South Eugene High students Tom Bonamici and Ginny Robbins attended summer school last year, but not because they were behind in their studies.
Both wanted to learn more about the ins and outs of successful outdoor adventures. So they enrolled in separate month-long backpacking courses offered by National Outdoor Leadership School.
Bonamici, a senior who's president of the South Eugene IceAxemen - one of a handful of high school mountaineering clubs in the Northwest- spent four weeks in the wilds of the Absaroka Range, which borders Yellowstone National Park in northern Wyoming.
Robbins, a junior who's also a member of the IceAxemen club, was one of 15 students and three instructors in a course that used remote Alaskan mountains near Denali as a classroom.
The two Eugene high schoolers were among nearly 3,000 students ages 14 to 70-plus trained last year by NOLS, a private, non-profit school based in Lander, Wyo.
Founded in 1965 by mountaineer Paul Petzoldt, NOLS is now the largest backcountry permit-holder in the United States. In addition to providing experience-based outdoor education, it also owns and operates the Wilderness Medicine Institute, which specializes in training people to deal with backcountry medical emergencies.
NOLS offers 10-day to semester-length field expeditions in the United States, western Canada, Mexico, Chile, India, Australia and Kenya. The expeditions are centered around activities as diverse as backpacking, rock climbing, canoeing, kayaking, sailing, horsepacking, mountaineering and skiing.
Each course, however, has the same "core curriculum," designed to teach safety and judgment, leadership and teamwork, outdoor skills and environmental awareness. Students learn about everything from first aid to "expeditionary behavior," or how to get along with others in unfamiliar and sometimes trying circumstances. (Think of the television show "Survivor," without the ability to vote any annoying members of the group off the island.)
Bonamici turned to NOLS because was looking for leadership training to "help prepare myself a little more" for his role with the IceAxemen, which he had helped found in the fall of 2001.
The idea for a school mountaineering club emerged the previous summer while Bonamici and a buddy were backpacking the Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier. They talked about what a shame it was that so few of their friends were involved in backpacking and about what they could do to change that.
Back in Eugene, they contacted Dane Tornell, an SEHS track coach with extensive mountaineering experience. He agreed to serve as the new club's adult advisor. The club had 14 members its first year and more than 30 this year.
Bonamici said the NOLS course lived up to its promises.
"I think everyone learned leadership skills," he said. "I think everyone also learned a separate component of, you know, patience and teamwork and all these things that aren't taught in a class but are learned on the trail."
Many NOLS courses are open to anyone over the age of 14, but others are restricted to certain age groups. Robbins, for example, selected courses limited to 16- and 17-year-olds.
"I chose to go on a trek with 16- and 17-year-olds because my whole life I've done outdoor things with my parents and their adult friends, and I didn't really know anyone my age who did stuff like that," she said. "So I wanted to meet people I could be friends with ..."
Robbins said the course was "very fun" as well as educational and, on occasion, a little frightening - such as the time they stumbled across very fresh grizzly bear sign.
"We were bushwhacking one day and came upon bear poop that was still warm and slightly steaming," she said. "We were so scared."
One of the points covered by the course was safety in bear country.
"We all carried bear spray and had a class on how to use it," she said, and had been trained to make plenty of noise to avoid surprise encounters with bear.
"It was real assuring to know that if you followed the procedures they gave you to do, no one who had followed them and had been in groups of four at all times had ever been attacked by a bear," Robbins said.
The group also had "formal classes on lots of things - first aid, map and compass, equipment repair, effective leadership styles," she said. "We had students who would lead the group for a day or two and then at the end of course we went out on small group expeditions with five people. I was group leader of mine, so that was another chance to practice leadership."
If there was a disappointing aspect to her course, Robbins said, it was that many of her fellow students were not the "hard-core outdoor people" she had expected to meet.
"But I learned a LOT of patience - incredible amounts," she said. "I spent a lot of the trip trying to help other people move along and trying to teach the whole group things I might know that might help the whole group move along better. ... It was really hard at times, but I learned a lot from that."
Bonamici and Robbins get a chance to put what they learned into action during the periodic outings taken by the IceAxemen, such as a recent snow-camping trip to Hayrick Butte at Santiam Pass.
Club members are building up experiences in preparation for a planned summit expedition climbing the north side of Mount Shasta.
Meanwhile, the list of people who have learned from NOLS includes some famous outdoorsmen and outdoorswomen - including David Breashears, director of the IMAX film "Everest;" climber Pete Athans, who has successful round trips to the world's highest peak; and Tori Murden, the first woman to ski to the South Pole and the first American to row across the Atlantic Ocean.
Several other Eugene-area residents are NOLS alumni. Among them is Guy Santiago, owner of Oregon River Sports in Eugene.
Lessons he learned during a 21-day NOLS expedition have helped him run his business better, Santiago said in a testimonial published on NOLS' Internet site.
"I can sit and talk for hours about the course, even now," he's quoted as saying. "I recommend it heavily to anyone who wants to get a great learning outdoor experience. When I took that course, I had 20-plus years of kayaking experience, and there were a lot of things that the instructors made me remember that I'd forgotten about.
"The course brought out a lot and taught me a lot. It will bring out the best in you."
NOLS courses are not cheap. Tuition for most courses runs $100 to $150 per day.
A course catalog and more details about the curriculum is available by calling (800) 710-6657 or logging on to: www.nols.edu.
Tom Bonamici (right) and Ginny Robbins work during an IceAxeman Club outing to Hayrick Butte. Ginny Robbins of South Eugene High School (second from left) with some of her classmates in a National Outdoor Leadership School backpacking course in the mountains of Alaska. Tom Bonamici at the Continental Divide during his course in northern Wyoming. Please turn to SCHOOL, Page E5 School: Course boosts students' confidence, knowledge Continued from Page E6