The day starts like every other, black and silent except for the chorus of tinny watch alarms. They're faint enough to ignore, like telephones ringing inside locked houses, but somewhere in the groggy recesses, I know better.
The National Outdoor Leadership School
The National Outdoor Leadership School
WORKING VACATION: Paula, a NOLS sea-kayaking student, getting ready to launch into Baja's Sea of Cortez
The National Outdoor Leadership School
"WE MAKE IT CLEAR THAT NOLS IS A SCHOOL": students splashing across Bahía Concepción
The National Outdoor Leadership School
WORTH THE EFFORT: To NOLS, hard work is all about earning freedom to roam.
The National Outdoor Leadership School
"YOU'RE LEARNING EVERYTHING FROM SCRATCH": downtime on Santa Barbara Beach
The National Outdoor Leadership School
ALONE TOGETHER: A NOLS cooking crew whips up dinner under a tarp
I crack one eye, then the other. Something is wrong. I can't see or breathe. I'm suffocating behind steel prison bars, my hands clawing against an impenetrable wall of... nylon mesh. Plastered to my face, chilly and damp with dew, is my bivouac sack. Sometime during the night, the makeshift dome I'd fashioned using propped-up water bottles tipped over, and the bivy's gauzy face panel sagged down on top of my head. I grope for the zipper and tug it open, the cold night sky spreading out above. My sweaty sleeping bag is twisted around me like a down straitjacket. My watch reads 3:55.
We're due at weather check in five minutes. Enough time to pull on a hat and wind pants, not enough to put on water for coffee or snooze another nanosecond. Already, dim yellow beams from a dozen headlamps are lighting the sand, an illuminated ant trail. I'm nine days into a two-week sea-kayaking course off the coast of Baja with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), and by now I've internalized several crucial life lessons, one of which is absolute punctuality. So I smack my soggy sneakers on the ground to chase out any scorpions—no one home today!—and hustle down the beach to the boats.
We assemble, facing the water, bunched together in pre-dawn misery. We can't see anything, so we're listening, and what we're listening for is waves. This morning they're everywhere—and loud: rolling steadily onto the beach in front of us, breaking on a rocky point a couple hundred feet offshore, pummeling the next cove north. This is our fourth pre-dawn weather check in the past week, and the steady drumbeat of water hitting land is something new and disconcerting.
Our three instructors stand on the sidelines, watching us through the slits of their eyes. Today is the first day that we, as students, have to make all the important decisions, and the closest we've got to an authority figure is Greg, the more experienced of our two designated "leaders of the day."
Greg isn't exactly the picture of confidence. At 45, he has a brown-and-gray wire-brush beard, slightly droopy shoulders, and sensible outdoor gear straight off the rack from Eastern Mountain Sports. A New Yorker and a Broadway set painter by trade, he spends his spare time trying to make an adventurous life for himself in the wilds of Rockland County. Not so secretly, he dreams of becoming a NOLS instructor, and he's gunning hard for it: This is his third NOLS course in four years.
Greg wears his expedition savvy like a badge of honor; unsolicited advice is his specialty. A few days ago, while hiking to a slot canyon, we came across a small pool of standing water near the base of a sandstone pour-over. "The instructors say it's not safe to drink," he told me as I approached. I shot him my best "as if" look. From ten feet away I could see the water was lime-green and fuzzy, like radioactive moss. Even a dying cow wouldn't drink it.
Now, as Greg undertakes his first official act of leadership, his voice is hesitant. "Well, what does everyone think about the conditions out there?" he asks, scanning the group, his headlamp blinding us. There are halfhearted mumbles in response.
"I hear a lot of waves."
"It seems pretty windy."
"Yeah, it was windy all night."
We just stand there, listening to the thundering surf.
Then Jerry, a student from Texas, pipes up. "I think things are big out there," he drawls. "I'm real concerned."
From the edge of the pack comes an unstifled groan and a nasally Boston squawk: "It seems fine to me," says Tammy, a 45-year-old mother of five. Under her breath, but loud enough for everyone to hear, she adds, "I'm going to commit suicide if we have to stay here another day."
