Potential energy: (noun) Energy that is stored within an object, not in motion but capable of becoming active.
I had been dreaming of doing a NOLS course since age 21, although I didn’t fully realize it at the time. My college boyfriend did a semester in the Pacific Northwest, and I remember exchanging letters and the excitement of being able to talk on the phone when he was back at the base.
Six years later, recovering from the end of our relationship, I found myself in the Pacific Northwest about to embark on a NOLS adventure of my own.
A student on my course wisely said that on the trail, life moves in circles.
At age 27, I had the rare synchronicity of being in the right place at the right time and being able to embrace the experience fully. The mountaineering outdoor educator course (OEM) proved to be challenging, inspiring, empowering, and transformative. Not only did I grow enormously within myself, I had the honor of witnessing the metamorphosis of my fellow coursemates.
The potential energy of a NOLS course is high.
The potential energy of a NOLS course is high. Of course, as in any experience, it is up to the participant to accept this gift or hide from it. As a teacher, I am fascinated and impressed by the unique classroom and community a NOLS course creates. Within days, bonds are built that often take months of careful, calculated work in the frontcountry. An 18-year-old high school student remarked within a week that he already felt more open within our group than he did with many of his peers at boarding school.
In essence, we all were in survival mode. It is very difficult (and certainly not as much fun) to mountaineer in the high peaks of the Cascades for three weeks without the support of a group.
We hiked together, cooked together, slept together, and traveled on rope teams together—all while carrying half our weight in gear and hiking many miles in unyielding, cumbersome plastic mountaineering boots, which battered our feet and gave one student infected blisters.
The positive energy and humor of coursemates made everyone’s loads and hearts lighter. A warm meal prepared with love (and extra salt) brought an immediate smile and a full, content belly. The helping hands of friends made putting on a heavy pack easier and crossing a swift river safer. The pacesetter’s steps kicked into steep, snowy slopes and reinforced by every group members’ footfalls, made travel more efficient and stable.
And we all had gas! So much gas. At one point, our course leader had to stop mid-lesson due to a particularly malodorous cloud (generated by yours truly—aha! the truth comes out) passing through camp. Our other instructor unabashedly continued teaching while himself farting at interludes. We came up with a phrase for it; we were the Spider Barkers.
It is no small shock that you don’t just magically reinvent yourself on the trail.
During a NOLS course, you can bet your banjo that in addition to carrying more weight than you have ever carried in your life, you will also be carrying all of your emotional baggage. It is no small shock that you don’t just magically reinvent yourself on the trail. Sorry Cheryl Strayed, we can’t all find ourselves on the Pacific Crest Trail—but what if we can? Or at least a small piece. And at the end of the day, that small piece can make a big difference.
Dating my college boyfriend helped me rekindle my love of the outdoors, a love that my mom had carefully laid the groundwork for during my childhood. Although she had some physical challenges, my mom went to great personal lengths to ensure that I had the childhood experiences she most valued.
I remember keeping her up late into the night when I couldn’t fall asleep at an AMC (Appalachian Mountain Club) hut on the side of a mountain. Later, pictures showed a triumphant eight-year-old girl in pigtails atop the summit of Mt. Lafayette, stance wide with hands on hips.
My mom took me rock climbing with a guide for the first time in middle school, and before my junior year of high school, my mom and I went on an 8-day teen/parent backpacking trip in the Sierras. I distinctly remember both of us deciding on day 4 that we were really rather ready to be done!
My college boyfriend, a skilled outdoorsman, climber, and NOLS alum, was a great person to learn from. We went on many backpacking and climbing trips together and were also co-trip leaders for our college’s outdoors club and our summer camp’s adventure program. When we broke up two summers ago, I was devastated. I had lost my best friend, boyfriend of six years, and my adventure partner.
I also didn’t feel confident in my own outdoor skills without my boyfriend’s expertise. I began focusing my energy on becoming a stronger, more competent climber, and took a job as an outdoor education teacher at an independent school.
