NOLS Light & Fast Backpacking
Typed up by: Mike Clelland!
The LIGHT & FAST format is a two week adult course, with an age requirement of 23 years and older. This course is designed to teach LIGHTWEIGHT backpacking skills, along with the core NOLS curriculum, focusing on leadership, outdoor skills and judgment. All taught in a remote Wilderness environment.
We completed a bold route that traveled in the heart of the range, with a total of 104.5 miles.
We spent 13 days and 12 nights in the Wind River Range of central Wyoming during the first two weeks of August. The team consisted 2 instructors and 8 students. Among the students were 4 "repeat offenders" with previous NOLS experiences under their belts. They had done “traditional” NOLS courses in years past, and it was really interesting to get their feedback about the lightweight packs. Let me say, they were very clear that they’d never go back to their previous ways.
We left the Rocky Mountain Branch with all of our backpacks weighing in at just about 25 pounds, including 1-liter of water and 6-days of food. We were going to pick up the final 6-days of food at a trail-head halfway thru the trip.
Using a tried-and-true spreadsheet formula, the food came out to 1.4 pounds per-person per-day (PPPPD). Each ration period was 6-days, so multiply 1.4 (x) 6-days and you get 8.4 pounds of food in each backpack at the start of the trip, and after the mid-point re-supply. Fuel worked out to about 14 ounces per-person for each 6-day ration period. So, just about 9.5 pounds-per-person of consumables, not including water.
This food weight is considered low by “traditional” standards. But it worked out perfectly. The way to quantify success is to measure any leftover food at the end, and we had just a minimal amount remaining (just little squirrel bags) for a team of 10.
This was a 14-day experience, and that’s short for a NOLS course (most of ‘em are 30-days) so we had to make decisions about what the diverse crew needed and wanted. As instructors, we had to carefully “intuit” the desires of the team. They were all really enthusiastic to try and “drink in” the beautiful environment. Once we realized that (early on) we put a strong emphasis on maximizing the Wilderness Experience.
We spent the first ration period doing long travel, mostly on trails. The second half the route demanded extensive off trail travel, much of it in the high alpine zone. The students learned to navigate beyond the trails, and they did most of the leading during the second half.
Course highlights included the full team standing on the summit of Downs Mountain at over 13,000 feet, as well as beautiful camp sites, amazing mountain scenery, a snowy morning and truly rewarding camaraderie.
We started on DAY-ONE at NOLS Rocky Mountain Branch in downtown Lander Wyoming. Our small team worked together doing the important pre-trip necessities, like extensive gear checking and careful packing. We weighed out EVERY item and wrote it down on a gear sheet. Then we took our cute little packs and got on the van. We camped at the Scab Creek trail-head, affectionately known as Scabby.
(scabby on the first morning in the field)
DAY-TWO involved gaining elevation fast on dusty switch backs. We camped at Dream Lake, completing an impressive 11 miles and 1,600 feet of elevation gain. This ambitious push got us deep into the mountains fast.
(the Wind River Range, in all its glory)
From this point on, we traveled as two small teams of five in the heart of the range. We logged the miles and had a LOT of elevation gain and loss as we went over big 11,000 foot passes, sometimes a few of ‘em per-day. And, each day the packs got noticeably lighter.
(quick breakfast on the trail - all eaten)
There is a sort of orderliness that can arise in a team doing this sort of expedition. And, day-by-day, as we got to know each other and as we got to know the terrain, we achieved a really strong rhythm. To me, this team feeling of the well-oiled-machine was a true highlight.
Oh, and the wildflowers - WOW!
By DAY-FIVE we got to our highest camp in the first ration period, near Upper Jean Lake. (See Ryan Hutchins report, he was there too) We spent a lovely evening camped in an amazing field of wildflowers well above the tree line.
(camping above tree line)
We were considering climbing one of the big 12,000 foot peaks that loomed above us, but the next morning we awoke to a cold gray rain. It was an easy decision to keep hiking.
We walked over the amazing big-mountain terrain of Shannon Pass and down to the trail system along the Green River. It was truly stunning as we passed from one zone, down into the next. The rich smell of wet trees and the sound of running water accompanied us as we lost elevation in the rain.
By evening, the sun was out, and it was warm and lovely. We camped off trail in a field of tall grass.
The next morning was calm and clear, but the dew on the tall grass was like walking in lawn with the sprinklers on. The icy dew soaked our feet!
We zipped down the level trail along the Green River (and yes, it’s green) and we all gave our cameras a work-out with glorious views of Square Top Mountain. It looked so much like a corny post card that it was a little bit silly.
(now that's just TOO perfect)
We made a nice camp just 2-miles from the re-supply point arranged for the next day.
