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Several days after starting his first semester at the National Outdoor Leadership School, Mark Hull had ascended Gannett Peak, the highest point in Wyoming at 13,800 feet.
Courtesy photo
Several days after starting his first semester at the National Outdoor Leadership School, Mark Hull had ascended Gannett Peak, the highest point in Wyoming at 13,800 feet.

Lessons in the Rockies
Hiking to class no ordinary feat for Decatur student

By Paul Huggins
phuggins@decaturdaily.com 340-2395

While Mark Hull's college peers were hiking up the granite steps to biology class, he was climbing a nearly 14,000-foot granite peak in the Rocky Mountains.

But the 23-year-old Decatur resident wasn't taking a break from school. When he finished a 94-day semester of wilderness training, he had as many college credits as his peers.

"There are times when you're in the field and it's like Day 23 and I was like, 'Oh Man. What am I doing out here?' " he said. "In the end, it's worth it. I had the greatest time."

Hull earned 16 hours of college credit, but that's not why he subjected himself to weeks of grueling hikes, carrying a 60-pound backpack over 200 miles, or sub-freezing nights that turned his sleeping bag into an icicle or raging river rapids bearing the foreboding names of Disaster Falls and Hell's Half-Mile.

Hull mainly wanted to connect with the leader inside himself that he knew was there but couldn't figure out where he wanted to go.

The Decatur High graduate had tried college a couple times at The University of Alabama and Calhoun Community College, but couldn't settle on a major. During that time, he dreamed of attending the National Outdoor Leadership School, which touted its demanding physical and mental tests to create leadership and communication skills.

He didn't apply because he and his parents thought it was too expensive. He also worried whether he had the physical strength. But realizing he needed a test that was as demanding as it was enjoyable and that the $10,000 tuition was comparable to a semester at a four-year college, he enrolled in NOLS' fall semester with his parents' blessing.

"Skillwise, mountain climbing and rafting aren't things he's going to use as far as a career goes," said his mother, Debbie Hull, "but we were interested in the leadership aspect of it, and the fact that he would learn to be self-sufficient."

He arrived in Lander, Wyo., in late August and after a physical exam and a day of getting outfitted and briefed, he and eight other students followed four instructors into the Wind River Mountains for 25 straight days of mountaineering.

They covered 67 miles during that time and learned map reading, route finding, cooking and Leave No Trace practices.

"Those first couple of days were just a lot of hiking with sore feet and sore backs," he said, recalling they hiked 13 or 14 miles from 9,000 to 11,000 feet the first couple of days.

Next came two weeks on the Green River developing paddling skills in canoes, rafts and kayaks as they covered 120 miles of river. From there, they moved to southern Utah for a 23-day backpacking trip following the Dirty Devil River. The course concluded with two weeks of rock climbing in western Colorado.

Hull said NOLS is not about teaching wilderness survival but about using the wilderness to help students think strategically, work together and set goals. It's a risk management course that focuses on safety and how to live in the wilderness and live comfortably, he said.

'Never felt unsafe'

"We never felt unsafe," Hull said. "There were times you felt scared and you had to overcome your fears."

For him, that was getting caught in a snowstorm while climbing a sheer rock face.

The biggest obstacle, he said, wasn't a mountain or river, but a bad leg wound when he started the first hike. It became infected and the pain increased to the point where he wanted to quit and rejoin the group on its next section.

"It seemed pretty dire and I was pretty frustrated with it," he said. "It was really mentally frustrating, and it affected my attitude negatively. But looking back it was a good thing, because it helped me focus on changing my attitude and from that point on I did very well."

The instructors treated him with antibiotics, and Hull said that shows how well prepared they are and how much they focus on safety. Throughout the course, the students learn to prepare for emergencies.

Instructors grade students on what they observe in the field as well as on assignments. This could be a textbook-based nature study where the student must give an oral presentation to the group on what he learned.

Hull graduated with honors, pulling a B-plus on the first section and A's on the final three. He earned four hours of biology credit, two hours of environmental ethics, two hours of leadership techniques, six hours of skills practicum and two hours of risk management.

He said perhaps his proudest accomplishment was getting elected group leader.

Backpacking through the canyons of Utah, the instructors separate the students into two groups and send them on their own for a couple days with the task of finding the other group.

As group leader, Hull was responsible for plotting the hiking routes, deciding how far to go, where to cross rivers and where to camp — things that showed his fellow students trusted him with their safety.

Though he enjoyed the boost in confidence, the most valuable part of the course was learning to set specific goals, Hull said.

Achieving goals

"We're taught to set goals every day and achieve them," he said. "It's probably something I was never taught before that you wake up and say you're going rock climbing or whatever. You voice those goals and then you do it. That's been a big thing for me."

He applied that technique to start flight school at Wallace State Community College and said he is drawn to pursuing a degree in technology.

His mother put it plainly: "Mark came back a much more mature man than when he left."

As for whether he missed civilization, Hull said, he looked forward to getting hot showers and eating junk food when he finished sections, but he longs to return to the wilderness.

"You look forward to getting home and then after a week, everything's the same and you look forward to getting back into the woods again," he said. "It's just so peaceful when you get away from the world and you focus on what's important."

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