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Summer 2006 Issue
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Uncommon Trails: Chas Day's NOLS Odyssey
By Rich Brame

Back in 1986, an unusual student came to Lander to start his Fall Semester in the Rockies. He was in a transition, as many college-age students are when they come to NOLS. Their NOLS experience in the mountains and deserts and on snowy slopes sometimes changes their trajectories in life. However, that student, Chas Day, was transitioning from 22 years in the Navy and a duty station at the US Embassy in Copenhagen. No one, especially Chas, would have foreseen that that 45-year old, Pennsylvania-born, non-outdoorsy NOLS student with a degree in oceanography and a new itch for the outdoors would ultimately be working in the mountains for NOLS and other organizations for the next 16 years—and counting.

Chas’ NOLS connection began a bit indirectly. He was living in Denmark and nearing the end of a long and successful career as a Naval officer. A retired acquaintance had recently embarked on an Appalachian Trail traverse, which got Chas interested in a head-clearing outdoor adventure. A Norwegian friend suggested something with more structure. A Lander-to-Copenhagen connection was made, and by September 1986 Chas was a NOLS student in the Wind Rivers.

Chas often describes his NOLS involvement as a “blessing” in his life. Much of the initial NOLS hook is due to the excellence, experience and friendliness of those semester instructors. Folks like Cody Paulson, Marit (Snow) Sawyer, Steve Goryl, John Hauf, Craig Stebbins, Pete Geddes and Tom Walter impressed Chas (as well as many, many other NOLS students in the 80’s) and served as leadership and educator models that still ripple through Chas’ field work today. His student semester was challenging, but also a ton of fun. That semester’s sense of fun and camaraderie led Chas to almost immediately enroll on another course, the1987 Aconcagua expedition that climbed South America’s highest peak (22,841 feet).

After his Instructor Course in 1989 (at age 48!), Chas began his professional NOLS career. Mountains are Chas’ focus. From Wyoming to Alaska and especially the Pacific Northwest, Chas has climbed, taught and lived on outstanding wilderness peaks. He’s particularly enamored with the Pacific Northwest—as he says, “The PNW’s mountains are unique and dramatic. In short distances, there are huge geographic and ecological transitions— from snowy glaciers to thick trees all in a few miles. If you get tired of the open whiteness of the peaks, you can easily trot down to thick, deep woods and gigantic, almost prehistoric trees. And vice versa. On top of that, all this mountain opportunity is a stone’s throw from several major metropolitan areas.”

Chas Day has a lot of perspective on working and teaching in the backcountry, including over 170 weeks in the field with NOLS. Though the curriculum has changed in some ways—with more formal communication tools and leadership structure, the essence of what it takes to be a successful instructor or student largely remains the same: you’ve got to like being out there with other people and be pliable to new ways of doing things and learning. It takes a willingness to set high personal and group standards—allowing the expedition to have positive outcomes far beyond what’s typically considered possible.

He still thinks back to his Aconcagua Expedition in 1987 and the quintessence of NOLS leadership that occurred on that course. Near the summit, an instructor was stricken with cerebral edema—essentially incapacitating him mentally and physically. Chas remembers the effective way the Course Leader stepped in, delegated duties, quickly weighed tough options and coalesced the whole course to keep that instructor alive and headed out in the most dire and challenging of situations. It’s a model of competence and action that still makes an impression.

The years have ticked by, but Chas isn’t standing still. He’s worked for a number of seasons shepherding science teams in Antarctica. He’s worked NOLS courses with Naval Academy students. Chas is big into Nordic skiing and also runs competitively. He’s in the initial stages of building a solar and wind-powered home in Bozeman, Montana. And he still finds time to work a NOLS expedition course each year—mostly in the mountains.

From Copenhagen to Lander to Bozeman, Chas Day is having quite an adventure. It’s hard to say who’s luckiest in this ongoing relationship—that “older than average” Navy Commander from 1986, or NOLS and our students, the recipients of the considerable talents of an uncommon instructor.

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