And I signed up for a NOLS course.
A year later, I found myself in the pristine meadows of Spider Gap, setting up snow camp on the 4th of July, and summiting Glacier Peak with 11 other wonderful people. Participating in the OEM helped me gain confidence in my outdoor skills, reclaim ownership of my own identity as an outdoor educator and outdoorswoman, and connect with a larger community of outdoor enthusiasts and leaders.
When our course leader asked me if I was interested in becoming a NOLS instructor, my jaw must have dropped to my waist. While I easily could have pictured my boyfriend in that role, I had never seen myself in that way.
My personal transformation was not unique.
My personal transformation was not unique. I witnessed one student emerge from her struggles with depression and physical fatigue to become one of the most upbeat, gritty group members. Another student was seeking to reinvent himself as he prepared to embark on a cross-country move and a fresh start at college. He remains one of the most positive people in the face of adversity I have ever met. We were fortunate to have a coursemate who traveled all the way from India to share his wisdom and give us a very different cultural awareness of mountaineering. He left with a letter of recommendation from NOLS to match his luminous smile of pride.
One student had never even been camping before our course, and another was excited to develop his interest in backcountry medicine. A former New York City public school science teacher left his classroom to pursue his love of travel, adventure, and youth empowerment. An international teacher discovered that despite his deep passion for the outdoors and education, his heart was with his girlfriend and their future climbing adventures.
Our youngest course member is just getting the ball rolling in life, flying forward at breakneck speed. He’s sure to be the next slam poet extraordinaire, or the new Jimmy Chin, or an alpine bear. And my former co-teacher, who I was lucky enough to also have as a NOLS coursemate, has expanded the definition of "backcountry renaissance man." With his flying golden locks and goofy smile, he will learn from every mistake under the sun, even if it kills him. We hope it doesn’t kill him.
Harnessing human potential energy takes a very specific sort of chemical reaction. Here is the recipe:
- 1 spectacularly stunning wilderness setting
- 10 enthusiastic, entertaining, and compassionate coursemates
- 3 bomber instructors who know how to balance friendship and leadership and keep you safe!
- At least 1 day in which you question why you’re on the course
- A hearty dose of challenge and hardship
- A sprinkle of inspiration
- Daily laughter
- The best poop of your life
- Starry skies to delight
- The sweet success of all making it out alive
Our instructor team expertly crafted a delicious medley of learning experiences. We were graced with a female course leader who (incredibly) was both an esthetician and a hardcore mountaineer. Whether it was advising us ladies on the 3-step post-NOLS hair wash or expertly painting each group member’s nails shimmering silver after successfully building a natural anchor for rock climbing, she taught us to be tenacious, systematic, sarcastic, and empathetic.
Another instructor’s powerful femurs led us up many steep precipices, and his sweet ukulele strums encouraged us after the darkest of days. His clever witticisms and steady soul were both engaging and reassuring. Our climbing instructor, who wasn’t with us long enough, kept us laughing with his sassy looks and booming bass. We all know the meaning of strong work.
To the best of our abilities, given time, place, and life experience, the Spider Barkers collectively and individually harnessed our potential energy. Spanning two decades, from youngest student to oldest student, we created a supportive and intentional community of friends and colleagues. And my former boyfriend? He was with me too, in the way in which those we have loved are always with us.
Shared love is a great teacher and a great friend. Losing love is the greatest teacher of all, for I realized that no love is ever truly lost. It lives on in new forms, it reinvents itself; you carry it with you and find it in new places.
Love has, if you are open to it, infinite potential energy.
Rachel was born and raised in Boston, MA. Her early love of the outdoors was inspired by digging in the garden and scrambling over rocks in the White Mountains. Once she discovered larger landscapes out West, her appetite for adventure and storytelling deepened. Rachel currently splits her time between teaching elementary school art in New England and instructing field courses for NOLS.