by Eames Yates
Reprinted from The Leader, Fall 1996.
Twenty-one summers ago an east coast teenage preppy "nimrod" spilled out of the Wind River Mountains onto the Scab Creek roadhead near Pinedale, Wyoming and collapsed in the dust. The young man was starving. He hadn't eaten much in the last four days. The night before he had feasted on frogs which he caught by dangling a royal coachman dry fly in their face, but the frogs weren't very filling. Suddenly a huge vehicle appeared and a beautiful woman in a cowboy hat jumped out. The boy was drawn to her. Under one arm she carried a box of donuts, under the other, a jug of milk. A six pack of beer was stashed aboard an old beat up bus. "Howdy, pard I bet you could use a beer," she said, letting loose a stream of brown chewing tobacco spit. It was the best beer I ever had.
As I sat in the NOLS bus all those years ago heading back to Lander, Wyo., beer in hand, I felt exhilarated. I had survived a month in the Winds, danced atop Fremont Peak, and called the Cirque of the Towers home. My spirit was bursting with pride, self-confidence, a sense of invincibility flourished within me. I had survived and accomplished my first true test of young manhood. My confidence, strength and a belief in my abilities had never been higher. I had become a NOLS graduate. I was so turned on by my NOLS experiences that I spent the next five years of my life cowboying on the Sweetwater and working as a horsepacker for NOLS.
A lifetime had passed since that last beer on a NOLS bus. I was now forty years old, 40 pounds overweight, recently divorced and teetering on the abyss of mid-life self-loathing. I wracked my brain for a cure. I knew I had to get back on the bus. And so it came to pass that I found myself on a new clean NOLS bus (there was no beer aboard this go around) surrounded by new clean kids with bright teeth and no body fat, all nearly a quarter century younger then me. As I hoisted my pack on my back and stared up at a never ending set of switchbacks, the thought of 30 nights in the Wind River Mountains scared the hell out of me. I sucked it up and began the long trudge.
Very quickly the magic of the mountains became the elixir from which I drew my strength. Twenty years of New York City and Los Angeles toxins streamed from my pores, I was quaffing down nine liters of water a day as I headed deeper into the Winds.
Much had changed since my last NOLS course. In 1975, I was outfitted in wool knickers complemented by bright red wool knee socks and heavy wool shirts, which tripled in weight with every stream crossing or downpour. Polar tec meant arctic expedition in those days. Foul weather outer garments were made of rubber, there was little nylon issued then. My boots were like plaster casts encasing my feet well above my ankles and weighing a ton. All eating utensils and cooking gear were heavy metal, there was no plastic. We ate out of tin cups instead of insulated designer mugs. Our cooking stoves easily weighed ten pounds and were made of dull brass copper and steel that looked like a portable World War II bunker instead of a lunar landing module as they do today. We slept under thick nylon/canvas tarps. Paul Petzoldt had just come out with his state of the art sleeping bags. We all felt like astronauts sleeping in a thick cocoon of synthetic fiber fill. There was no giardia in the Wind River Mountains in 1975. We had no iodine pills with us and we did not have nearly as extensive a medical kit. Our instructors did not carry radios to contact passing aircraft in the event of an emergency. No climbing helmets or other protection gear was issued to students. NOLS in 1996 had become preventative rather than inventive, safety and judgment the mantra.
In 1975 the course leader was an instructor by the name of Jim Crump-a local Lander cowboy who tolerated a summer with a bunch of east coast dudes for the money and the NOLS issued gear. The other instructor was Crump's girlfriend who he sweetly called "Runt." Crump was a superb mountain man. His classes on climbing, fishing, flora, fauna, and camping were outstanding. Safety and judgment were not a big part of the NOLS list of things a kid had to know. Nor was there much emphasis on the environment. I recall that class to be a one liner. Crump bellowing "dig a pit for your fire, when the fire's out take your crap in it and cover it up" still echoes in my ear.
