By Gaytri Bhatia, NOLS instructor
Over the years, I have received many inquiries about what it is I do in the Himalaya, and how I can take my family and friends to the mountains. Here’s a taste of what I do and why I spend my time in the backcountry.
My first few interactions with NOLS were not as an instructor. I sought to work for NOLS because of the lasting impression this school left on me during an expedition on Mount Rainier.
I was a part of a group of NOLS graduates and instructors on a personal expedition to summit Rainier. After acclimatizing, my group approached the summit, alpine-style, commencing around midnight.
As the day broke, our expedition leader caught sight of clouds indicating the approach of inclement weather. While we were just under 2,000 feet from the summit, one of my group members was showing early signs of AMS (acute mountain sickness), and the weather was changing. Weighing these variables, we descended back to high camp. We reached camp to experience a 24-hour blizzard—we later learned that the town below had been hit by the strongest storm it had seen in over 10 years.
Experiencing this extreme situation isn’t what drew me to want to teach at NOLS. What stayed with me was the absolute class of being in the outdoors. We weren't just surviving; we were living in style. We didn't move through the outdoors; every place we set up camp became home. We built snow and ice walls to eat and sleep out of the wind. We weren't living off peanut butter and jelly sandwiches; we were baking pizzas and cakes and brewing fresh coffee. We weren't "surprised" by changing weather; we were prepared, with a plan, and a back-up plan.
The unexpected still happened, but that didn't rattle us. We had a realistic sense of ourselves, including the group’s ability, and made decisions based on that, not a preconceived idea of reaching the summit. We didn't ditch each other when members weren't doing well; we got stronger as a group, picking up where the other struggled.
But let’s not get any foolish ideas – NOLS doesn’t make you God of the outdoors. You don’t become all-knowing. It’s just that knowing what to do becomes ingrained, even when you think you don’t know.
This experience left a mark on me, and I returned to work for the school.
NOLS’ Unique Style
Outdoor organizations typically take you to the mountains, rivers, the sea, or to rock climbing areas. You are led; you experience the awesomeness of being in nature, and come home with breathtakingly beautiful photographs.
NOLS doesn't take you. It gives you the ability to go yourself.
It's not only about the outdoors or the activity. It's about understanding yourself, learning your limits, and then breaking them. You'll also learn how you interact in a community, your tendencies when times are good, and what comes out of you when the doodoo hits the sky.
I work for NOLS now in addition to working on agricultural land. While the experience above was unique to myself, everyone walks away from NOLS with something massive. Experiences that unfold themselves years later even, that carry into the outdoors, work, and home.
About the Author: Originally from Bombay, India, Gaytri worked for seven years in Boston as an environmental consultant to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Following this, she returned to India, splitting her time between working as an instructor with the National Outdoor Leadership School in the Himalaya and producing fruits, herbs, and vegetables at Vrindavan Farm, Maharashtra. Despite her urban upbringing, Gaytri grew up without much separation from the outdoors - swimming oceans, running hills, loitering in forests, and almost always had her hands dirty.