WHY ENDURE GODFORSAKEN WAKE-UPS, days on end without a hot shower, no toilets, no beer, and a bounty of personality quirks (my own included) on a NOLS expedition? I spent the better part of two weeks pondering this very question before I arrived at the answer: so that, for better and worse, you never have to take a NOLS course again.
NOLS was founded in 1965 by Paul Petzoldt—a 10th Mountain Division veteran and Teton climbing pioneer—as a training program for instructors in Outward Bound, a UK import that, then and now, uses wilderness experiences to expand young people's self-potential. As such, NOLS had a single, defining mission: to teach the core adventure skills—from low-impact camping techniques to technical proficiency in pursuits like mountaineering and paddling—that leaders would need to safely run expeditions.
The goal is the same today. "Our programs are designed so you'll walk away with the confidence to lead your own trip," says Bruce Palmer, NOLS's admissions director. "I've never met a NOLS grad who doesn't put their outdoor skills to use." In other words, NOLS exists to train students not to need NOLS. It's simple, in theory.
Forty years after Petzoldt led his first backpacking trip in the Wind River Range, the Lander, Wyomingbased nonprofit now offers 300 courses in seven countries, addressing 15 disciplines—sea kayaking in Baja, mountaineering in Patagonia, horsepacking in Wyoming, and much more. The majority are monthlong outings aimed at high school and college students. Among the 75,000 NOLS alums are some of the most accomplished names in modern adventure, among them seven-time Everest summiter Pete Athans and high-altitude filmmaker David Breashears.
For the most part, if you missed out on NOLS during your formative years—as I did—you simply weren't in the club. You learned as you went, devising backcountry habits, both good and bad, through imitation, invention, or stupid desperation. That started to change in the 1970s, when NOLS, noticing an untapped market, began courting the 25-and-over crowd with courses that promised to speed-teach classic NOLS techniques in two weeks instead of four. These days, roughly 20 percent of all NOLS students are over 25.
The trick, obviously, is selling backcountry basic training to grown-ups, who usually come with a stubborn streak of independence and certain expectations about creature comforts. The NOLS solution is deceptively straightforward: What works for kids will work for adults. Regardless of your age, wisdom, or previous experience, when you sign up for NOLS, you're signing up for a stiff dose of skills instruction, team building, and leadership—with absolutely no coddling.
"We make it clear to everyone who applies that NOLS is a school," says Kimi Harrison, director of NOLS's sea-kayaking program in Baja. "When the word vacation comes up, it's something we try to erase."
That's a refreshingly candid pitch, but it left me with doubts. How would it feel to spend two weeks with total strangers, getting bossed around by know-it-all instructors? My anxieties were confirmed when I opened the enrollment packet, two months before the course began. Included was a seven-page equipment list, notable for its exhaustive content and camp-counselor tone. A sheet marked COURSE DESCRIPTION laid out the less tangible rigors of our 14-day sea-kayak adventure:
"Learning to be a contributing member of an expedition can be a challenge with immense personal rewards.... It takes a lot of commitment to the group to set aside personal goals for an expedition to Succeed."
Thus began my indoctrination into the NOLS Way.
OUR TOTAL IMMERSION started on a Monday morning in mid-February at NOLS's concrete compound on Coyote Bay, a scrubby cluster of blocky buildings, thatch-roofed palapas, and pop-top campers midway down Baja's eastern coast. Ten students—six women and four men, ranging in age from 25 to 53—arrived by tourist bus from Loreto, Mexico, too engrossed in our own private misgivings to make conversation.
Had I been privy to the NOLS Leadership Education Toolbox—a spiral-bound, laminated 72-page booklet that codifies every leadership secret known to NOLS—I would have known we were displaying classic signs of "forming," characterized by "polite and superficial behavior" and "confusion and anxiety." (Two days later, I got my first look at the Toolbox when the instructors unveiled it, encouraging us to check it out anytime.)
That first day, we filed off the bus like nervous recruits and were greeted by a swarm of official-looking people wearing fleece, running shoes, and serious faces. One of them yelled, "Grab your bags and come this way!" We did what we were told and broke the ice in true NOLS fashion: by doing a few chores.
