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Imagine spending a generous part of your summer in the wilderness with a group of people you don’t know and with nothing but a few packed necessities. This doesn’t sound like the summer many of us are longing for at the end of the school year.

For students Stephan Kim ’12 and Megan Neubig ’13, a month of scaling mountains and enduring frigid temperatures became daily routine. This past summer, both students took on the great challenge of NOLS (the National Outdoor Leadership School), a program that takes groups of young people on leadership-building expeditions through various regions of wilderness around the world.  Both students attended the program thanks to the Haines Scholarship, which provides funding for two Columbus Academy students to attend three-week NOLS trips every summer. The scholarship is named for and funded by Academy alumnus Chris Haines ’65.

Kim and Neubig’s individual NOLS groups traveled at different times, but they both hiked across the Wind River Mountain Range in

Wyoming with a group of fifteen people. Despite treacherous weather, seemingly constant hunger, and occasional homesickness, they both came out of the NOLS program with many lessons learned regarding teamwork and being dependent on their natural surroundings.

“Actions had consequences out there,” Kim says. “Something so small could affect you in the biggest way.”

Living the carefully scheduled and often predictable lives that we do, it is hard to comprehend dealing with the consequences of the wild. With nothing but a tent to protect them against severe weather, Kim and Neubig were at the mercy of Mother Nature.

“It was tough, but it was really about just being positive. It’s all about thinking that after this hill, it will only get flatter,” says Neubig.

A positive outlook was difficult  to maintain, however, as each student was forced to  adapt to an environment completely different from the one they were accustomed to.

Neubig had many worries. She says, “Before the trip, I was actually worried about kind of stupid stuff like, ‘What if the people don’t like me?’ and ‘What if I’m the youngest?’ But on the trip, I realized there’s not going to be a lot of food, I’m going to be away from my family for a month, it’s going to be really physically challenging.  What if I just can’t do it? Would I have to quit or something?’”

Kim, likewise, worried there might not be enough food throughout the trip but later found that weather in the mountains could be just as worrisome as the possibility of hunger. On one day,  he found himself face to face with a hail storm. “There was this hail storm that hit us, just instantly, “ says Kim.  “We weren’t even inside our tents, and as soon as the storm hits us, it ripped them up from the ground. My two other tent mates were holding onto the tent, yelling at me to grab big rocks to hold down the tent corners. It was pouring rain. The hail was hitting me, which hurt so bad. And my hands were freezing. Everything was flying everywhere. We were losing everything. That was probably the worst.”

Also on the students’ minds was their ability to endure the challenges of being so far away from the familiarities of home. Neubig says, “It was difficult knowing that even though the first few days were pretty hard, you would have to keep doing the same thing for a month.  Even though it was hard, you couldn’t stop. You knew that you would have to go through the entire thing.”

Despite setbacks, both award recipients attest it was largely the sense of teamwork that kept them going. Their groups’ willingness to work together scaling mountains thousands of feet in altitude eased any physical burdens.

Kim says, “I actually sprained both of my ankles on the trip. When I sprained my left one, it was pretty bad. But the way my hiking group reacted to it–by giving me ibuprofen, rest, and whatever I needed—it was just really nice to see. By the end of the trip, we developed a stronger relationship together.”

Megan also found that, over the course of the trip, she grew to be quite close with her fellow NOLS students. “I still miss them a ton,” she says, “and it’s funny how much we all had in common. The team factor of the trip was probably one of my favorite parts.”

The 2011 NOLS expedition for both students gave them the unusual opportunity to have an experience many of us may never get the chance to have.

Says, Kim, “NOLS was a leadership school, and I think I’ve definitely gained some leadership aspects. At NOLS, if you were stuck with a person you didn’t like in your tent you’d still have to sleep right next to that person. I think I’ve learned that, no matter what, you have to be strong in times of adversity.”

Neubig agrees she also learned what it means to adapt and make the most of a situation you have little control of.  “I had to adjust to a situation that was completely different from my normal life,” she says. ‘I think that now, I’m a lot better at communicating and adjusting to new situations. And now rigorous work just seems easier because you’ve been through such extreme situations.”

When asked if they would feel more comfortable toughing it out and nature again now that they’ve had the NOLS experience, they are both a little reluctant, but definitely willing.

“I would do it again… but maybe next summer. At the end of the program I felt everything: accomplishment, happiness, joy,” Kim recalls. “There’s also the realization of how much you’ve gained, how much you’ve lost. There was such a rush of emotions at the end, that you just knew, ‘Wow. This was a good experience.’”

Neubig says,  “I didn’t really want to leave, but I did want to go home. I wanted to be there, but I also wanted to be home the entire time. I felt both equally sad and happy to be leaving, so it was an interesting mix. It’s hard to describe it.”

Reactions aside, both students were quite happy to wake up (not freezing) in their own beds after a month of mountain-climbing, knowing  they would not have miles of hiking ahead of them the next day. The shock of a comfortable, civilized environment was definitely a welcome one for all. Despite the grueling and unpredictable nature of their adventure, the students learned things about teamwork and survival at NOLS that could not be learned at any ordinary summer camp. Although both Kim and Neubig endured hard-learned lessons at the hands of unforgiving nature, they would not trade those lessons for anything.

Written by Mackenzie Bell’13. Photos courtesy of Stephen Kim’12 and Megan Neubig’13.


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