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New National Outdoor Leadership School president wants the school to keep innovating

Ruby Jean Photography
National Outdoor Leadership School

Sandy Colhoun is the new president of the Lander-based National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), a wilderness-focused organization that leads expeditions in the mountains of Wyoming and around the globe. Colhoun is the school’s seventh president and started in his new role in early October.

Colhoun first crossed paths with NOLS when he went on a mountaineering course with the school in the Wind River Mountains in 1987. His experiences in the outdoors include working as a ski patroller in Park City, Utah, climbing in Alaska and Bolivia, and cycling over the Himalayas from Tibet to Nepal. He has a background in journalism and was the Editor-in-Chief of the online newspaper The Antarctic Sun, based in McMurdo Station, Antarctica.

Colhoun said that the school’s long-standing mission is to be the leading source and teacher of wilderness and leadership skills that serve people and the environment.

“At NOLS, we believe that wild and untamed spaces is where we find our truest self. I believe our mission is to awaken the lifelong love of the outdoors,” he said.

The school has 14 campuses around the world, including in Mexico, Patagonia, and New Zealand. Their courses are designed for a range of ages and span many different activities, such as sea kayaking, rock climbing, backcountry skiing, and glacial travel. NOLS also leads trips for NASA astronauts, business executives, and the Naval Academy.

Colhoun acknowledged that the landscape of outdoor education has radically changed since the school was founded in 1965. He said he wants NOLS to keep evolving with the times while also staying grounded in its core values.

“As you look out on as we look out on the world today, no one will argue that we need better and stronger leaders. And that's a central focus of what we do – we want to elevate the leader in everyone,” he said.

Colhoun also said the school’s emphasis on teamwork, communication, and navigating uncontrived tough situations help its students learn skills that can help meet today’s biggest challenges.

“The consequences are real in the wild environments that we work in, and we believe that wilderness and those real consequences allow us to do unbelievable and world class leadership training,” he said.

The new president was the Chief Campaign Officer at Colby College and led the college's recent Dare Northward campaign, which aimed to raise $750 million to expand financial aid, support faculty growth, and build new facilities. Throughout his career in nonprofit advancement, Colhoun has raised nearly $1 billion for organizations.

Colhoun said that one of the biggest changes at the school over the last decade is the increase in interest in backcountry medicine courses, which provide certifications ranging from wilderness first aid to wilderness emergency medical technician (WEMT).

“In the last year, NOLS has run about twenty thousand students across the United States and around the world through wilderness medicine. We've really seen a lot of growth in that part of the school, which is super exciting,” he said.

The new president said that the last decade has also seen an increase in other organizations that are working to take people into the outdoors, and that those competitors have grown in scope and scale. But, he said NOLS is still at the forefront of the field.

“Because we have such well-trained instructors and because of our risk mitigation practices, we are particularly well-trained to get students into very austere and remote environments,” he said.

Colhoun recognized that pandemic-related enrollment fluctuations, climate change, and an industry-wide push to expand access to the outdoors have all shaped NOLS in recent years. He said supporting people of many different backgrounds in getting outside means diversifying who the school is reaching out to, who is instructing courses, and the length and types of trips that are offered.

“One of the changes that's happened to the outdoor industry is that as the world has changed, more and more people are coming into the outside – and we want to make sure that our school is the most welcoming it can possibly be,” he said.

Colhoun served as the school’s interim president for eight months after Terri Watson stepped down earlier this year. Watson was the first female president of the organization and led the school through the pandemic.

Editor’s note: The author of this article has led expeditions for NOLS in the past.

Hannah Habermann is the rural and tribal reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. She has a degree in Environmental Studies and Non-Fiction Writing from Middlebury College and was the co-creator of the podcast Yonder Lies: Unpacking the Myths of Jackson Hole. Hannah also received the Pattie Layser Greater Yellowstone Creative Writing & Journalism Fellowship from the Wyoming Arts Council in 2021 and has taught backpacking and climbing courses throughout the West.
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