I’d like to leave this review as a reference for anyone considering going on the two week women’s Alaska course. I hope I can give you a better idea of what my experience was like, so you can make an informed decision about if this course would be a good fit.
I had a really negative experience on the two week women’s Alaska course during the summer of 2022 (7/24-8/6). If you decide to take a NOLS course and go by yourself, I’d personally recommend not paying more than a couple thousand dollars for a course, and not take a course that’s longer than a week - that way if it ends up being a bad experience you can cut your losses.
On the two week women’s Alaska course, there was an issue with mean girls, specifically bullying. In groups of women, bullying commonly takes the form of gossiping and excluding others from the group. The instructors on the course did nothing to address this, and at no point in time even talked with the group about what NOLS policy is towards bullying/harassment. Looking back now, that was really bizarre, especially considering we were all strangers and didn’t know each other - this topic really should have been addressed.
One person in the course decided to gossip and say mean things about me to others in the group. Two of the instructors in the group realized the drama that was happening, and instead of addressing the group and reminding everyone that NOLS has a no bullying/harassment policy - they decided to instead gossip about the drama as well. Right in front of me. These two instructors were in their early/mid 20s and I guess didn’t have the emotional intelligence to understand that when a person in the group is being excluded and gossiped about, what you should not do is add to the gossip. It felt like I was in a sick reality TV show. In my normal life, the gossip and exclusion wouldn’t have bothered me that much and I could have just walked away from the toxic behavior. But because we were in a remote wilderness environment, there was a tribal element added to the dynamics, and being accepted by the group was subconsciously associated with survival.
The person doing the bullying/harassment went by they/them pronouns. The instructors had more than one conversation with the group about making sure we all try to get this person’s pronouns correctly. I don’t have a problem with that at all. But what I do have a problem with is the fact that there were no conversations during the course about NOLS having a zero bullying/harassment policy. Something doesn’t seem right about that.
Also, if you are neurodivergent or on the spectrum in any way I would recommend you not go on a traditional NOLS backpacking course. My experience was that the traditional backpacking course curriculum was not suited for my neurodivergence at all. My quietness was seen as ineptitude during parts of the course curriculum, and I was shamed and humiliated for being who I am as a neurodivergent person. It felt like there was this toxic environment on the course where loudness and aggressive/bullying behavior was viewed as competency and confidence. That’s not appropriate at all.
Additionally, I’d like to call out inappropriate behavior that happened in an insular environment with no accountability - one of the instructors acted completely inappropriately. In addition to gossiping about me with another instructor, she publicly read out my private feedback form, not respecting any kind of confidentiality. I hope NOLS can remind instructors that feedback forms are private and need to be kept confidential.
Another thing to note if you are considering going on this course - remember that anything can happen. Halfway through the course one of the women fell down a crevasse and fell a long way. When it wasn’t clear what state this woman was in, one of the instructors went down to try and help the woman, ended up getting hurt herself, and needed to be evacuated. There wasn’t an open weather window right away so it took a couple days for the plane to come in and do the evacuation. Keep in mind that if you take this course and get hurt, NOLS won’t pay for your evacuation unless you are an instructor - so before you commit to going, make sure you have money budgeted out in addition to the cost of the course - because anything can happen in a remote location only accessible by bush plane - and you just never know.
I would also recommend bringing your own garmin, and budgeting extra money for one, if you do decide to go. There was a point on the course where no one in my hiking group for the day had a garmin when we actually needed it (because the only garmin was in one of the instructor’s packs which was left at the bottom of a crevasse after she fell). Rescue gear had to be flown in to get the pack, where the garmin was located, out of the bottom of the crevasse. So bring your own garmin just to be safe, and if the instructors/organization try to tell you that’s not allowed, I would seriously rethink going on this course.
Looking back on this experience, it was not worth the cost. I regret spending several thousands of dollars on this course. If you do decide to take a NOLS course, maybe bring a friend with you in case group/instructor dynamics aren’t healthy or helpful for you. Two of the older women on the course went together as friends, and even then at the end of the course, one of the older women started crying during the group feedback session when she was talking about how scary the route selection was for the course. Which makes sense since two people fell, and the one instructor had to be evacuated.
I wish NOLS could have also given the option to complete feedback forms online after the course was finished - that way I could have given feedback knowing it was confidential, when I had time to decompress, and felt safe to give candid feedback outside of the unsafe and unhealthy group dynamics on the course.