In July 2004, 35 years after making the documentary 30 Days to Survival, another camera crew followed another NOLS course into Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains. As the show slowly takes shape in the post-production void, with almost 3,000 hours of footage, an entire community waits to see the impact.
In the Beginning…
The project began when Jason Dittmer, a former NOLS Instructor, decided to tell the story of a NOLS course. He ran the idea past Mark Fowler, a friend who had started a company called Wild Life Productions. Fowler knows a thing or two about filming: His father hosted the famous television show “Wild Kingdom.”
“NOLS is the most respected and specialized wilderness school in the world, and I thought that story deserved to be told,” says Fowler, a producer who seeks to connect viewers with the natural world. He also sees it as an educational how-to series. “The audience will actually learn some of the same things that students learn.”
In response to parallels with modern “reality” TV shows, Dittmer points out that the show’s values are positive, not exploitive. “We wanted to accurately portray what happens on a NOLS course,” he says. “Things that happen aren’t always pretty; it’s how people deal with the adversity that’s positive.”
Where in the Winds?
The first discussions between NOLS and Wild Life Productions revolved around impact: How could they film a course with the least impact, without losing the NOLS experience? It was decided to package a course specifically for this purpose, instead of adding cameras to a regular course, and offer it as the Wilderness Mountaineering Television course.
For over a year, Peter Absolon, NOLS assistant director of human resources, and Willy Cunningham, NOLS alumni projects coordinator, worked with the producers to plan an ambitious 33-day route approximately 140 miles long with backpacking, climbing and mountaineering in the Winds’ most stunning areas.
Janeen Hutchins, NOLS Instructor and special programs coordinator for NOLS Rocky Mountain, planned logistics, a huge undertaking including staffing, gear, re-rations, briefings and trainings. In reality, she was supporting three expeditions: the course, the support staff and the camera crew.
Cameras on Course
“We had the best guys in the business,” Dittmer says about his crew, who faced serious physical demands, practiced LNT camping and handled the project with sensitivity. The crew worked to make sure the students were having a real NOLS experience. Most of the operators were NOLS grads, and the support staff were all NOLS Instructors. “We had a really great support crew,” says Dittmer. “Without them, we couldn’t have the show.”
Dittmer and Fowler attribute the production’s success to tight relationships between the camera crew and the students. “This story is about triumph, overcoming physical and emotional limitations, and you need to see people vulnerable,” Dittmer says.
“They were putting everything they could into it,” agrees Arnold Kim, a student on the televised course. “They all wanted to portray the NOLS experience.”
While the students and crew became friends, the cameras themselves blended into the scenery. “They didn’t phase me at all,” says another student, Evelyn Fisboin. “It wasn’t normal, but it wasn’t a distracter.”
|NOLS Instructor Steve Whitney "hams it up" for the camera during the recent filming of a 33-day NOLS course.
For all of the planning and hours of discussions, the success of this course—and any course—ultimately rested on the instructors, who implemented the curriculum with their own spin. Wild Life wanted talented, interesting instructors who viewers would identify with. They found Steve Whitney, Wendy Davis and Albert Mitugo. “It’s an opportunity for me to show friends and family what I do for a living because people don’t get it,” says Davis, who’s been an instructor since 1999. “I wanted to model the best NOLS course possible.”
“I just did what I would do on any other course. That’s why it wasn’t a big deal to be recorded,” says Whitney. “It was a really successful course and probably the hardest one I’ve ever worked.”
NOLS Will Be NOLS
Cameras affected this course, but they didn’t take away from it. “I don’t think the cameras were so impactful that they would have changed the course that much,” says student Paul Hayes. “The real impact is your instructors. I feel like our instructors made it possible for us to have a true NOLS experience.”
No two NOLS courses are the same. The only difference is that people will be able to see all the particulars of this NOLS expedition. “Sure there was the whole glamour with the cameras,” Hayes says. “But the reality is that there were 15 people out there trying to get along and trying to get from point A to point B.”