Trial by Fire and Wind

A Park School student spends a challenging semester building leadership skills in the wilds of New Zealand.  by Katherine Staley ’08

It was the hardest day of my life.

After more than seven hours of hiking up New Zealand’s Rainbow Pass without stopping for food or water, we had finally reached a spot where we could set up an emergency camp. The 45-degree incline had left us exhausted, shaky, bloodied, and overwhelmed. The unmerciful 100-kilometer wind gusts had kept us fighting with all our strength just to gain a few vertical meters.

Yet rest was not to come immediately. We still had to hack at ice with rocks, then boil it down for drinking water, which we then filtered with a bandana to separate it from the rocks and bits of dirt. Next we set up our tarps and constructed rock walls to block the wind. As we lay on our bed of rocks and huddled close for warmth, I realized that this was only day five of what would prove to be the greatest adventure I've ever had.

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I had first heard of the National Outdoor Leadership School through fellow counselors at a summer camp I’d attended for years. NOLS teaches outdoor survival skills, leadership, and risk management, from its many branches around the world including Alaska, the Amazon, Australia, Baja, India, and Patagonia. After hearing my friends’ expedition stories, I signed up for a semester. Six months later I was en route to Christchurch, home base of the New Zealand NOLS branch, with only a vague idea of what I had gotten into.

The idea of being out in the bush for 75 days was intimidating. With only tarps to sleep under and only the food and fuel we could carry, we would truly be roughing it. My group was made up of 10 students and 2 instructors. Our course, which explored New Zealand’s South Island, included 40 days of backpacking in Nelson Lakes National Park, 18 days of sea kayaking and 10 days of coastal sailing in the Marlborough Sounds, and a 4-day visit with Maori people.

During our first 32 days of backpacking, we were resupplied with rations and fuel three times. We each carried all our food in our packs and boats. For the last eight of those packing days, we students went on group expeditions without instructors. Let loose in the wilderness in two groups of five, we were responsible for making all decisions, planning routes and meals, and generally taking care of each other, applying  our new skills.

In between backpacking and kayaking, we stayed in Kaikoura, home of a Maori community. We spent the night in a marae (their cultural center) and slept in the meeting house — a beautiful room with colorful floor-to-ceiling painted wood carvings. We sang and danced and played instruments with our hosts, heard stories of their fascinating culture, played rugby with the kids, and learned a Haka warrior dance.

Over the course of the expedition we also learned to read weather, use a compass, and read maps, tidal charts, and wave charts. We learned  first aid, kayaking and sailing (skills and theory), cooking, GPS (global positioning systems), leadership fundamentals, risk management, group communication, stove cleaning, personal hygiene in the wilderness, travel planning, and emergency procedures—and we had countless spontaneous classes on local plants and wildlife.

We encountered many strange and exciting situations. As well as that uphill hiking day and its 100-kilometer winds, we had a 10-hour hiking day and climbed down a virtually vertical forest — rappelling down with roots as our ropes. One day half our group got lost and emergency camped high in the alpine. We all fell down more times than we could count. A penguin ran through our campsite, a seal chased our kayaks, and a possum jumped on one of our tarps. A weka — a flightless bird that looks like a mix between a duck and a chicken — took great joy in stealing our things and sprinting off into the woods.

The entire experience more than lived up to my expectations. It was the most physically, mentally, and emotionally challenging thing I have ever done, but every bit was worth it. I gained more confidence than I’d imagined. On top of developing my leadership abilities, learning survival skills, being introduced to a new culture, and traversing a wild and beautiful country, I learned to truly appreciate things — both great and simple — and made lifelong friends.

Despite the fact that during part of the adventure I didn’t shower for 33 days straight, I would do it all over again. In a heartbeat.


Katherine Staley is an integrated marketing communication major.