Over the next 12 hours, as we readied our rations and gear for the expedition, it became clear that NOLS has a precise system for everything. We were informed, for example, that the correct way to pack our group's 144 pounds of rations (no-frills staples like flour, sugar, "potato pearls," bulgur, pasta, and dried meat that looked like sawdust) was to weigh them on a scale and then scoop them into a plastic bag that was neither too big nor too small, tied with a knot that was neither too loose nor too tight.
The head instructor for these lessons—and for the trip as a whole—was Claire, a 27-year-old expedition kayaker from Vancouver, British Columbia. Claire had a sturdy, broad-shouldered build and chestnut hair coiled tidily around her ears, and there was something in the way she looked at us, straight in the eyes, that made her vaguely terrifying. Her equipment lecture involved an elaborate show-and-tell of her personal effects, boiled down to this: Bring what's on the gear list, and don't bring what isn't.
In case we were confused about that, Claire and the other two instructors—Frederik, a 38-year-old Swede with a long, coarse braid, and Victor, a 45-year-old Mexican now living in Seattle, who had a smooth smile and a wrestler's compact body—inspected our stuff item by item. A few things didn't make the cut, including a pair of contraband dumbbells that Devon, 25, a former college lacrosse player from Connecticut, was bringing along in his bag.
"Our water jugs weigh just as much," Claire told him firmly. "You can lift those instead."
That night after dinner, we gathered on sagging sofas for the expedition briefing, with Claire laying out the 70-mile route. Our trip would take us east out of Coyote Bay, across Bahía Concepción, north around Punta Concepción, then south into the full brunt of the Sea of Cortez, which, in winter, routinely unleashes four- to five-foot swells. Along the way, we would master the finer points of ocean paddling—most of us were beginners—and practice navigation, freediving, map reading, low-impact camping, and knot tying. We would see exactly one town: San Nicholas, the take-out.
"Our goal is self-sufficiency," Claire stressed, "and we will need to work together as a unit, for safety. Everyone will have different challenges. For some of you they will be physical; for others they will be emotional."
I was hoping for a brief detour into the psychological hazards of remote wilderness travel—homesickness, isolation, boredom—or, better yet, a spontaneous pep rally. We'd been at NOLS nearly 12 hours, and no one had said word one about good times. Wasn't this an opportune moment to preach the true reward of teamwork, bonding with new friends? Apparently not.
Instead, we got a strict reminder of NOLS protocol—no alcohol, no drugs—and of our subordinate status as students. "The first five days of a course are like the first five years of your life," Claire concluded. "You're learning everything from scratch."
"THERE ARE LOTS OF NITPICKY RULES," Jerry whispered the next morning as we watched Frederik demonstrate proper boat-packing technique and prepared to launch. A 53-year-old small-animal vet from Houston, Jerry was cheerful and polite, with an elfin face and a flair for matronly gossip.
"Yeah, I wonder when we're going to start having fun," I said. I'd been on enough trips to know that logistics are the backbone of any adventure, and I wasn't averse to hard work and self-discipline—just as long as play was part of the package.
Even with our pared-down supplies, we were saddled with a lot of stuff—rations, water, fiberglass-repair kits, diving masks and fins, guidebooks—and trying to wedge it all into our fleet of seven single and three double kayaks was no easy task. Finally, it was time to go, and the scene was snapshot-pretty: a dozen boats bobbing on the glassy turquoise water of Coyote Bay. In the background stretched an aloe-colored desert, with ravens perched atop cardón cactuses, drying their outstretched wings in the sun.
It was a brief idyll. After just over an hour of paddling, we straggled onto a beach called Santa Barbara, our first night's campsite, a mere mile from the NOLS base. My feet were numb, crushed against the side of the cockpit by an aluminum cooking pot I'd carelessly crammed between my knees. Yeah, I'd screwed up—gear in the cockpit is a no-no—but in exchange for pain, I'd absorbed a central NOLS lesson: Set yourself up for success. Or, more plainly: Do it right the first time. I wasn't the only one with issues. Devon's face and arms were the color of strawberry yogurt. In addition to forgetting proper sunblock—he'd brought SPF 4 to promote maximum spring-break tanning—he'd somehow neglected to pack sunglasses and a hat, which didn't bode well for a two-week trip on open water, with daytime highs in the eighties.
