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Summer 2006 Issue
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    A Noble Cause
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    Backcountry Safety Tips
    Mexico's Big Drops: A NOLS Tradition
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    This Job's a Trip
    Day 82 of 77: Lessons Learned from a NOLS Course
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Day 82 of 77: Lessons Learned from a NOLS Course
By Lisa Haffenreffer
Lisa(fourth from the left) and her course mates pose for a farewell photo a few days before the car accident that opened her eyes.

After three months of "risky" activities requiring harnesses, ropes, anchors, axes, and PFDs, day 82 of the 77-day Semester in the Pacific Northwest was by far my most frightening. On my road trip home with course mate Rodger, we hit a patch of black ice on the highway, skidded out, went off the road, hit a mile marker and flipped our car almost two times. We're fine, both of us: I'm sore and still a bit in shock and it sounds like Rodger had a mild concussion, but we both walked away from the accident. Maybe it is a sign of how NOLS gets to you, but not even five minutes after we went off the road, I was already relating things in NOLS-speak.

Accidents don't just happen. They are a series of poor decisions compounded over time—too many hours on the road, a different route home, freezing weather, etc.—and you quickly find yourself in a situation where you were wishing you had thought about the probability/consequence curve about three steps earlier. The infamous NOLS J-word: Judgment.

I was so shaken that I couldn't keep my mouth shut as the EMT was talking to me, and I started nervously interjecting my newly learned first-aid skills.

"Lisa, I'm now going to just feel around your neck and spine to make sure..."

"Yeah, palpate my spine, good idea. Good idea."

"Now, I'm going to feel for any spots that might hurt on your body."

"Oh, yeah. Head-to-toe. Right. Verbal response or do you look for a pain flinch?"

"You might find in a few hours that things start to hurt because shock can act..."

" a masking injury. Okay, got it. What else?"

It was like some bizarre first-aid scenario that I couldn't quite get out of.

The NOLS seat belt rule is there for a reason. When the car finally landed on its side, my seat belt was holding me from falling vertically into Rodger's lap. We can only imagine—or try not to—what could have happened if we hadn't both been buckled in. Just wear them. They're our harnesses, ropes, anchors, axes, and PFDs for the road.

Lisa, left, travels in the North Cascades with a course mate.

Material goods are nothing more than material goods; it's people who make a difference. Okay, seeing my car totaled did make me nauseous, but, cliché or not, that accident reminded me to count my blessings in people. It made me wish I had said a few better goodbyes at the end of the course. It also made me wish I had said a few better hellos to friends and family I had seen or spoken to since the end of our semester. Right after the course ended, I was so wrapped up in missing everything I had just left — like the mountains, the ocean, and the desert — that I had already begun to take for granted finally being able to speak with the people I had missed so much. I hadn't missed much while in the backcountry, but I had missed people. The impact the course had on me was a complicated thing to explain and I often just gave up on those conversations. In the days since the accident, I've decided it's worth the effort.


My course mates and instructors received these reflections shortly after the car accident last fall, and since then, I have continued to be amazed at how many areas of my life my NOLS experience has impacted. Thankfully most of these aren't nearly as distressing as the accident, and some are quite exciting, actually. Part of the reason I had signed up for my course was to gain some perspective on the college degree I had just completed and determine what I wanted to do next with my life. At the end of the course I didn't think I was any closer to knowing that than when I had started, but the lessons I learned at NOLS kept guiding me in new directions. I moved to San Francisco because I realized without a doubt that I needed to be near the mountains and the ocean to keep my sanity in a city. I interviewed exclusively with companies whose missions valued the impact we are having on the environment and each other. My search was a success, and in May I started working at Google.

Coincidentally, above my desk is a weather-beaten piece of paper with the title "The Google List." While on our course, with only the books we were carrying, we constantly had questions about additional things we wanted to look up, if only the information were at our fingertips. Always an avid Google-user, I started writing down all of these questions in my notebook as "The Google List" to be searched for when we got out of the backcountry and back to computers. Seeing that list every morning reminds me to have patience with finding the answers and to pay attention to the lessons along the way.

Lisa Haffenreffer graduated from Dartmouth College in June 2005. She was a semester student on NWS 9/21/05 and currently resides in San Francisco, CA. She can be reached at

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