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Mentors in Life, Wilderness
Message from the Director: John Gans
NOLS Instructor Shari Kearney and Executive Director John Gans at NOLS Rocky Mountain in Lander, Wyo.
© Brad Christensen

Summer at NOLS has a unique and special energy to it. The lobby of the Noble Hotel, the NOLS Farm in Alaska, Three Peaks Ranch, and our bases in Washington, Teton Valley and the Yukon all look different from each other, but they share an energy, tied to the anticipation of an expedition into the mountains. Summer fills these places with familiar faces of long-time NOLS instructors and the new faces of our students. Special people, special places leading to special experiences. It’s an inspiring time of year to be involved with NOLS.

Summer always reminds me of my early experiences as a student and instructor at NOLS. The faces, smells, maps, weather and light all draw to mind past courses in the mountains. While I recall many things, what I most recollect are individuals who became mentors to me and taught me lessons in mountaineering, leadership and life. I am pleased that two of my early mentors, Shari Kearney and Carlos Buhler, are featured in this issue.

Shari and I both started working for NOLS in the early 1980s. Shari had a quiet presence, but her talents and achievements delivered bold messages. I was impressed with her talents on rock, snow and ice, but mostly I was impressed when I listened to her. She had a special wisdom about wilderness, mountaineering, extended expeditions and risk. While in awe of her achievements in the Himalaya and elsewhere, I found it most amazing that she was always willing to hang out, swap stories and pass along her experience to others. She was and is an amazing outdoor educator.

  NOLS Instructor Shari Kearney ascending Ama Dablam in 1982. “Shari had a quiet presence, but her talents and achievements delivered bold messages,” says NOLS Executive Director John Gans of his time in the field with Shari. Read more…
© Kearney Collection

In the summer of 1983 I was lucky enough to spend a month with Shari in the heart of the Chugach Mountains in Alaska. We were working an Alaska Mountaineering course that reached the headsnows of the Yale and Columbia Glaciers. It was a place rarely visited by anyone. Our group climbed numerous peaks, many of them first ascents. Shari set each student and instructor up for success. She climbed peaks and led the course with quiet grace, constantly setting an amazing example. While I was an instructor on that course, I am sure I learned more than the students just by watching Shari move through the mountains. Following that month, I course-led my first Alaska Mountaineering course. All through that course I implemented lessons and education techniques I learned from Shari, as another generation of students benefited from her wisdom.

In May, 1982 I had the opportunity to climb with NOLS grad Carlos Buhler in the North Cascades. I was participating in a glacier mountaineering seminar led by Carlos. While I was first wowed by his technical abilities, the lessons he taught me went far beyond that. Carlos was a very compassionate person with an obvious love for wilderness mountaineering. Our conversations and time in the mountains influenced my wilderness ethic, my views on risk management, and my philosophy on leadership and education. I will never forget the beauty and joy of climbing with him on the North Ridge of Mt. Baker on a crisp May morning.

NOLS graduates often talk about the lessons in leadership learned at NOLS. Clearly the NOLS curriculum and our wilderness classrooms are important to learning those lessons. But the most influential factor in teaching leadership at NOLS is the excellent work of our instructors. Their teaching goes beyond delivering the

curriculum. They become role models and mentors for students. NOLS graduates commonly say that they got closer to their NOLS instructors than any other educator in their lives. While that is a bold statement, it comes as no surprise to me, as I am lucky enough to work with these educators and leaders on a daily basis.

Carlos and Shari were key mentors who influenced my development as a leader, an educator and a mountaineer. Without their influence I question whether I would have chosen the path I’m on—clearly they’ve made the journey a lot smoother. As is too often the case, I probably haven’t sufficiently thanked them for what they taught me, but better late than never.

As I walked to the office this morning, I passed groups of students and instructors heading from the Noble Hotel to NOLS Rocky Mountain on the first day of their course. It was comforting to see these instructors and students, and know that they are building similar relationships, relationships that will benefit these students for a lifetime.

John Gans

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