I met Andy Altepeter about a year ago when we ended up on a job site together. We were working for Creative Energies, a renewable energy company that began in Lander, WY and has grown to open offices in Salt Lake City, UT and Victor, ID. We met on a large photovoltaic (PV) project being installed over a brownfield in Salt Lake City (which is a pretty great use of a brownfield if you ask me). The long work days and repetitive tasks required to install over 3,000 solar panels lent to a lot of introspection during the day, and drove enthusiastic conversations over beers in the evening.
The large crew for the project was, though common for Creative Energies, atypical for a construction crew. The crew was composed mostly of current and former National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) instructors, professional outdoor recreationists that have forsaken toilet paper for rocks and sticks, and chosen to teach outdoor skills and lead adventures over a decent paycheck and a drab 9 to 5 office job. Although all are well-intentioned folk, I’ve found NOLS instructors to be a bit cultish at times- and maybe understandably so for their shared experiences and lifestyles- which made conversation with the more reserved Andy Altepeter a welcome respite. Andy, also a NOLS instructor, struck me right away as honest, open, and modest. He, like many of the other NOLS instructors, was filling in downtime between month-long NOLS courses with Creative Energies to supplement his NOLS paycheck. I quickly learned that he had worked several years as a mudlogger, an on-site geologist of sorts for oil and gas drilling operations. Seeming a little discordant with his current occupations, I wanted to learn more of his past and perspectives.
We met up a few weeks later in Old Town Coffee in Lander to delve a little deeper than noisy bar conversations usually allow.
Andy’s path out West at first was not too different from the typical 20-something outdoors enthusiast you might run into at the trailhead or ski slopes. He went to Whitman College in Washington where he majored in geology and enthusiastically took part in Whitman’s Outdoor Program. (Aside: I need two hands to count the number of Whitman graduates that I’ve met totally at random throughout the West, two whose wedding I recently attended, most of which were members of the geology and/or outdoor programs, and all of whom are motivated, accomplished, and all around good and interesting people. Something’s going on at that school…)
He graduated with a degree in geology and promptly moved to Whitefish, Montana to live with his girlfriend and get serious about his outdoor recreational interests. After spending a year living the life in Whitefish, Andy’s girlfriend decided to go to law school. Between a rock and a hard place, working for the petroleum industry suddenly seemed like it might be a pretty good option. The flexibility of schedule and high pay rate would fund his rambling, adventuring outdoor lifestyle when not on the rig, and allow him to visit his girlfriend for longer spans of time. On top of that, he could pay off his student loans while putting money into savings, and if he wanted to pursue a career in geology, industry was the fastest way to do so (much more so than academia). How does a young guy say no to that? Andy figured he could go work on drill rigs for one or two years, put in his time as they say, and be in a much better place for it.
Andy put in long hours on drill pads for a year and a half, with blocks of time between drilling operations filled with outdoor adventures and visiting his girlfriend. As his career with industry continued on into a second year, Andy was looking for a change. He took a NOLS Instructor Course, the gateway into becoming an official NOLS Instructor. When he and NOLS mutually found his skills and character suitable for the task, he spent the next year splitting time between the well pads and leading wilderness backpacking trips for NOLS.
Fast forward to today, and Andy has spent several years as a NOLS instructor and living the good life. Lately he fills the time between courses with a mix of relaxation, adventures, and work with Creative Energies. I’d guess that installing solar panels is a little more in line with his lifestyle and personal philosophies, but Andy readily admits to missing the money of the oil fields. It was really the money he saved from the oil fields that enabled him to live comfortably for a couple years as a “full time” NOLS instructor. He confessed that he still gets calls to work in the oil fields that sound increasingly more tempting of late.
More recently, he’d gotten a few calls inquiring whether he’d be willing to go work at a proposed oil and gas lease in Dead Horse Point. Andy, an outdoor recreationist through and through, visibly wrestled with the idea. “From a recreation standpoint, it would be an awesome place to work, but a terrible place to drill for the same reason.” He expressed, though in his more subdued way, the almost maniacal enthusiasm many feel with the opportunity to explore Moab’s outdoor playground of public lands.
As we discussed the many proposed developments throughout the Greater Canyonlands area, Andy explained, “Places like Indian Creek and Dead Horse Point would be dramatically impacted by oil and gas development.” He went on to say, “Their ability to develop remote places is frightening. You can drive deep into Colorado’s West Slope- many miles from any town- and find a city of housing, rigs, and developments.” Andy expressed, and many would agree, that such access roads and their traffic are one of the greater, or at least most obvious, environmental impacts of the development. The workers, machinery, and deliveries to these remote sites can generate almost constant traffic to and from a site, often in places that had never before born the marks of any vehicle.
The temptation to go back is always there. Admittedly scraping by with NOLS and Creative Energies, the allure of the oil money can be great. “There are moments when I think how nice it would be to have a small house in town and be a little more comfortable. The energy industry pays good money and rewards hard work,” but he expressed that he has a great sense of community at NOLS- something he never really had in the oil fields. Andy said he had more than a few “why am I here, and how did I get here” moments with industry, and often thought that it was not a lifestyle he’d envisioned for himself.
This line of thought led me to ask, “Do you regret it?” Andy was quick to reply in the negative. He went on to say, “Could it (the career choice) have been more aligned with my beliefs? Sure. But I don’t regret working in the petroleum industry.” He explained that he sees it as a valuable life and work experience, and it has given him a broader perspective. Andy found that these insights even help him as a NOLS instructor when interacting with new, idealistic NOLS students. He said that his experiences allow him to provide alternative perspectives, and even shed some light and a dose of realism on the issues.
My meeting with Andy was admittedly quite a while ago now. Where is Andy now? Back to the oil fields to bank some money for another adventure? Lost in the snowy woods teaching kids how to, well, poop in the woods? I’ve run into him a few times around town since then, and last I knew, he had recently purchased a Dodge Sprinter van that had been used as a construction vehicle. He was in between NOLS courses and, quite literally, working to deck out the van (with tongue and groove pine flooring) and make it a ‘luxurious’ home on the road for car camping, road tripping, and exploring the West.
Regardless of personal finances or modern measures of monetary wealth, Andy seems to be living what many would call The Dream.