LANDER, Wyo. — Imagine a school where backpacks replace textbooks, nature gives the tests and the classrooms extend from sea level to some of the world's highest peaks.
The National Outdoor Leadership School, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary, is such a place. Once perceived as a haven for hippies, it is now renowned as a pioneer in teaching leadership and wilderness skills.
Ironically, the school might never have been established had it not been for a near-tragedy in Wyoming's northwest mountains.
School founder Paul Petzoldt recalls the night he almost froze to death in the Teton Range in 1924.
Stranded in Snowstorm
"I was stranded overnight in a serious snowstorm, wearing bib overalls and a blue shirt," the 77-year-old recalled recently.
That experience taught Petzoldt that wilderness survival "is an art" and spurred him to work on developing "the state of the art."
During World War II, he trained ski troops in Colorado for a possible invasion of Norway. At the time, he began experimenting with wilderness survival techniques, developing a system and an ethic.
Petzoldt tried to promote that program while chief instructor for Colorado Outward Bound during the early 1960s but had trouble finding other instructors. It was then that he decided to found his own school to teach outdoor leadership.
School Opened in '65
The school opened in the summer of 1965 in Lander, with just 100 students and three hand-picked instructors. They used the nearby Wind River Mountains to learn how to live responsibly in the wilderness, learning map reading, backpacking, rock climbing, fly fishing, first aid and natural history.
Petzoldt recalls that conservative Lander residents took a hostile attitude toward the school. They were not too happy about his bringing in "the long-haired '60s crowd" from all over the country, "running all the Texans and tourists out," he said.
The school remained small until 1970, when a television documentary and an article in Life magazine captured the nation's imagination.
The school's enrollment soared to 1,000 that summer. One student lured by the media attention was Jim Ratz, now the school's executive director. He took one course, then another, and was hooked on the school's purpose and philosophy.
"We're geared for the average person," Ratz said. "You don't have to have outdoor experience. . . . We try to run courses so they don't move faster than the slowest person. We're not militaristic. Leadership involves compassion and patience. . . . We're teaching people how to enjoy themselves in the wilderness."
Still, the courses are challenging. Students in the basic, four-week Wind River Wilderness Course spend the last four days walking 30 miles out of the wilderness by themselves, without food.
"It's a last rite of passage," Ratz said.
The school began developing one of its trademark objectives, called "minimum impact camping," in the early 1970s.
"It's how to walk softly on the land, with as little disturbance as possible--how to place your tent so you don't kill vegetation, how to disguise your campfire," Ratz said.
Minimum impact camping has an important sociological goal, teaching people how to stay relatively hidden, to avoid disturbing others, he said.
School Branched Out
During the 1970s, the school branched out to Alaska, Mexico and Kenya. In 1985, two small programs in Argentina and Tanzania were added.
Courses range from kayaking in the Baja Peninsula to climbing in Africa. Depending on the course, students can learn to cast for trout in high-altitude lakes, bake cinnamon rolls by campfire, build igloos or dive for a seafood meal.
Most courses are three or four weeks long, but the school has added some shorter courses for businessmen and professionals who cannot afford to take a month off. Courses range in price from $1,000 to $3,400, and some scholarships are available.
About 20,000 students, ranging in age from 14 to 70, have attended the school since it was founded.
Ratz thinks the school should not expand much beyond its capacity of about 1,800 students per year, but he hopes it can broaden its scope in other ways.
That mission is currently taking place, as the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management have started to work with the school.
Petzoldt left the school in 1975 in a dispute with the board of directors, but he agrees with Ratz that the need for the school is even greater now than 20 years ago.