Interview: Raúl Castro, director of NOLS Patagonia


Photo: Felipe PimentelPhoto: Felipe Pimentel


The renowned outdoor leadership school has spread its philosophy through its courses for more than 25 years in Chile.

By Ignacio Palma
Translation by Andy Ford
In 1993, Raúl Castro was living in Santiago. He was a physical education student and a mountain bike guide. At his university, he and 15 other classmates attended a slideshow presentation by National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) Patagonia. They all ended up becoming NOLS students, but Castro went much further.
A Chilean, he enrolled in a course taught in English. Despite struggling with the language, he successfully completed the course and went on to become a instructor for numerous NOLS expeditions. For 10 years he was also in charge of the now defunct Magallanes branch of the program, and in 2014, he became the director of NOLS Patagonia.
“In this crazy world we live in, there still exist people like us who are able to do their part in order to provide some time for people to have a look around us. We have an incredible landscape and places to travel, both in Chile and abroad,” says Castro.
Raúl Castro, NOLS Patagonia director. Photo: NOLS PatagoniaRaúl Castro, NOLS Patagonia director. Photo: NOLS Patagonia
In 1965, NOLS was founded by accomplished American mountaineer Paul Petzoldt in the Wind River Mountain Range, in the state of Wyoming in the United States. At first a program for instructors of Outward Bound, today the non-profit initiative has schools in several other areas of the United States, as well as Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, Norway, India, Tanzania, Mexico, and Chile. They offer courses in diverse disciplines: mountaineering, kayaking, horseback riding, hiking, cultural immersion and rock climbing.
NOLS Patagonia opened in Coyhaique more than 25 years ago. Currently, there are a number of courses of varying duration, these include the "Leave No Trace" seven-day course, thirty days of mountaineering, rock climbing, kayaking, and an annual English-language course which consists of a 135-day expedition combining different outdoor skill sets. All the aforementioned are taught under the NOLS philosophy, which is focused on developing leadership skills in each one of its students.
In recent years, the NOLS program in Patagonia has become increasingly popular. It consistently shares second and third place honors for number of enrollments with the Alaska branch, with the main branch in Lander, Wyoming, still the top destination for NOLS. Last year alone, the Patagonia branch received 470 students.
Photo: Felipe PimentelPhoto: Felipe PimentelPhoto: Lauren HughesPhoto: Lauren Hughes
Patagon Journal: What sets NOLS apart from other outdoor education schools?
Raul Castro: We teach basic techniques for outdoor survival. However, camping for prolonged periods, we also develop soft skills, like communication, human relations on expeditions, and risk management.  It is 24/7.  We are throughout sharing with one another, almost like a reality show.  The instructors as well as the students must solve problems on the fly.  It creates a dynamic that helps you integrate our teachings into your lifestyle, aside from an experience of learning the basic techniques for being comfortable outdoors.  We are a technical school in the areas of kayaking, mountaineering, or rock climbing, but if one really wants to be the best ice climber, for example, one will not take a NOLS course. One thinks that the weather or the technical skills are going to be the most difficult part of the expedition, but probably not. The complicated part is how to deal with a group of people over a long period of time.
Is that a key part of the course?
One realizes that he/she is not prepared for that.  And in contrast to other NOLS branches, our instructors choose where they go, whether it be climbing or kayaking.  That makes it much more motivating.  And many times they go to places they have never been.  The challenge is greater for them, and it makes it so everybody learns much more.  In this case, the previous knowledge is minimal, so it makes the expedition more real.
Among the numerous things you talk about on being a good leader, what seems to stand out is that you instill good expedition behavior. Please explain more this idea.
From the start we talk about expedition behavior, which is to maintain an open environment to differences; to conflict; to respecting one another; to believing that there isn’t only one right answer, but many, and that they all arrive at the same place.  In the course, we foster respect for the various roles.  Everyone starts at the learning stage, but later they take on different roles, whether it be as active followers, day leaders, or working with their own leaders in order to be a better expeditioner.  In many expeditions, sometimes the technical part is not the part that falters, but rather the human relations, such as egos or competitiveness.  Being in a NOLS course, one learns to respect these differences.  Ultimately, I think that expedition behavior helps you to become a better person.
And beyond that, one must not forget that nature is also in charge. 
For sure, and that is the good part of an expedition.  The instructors and students may plan many things, but in the end, the fourth instructor, which is the weather or the environment, is fundamental for what is happening.  They are real experiences that totally makes you work in limiting conditions.  We control the risks, but it is impossible to regulate each one of them.  Pushing ones limits can make you grow further.
Photo: Felipe PimentelPhoto: Felipe PimentelPhoto: Ignacio PalmaPhoto: Ignacio Palma
Culture of minimal impact
Since its beginnings in Chile, NOLS Patagonia has had a close relationship with Chile’s national park service (Conaf in Spanish).  In 1993, the first Leave No Trace master course was carried for the park rangers, and those trainings have continued over the years in several regions of Chile.  Today, similar courses are also carried out for Chile’s environmental ministry. Mainly, these programs educate about minimal impact techniques for camping and hiking trips, as well as teaching and planning outdoor expeditions.
“We are creating a culture of care for the environment. And, at the same time, we are training people so that they are more prepared in risk management and in outdoor education,” explains Raúl.
In Chile, more and more people are getting involved in outdoor activities, but that can also cause a greater impact on the natural environment by people who lack knowledge of proper etiquette when camping and hiking. Trash is often ubiquitous at trails and campsites [see: Overpopulated Cochamo]. How can NOLS help?
It is super important that NOLS Patagonia keeps growing. In the past ten years, the number of people who participate in outdoor activities has increased exponentially in Chile. It is great that we are also sending people out after our courses, who can pass along this knowledge to people that are learning how to do outdoor activities in a safe and responsible way.


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