Trip Report: NOLS Wind River

Location: Wind River Range

State: Wyoming

Miles: 120

Days: 29

Type: Shuttle

Trip Background: I first heard about the National Outdoor Leadership School in early March 2005. One of my economics professors simply sent out an email to students in her class recommending NOLS as a outdoor recreation opportunity. She really didn’t say anything about her own experiences with NOLS, but I checked the NOLS website out and decided that it was something I wanted to do. At first, I signed up for a semester long course in the Rockies, but changed to a month long backpacking trip in the Wind River Mountain Range instead.

Route Summary: We started our trip June 9th on the middle fork of the Popo Agie just past Sinks Canyon. I think the trailhead was called Bruce’s Bridge. We had several layover days in the first two weeks of our trip and spent a good deal of time in class. We covered everything from baking, to LNT, to first aid. I think we only went about 35 miles in the first two weeks. Some of us did become frustrated with this but it was probably a good think looking back at it, some people needed the extra time for their body to adjust to the pack weight and elevation, not to mention basic survival skills.

It was about a week and a half into the trip when we first hit snow with our 40-70lb packs. Its funny looking back how we reacted to the snow throughout the trip. At first, it was fun being in shorts and having snow fights, however we quickly became frustrated with actually having to posthole through it. Just as quickly as our fun turned to frustration, we started to laugh and have fun again when we fell past our waist into the snow.

After a couple weeks of travel, we began to near the Cirque of Towers. The cirque was simply awesome. We made a dayhike up to Lonesome Lake through the snow and I think I burnt a full roll of film there. Definitely a highlight of the trip.

After staying east of the cirque a few miles we started what was probably our hardest day. We went north over Lizard Head trail for about 10 miles postholing the entire way at 11000 -12000 feet. I broke trail for the first group and I think we were on the actual trail for about 5 minutes. I probably worked the hardest that morning as almost everyone else simply followed in my tracks. Later in the afternoon, we hit a a lake forming as the snow melted from beneath and ended up postholing through a foot of snow with 2-3 feet of water below. The only other option was to go around and up another 500 feet so we just plowed through. Although we really didn’t have time to think about how cold and wet our feet were as an approaching thunderstorm forced us to quickly climb the last ridge near Cathedral Peak and run down the ridge to Bears Ears Trail.

A couple days later we crossed Washakie pass over the Continental Divide. At that point we were accustomed to the snow as we had been forced to camp on it a couple times already and were hiking in it every day. One of the guys walked the pass blindfolded because one of the girls lost her sunglasses somehow.

After crossing the Continental Divide we went south of Mt. Geikie a couple miles and took a 3 day layover where we were rerationed for the last time. While at this camp, we had a few classes on rock climbing and setup a couple top ropes nearby.

Soon after we began to hike NW to Raid Creek and started making preparations for our independent student groups at Rainbow Lake. I was chosen as one of the three leaders and would lead a group of 3 other students for four days to a final destination about 25 miles away near Meadow Lake in the Boulder Lake area. Overall, my independent student travel group had few, if any problems. However, we definitely were a bit frustrated with the mosquitoes and the lack of water. I remember almost running down the trail near Lake George and Horseshoe Lake because of them. That was an extremely long afternoon as it took another two hours to find a suitable camp with a decent water supply and a stiff breeze to limit the mosquitoes. That night we were in our tents at about 6pm and put rain gear on to cook even though it was about 80 degrees and sunny.

We then continued to our final camp to finish up student, course and instructor evaluations. Most importantly, we made a plan for food and candy the following day in town.

Overall, i think the final count for mileage was 113 over 30 days. That doesn’t include most of the day hikes though.

Food: I know how to cook a lot more food now. We had 2 rerations in the trip and for the most part had basic food ingredients with prepared trail food. We also had an extensive spice bag combined with cheese and sausage to make (almost)everything taste great. Later in the ration period, we definitely had some strange combinations…

Leadership: Everyday we would hike in groups of 4 with one person as the leader of the day. Earlier in the trip we would also hike with an instructor just following us. The leader would write a travel plan the day prior and be responsible for any decision making that came up on the trail. After each day, we would have a debrief on what the leader did well and what he or she could improve upon. We also had several evaluation periods with the instructors to discuss our development as leaders and other skills.

Independent Student Groups: The last week of the trip we had our independent student travel groups where one leader was chosen to lead three other students. The leaders were picked by the students and would make all necessary decisions for the next 5 days including routes and campsite selection. I was one of the three chosen for the independent group leader and was given the additional responsibilities. I kept a course log, monitored group moral/health, changed routes if necessary, and just made sure everyone kept having fun. We had no contact with the instructors during this period unless it was an emergency. Although they were always within 24 hours hiking time and we knew their route and camping locations each day.

Fishing: We brought 5 collapsible fly rods. Some of us caught a lot of brook trout early on, but I had the most fun near North Fork Lake with some large Cutthroats. I stood in the cold river for hours and loved every minute of it.

Instructors: Three instructors accompanied the group of twelve students for the duration of the trip. All three of them were knowledgeable and fun to hike with.

Friendship: The NOLS course was a great opportunity to meet new people from all over the country. We had many hours of laughter simply from hearing each other’s regional accents. My Wisconsin accent and pronunciation of “bag” brought laughter to every meal.

The long length of this trip also created tension between some members and strong bonds between others. Being with a group of people everyday for a month amplifies every little annoyance while bringing those most similar closer together.

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