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Lead Climbing: First Ascents Throughout NOLS History
By Joanne Kuntz

Click here to read more about NOLS first ascents.

Hailed as the leader in wilderness education, NOLS didn’t get there by sittin’ pretty. Since the beginning, students, alumni and instructors have contributed to our mission by meeting challenge and opportunity head-on. In terms of mountaineering, that could mean students on course attempting peak ascents, instructors taking personal expeditions and alumni simply coming back for more.

“The dateline starts with Paul Petzoldt, of course. He did numerous first ascents all over the world,” says Dave Anderson, NOLS Mountaineering and Climbing Instructor since 1996. Honoring Petzoldt’s lead, the school offers numerous prospects for pushing current boundaries.

Forthcoming students have five branches and numerous mountain ranges from which to choose a mountaineering course. Covering all manners of medium (rock, glacier, snow and ice), the range of skills that are taught on course are comprehensive, including rope handling, hazard evaluation, glacier camping and peak ascents. Past students have the unique opportunity of coming back for shorter alumni-only courses and, encouraged to challenge their own level of skills by undertaking personal expeditions, NOLS offers the Instructor Development Fund to current instructors. As byproducts of these expeditions, instructors often glean new route ideas or important lessons they will transfer to student courses.

Inspired by the account of Cerro Ladrillero, we reached back into history and across the Americas to share other first ascents and significant mountaineering achievements done on course. The following is a short list that highlights NOLS’ proud mountain history.  By no means is this an exhaustive list, but hopefully enough to whet your palate for adventure and exploration.    

The Early Years – Wind River Mountaineering

Since Paul Petzoldt’s personal first ascent of the Grand Teton in 1924 and his subsequent founding of NOLS in 1965, students and instructors have been the center of this school’s spirit of exploration. From 1966 to 1970, some of the reoccurring instructors taking students up new routes throughout the Wind River Range include Andy Carson, Tom Warren, Martin Epp, Jeff Heath, Bruce Barrus, and Wilton Pyle.

1983 – Alaska Mountaineering

First ascent of an unnamed peak at 10,942ft in the Chugach Mountains by Instructor Mario Bilodeau and three students.

“Peak 10,942 stood above the Harvard Glacier and on the course we called it, Harvard View.  But, at a dedication for our Alaska Headquarters that August, we renamed the peak Mt. Chitiea after Joan Chitiea, now trustee emeritus of NOLS and leader of our efforts to secure our Alaska headquarters. As there was a moratorium on naming unnamed peaks in AK at that time, I am rather sure that this peak has never officially been given either name by the USGS.” - John Gans, current NOLS Executive Director and instructor on this course in ‘83

1983 – Alaska Mountaineering

First ascent of Mt. Elusive (11,465ft) in the Chugach Mountains by Instructor John Gans and three students.

“We were the first NOLS course to go into the “headsnows” of the Columbia, Yale and Harvard Glaciers. Only a few climbing parties had gone into the area before by airplane. As far as we could find, we were the first to go into the region on foot. I was watching Mario climb Mt. Chitea while I led a climb on Mt. Elusive. We reached the summit a half hour after Mario and his group reached the other summit.  It was a gorgeous summit day and we could see the Chugach, Alaska Range, Wrangells, St. Elias Range and Prince William Sound. Truly it was one of the most memorable summit days of my life.” - John Gans, current NOLS Executive Director

1988 – Semester in Alaska

Ragged Peak (9,160ft) in the Alaska Range by Instructor Greg Collins and three students         

1992 – Waddington Range Mountaineering

First ascent of the NE face of Mount Brokenhead (9,052 ft) by Instructor Jeff Petty and two students.

“The peak is named after a large split near the summit and is a steep snow and two-pitch ice climb (some close to vertical) connected to North Ridge, which was followed to the summit.  One student in the ascent group led the second ice pitch to join another NOLS team on the summit (an all student team who had taken the previously done North Ridge route, led by future NOLS instructor Mark Jordan).  The name of peak was unknown at the time, and students proposed Mt. Sanchez, Hoi Toi or Mt. Whetstone as possible names. Obviously, those names did not stick.” - Mark Langston, Pacific Northwest Branch Operations Manager

1995 – Patagonia Icefield Traverse         

First complete traverse of the Northern Patagonia Ice Field from west to east by a full course: 16 students plus instructors Jeff Petty, John Hauf, and Judd Rogers.           

“The area at the time was largely unmapped and very little was known.  Experience and passion for exploration combined with an incredible work ethic helped us all accomplish one of the most significant crossings of the time period.” - Judd Rogers, Patagonia Branch Director

1998 – Waddington Range Mountaineering

First ascent of the NE Ridge of Sockeye Peak (8,980 ft) by a full course: 12 students plus instructors Chad Aschtgen, Mark Johnson, and Brien Sheedy.

“Sockeye is a sprawling, icy summit separating the Agur Glacier to the south from the Corridor Glacier to the northwest. The route follows a flat ridge crest to the summit and was done while moving between camp locations.  The ascent involved one fixed line, running belays and a 3rd class rock section. The whole course summitted.” - Mark Langston, Pacific Northwest Branch Operations Manager

1999 – Waddington Range Mountaineering

First ascent of SW Face of Peak 2562 (8,405 ft) of the Franklin Peaks by Instructor Jim Purdy and three students.

“An easy, skiable peak with great views of the area. The climbing team did the ascent after having gone back to the previous camp in search of a missing shovel blade.” -Mark Langston, Pacific Northwest Branch Operations Manager

2001 – Spring Semester in Patagonia

First traverse of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field from northwest to southeast by a full course: 16 students plus instructors Raul Castro, Christian Steidle, Shawn Benjamin, and intern Claudio Retamal.

“This was a tremendous feat!  The Southern Ice Field is the 3rd largest continental glacier in the world.  The area is largely 90% unmapped and is known for its intense weather and absolute remoteness.” - Judd Rogers, Patagonia Branch Director

2003 –Spring Semester in Patagonia

Second ascent of Mt. Burney (5741ft) in the Magallanes region of Chile by a full course: 16 students plus instructors Christian Steidle, Katrin Rudert, Nacho Grez, and Chris Manges.

“The entire course gained the summit of Burney on the 30th anniversary of its first ascent by famed explorer and mountaineer Eric Shipton.  Let’s remember that Shipton summitted on his 3rd attempt.” - Judd Rogers, Patagonia Branch Director


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Mountaineering & Climbing Skills Taught on NOLS Mountaineering Courses


  • Knots and rope handling
  • Belaying, signals, and rappelling
  • Protection placement and natural and artificial anchor-building
  • Hazard evaluation
  • Climbing movement

Rock Climbing:

  • Top-rope site selection
  • Multi-pitch climbing
  • Basic rescue
  • Lead climbing

Snow and Ice Climbing:

  • Ice-axe use
  • Self-arrest techniques
  • Snow and ice climbing
  • Crampon use
  • Peak ascents

Glacier Travel:

  • Roped glacier travel
  • Camping on glaciers
  • Crevasse rescue
  • Fixed-line ascension


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