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Fall 2006 Issue
    Cover Article
    Message from the Director
    Base Camp Campaign Enters the Homestretch
    Wild Side of Medicine: Lightweight First Aid Kits
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    A Tough Assignment: On the Fly in Patagonia
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    (A)broad Perspective: NOLS Celebrates Diversity While Providing A Unifying Experience
    Recipe Box: The Delight
    Gear Room: The Top Five Items from the Past Ten Years
    No Need for First Impressions: Experience Says It All
    Branch Notes
    A Little NOLS Goes a Long Way
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A Little NOLS Goes a Long Way
How A Lesson in Tolerance and Self-Awareness Led to Twenty Years of Friendship and Adventure
By Phil Watts

When I first saw him, the thought that flashed through my mind was simple, “Now there is a guy I do not like.” He was tall, beefy like a football player, and he drove a dark Ford van with no windows. It was 1984 and we were in Sedro-Woolley, Washington for NCM 7/11, a 31-day NOLS Mountaineering Course. It’s not that I had a bias against football players. Heck, I had once coached a team. I just didn’t need to deal with a football mentality on this course. I would be stressed enough dealing with my own hang-ups. I made a plan to distance myself from the Football Guy.

The whole scene was intimidating to me. As a new NOLS student, I was a bit non-traditional—32-years-old and married. I had a fair amount of hiking and backpacking experience in the Appalachian Mountains and in the north woods of Upper Michigan. I had even done some top-rope rock climbing. But, for the most part, high places made me queasy. I had signed on for the course to learn some skills, which I hoped would give me enough confidence to explore the mountains.

At some point amidst getting geared up and packing rations, the instructors gathered us around a big relief map and reviewed our travel itinerary for the course—initial classes in the Twin Sisters area, a summit and traverse of Mount Baker, then a trek through the remote Northern Picket Range. My breathing quickened and my palms began to sweat. Then the instructors announced the tent assignments. I got a young teenage kid and the Football Guy—so much for my distance plan. The Football Guy had a name: Miles.

So there we were, camped up high by Lake Wiseman with a big-screen view of Mount Baker in the distance. The pressure cooker hissed out a tune while we discussed technical aspects of self-arrest or some other topic. As we argued about things of which we knew little, Miles—who, it turns out, was actually fairly quiet and thoughtful—spouted a direct quote from Freedom of The Hills, complete with the page number! My new thought was, “He’s memorized the whole book, all zillion pages of the bible of mountaineering! The guy’s a genius.” That may have been when I first began thinking of him as Mountaineer Miles.

It has been 20 years since NCM 7/11. Mountaineer Miles and I continue to share the rope. I gave a solid belay when he caught some air while leading Angel Crack on Castle Rock (Becky was right, the thing is “greasy.”) Likewise, Miles was solid when the big under-cling hold broke off on Captain Xenolith at Smith Rock and I dropped through space. We’ve sipped espresso and a bit of wine from the New River Gorge to Red Rocks, from Yosemite to Shuksan, and from Rainier to the Rockies.

Together we struggled under 85-pound loads (what were we thinking?) from Sibley Pass to Eldorado Peak and beyond on our Inspiration Traverse (Summit, 35, #3:8-11, 1989). Near the end of a particularly hard day, as Miles slowly kicked steps up a steep glacier, he paused and shouted back that he “felt woozy.” I was already down on a knee, gasping, but replied “I’ll kick for awhile.” One look at my depleted condition and Miles simply turned upslope and resumed.

As the strong-arm of the team, Miles has been the designated checker of rap anchors. We figure that if an anchor can survive a test-tug from Mountaineer Miles, it is good to go. He once pulled a sling-festooned rock horn right off the mountain while checking its integrity. We down-climbed the route!

Yes, his size and strength were impressive, and still are. But his real size is more of the heart than of height, and his strength is far more than physical. I have watched Miles carefully rock-hop across an alpine meadow to avoid smashing a big mountaineering boot into a delicate patch of heather. During the ‘90s I went into a dark funk that paralyzed me at the base of mountaineering routes. Miles quietly tolerated my tears below Mt. Stewart, knowing that what should have been climbing was now merely camping. In a better time, we sat speechless and watched the night fill with shooting stars at Joshua Tree. He once entertained my six-month-old daughter for hours after a long hard day on Devils Tower.

Someone once wrote, “With a friend you can take off your coat, slip off your shoes. A friend understands the little contradictions in your nature... You do not have to be on your guard. You can say what you think and express what you feel. Through and beneath it all, the friend loves you.” So here’s a big “Thanks!” to Mountaineer Miles. And a big “Thanks!” also to NOLS NCM 7/11 of 1984—the catalyst for the past 20 years of adventure and more to come!

Phil Watts, Ph.D. is a professor and exercise physiologist at Northern Michigan University in Marquette. A native of North Carolina, Phil received his Ph.D. from the University of Maryland. He transplanted to the north woods of Upper Michigan during the winter of 1978. Phil’s research interests are primarily in the areas of cross-country skiing performance and physiological aspects of rock climbing. Phil is also author of the book Rock Climbing from Human Kinetics Publishers and has a local crag in Marquette named for him.


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