The Road Less Traveled: How a NOLS Course Changed my life

By Matt Tredway

May 14, 2021

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Photo courtesy of Matt Tredway
Nothing substitutes a large apprenticeship, a heap of experiences that converts into the base of intuition.
- Doug Scott

A snap, hasty decision in college led me to attend NOLS. Generally a calculated person, I changed my life course in about 60 seconds.

I was in my first year in college, and it was an unconventional departure: leaving what was considered the proper thing for a kid my age to do and pursuing the outdoors.

For me, I knew the appeal was the beauty of moving in the wild.

It was 1978. I was sitting in a friend’s cluttered college dorm room one evening, casually glancing through magazines, when I discovered one of the first NOLS catalogs. I remember the exact moment; I was at a party with a girl who I had tried desperately to get to notice me.

I leafed through a couple of pages, and the hook set. I took the catalog with me, worrying much more about keeping track of the booklet than the girl for the rest of the evening. Another look late that night, and it took me all of 30 seconds to realize I had to go.

Archival photo of large smiling NOLS group on a mountaineering course
The Wind River Range, 1978: Thelma wind pants and wool. Photo courtesy of Matt Tredway.

But all that was lost on some—

“You’re going to spend $2,000 to learn how to camp?” a roommate said, incredulous.

Another friend, who had graduated college the previous year, also seemed eager to pour cold water on my upcoming adventures. I remember him saying, “You will already be a year behind in making money if you plan to get a master’s degree. Now this will put you two years behind.”

I knew what I wanted to do with my life, at least part of it. NOLS was the first of my lifelong money vs. adventure dilemmas. How much should you spend on an adventure? The semester cost a lot of money; but, how much would you pay to change your life? Ultimately, what is more important, a bank account or a lifetime of experiences? I’ve always played it conservatively and considered my family’s welfare first, but there is still a way to make it work. Experiences are worth the extra effort.

My parents, on the other hand, had legitimate concerns. I couldn’t just drop out of school. Today, taking a gap year is very common. In the 1970s, it was just called quitting.

“Why”? Dad quietly asked. I couldn’t adequately explain. I saw where they were taking this; they thought I might be going off the rails. If I had too much fun or discovered myself outdoors, would I ever finish school?

After a long debate, we just sort of gave up. We were at different places in our lives. It seemed while I was looking for a place to take off and fly, he was looking for someplace where I could land and sink roots.

I resolved that was something I could overcome. I would just have to show them I could finish what I started.

Two climbers coil a rope at the base of an ice waterfall
Photo courtesy of Matt Tredway.

I couldn't have been happier with my decision to commit to NOLS. On the course, we made long trips that required logistics, contingencies, and planning. We learned ecological awareness, expedition behavior, first aid, and critical rock, snow, and ice skills.

Our instructors instilled organization in us. In your backpack, everything has its place, and should always be in its place. Take care of it, and it will be there for you.

As important as anything else was meeting like-minded people from around the globe. I encountered people who changed the future, like Todd Cedarholm, Lannie Hamilton, Scott Fischer, and Greg Bastamoff, to name a few—an eclectic bunch, ranging from professors to dirtbag climbers. They were interesting, cool, weird, and most importantly, my style.

There were so many legendary characters, seemingly larger than life, with the common bond of loving outdoors and adventure. We talked about our plans in class. Today, 45 years later, I am still in contact with many of those first tentmates.

As with all climbing camps, NOLS trips manifested a need for more. People shared stories of climbs, experiences, and adventures. The conversations swirled around evening meals. With each trip I took and each new batch of people I met, I yearned for the book of experiences gaining chapters. There are many intriguing spots in the world calling to be re-explored.

Outlines of tents in front of a huge icy mountain massif
Photo courtesy of Matt Tredway.

Thanks to NOLS, I have had a lifetime outdoors. I founded a school program and have taught thousands of kids this same meaningful curriculum. I have gone on expeditions around the world.

It is clear to me that NOLS changes lives for the better. The school has sent tendrils worldwide and been a force for good wherever its ideas land.

Maybe the best things I learned at NOLS can be summed up by the attitude that we should live hard, connect with nature, and be kind. I am not sure that was part of the defined curriculum, but it pretty much flowed through everything we did. It was the first exposure to the practice of “Leave No Trace” backcountry living.

My NOLS experience, the result of a snap decision, was perhaps what shaped my life more than any other single thing.

See all NOLS Expeditions.

Written By

Matt Tredway

Matt has been a NOLS instructor, teacher, and promoter. He now climbs, skis, and tinkers with building. He continues to serve on several boards, including Western Colorado University, and the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club.

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