Meanwhile, Tammy had started whining. "I came here for the sea kayaking," she said, running a hand impatiently through her straw-colored frizz. "I've done four NOLS courses before, and I already know how to set up camp and cook on a stove." Given that, she probably shouldn't have come, but she was out of luck: We'd washed up on this uninhabited beach, and now we had to learn how to live here. So we broke into our assigned "cook groups"—teams of three or four that would share a stove, rations, and tarp—to start our sessions in backcountry do-it-yourself.
To say the NOLS Way of camping is fussy would be an understatement, but it is impressively logical. The instructors dished out a flurry of boot-camp tips, nonoptional nuggets of ingenuity meant to replace whatever half-baked habits we'd brought with us. Tarps are more flexible than tents, as long as they're strung at just the right angle to the wind and secured with just the right knots. To create a hygienic kitchen, fold down the ration bags and pour, so you don't have to reach in with your grimy hands. Never pour boiling water directly from the pot; use a ladle.
From cooking and camping, we progressed to toilet training. First rule: Pee only in the intertidal zone, where waves will flush it away—which, incidentally, was where we were instructed to wash our hands and our dishes. All other business required trekking 200 feet from trail, beach, or camp, then digging a six-inch-deep cat hole.
"If possible, I try to find a nice spot with a good view," Frederik explained as we clustered around him for a demo in the bushy, buggy undergrowth at the back of the beach. "Sometimes I favor the traditional solo squat method," he said, executing a deep knee bend over his hole. "Or, for variation, the tripod." He put his hand on the ground in front of him for support. "As for toilet paper, I alternate between seashells—they provide a nice scoop—and a big stick." He held up both for us to assess, and the unfamiliar sound of laughter rang out. Was it possible we were lightening up?
Then, just as quickly, it was back to work. The next day brought sea-kayaking skills to practice—sweep strokes, assisted rescues, wet exits in the 60-degree water. It was during Frederik's tutorial on seamanship that Claire delivered the surprising news. "Devon has decided to leave the course," she told us. "He had some things he was working through before the trip." We must have looked stunned, because she quickly added, "It was nothing any of you did. He was having a lot of fun with the group."
Moments later, buzzing with our first real drama, we speculated. Devon was evacuating because he'd crisped himself like bacon. Because he couldn't bring his dumbbells. Because he was sick of rules and wanted a real Mexican vacation.
Our theories were totally unsubstantiated, but they gave rise to an odd camaraderie. If only by default, the nine of us remaining had something in common: We weren't the one who quit.
OF COURSE, WE WERE MEANT to feel these things. Not only were they choreographed in the Toolbox; they were part of a larger process. Every expedition—NOLS or otherwise—takes on a life of its own as it winds across the map, making friends and rivals of its members, revealing undetected strengths and blind spots, moments of delirious wonder, mutinous frustration, and woe. On the crest of this invisible tide, we were carried headlong into "storming." This is Toolbox-speak for "the group's adolescence," in which "some test leaders' authority" and there is "turmoil and struggle over power."
Day five began with the now routine 4 a.m. weather check and calm, clear, otherwise perfect conditions for the nine-mile paddle to our next campsite. We cooked oatmeal for breakfast, rallied to Tammy's aid when a scorpion stung her foot, hauled our kayaks to the shoreline in the dark, and began loading up. It was business as usual, until...
"Bring it in, everyone!" Claire shouted, her arms crossed like a football coach, a sure sign of an imminent scolding. "These kayaks are my babies! They need to be properly supported on the beach before you start loading them. You've got to respect them." Chastised, we stared at our feet like naughty kids.
An hour later, we launched in the pinky light of sunrise. The coast dipped and curved as we stroked north toward Punta Concepción, past small coves, raggedy desert peaks, and a few dilapidated fishing shacks. Jerry and I paddled a tandem, and as he sat in the bow with a Texas-flag bandanna pulled bandit style over his stubble, our idle chatter was punctuated by not so idle reprimands from Victor and Frederik. We were farther offshore than the recommended 100 yards; our kayak "pod" was too spread out; we were forgetting to use our paddle signals. But, really, who cared? It was sunny and still, the bay flat and calm as bathwater, and for a little while it felt like a vacation.