The next day at about noon, half the team walked down to the trail-head parking lot. We were confronted with things like cars and outhouses! It was a funny experience to have to reacquaint ourselves with that “other” world, even if only for about half an hour. We gave away our trash, and loaded up with all the food for the remaining 6-days. We also gorged ourselves on apples and oranges, and later regretted it because we all felt sorta crummy.
(hiking with belly's full of apples)
Back to the camp, and a big team dinner with new food.
The final half of the trip was much more focused on student leadership and challenging off trail travel.
(off trail with smiles)
The travel on DAY-SEVEN was a big push through an old burn area and a zone of brutal dead-fall. Then we went boulder hopping in steep terrain. But, we were rewarded with one of the prettiest spots in the Winds, Faler Lake.
(alpine meadow supreme!)
From there we kept gaining elevation, and we camped at the elusive Lake 11, 684. This place was so pretty and so pristine that it was hard to fit it into my head. It’s tucked snugly into the rocky flanks of the Continental Divide.
(camped at over 11,000 feet, the view!)
We had a glorious view to the west as the sun set that evening. It was cold, we all had ever bit of clothes ON and zipped up tight.
During dinner we made plans for the next day. We realized that it was going to be really cold in the morning because the sun would take a LONG time to get over the Divide.
Then someone casually announced: “We’ll just get up early, and hike during first light and gain 1,200 feet of elevation up those steep rocks and eat breakfast on the other side of the continental divide.”
And, the team all nodded in easygoing agreement.
Right on everyone!
The next day (DAY-ELEVEN) was, for me, the crowning achievement of the whole trip! Up at dawn, hiking in the cold, coffee on the divide (YES!) at well over 12,000 feet, snow travel on the Continental Glacier, ridge walking on the Continental Divide and some amazing views. All this was done with a watchful eye toward the steadily building clouds coming in from the West. We were in high alpine terrain where a summer thunderstorm would be terrifying. This added a little extra drama to an spectacular day. We even found bear tracks way up there!
(the continental divide)
We hiked right up and over the top of Downs Mountain (13,349 feet).
Our plan on the map was to go down the forbidding looking (and sounding) No Man’s Pass. But, as we reached a point along the ridge with a good view to the North, one of the students carefully reviewed the map and pointed out an alternative gully (well, huge valley really) system that looked promising. Sure enough, the contour lines on the map and the view right in front of us made it look like it would go. So, we started down.
(Off trail at coming down from 13,000)
The decent was a continuous maze of steep boulders, slippery snow, waterfalls, glacially deposited gravel and lots of micro (and macro) route finding. This all translates to FUN! We eventually got back down to where grass grows, and we camped near Down’s Lake.
(hot dinner next to a COLD lake)
We found what might be the world’s most amazingly cinematic spot to eat dinner. There was this flat peninsula of granite pushed out into the glorious spectacle of Downs Lake. And, across from our dinner spot, towering over the icy waters was the amazing 12,428 foot granite pinnacle called Downs Spire.
The next day we descended and got back onto the trails. It was a bittersweet thing, to actually walk on a well maintained trail. All of us commented that it was actually sad that we weren’t traveling off-trail anymore.
That night, we camped well away from the established trail in an eerie zone that had a lot of fire damage near Upper Philips Lake. There was a hint of fall in the air, and the team all recognized that the trip was soon going to end.
(dinner, cooked and eaten "lakeside")
The next morning greeted us with about two-inches of wet snow. The clouds had descended and we were in a claustrophobic white out. This was the time to put every little trick we learned in the previous 12 days into practice. Wet feet, cold weather, soggy travel, extremely tricky off trail navigation with minimal visibility - it was SO awesome!
(it's "summer" in the Winds)
That night, we camped about a mile from the Trail Lake parking lot, along Torrey Creek. We had descended well below the snow in the high country and the sun came out as we re-entered the low lands of sage. We had final gorging session on any remaining food, and a rather competitive muffin Bake-Off. The sun set, and the full moon rose. And we had a long talk about what we had achieved together. T Experience was powerful and adventurous. We sat in a circle, in the dark, and shared stories. I think there were a few tears in our small team as we took the time to reflect on the previous 13 days.
The next morning we were all moving with the dawn. The final bit of trail looses elevation with a dramatic set of steep switch-backs that over looks the parking lot below. As we walked our 104th mile, the sun broke thru the low clouds to the East, and lit up the red sandstone walls of the canyon - and from way above the valley floor, we watched the white NOLS bus inch it’s way along the dusty road to meet us in the parking lot.
I’ve worked for NOLS for 14-years, and every course is different. But, this trip will forever stand out as one of the very good ones.
(my power-house co-instructor, Sunny B!)
Huge thanks to everyone in our tight little crew, especially Sunny “Buzz-Bee” and all of her hard work. Right On Team!