Mountaineering School Promises Epic Treks

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Grand Teton AfternoonWhen I first overheard my friend say, “I got accepted into the Mountain Man course,” questions began to form in my brain: “How is there a class for being a mountain man?” and “Where can I sign up?”

Now imagine a class that backpacks through Washington’s North Cascades for 29 days. This is a reality with the North Cascades Mountaineering course offered through the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). In this course, 10 lucky students, with the aid of two instructors, travel through the North Cascades and encounter deep valleys, jagged peaks, vast glaciers, and cascading waterfalls. During the expedition students have the opportunity to hone their mountaineering prowess by learning technical skills, developing a sense for leadership, engaging in environmental studies, and practicing risk management in the wilderness. The best part? This course is just one of about 20 courses offered yearly by NOLS.

Founded in Lander, Wyoming in 1965, NOLS has graduated more than 290,000 students in the past 50-plus years. They offer courses of various lengths in Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, the Rocky Mountains, New Zealand, Patagonia, East Africa, India, and the Yukon.

“We require no previous experience for most all of our courses. A great place to start would be our classic Wind River Wilderness course in Wyoming. This is the original program that launched the school over 50 years ago,” said Mike Casella, the school’s marketing representative and an alumnus.

The longest NOLS course is in Patagonia and lasts a whopping 135 days for only $28,645, while the shortest will find you in Wolf Ridge, Minnesota, spending just five days and $450. Don’t let the higher prices of some of the courses scare you off, because anyone enrolled for a course is eligible for the NOLS Scholarship. In 2015 alone NOLS awarded $1.7 million in scholarship aid. Each standalone course and section averages 10 to 12 students and one or two instructors. Most courses are co-ed unless enrollment is trending heavily toward one gender.

“I have taken three NOLS courses as a student: a Rocky Mountain Outdoor Educator with Wilderness First Responder, an Alaska Mountaineering – Prime, and a Denali Mountaineering alumni course. I learned an incredible amount of transferable skills. I developed technical skills including setting ice and snow anchors, crevasse rescue, rope management, technical glacier travel in a rope team, river crossings, as well as glacier terrain navigation,” Casella said.

It takes a special instructor to be able to teach in different terrains, especially when it’s a matter of life and death. That’s why becoming a NOLS instructor is anything but simple and requires many skills. Instructors must have competency in the backcountry, technical skills, personal experience, teaching experience, leadership communication experience, sound judgment, and—perhaps most important—the ability to manage risks. All NOLS instructors have at least a Wilderness First Responder certification, which is an 80-hour wilderness medicine certification; others choose to have Wilderness EMT as well. In addition, NOLS instructors must complete a 35-day training course and must teach a higher level mountaineering course.

The process of being accepted as a student isn’t as difficult. The admissions process includes providing basic information, passing a health examination performed by a medical professional, and having that form reviewed and cleared internally by NOLS staff. A student must accept the assumption of risk, and provide proof of health insurance, a transcript, and some additional student information.

Now please excuse me while I gather the required documents to enroll in NOLS. After all, summer is coming up and time shouldn’t be a problem. The real question is: who doesn’t want to be a mountain man?

To learn more or register for a course, visit

By Liz Sterling

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