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30 Days to Success
By Julie Hwang

Twenty-two years before the phrase “Reality TV” became an oxymoron, a small camera crew joined a 1969 NOLS course. The subsequent film, entitled 30 Days to Survival, aired on “The Alcoa Hour” in January 1970. More than 750 young folks were inspired enough to sign up for a course the following summer — compared to the 350 enrolled the year before.

The Production

The editors of Life magazine contracted Michael Wadleigh, Charles Grosbeck and Fred Underhill to follow Paul Petzoldt and document his teachings. With their cinema verité philosophy, the crew that would gain cult-like fame later that summer for filming Woodstock sought to remain unobtrusive. “We didn’t affect their experience. We became one of them,” Grosbeck says. “We ate the same crap and did the same thing — only more.”

“[The crew] was tough,” says 30 Days grad Jerry Dunn. “They became a part of the group as well; I don’t know how they did it.”

Although Dunn knew about the filming, other students had no idea. “I vividly remember getting off a yellow school bus and people handing out dollar bills and having people sign releases,” says John Heywood, recognizable in the film for his red hair. “I smiled and signed the release.”

“Paul offered me a scholarship, so I said ‘Sure!’,” says Tom Day, who plays the recorder in the film. “I took the course without knowing anything about the camera people, and I had a life-changing experience.”

Logistics / Support Staff

Having previous film experience, Petzoldt ran the logistics of the entire production with pack horses, cooks and porters. “He ran it like a military operation,” Grosbeck remembers. Early NOLS Instructor Haven Holsapple still has the dollar he was paid to run battery packs and tapes in and out of the field in loads weighing over 110 pounds. “It was brutal,” Holsapple says. “Even by NOLS standards the packs were huge. But I was so happy to be there.”

Diane Shoutis, a cook for the course, desperately tried to keep them all fed. “It seems like all we did was cook,” she laughs.

Reaction and Impact

“I thought [the film] reflected fairly accurately what we’d gone through,” Heywood says. Other expedition members thought the film would focus more on Petzoldt, but everyone agrees that the movie represented what everyone experienced.

Rob Hellyer, an instructor on the 30 Days course, dismisses the film’s accuracy as irrelevant when compared to its impact on NOLS. “The thought that it wasn’t accurate was quickly drowned out by the sound of the telephone,” he says. “I think people came [to NOLS] because  of the timeliness of Paul’s message, his optimism, energy and powerful personality. When someone does that, you get bookings.”

The incredible leap in enrollment dominoed into a chain of events that would shape NOLS as much as anything in its 40-year history.

With so many more students, NOLS ran its first multiple courses in 1970. Up until then, Petzoldt had personally course led every single one. The school also needed instructors. Due to demand, Petzoldt ran the first Instructor Course in 1970 in order to recruit people who had never been to the school before and teach them into the NOLS way. Logistics staff like Bill Scott picked up students from the airport in pickup trucks and drove to surplus equipment stores in Casper to get gear. “We’d buy buses for $100. Paul always got a great deal.”

 In the fall of 1970, Scott, Hellyer, his wife Martha, and Steve Gipe scouted Alaska while Dave Politio scouted the Cascades for new locations. At the same time, Petzoldt and Tap Tapley came to an agreement about creating a NOLS location in Baja. In 1972, NOLS also bought the Three Peaks Ranch.

“[30 Days] was probably one of the best things that ever happened to the school,” Scott says. “And that summer was probably the most exciting year at NOLS.”

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