Forty years had passed since the first time Tap Tapley journeyed to Lander, Wyoming to work with Paul Petzoldt in the Wind River Range. Last month, Tapley returned, this time not to guide young people into the wilderness, but to celebrate four decades of outdoor education and a legacy that will last much longer.
The feeling of standing on the shoulders of giants was readily apparent at last month’s anniversary celebrations. At one point during the evening, the stage was filled with those who had worked for NOLS for more than 20 years. “Here’s a group of people who have learned to live simply, with NOLS,” said Mary Jo Newbury, who has worked for the school for 35 years. “It’s been a pleasure, an honor and a joy to work for the school this long.” After honoring a substantial list of long-time employees, Tapley was brought on stage. Not a body in the packed room was in its seat. The man is, without a doubt, a giant in the history of NOLS.
Tapley, along with Petzoldt, looms large in any discussion of outdoor education in the United States. Yet in his view, there couldn’t have been anything more obvious than developing such programs as NOLS and Outward Bound. For Tapley, the years he spent dedicated to teaching wilderness skills were simply fulfilling a need that he and Petzoldt saw. “I haven’t considered it work,” he says of his role as one of the first NOLS Instructors. “NOLS meant to me that we could start training people to take others into the wilderness and enjoy it.”
Tapley met Petzoldt in the Army, when Petzoldt was training the 10th Mountain Division in winter camping skills. “He liked me because I was always waiting on him,” Tapley remembers, laughing. “I’d say, ‘You want a cup of coffee, Paul?’ I didn’t mind doing it, and he didn’t mind sitting in his tent drinking the hot coffee!” Anne Cannon (Wilderness Expedition course 1969) climbed Denali with Tapley and subsequently worked with him to found NOLS Mexico in the early 1970s. “Paul and Tap definitely had a deep respect for each other’s abilities,” says Cannon.
Though Petzoldt was 10 years Tapley’s senior, the two developed a working relationship outside the ranks of the Army. When Tapley was asked to start an American branch of Outward Bound in Marble, Colorado, Petzoldt came to fill the role of mountaineering instructor. Then, several years later when Petzoldt saw the need to train the instructors, Tapley came along and instructed with him.
“He said, ‘Come up to Lander with me and we’ll start a school.’ I asked what we would call it, and he said, ‘Well, it’ll be a leadership school, so we should call it something like that,’” Tapley recalls.
Tapley worked in the Winds, which he declares his favorite wilderness environment, for a number of years. It wasn’t until 1971 that Tapley left for Baja to start NOLS Mexico. “I just took off from San Felipe and went south,” he says. “Coyote Bay looked like the perfect place to teach people how to sail, so we said, ‘¿Por que no?’”
“In some ways, going to Baja was a fluke,” says Cannon. “Paul wanted to get Tap back into the fold, and Tap was interested in warmer climates by that point.” Although Tapley had been an outdoor teacher for years at this point, Cannon says he was still constantly educating himself about his surroundings. “He had a real willingness to learn,” she says. “None of us spoke fluent Spanish, but we learned, and we learned to cook local dishes…I think we were always accepted by the Mexicans because we lived the way they did.”
Even though the area chosen for NOLS Mexico was remote and the risks involved were sometimes high, Tapley remained a steady source of leadership through his enthusiasm for Baja’s people and environment. “It was easy for people to come to him,” Cannon remembers. “I always think of Tap as quiet and unassuming. He really led by doing.”
Many legends circulate about Tapley’s days with the school, and he doesn’t hesitate to confirm them. He fondly recalls his practice of having everyone on a course run six miles followed by a leap into the icy cold glacial melt of the Winds. “Some people walked, but everyone always did it. Even Paul,” he says. “Those first students were very good.”
Tapley may not be the most outspoken leader in the history of NOLS, but he has certainly left his mark on the school. He is living proof that to teach about the wilderness is to be its student, and that to be a good student, you sometimes have to sit back and listen. And that’s exactly what he did over the weekend’s anniversary celebrations: sit back and listen to the stories, and take in all the faces that are part of a legacy he helped build.