Alee Johnson completes National Outdoor Leadership School

Published 12:00 am Saturday, August 18, 2012

By David Freeze
For The Salisbury Post
After summiting Gannett Peak, the highest peak in Wyoming, Alee Johnson of Salisbury was left to wonder about her place in such an enormous world.
Johnson was completing four weeks at the National Outdoor Leadership School in Wyoming, with Gannett Peak as the climax of the month long adventure.
“I felt swallowed by it all, insignificant as a bug, thinking that we don’t own the world. It’s there for us to discover,” she said.
“I am now a climbing junkie. I love it all, including rock climbing, snow climbing and ice climbing,” Johnson said.
She exudes excitement when describing the experience.
“It’s not for everyone, but living out of doors for such a long time and experiencing nature like we did has certainly changed my life,” she continued.
National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) sounded exciting this past May as Sarah Busby described it to Johnson, a rising sophomore at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va. Busby had completed a version of the course herself, and Johnson was hooked.
NOLS is a non-profit outdoor education school founded in 1965 by legendary mountaineer Paul Petzoldt. NOLS takes students on remote wilderness expeditions and teaches them “technical outdoor skills, leadership, and environmental ethics,” according to ther website.
Goals for the NOLS course included navigation, first aid, glaciology and map reading.
“An average day included 6-7 miles of hiking,” Johnson said. “We started in the hot and dry desert. Each person carried 60-pound backpacks as they began to climb. I can say that ‘less is definitely more’ because we learned really quickly what we needed and what we didn’t.”
Food was brought in by horseback and divided among the climbers, sometimes adding as much as 15 more pounds to the weight of the pack.
“We got lots of blocks of cheese for energy and plenty of dehydrated food. We were responsible for making sure that we rationed our food to last till the next pick-up.”
As the climb began, Johnson was part of a four-person team that was led by one instructor.
“Our complete group included just me and one other girl, along with 10 guys and three male instructors. The girls and the instructors were in their early twenties, while all the other students were teens. As the days wore on, we were increasingly responsible for taking care of ourselves. We relied on the instructors less each day.”
Altitude sickness and minor injuries were common, but the climbers had no choice but to keep moving.
Four base camps were important as the altitude increased.
“We learned something new each day,” Johnson said. “We learned to wash pots and pans with dirt, eliminating any waste of water. We had to stormproof everything and put up a battery-powered bear fence. We became ‘one’ with huge and persistent mosquitoes each day until we climbed past 10,000 feet in altitude,” Johnson said. The only shelter for the whole trip was a group of four-person tents.
“The tents were so cramped that we often slept outside,” she said. “I wanted to sleep outside anyway because the view of the stars was just unbelievable.”Johnson expected to see a lot of wildlife and wasn’t disappointed. Mountain goats, mule deer, ospreys, and badgers were common, but they never spotted a bear. Storms packed a tremendous punch, often with enough wind that made it hard to hear each other.
Personal hygiene took a severe backseat throughout the adventure, especially with the required “leave no trace” policy.
“There were no showers for the whole month,” she said. “I loved jumping in the cold lake water with soap though. We dug six-inch holes for going to the bathroom. We carried out our toilet paper or we made do with rocks and sticks.”
The group did an alpine climb to the summit of Gannet Peak of the Wind River Range, with Johnson trailing only one instructor as they left camp at 4 a.m. They used headlamps while climbing over steep rocks, then traveled up a glacier before ascending a long and steep ridge to reach the top at 10:20 a.m.
“There were many profound moments along the way. As the sunrise came closer, I saw the rocks painted in all sorts of watercolors. There were tangerine, pinks, purples, and my own shadow was turquoise. Reaching the top was so peaceful and I was filled with joy.”
While the group rested on the top, the instructors broke out candy bars as a celebration and asked each climber to leave their printed thoughts in a time capsule that remains on the mountain. The lead instructor told them “Mountaineers have a special way of appreciating God!” Johnson said
“At that point, I felt more connected to God. After all, we were closest to him on that mountain. It enhanced my faith, a very individual and personal relationship that is not always conventional.”
The group hiked out to an area where they could be picked up by bus.
“We were tired, hungry and dirty,” Johnson said. “I have never appreciated a shower so much. We were used to very intense close quarters and had few secrets from each other.
“This trip was meant for me, but it left me more confused about life than when I left. The instructors had been to so many cool places.”
Johnson will return to school in the fall, and she will run her first marathon shortly after that. Next summer, she is already considering more climbing and maybe even working at a ranch in Wyoming.
“The world has so much to offer. I call it ‘exciting confusion.’ Pursuing new options and educating myself are important. But I learned so much more on those mountains. No more complaining about little things that don’t matter, and I’m going to stay positive throughout. On the mountain, imperfections don’t exist.”
Find more information about NOLS at
David Freeze is a freelance writer who lives in Rowan County.