywhere near the dreaded “bloatmeal.” Nowadays, he admits “just bagging the stuff makes me queasy!” In the mid-1970s Steve was involved in a contest among instructors to find out who could survive the longest on a diet consisting solely of macaroni and cheese. Steve held out for 19 days, subsisting only on cheesy noodles twice a day and plenty of water. The winner of the contest, instructor Rob Clarke, became immortalized as a NOLS legend by holding out for a reputed 32 days.

Sleeping out for over 3,300 nights apiece on NOLS courses, Marco and Steve have seen more sunrises than they can remember, forced their feet into more frozen boots than they want to remember, and subjected their livers to more iodine than the human body should see in a dozen lifetimes.

Having worked as many as 35 field weeks a year earlier in his career, Steve says the reality and immediate pertinence of a NOLS education initially inspired him to be an instructor and still motivates him today. “When Paul (Petzoldt) taught us how to fish, he wasn’t just suggesting a hobby. He expected us to be able to live off the fish that we caught. There aren’t too many places where what you are learning is that immediately and crucially relevant.”

It’s worth keeping in mind that both instructors have also set out on countless expeditions not connected with NOLS. With extensive mountaineering experience in the South American Andes and New Zealand Alps as well as thousands of solo miles in a sea kayak off the coasts of Patagonia and Mexico, Marco draws familiar parallels between the two disciplines. He points out that “having the confidence to make important decisions under mental stress and physical strain, as well as having the patience to wait for appropriate weather are two of the biggest challenges in both mountaineering and long-distance paddling.”

In 1994, Steve organized a groundbreaking cleanup expedition to Mt. Everest. After separating from his team, Steve hunkered down in a bivouac for five days waiting for the 100 mile-per-hour Himalayan winds to calm down. Out of oxygen and food, he scavenged discarded oxygen bottles and cans of frozen sausages from previous years’ expeditions in order to stay within reach of the peak. He finally summited alone before descending to base camp on his 40th birthday (You can find more information on this expedition by going to www.sagarmatha.nols.edu). Taking the versatility that characterizes many instructors to the extreme, Steve has over 1,200 free-fall sky-dives, over 350 open water SCUBA dives, was a wilderness EMT for 10 years, and holds sophisticated computer credentials that are way, way beyond this author’s comprehension.

The longest pause during an interview with either one of these two men came after asking them what they will do after eventually scaling back their NOLS work. Reflecting levels of excitement and contentment that are rare in other professions, neither instructor can imagine a lifestyle disconnected from the wilderness. And that is a very good thing for the NOLS students of tomorrow.


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