For the past four months, Lizzie Price, 22, who graduated Princeton High School in 2009, has been working on a research project focused on a population of Rhesus monkeys on the Puerto Rican island of Cayo Santiago. The island’s lush terrain is a far cry from windswept Patagonia, with its notoriously changeable weather and isolated gaucho farms. Lizzie reports only two days of clear weather during one of the three months she recently spent there. In spite of long periods of rain and low hanging clouds that made visibility a challenge for mountain travel, Lizzie describes the experience as “the best of her life.”
“I had wanted to see Patagonia for as long as I can remember,” she said in a telephone interview from Puerto Rico. “It’s one of the most untouched regions of the world and it is very beautiful.”
A remote region at the southernmost end of South America, Patagonia is shared by Chile and Argentina. Lizzie traveled within the Chilean region as part of a semester-long wilderness expedition with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS).
The course was designed to impart mountaineering and sea-kayaking skills, but Lizzie said that was just a small part of what she gleaned from the experience, which attests to the NOLS philosophy that people thrive when challenged.
During the first week, Lizzie and 14 fellow students completed almost three days of a Wilderness First Aid course that prepared them to make basic medical decisions in the back country. Then, together with four instructors, they headed to the rugged Colmillo Plateau north of Rio Engano for a 75-mile wilderness sojourn during which they practiced rope teams, snow travel, and glacial safety.
The NOLS curriculum features mountain travel skills like route finding, bushwacking through dense forests, off-trail travel on steep, rocky terrain, and risk management. Leadership skills and tolerance for adversity and uncertainty are brought to the fore by having to manage hazards such as river-crossings, steep snowfields, icefall, crevasses, and extreme weather.
“We had one fall when the five-person rope team above us slipped. We were in a white out cloud and a minute or so after they fell, our rope team also slipped.” Although one young man hurt his shoulder and Lizzie had a few cuts to her face, she said that “the teams had trained for just this sort of scenario and no one was seriously injured.”
NOLS practices “Leave No Trace” camping and challenges students to step outside of their comfort zones. Students cook their own meals and forego the many conveniences of modern life.
After 31 days in the mountains, Lizzie and her team traveled to southern Chile for 30 days of sea kayaking. En route they observed Patagonia’s fiords, mountains, archipelagos, and the pristine rain forests along its coastline.
“On our sea-kayaking course, we learned how to read charts and how to navigate coastal waters safely; we would find places to camp overnight,” Lizzie recalled. “Often we were caught by bad weather, which might make it impossible to cross a channel, for example, and we spent quite a bit of time under a tarp in the pouring rain. But we had a blast and the experience taught me that you don’t need a lot to be happy; a chocolate bar was a delicious treat. We had so much fun,” she said. “An experience like this makes you realize just how much you take for granted.”
The group paddled 165 miles, all the while learning technical skills that included basic kayak rescue, as well as seamanship and navigation. The shared experience formed them into a tight-knit group with a deep appreciation for the Patagonian landscape.
An outward bound course in Alaska that Lizzie undertook while studying for her bachelor’s degree in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, from which she graduated last year, prepared her somewhat for her Patagonian semester. Her parents, she said, were supportive of her decision to immerse herself in this non-traditional classroom setting. Drawn to mountains from a young age, and inspired by family trips to National Parks out West, she hopes one day to work in the outdoors, perhaps as a teacher or as an instructor for an organization such as NOLS.
Founded in 1965 by legendary mountaineer Paul Petzoldt, NOLS has more than 221,000 alumni of its classroom-based courses and outdoor wilderness education programs that are offered in some of the “most awe-inspiring” locations in the world. Described as “the leader in wilderness education,” NOLS has its international headquarters in Lander, Wyoming. For more information, call (800) 710 NOLS or visit: www.nols.edu.