Denial, however, is not the NOLS Way. Experiential learning, says the Toolbox, is effective only when you process the experience. This happens through "the tricky art of debriefing," during which students "tell their story of the day, uninterrupted, from their perspective" and then "note the impacts and feelings these events prompted."
As it turned out, the day had produced plenty of feelings, which we were eager to share that afternoon on the shadeless, baking sand of a beach known as Santo Domingo. Jerry, with rare orneriness, pointed out that Victor had never clearly explained how to navigate. Paula, 31, a marine biologist from Uruguay, suggested that our hectic schedule didn't leave us enough time for ourselves. And Marjorie, 30, a usually buoyant construction-project manager from Chicago, said what no one else dared to: that we were being treated like teenagers.
Victor, Claire, and Frederik let us vent, then patiently repeated it all back to us with phrases like "So, what you're saying is..." We wanted drama, but they were maddeningly blasé—like they'd heard it all before.
Which, no doubt, they had. The Toolbox is crammed with mini-essays entitled "Ways to Manage and Deal with Conflict" and "Tolerance for Adversity and Uncertainty," designed to prep NOLS leaders for the inevitable meltdown—even when the meltdown involves them. By the looks of it, the instructors were struggling with their own internal discord, their tightly knit composure beginning to fray. Claire practically rolled her eyes in agreement when we suggested that Victor—who was mellow and flirtatious to a fault—had slacked off. Frederik seemed as embarrassed by Claire's brusque rebuke to us that morning as he was by Victor's carelessness. As I watched the instructors grapple with their shaky group dynamics while managing ours, it dawned on me that teamwork is just that: work. Even for trained professionals.
Much later, a couple of months after the trip ended, Claire described that moment from the instructors' perspective.
"With some instructor teams, everybody is laid-back," she told me, when we debriefed by phone. "Ours was different, and it was something we were working on. That meeting had a tremendous effect on how we did things as a team. You all communicated that one particular style of teaching wasn't working for you. You'd gotten past the discomfort of sleeping with scorpions and paddling long hours, where the camping skills weren't consuming all your time, and you were starting to think about the course and how it was affecting you.
"We realized then," she said, "that you were ready for the next step."
BAJA HAS A SPARE, BLEACHED-CLEAN kind of beauty. On the surface, there's nothing extra, just sand, rocks, sea, and desert. But then something unexpected reveals itself—an osprey's nest of sticks, teetering like a lopsided top hat on the edge of a 100-foot cliff; natural phosphorescence flickering in the bay—and you're thrown into dumbfounded reverie.
"Well, I'll be damned," Jerry sputtered a couple of mornings after the big meeting. It was day seven, and we were rounding Punta Concepción beneath a watery gray sky, dolphins diving and swooping off our port side. "Y'all see that?"
Our itinerary had relaxed considerably. Between paddling drills and spastic attempts to roll our kayaks, we now had time to appreciate our surroundings, sleep late, do laundry, and reunite with our autonomous adult selves.
Which could mean only one thing: It was time for the next challenge. Sure enough, on the eighth day, the instructors turned the tables by announcing that, as of the next morning, we would be in charge.
Greg and Dominik, a 31-year-old laid-off lab technician from Switzerland, volunteered to go first. As leaders of the day, they were responsible for executing the float plan, and they didn't have it easy. Conditions at our 8 a.m. launch were unusually unfavorable: no better, and maybe worse, than they'd been at that sketchy weather check four hours earlier. After we paddled out, we were swept into the Sea of Cortez, a steady wind and foot-and-a-half-high rollers pushing at our stern.
An hour and a half into it, Greg and Dominik gave us the "pod up" signal—nervously bench-pressing their paddles up and down over their heads. We rafted together and began tossing out contradictory observations: It was still wavy; it seemed safe enough to paddle; it looked too risky to continue. We were a couple hundred yards off a pebbly sliver of beach, the last suitable campsite for several miles.
Minutes ticked by, Greg visibly uncertain, Dominik looking blankly to us for an answer, everyone restless for a plan.
