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Brett Zefting wished a NOLS course on his little sister because she lacked confidence.

Aiming higher
The wilderness can teach confidence and personal skills,
says the National Outdoor Leadership School
By Gary Fallesen

Reprinted with permission of the:
Democrat and Chronicle, Rochester, NY
April 25, 2001

He talked Lindsay, now a junior at the Harley School, into signing up for a 31-day backpacking trip to Alaska last summer with the National Outdoor Leadership School, or NOLS. Never mind that she'd never really backpacked. Or that the 16-year-old from Fairport would be spending a month in the wilderness with 14 strangers.

"She was more willing to follow people around than take a leadership role," remembers Brett, 21, who had graduated from a Leadership Semester in the Rockies in 1999.

"She's a very smart girl. But she didn't have a ton of confidence."

Lindsay was so nervous before her trip to Alaska, she says, "I was asking my friends to break my leg so I wouldn't have to go. I'm glad no one took me up on the offer."My mother was less worried about it than I was."

And we know how mothers worry. Especially, Brett adds, when given a "four-page double-sided risk form you have to sign and initial 20 times. It's pretty intimidating to send your kids to it, I'd think."

But parents do send them. At least a dozen young people - ages 15 to 23 - went from the Rochester area to a NOLS course last summer and fall.

"There's a certain element of 'What if?' " says James Newman, whose 18-year-old daughter, Claire, attended the 30-day Wind River (Wyo.) Wilderness course. "But we were pretty confident."

"We knew someone else who had been on a NOLS expedition. We did all the checking that we thought was necessary."

Claire Newman is a senior at Harley. She and Lindsay Zefting are on the yearbook staff together.

"We were talking the first or second day back to school," Zefting recalls. "I said, 'What did you do over the summer?' She said, 'I went to a NOLS course in Wyoming.' I said, 'I took one in Alaska.' "

It's a small world - unless you have to hike it.

There are more than 43,000 NOLS graduates worldwide. The not-for-profit school, founded in 1965 by mountaineering legend Paul Petzoldt, offers wilderness education to anyone older than 14. It's not just kids' stuff, though. Adults into their 70s have gone to the Wyoming-based school that is similar to Outward Bound but offers longer courses.

"Everybody goes out there looking for an adventure," says Brian Fields, 18, a McQuaid Jesuit High School senior who lives in Fairport. "You always find one."

Like Zefting, Fields had a family connection to NOLS. He had listened to two uncles talk about their experiences.


An instructor course student practices the self-arrest during a mountaineering course in Wyoming's Wind River Mountains.
© Deborah Sussex.
When Uncle Fred offered to help pay his way, Brian signed up for the 30-day Wind River Range Mountaineering course last summer.

Courses are not cheap. The tuition for a month in the wild is about $3,000. A semester can run $8,000.

Most of Fields' friends thought he was nuts to want to climb two of the three highest mountains in Wyoming. "Who would want to sleep on a glacier?" they asked.

Zefting had the same response from her inner circle. "No shower for a whole month? That's crazy."

This is where big brother's plan came into play. She could listen to her peers and never learn what she was made of - or she could follow his urging and take a risk.

"I was the only one in the course who'd never gone backpacking," Lindsay says.

But the lure of seeing Alaska and the challenge of a new adventure convinced her.

Zefting learned, on the first day, how to take care of her feet and how to step lightly in the wilderness. Then she went for a one-mile hike with her new acquaintances, three of them instructors.

The next day it was a three-mile hike. The next, five miles. After that, about seven miles a day.

The group carried its food and equipment wherever it went in the Talkeetna area north of Anchorage.

"It was up to us to map out a specific route," Lindsay says. "Every day we'd sit down and say, 'OK, this is going to be our campsite tonight,' and we made our route." They also cooked what they ate using recipes that can be found in NOLS Cookery.

While climbing a mountain near the end of the course, Lindsay's group found itself in a rock slide.

"We had to duck behind a huge boulder," she says. "I thought, 'What am I doing up here?' "

The group descended safely - and felt stronger for the experience.

When Lindsay finished her course, her brother was waiting for her at the farm near Palmer, Alaska, that served as the wilderness course base camp. He was in Alaska to take a mountaineering course.

"We climbed five peaks," Brett says, "covering about 80 miles in 31 days. For NOLS, that's not a lot of mileage."

When Brett spent a semester at leadership school, he says, "The only time we were out of the backcountry was to get more food and change gear."


A NOLS student braves the whitewater.
© Deborah Sussex.
They went from three weeks of whitewater paddling on two rivers to three weeks of rock climbing to 34 days of canyon backpacking - all in Utah - to more than a week of telemark skiing and winter camping in Wyoming.

"It changed the direction of my life," Brett says from Lake Tahoe, Nev., where he is going to college. "I knew I liked the outdoors as a hobby, but it showed me I wanted to do it professionally."

He picked up 12 college credit hours while learning skills that will last a lifetime. He shared this knowledge with his sister, who also absorbed the true wilderness experience.

"It definitely opened a lot of doors to me," Lindsay says. "It encouraged my leadership skills."

At the end of last summer, Brett and Lindsay took some of Lindsay's friends camping in the Adirondacks. She cooked for them. They went rock climbing together.

"I was like the leader among my friends," Lindsay says confidently.

Her follower days are behind her.

Learning about NOLS

The National Outdoor Leadership School offers courses that last from 10 days to a full semester in the Rocky Mountains, Pacific Northwest, Southwest, Alaska, Western Canada and elsewhere. Among the courses available this summer: Absaroka (Wyo.) Backpacking, Alaska Sea Kayaking, Yukon Canoeing and North Cascades (Wash.) Mountaineering. Courses cost $2,220 to $3,780. Financial aid is offered.

For details on NOLS, call (307) 332-5300 or visit: www.nols.edu

 
 
 
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