By Aidan Kelly, NOLS Pacific Northwest Backpacking '13
My parents told me to do NOLS for years, but I never wanted to lose an entire month of my summer, so they eventually gave up. Then, a friend of mine who took a course in Alaska finally convinced me by telling me that I was going soft with my binge TV watching and fast food consumption. In an attempt to reestablish my ruggedness, I spent the following June backpacking in northern Washington on a NOLS Pacific Northwest Backpacking course.
At the end of each day of climbing over fallen trees and crawling up muddy slopes against frozen winds, all I wanted was to sleep. But I’d trudge into camp and realize that I still had to hang my kitchen tarp and pitch my tent in the snow, find and purify water, then cook and scarf down a meal like some kind of rabid wolverine.
This might sound horrible, and at the time it was definitely a test of my sanity, but while living in this state of perpetual soreness I stopped worrying about the world I left behind and my values began to change. Since there were no computers or phones, no social events and no clothing to choose from even if there were, I stopped thinking about that part of my life. If I wanted entertainment I had to hold a thoughtful conversation with someone.
I also came to realize that for each food item and layer of clothing, there was a price in pounds that I paid daily. The more I came to value the things inside my backpack, the things that kept me warm and full, the more willingly I would bear their weight. At NOLS, there was no immediate gratification; only if I acted with patience and resolve would I receive something worth my efforts.
We cooked our food on little stoves and with limited supplies, so if we wanted a meal to taste good, patience and creativity were required. When we did not uphold these values at the beginning of the trip, cooking disasters ensued. I remember after a long day’s hike I came back from collecting water to find my tent mate with a pot full of a mixture involving ramen noodles, mashed potatoes and crunchy dehydrated lentils. As awful as it was, we swallowed every bite with our eyes closed because we needed the nourishment. Another thing this experience helped me understand: the value of hot sauce.
In the course of the trip, we climbed a total of nearly thirty thousand vertical feet over a route of more than one hundred miles. I made friends with motivated and intelligent people and learned that when my body said “stop, what the hell is wrong with you,” I could push through it for my team. Without a doubt, NOLS was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I couldn’t have done it without them.
When life is tough, you find happiness in the little things along the way. It's in the view of a mountain range from the peak you just ascended, in the food that you made and in the shelter that you rigged, despite your numbing fingers. NOLS isn’t for everyone, but if you love a challenge and want try living in a healthy, sustainable way, I would highly recommend a NOLS course.
Molly is a NOLS instructor and writer. She loves the smell of her backpack and does her best writing before 7:00 am. When she's not scouting the next post for the NOLS Blog, she's running and climbing on rocks in Wyoming. Follow her on Instagram @mgherber