WOMEN YOU SHOULD KNOW IN WYOMING: Retired NOLS Instructor Reflects on a Life of Adventure
Lander’s Lucy Smith built a nomadic life guiding outdoor expeditions all over the globe
- Published In: Other News & Features
- Last Updated: Dec 20, 2023
Lucy Smith, left, with her friend Cyndy Simer on a backpacking trip last summer, was a NOLS instructor for over two decades. (Courtesy photo from Lucy Smith)
By Elizabeth Sampson
Special to the Wyoming Truth
From her home in the Red Canyon near Lander, Lucy Smith has views of some of Wyoming’s iconic scenery. The salmon color of the sandstone formation is beautiful during every season, whether carpeted with wildflowers or swept with pristine snow.
It feels like home for a woman who has made a lifetime relishing some of earth’s most impressive views.
Smith, 72, spent decades working for Lander’s National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). She has loved Wyoming since she arrived here in 1974, making the state a home base for her trips around the world. From climbing Mount Everest and working in Antarctica to mountaineering in Alaska and Africa, Smith has learned that home is where the heart is—and that turns out to be Wyoming.
Armed with a fresh college degree in medical technology from East Carolina University, but no desire to spend her life in a white coat surrounded by machines, Smith headed to the hollers of Kentucky to set up a medical lab for the Frontier Nursing Service hospital at the urging of her university advisor. He showed her a slideshow of the area, and seeing no paved roads at all, she was intrigued. It was not the last time a slideshow would change her life.
Smith spent 1972-1974 in the dense forest of Hyden, Kentucky, a rural, one-road, coal-mining town. She said the close-knit community had its own way of speaking and its own culture.
“I considered my time there the first extra-American time of my life, because it was so different,” said Smith, who grew up in a Navy family.
Smith lived in a small house on the property of a couple she grew to love. The Morgans invited her over for supper nearly every night—sometimes offering a cooked hog’s head. They also put a couple lumps of coal in her stove each evening before she got home from work so her cabin would be cozy.
A nurse’s assistant in the clinic where Smith worked occasionally gave her a jar of moonshine.
“It was rocket fuel,” Smith laughed.
Guiding outdoor adventures
She spent the next two decades as a NOLS instructor, teaching sea kayaking, river kayaking and mountaineering in places like Alaska, Mexico and Kenya. She taught students from age 15 to over 60, and her favorite courses focused on general outdoor skills.
“I enjoyed taking people who had very little comfort in any particular environment and [being] a part of seeing their comfort and confidence grow and develop,” Smith said.
While with NOLS, Smith attended an event in Jackson where Arlene Blum, who led an all-woman climbing expedition up Annapurna in Nepal in 1978, shared a slideshow.
“The last slide in the show was a picture taken high on Annapurna, to the upper reaches of Dhaulagiri, with nothing but clouds between photographer and Dhaulagiri,” Smith said. She learned another all-women’s climbing expedition was in the works for 1980 on Dhaulagiri, the world’s 7th highest mountain. She signed up.
“I love the whole process—the planning, the packing, the travel to get there, the trek, meeting all the people that were helping us out, all the people along the way,” Smith said. “The climbing was just the cherry on top.”
That expedition ended in tragedy when an avalanche pushed the tent Smith was in into a crevasse. Lyn Griffith, an Australian support team member who was sitting by the door of the tent, fell into the crevasse; her body was never found.
“I remember thinking, ‘This is it. I ain’t never coming back here,’” Smith said.
The team packed up their supplies and started the two-day trek out of the mountains. At that point, Smith had a change of heart.
“I remember thinking, ‘I might be coming back.’”
Smith returned four more times, participating in three all-women expeditions and a co-ed expedition to Everest in 1983. They didn’t summit Everest, but everyone on the expedition achieved a personal altitude record. Smith climbed over 8,000 meters.
Shari Kearney, 71, of Lander is a long-time friend. The pair met on the ill-fated 1980 climbing expedition and taught together at NOLS. She said Smith has an incredible work ethic and is a trustworthy adventure partner.
“[She is an] expedition teammate you can trust because she’ll look at the conditions, whatever it is, and assess them and come up with a pretty right-on risk management assessment,” Kearney said. “She’s not going to run away early, but she’s certainly not going to stick her neck out unreasonably.”
To the bottom of the world
In 1991, Smith took a break from NOLS, headed to Antarctica to work as a field safety instructor and returned for two more seasons to support a science expedition.
“That’s when I started thinking my knees have served me so well…maybe I should not push them any further,” Smith said. During the off-seasons back in Lander, she obtained her nursing degree, having never forgotten her admiration for the nurses in the Frontier Nursing Service.
Smith moved to a cattle ranch, worked as a nurse for a decade and continued helping her friend Kearney, riding horseback into the mountains to re-ration NOLS expeditions until two years ago.
Currently, she works part time at Sprouts Greenhouse in Lander and as a house and groundskeeper for a friend.
Smith’s life of adventure was simply a matter of saying “yes” to opportunities: “It was just taking advantage of things, and then throwing myself into them.”
Her favorite memories include drinking an early-morning solitary cup of coffee while camping with students at Prince William Sound, watching a bald eagle rescue itself from drowning and mountaineering expeditions to Ama Dablam and Pumori where all of her team members summited.
Now Smith is content to relax at home in the Red Canyon—a change of pace for a woman who was without a permanent residence for many years.
“It’s funny—I do enjoy being a homebody now,” Smith said. “Maybe it’s just being able to enjoy whatever you are doing… Maybe it’s just the old cliché: you travel the world around to find out what you were looking for you had all along.”