CHARLESTON, W.Va. — It was a whiteout snowstorm. Ben Glasser, 19, of Charleston, and three of his friends were lost in the Andes in Patagonia.
They’d been trying to navigate via an Air Force map, by viewing the surrounding mountain peaks. But the heavy snow obliterated the mountains from view.
“We ended up above the tree line, absolutely where we were not supposed to be. That was definitely a night when we were feeling pretty scared, all of us,” Glasser recalled.
But figuring out a situation like this was the whole reason Glasser had signed up for a 135-day stint in the National Outdoor Leadership School course.
“We slept through the night, shoveling snow off the tent every few hours. Because you actually have got to do that. You’ve got to shovel the snow off your tent or you’ll suffocate. You’d set an alarm every couple hours and wake up and shovel the snow.”
The next day, the snow stopped for a little while.
“We found ourselves on the map and we made our way back to the actual spot where we were supposed to meet everyone. And I remember seeing my friend Ben again for the first time and we just had these huge smiles on our faces because we were just so stoked that we’d found the group again.”
Glasser, a 2013 graduate of George Washington High School, got what he’d asked for and then some in the longest course offered by NOLS, which began in October 2013 and ended on March 19 of this year.
“I knew I wanted to take a year off, take a break from school. But I wanted something worthwhile to do. This was definitely that opportunity. So, I heard about it, I looked it up. It just seemed amazing.”
The course was split into two sections with three to four instructors, experts in the field, accompanying the students.
The fall semester began with Glasser and his coursemates backpacking. They began to learn leadership skills and — in NOLS course language — began to “develop tolerance for adversity and uncertainty.”
Next came the mountaineering section. The 28 students — divided into two teams — traversed forests, snowfields and glaciers. They learned technical wilderness travel skills, including rock climbing, river crossing and how to handle icefall, loose and steep rocky terrain, crevasses and extreme Patagonian weather.
In the spring semester, Glasser and coursemates went sea kayaking, learning chart navigation, reading the weather and the ocean, and how to conduct a safe channel crossing.
“We came in as novices in everything from hiking to mountaineering, to kayaking or rock climbing. Then, over the course of six months, we became very proficient. So, at the start where we were kind of being instructed, by the end we were kind of making decisions, deciding where we were going to go and what we were going to do,” Glasser said.
“The whole thing is pretty crazy, for sure, especially in a place like Patagonia, which is just unbelievably beautiful and rugged at the same time. We’d do some pretty gnarly stuff. There were times when we’d be roped up on a glacier and there’d be wind that would knock you off your feet. Or you’d be climbing a mountain and the runout would be 100-meter drops. At times like that you were definitely on the edge of your seat.”
There was no recourse to cellphones or communication with family back home. The teams carried only a satellite phone for emergencies and otherwise navigated by map and compass.
“What’s really cool about NOLS is the way they deal with risk management and really teaching you how to handle and mitigate risk, to make sure that you can do things like this — live out in the wilderness for six months at a time in a very safe but, I guess, kind of living-life-on-the-edge kind of deal,” Glasser said.
Self-sufficiency was the goal, and toughness too, as they hauled 90-pound packs for months at a time in the mountains.
“What’s really wild about it is kind of how self-sufficient you are,” said Glasser. “You’re out there and we wouldn’t see anyone else, really. We were the only ones in these valleys for miles, hundreds of miles from the nearest road.”
There were fun times and not-so-fun times.
“There were moments when you would have fun and you knew you were having fun. Then, there was stuff that was not fun until after you were done with it. And I guess there were moments that just won’t ever be fun,” Glasser said, laughing.
“Some of the most brutal days are the ones that I remember the clearest and really enjoy the most now, looking back. Like a 12-hour uphill hike with an 80- to 90-pound pack on your back isn’t so fun at the time. Especially if, for example, you’re being swarmed by these giant horseflies that Patagonia has to offer.
“Or if you’re trying to sleep and the wind literally just flattens your tent on you and it’s 3 a.m. and it’s snowing hard. And you’re out there in your boxers trying to fix the tent up. Definitely there were times where it’s less fun. But it’s just such an epic experience overall.”
As part of a cultural immersion in the life of Patagonia, he spent some time with the people who live there.
“We spent a week doing a service project working on this guy’s farms and then another 14 days or so living with a gaucho on his farm. And that was part of the cultural section, so it gave us a chance to kind of live with and understand the culture of the people that live down there.”
The gaucho he stayed with had no car, just some horses and oxen. They happened to stay with him when he and some neighbors marked the man’s birthday.
“For his birthday, some of the nearest neighbors came in, however far away they live. What you’ve got to keep in mind is, Patagonia is just remote, it’s one of the most remote places in the world. And he went out and turned on his generator and powered the one light in his house. They had this traditional Chilean grill. We ate a lamb that night.
“We also had some really kind of magical experiences as well,” Glasser said.
One night, an instructor noticed the water in the ocean was full of bioluminescent plankton. Around midnight, they kayaked out in pitch darkness onto the waves.
“And everywhere you would touch the water it would just glow with this blue light. It was like some sort of fairytale; it was like some sort of Disney movie. It’s pitch black, you can’t see anything, but everywhere the kayak touched, it would just glow blue and leave this sparkling trail of blue light.”
Part of the experience was also learning how to build and manage group dynamics.
“Not everyone is happy with each other, of course, for six months in the wilderness with the same 10 people. It’s gonna get crazy unless you have taken the lessons you’ve learned and applied them.”
He returned home and brought with him a custom from the region of drinking yerba mate tea, sipped from a small gourd cup through a silver straw called a bombilla.
“You’ll see people out on the streets carrying a thermos and their setup with their gourd. Basically, anyone you meet is going to take you into their house or sit there on the street with you and drink mate,” he said. “And there are these certain rules where you always pass to the right and you always look the man in the eyes when you’re passing the bombilla and point the gourd at him.”
Glasser earned college credit for his time in the NOLS course and will attend Brandeis University in Boston this fall. What’s he going to do? “I’m not sure yet, but I’ll figure it out,” he said.
Yet he enters college with a wealth of new experiences from his time in Patagonia.
“Definitely, it also is a big confidence booster as well. You feel confident after you’ve done something that’s just kind of insane.”
For more information on NOLS courses, call 800-710-NOLS (6657) or visit www.nols.edu.
Reach Douglas Imbrogno at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-3017 or follow @wvville on Twitter.