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Lightning struck the mountain as the heavens cracked with thunder. Snow and ice burst loose like boiling water, and I was swept down the couloir, a steep gulley plunging down the flank of the mountain. Runaway snow felt like galloping wet sand and hissed like snakes. It was a hell of a way to spend a summer vacation.
It was mid-July 1986, and I was in the Wyoming Wind River Range toward the end of a 30-day Wind River Mountaineering Course with NOLS, the world-famous National Outdoor Leadership School. Headquartered on the edge of the range in the cowboy town of Lander, Wyoming, NOLS was the premier outdoor adventure school of my time. Once I was on purpose to become a NOLS Instructor. At least I was until love, romance, and a broken down car got in the way. Nevertheless this 30-day NOLS mountaineering course proved to be one of the most pivotal points in my life.
Back then I planned a career in outdoor adventure and sought concentrated training in hard skills such as alpine rock climbing and glacier travel and in soft skills such as teamwork and leadership under pressure. Along with those skills NOLS also taught natural history, science in the field, environmental responsibility, wilderness navigation, and backcountry first aid, all knowledge I desired. I had one semester left in grad school, too, back east in Richmond, Virginia. And, to be sure, what I most wanted as an ol’ farmboy from Virginia was an immersion adventure in the Wild American West. And I got it.