Matt Conroy displays the equipment he used during three months spent in the wilderness. - Bob Pennell

Wild education

While some folks this spring were having regular hot showers and driving to the movies on a Saturday night, Matt Conroy was living without such luxuries. The 27-year-old Medford resident loaded up his backpack and, along with 12 other students and several instructors, spent three months in the Rocky Mountain wilderness.

The expedition was part of the National Outdoor Leadership School, which teaches leadership and wilderness skills in remote areas around the globe.

Treating someone for hypothermia and conducting rock-climbing rescues were among the many skills Conroy picked up and honed between Feb. 4 and May 7 on his $12,000 adventure.

"The NOLS experience is really powerful. It's hard to come off it," said Conroy. "You live so deliberately when you're out there, so simply."

The 94-day course began with a 10-day First Responder course near Boulder, Wyo., where students developed first aid skills that would be applied throughout the semester. This was followed by 19-day backpacking trip in the Bridger-Teton National Forest, during which students learned the basics of backcountry camping. They then moved to the deserts of southern Utah where they spent 28 days learning desert navigation, covering 128 miles and climbing 5,400 feet in elevation. They then began a three-week rock-climbing stint at Split Peak and Sinks Canyon in Wyo., using rope, harness and knot skills to scale steep rock faces. (See correction note below)

"Sometimes we lived in snow shelters that we dug," said Conroy, who has since been hired by Santiam Crossing School in Albany, an outdoor therapeutic school for troubled youth.

Misadventures were few. One day in Utah the students split into three groups. Conroy's group took a wrong turn, headed down the wrong canyon and got lost.

"We ended up spending a night away from the group," he said. But it wasn't the end of the world. "We made ourselves lasagna."

They finally backtracked and hooked up with the others the following day.

His favorite part was likely the rock climbing.

He said rock climbing requires more balancing skills than strength, and women tend to get the hang of it faster than men.

"Guys have to break themselves of bad habits like wanting to do pull ups on the rock," he said. "Guys who are climbers will say they want to climb like a girl. Ultimately it's your foot work and balance that saves the day."

Although one student suffered a twisted ankle, injuries were small. (See correction below.) The program focuses on practicing skills over and over, and participants practiced many rescues and emergency responses.

He said he took minimal clothing, just one pair of hiking pants, two shirts, a polar fleece jacket, a down coat, rain pants and coat, leather boots, and gators and shoes to wear around camp.

NOLS regularly dropped off food ingredients and fuel supplies, so students didn't have to haul an entire three months supply of food around. Though most participants lost weight, he confesses they ate surprisingly well.

"We got a lot of curries and risottos," he said. "They even have a NOLS cookbook."

But the feasts weren't always gourmet.

"We had chicken flakes at one point, which is pretty scary."

His favorite food on the trip was the cinnamon rolls.

"The great way to get yeast to rise was to double-bag it and put it in your sleeping bag at night," he said.

Brandon Thielke, a field instructor on Conroy's trip, said some of the biggest challenges on these trips can come from clashing personalities.

"I think if you put 17 people in close quarters for three months, there's conflicts," said Thielke in a telephone interview from Wyoming, adding with this group, "the conflict was kept pretty small."

The groups encounter real risks and hazards during their training, and there have been "a handful" of deaths in the last 40 years, said Thielke, but the program has serious safety protocols in place.

"As a whole our school has a very good safety record," he said.

Wilderness trips range from 12 days in Wyoming for $3,000 to one year in Patagonia for $20,000. The biggest advantage of the wilderness versus the classroom for outdoor education is that the distractions are removed, and there's no way out.

"You can't get away from the wilderness and she's a great teacher," he said.

Students for many of the courses can be novices, said Thielke, and a lot of colleges now recognize the program so students can earn college credit.

Students range from outdoor educators to corporate executives and NASA astronauts, he said.

Conroy said the program gave him experience and certification to help build his career in outdoor education. He has an MA in archeology and Celtic civilization from the University of Glasgow in Scotland, and hopes to one day start a rock-climbing gym.

Coming off the trip, the first thing he did was resume his coffee habit. He's learned to appreciate conveniences, such as craving a piece of fruit and walking to the kitchen and getting one. He admits some habits have lingered, like he doesn't change his clothes as often as he used to. Fortunately his wife, Cara Conroy, a volunteer coordinator with the Nature Conservancy, is also a driven outdoor enthusiast.

"I do have to admit that my wife and I have a gear closet."

Meg Landers is a freelance writer living in Talent. Reach her at

Correction: The original version of this story included incorrect locations for the National Outdoor Leadership School courses. It also made an incorrect reference to no students having been evacuated during the sessions. In fact, one left the group briefly to address a medical condition. Both errors have been corrected in this version of the story.

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