"I'm noticing whitecaps!" Frederik finally shouted into the void of indecision. Twelve heads swiveled to the north. Sure enough, line after line of cresting waves were bearing down on us—an ominous sight that seemed to jolt Greg into action. "OK, everybody," he said, a hint of defeat in his voice, "we're heading in!" It had taken nearly four hours of preparation to paddle just over 90 minutes.
To their credit, Greg and Dominik had done the hard work by being first in line to take the lead. Their mistakes became our advantages, lessons we vowed to remember when, in subsequent days, it was our turn. Make decisions carefully but swiftly. Acknowledge your inexperience by consulting your teammates and, if need be, your instructors. Always maintain the illusion of control, even when you're weak with worry. Don't panic. Be observant. And, most of all, remember that it's just as hard to lead as it is to follow.
"WHAT ARE Y'ALL GONNA DO first when you get home?" Jerry asked as we scraped dinner together at Medano Blanco, a wide and windswept beach that looked more like Scotland than the Sonoran Desert. "Have sex or eat a big meal?"
We were slicing onions, picking sand out of a sticky clump of refried beans, and saying whatever inane thoughts popped into our heads—the things you do on a wilderness trip to pass the time.
"How about a hot shower?" I said, patting the greasy bird's-nest in my hair. "Is that an option?" By then, at dusk on day 11, fantasizing about the end had become a communal obsession. We'd formed, stormed, normed, performed, and were now "transformed"—but, please, we were still human. Bathing in salt water and peeing in public were getting old.
"Stick a fork in me," Jerry replied amiably. "I'm done."
But we weren't—not quite. Before we could go home to a cold beer and a soft bed, we had to get graded, and at NOLS, evaluating student performance is—no surprise—an intricate process. Since the first day, Claire, Frederik, and Victor had been covertly assessing our competence in 50 categories—from punctuality and kayak strokes to dressing right. From these, they assigned us letter grades in seven disciplines, including safety and judgment, seamanship, leadership, kayak skills, and expedition behavior. To make it official, we received a report card and a paper diploma proclaiming us to be self-sufficient graduates of the National Outdoor Leadership School.
In the final hours of the course, I tried to make sense of it all. No question, I'd learned a lot. In just two weeks, NOLS had taught me how to cook a halfway decent camp meal, pack a boat, plot a route, paddle in open water, read the weather, and leave no trace. I'd arrived at some essential insights on leadership and life that had applications far beyond the backcountry. I couldn't help but feel impressed, both with NOLS's comprehensive and cunning approach to teaching and with my team's own weird brand of resilience.
Still, something was missing, as it had been from the start: a feeling a little like joy, the immediate, visceral thrill that comes from pushing your limits as part of a group and coming away with an experience that's more than the sum of its parts.
THE NEXT DAY, STANDING in the Loreto airport, dizzy with freedom and a little bit lonely for my pod, I found myself talking to the guy behind me; he was radiating happiness.
"We just finished a ten-day sea-kayaking tour!" he said, unprompted. "Our guides cooked the most amazing food! They did everything for us! My girlfriend is seven months pregnant, and it wasn't even a problem for her! It was so fun!" He paused to catch his breath, then asked what my vacation had been like.
Just as I opened my mouth to run through the litany of pre-dawn wake-ups and long, liquorless nights on the sand, the airport doors slid open and in walked Devon. He was carrying a battered green Samsonite and sporting a deep honey tan. I looked at him, and he looked at me. Did I wish I was Devon, flush from enjoying spring break by the pool? Did I wish I was the guy behind me, aglow from his full-service adventure? Maybe.
But six months later, the answer is no. Now that I'm no longer sitting on a remote and beautiful Baja beach—gritty with sand, feet sunburnt to hell, and happy without quite knowing it—I have a different perspective on NOLS. I realize that the most essential lesson of all was the one we were explicitly not taught: that the spirit missing was missing from us, not just from our instructors; that, as fledgling leaders and mature adults, it was ours to bring to the expedition if we wanted it.
Or, maybe more important, it's ours to bring to our next expedition, the one we'll do in our own style, using all the skills we've learned at NOLS—and a few we've made up along the way.