I am writing this letter on March 23, 2005—a
significant day for NOLS. Forty years ago today,
Paul Petzoldt started our wilderness school. The
life of NOLS has been an adventure, made up of adventures.
Our issues of the Leader this year will focus part
of their content on this milestone, with a look at
our past and what it means for us today.
back over the past 40 years, I am struck by how much
has not changed at NOLS. Our core curriculum is still
centered on teaching wilderness skills, leadership
and conservation. Our classrooms still inspire awe
in our students and provide experiential lessons
with real consequences that develop skilled wilderness
visitors and great leaders. Our mission and values
are nearly identical to those Paul Petzoldt described
in 1965. And while we live in a changing world, our
continued focus on our core purpose and curriculum
has likely been our key to success.
the school’s core mission has not varied, the
world in which we operate has changed significantly.
A quick look at photos of our students in the ’60s
drives home that hairstyles and fashion have changed
a great deal in the past four decades. For that matter,
if we issued gear today that we issued then, our
students would think we were kidding. But what I
find most interesting are the changes in our society
that have only made a NOLS education more relevant
to our students and the world.
increasing threats to our wild lands create a more
compelling need for leaders with a wilderness ethic.
A more complex world also requires leaders with good
expedition behavior, judgment, communication skills,
self-awareness, and the ability to tolerate adversity.
As you know, a NOLS education provides an excellent
classroom to develop all of these leadership pillars.
increasingly urban world has raised the value of
wilderness recreation skills, making them an important
antidote to our technology-filled and physically-deprived
lives. NOLS also provides great opportunities for
young people to grow and develop, away from a world
that seems to focus too much on schedules and security.
In many ways, our changing world has reinforced a
need for what Paul Petzoldt set out to accomplish
when he founded NOLS.
course, there have been areas where NOLS has changed
along with the changing world. While our 1965 home
in Lander, Wyoming and the Wind River Range is still
our home today, we live in a far more global world
40 years later. In response, NOLS has followed that
trend and now offers courses on every continent but
Antarctica. The increased level of professionalism
in outdoor education is what prompted NOLS to acquire
the Wilderness Medicine Institute (WMI) and to more
recently start NOLS Professional Training. It is
noteworthy that WMI is also celebrating an anniversary—their
15th year offering wilderness medicine certification
this issue of the Leader, our Trailblazer section
features a few NOLS staff who were instrumental outdoor
pioneers during our history. We had infinite candidates
for this list, from Paul Petzoldt and Tap Tapley
who don’t require mention, to Lucy Smith and
Kevin Mahoney. Our list is a miniscule subset of
the many staff and graduates who have been leaders
in outdoor pursuits and wilderness education. As
another example, just this last weekend, NOLS graduate
Peter Athans received the Tenzing Norgay Award at
the annual Explorers Club dinner in New York. Whether
they are reaching the summit of Everest, crossing
the oceans, exploring outer space, or on The Long
Walk, our graduates are the 21st Century’s
leading explorers. They are inspiring the minds of
the world with the spirit and values of exploration
the 1960s when Paul talked about creating outdoor
leaders, it is unclear if he envisioned that our
graduates’ contributions would extend far beyond
the wilderness. Today our graduates are leaders in
business, education, government, land management,
the arts and many other endeavors. They are active,
quality, experienced and ethical leaders with great
expedition behavior and a wilderness ethic. Our alumni
are leaders of whom I am proud, and leaders of whom
our world can be proud. What an outcome for a small
non-profit school founded 40 years ago in the foothills
of the Wind River Range.
John Gans, NOLS Executive Director