Jimmy MacArthur was my 1996 lead instructor. A true NOLSie, Jimmy is a hillbilly hippie from the south, long and lean. Jimmy has built his life around the mountains and the NOLS edict. Every other word out of Jimmy's mouth is either "coool" or "alriiight." Coupled with Rick Arms, a tiny spitfire of a lad and first time NOLS instructor, who believes his destiny lies somewhere near timber line, Jimmy and Rick made a dynamic duo. Their genuine concern for the environment and student safety were drilled into us on a daily basis. When Rich demonstrated how to build a twiggy mound fire on a foam pad having hauled creek bottom mineral soil a quarter of a mile to camp, I cringed and prayed a horsepacker wouldn't ride through camp and shake his head in disgust. Both Jimmy and Rick instilled in us a respect for the wilderness and the duty of all who go there to protect the fragility of the environment. I knew I was safe with them leading our wilderness course, a job they did with grace, humor, and concern.
The most profound event I witnessed during my 30 days on WRW 6/10A was the essential change and growth displayed by my fellow students. They were a diverse and fascinating array of young people. All were either high school or college students. It was obvious to me that teenagers today have evolved since the mid- 1970's. These kids were gentle, not hostile. They all wanted to be on a NOLS course. They weren't sent away for the summer by their parents, which in 1975 seemed to be in vogue, making NOLS a fancy baby-sitter and repository for the rich and spoiled.
During the first week on the course, I realized that many of my fellow students knew little about the wilderness and what untapped strengths and abilities lay deep within them. I can remember a student in tears staring wide-eyed down a mountain pass strewn with scree and talus, convinced she would never make it down. She did, one step at a time, holding a helping hand. I remember the frustrations of not being able to cook a palatable meal at 10,000 feet or hook a trout in an icy creek. But the soreness of blisters chaffing against boot leather and the angry outbursts directed against fellow students or the weather began to subside by the second week of the course. A sense of calm, gained through experience, grew within our group. Students became tolerant of their surroundings, equipment, each other, and the mountains themselves. The talents that lay in all of them which had yet to be challenged in their young lives were emerging and so were the smiles. By the third week, on the banks of Soapstone Lake, the entire student body of WRW 6/10A was fly fishing and frying up nearly thirty rainbow and brook tout. We had become a true tribe. The magic that is NOLS was in place. A bunch of nimrods had become a band of mountaineers. We were one with our world and in sync with our environment. We could stay dry. Keep our bellies full. Sleep soundly on snow and rock. And enjoy each other's company.
The Wind River Mountains seemed to have changed a lot since the summer of 1975. There appeared to be more big game in the Winds now. Between Goat Flats and Whiskey Basin, I witnessed a herd of roughly 40 elk. Near Union Peak and Granite Lake, a few of us stumbled across 10 or so big horn sheep-one big ram and a bunch of ewes with lambs. We were down wind of them and able to get within 100 feet of the band. For any of you who have ever tried to hunt sheep, you know what a rarity that is. At the headwaters of Green River Lakes we saw a lot of moose-bulls, cows and calves. I don't remember seeing so many big animals in 1975.
I spent all my time fishing during this wilderness course. The group caught a total of 148 fish. The majority of them were brook trout. We caught only one big rainbow, about 5 lbs. and 26 inches long. In addition, we hooked one grayling and a few cutthroats and browns. Not one golden trout was caught. In 1975, big golden and cutthroat trout were common. I am not ichthyologist, but I think something is going on with the golden trout. Still almost all the fish looked good.
The forests in the Winds seemed to be in poor shape, however. I guess a lot of that can be attributed to natural cycles-fires and beetle kill-but it was still shocking to me. Entire valleys and creek bottoms were devastated, brown and dead trees stood and lay everywhere. Plus fire rings dot the moutainscape and eroded trails line the drainages. It takes centuries for the mountains to heal themselves, and it is a race the mountains are losing.
The encouraging thing is that people are working to mitigate their impacts. They are reclaiming trails lost to erosion. There is virtually no litter or garbage in the Wind Rivers, even the horse packers are carrying out their whiskey bottles and tobacco cans. All this leads me to believe we are all learning how to respect and cherish the mountains. Despite these smudges from humans, the Wind River Mountains remain a paradise. They will prevail after we are long gone. Their beauty, rawness and lessons are still there and to me, NOLS is their guardian.
As for this forty year old man, now thirty pounds lighter and fighting the good fight on the streets of Manhattan every day, when I close my eyes, I am back in the Winds saying "alriight, coool."