SOMETIMES A CINNAmon roll is just a roll. Other times it's a test of character.

On a cold afternoon NOLS instructor Jim Roepke set out to make some cinnamon rolls to demonstrate the art of wilderness baking. The dough refused to rise. Hoots were heard, and Jim's pride began to smart.

Luckily the dough came through, and after he had rolled it, sprinkled on brown sugar and raisins, and set the works in the fire, the rolls that emerged were a triumph, all the sweeter for the doubting. While the skeptics were licking their fingers, he put the remainder in front of the group and said innocently, "You all can have these."

Then he watched how the students divided the booty, making mental notes for later when the instructors discussed "expedition behavior." It was important for him to be alert to the nuances of character. He wanted to know ahead of time how people might react in an emergency.

NOLS stresses that safe travel depends on cooperation, on trekkers' unselfishness with equipment and food. Roepke watched for ways to show the students how to put the welfare of the group before the individual.

What Roepke doesn't have in book learning, he has in intuition and experience. Before he was accepted as an instructor at NOLS, he worked as a logger, busboy, crab fisherman, mechanic, apple picker, camp counselor, security guard, plumber, janitor and 7-Up salesman. In the course of his career, Roepke has somersaulted down snowfields, fallen off cliffs and once crashed a truck carrying 72,000 eggs.

"My mother says I should get a job in a cage so I can't hurt myself," he says.

Despite the accidents, Roepke, 27, is an imposingly fit mountaineer, with a beard and blue eyes, a gift for the colloquial and a large wardrobe of earth-colored wool. Like most of the 200 NOLS instructors, Roepke began as a NOLS student. Growing up on a cucumber farm in Puyallup, Wash., he yearned to become a "total mountaineer." But his first NOLS course ended disastrously. He took a 70-yard tumble, ripped ligaments in his knee and had to be evacuated, his leg immobilized with an alder branch.

"That was the worst time in my life," he recalled as we hiked along on a gray day when the air smelled rankly of mushrooms. "I'd saved money since December to pay for the course. When I got back I wouldn't talk to anybody."

A NOLS instructor lent him the cost of tuition and he reenrolled when his leg healed. Later he completed the instructors' course, and despite the motherly injunction, he went to work for NOLS because he found a collection of kindred souls. "They had such a good feeling about life," he said. "There was a family feeling."

On the wilderness course he served as a "patrol leader," a position that is equivalent to first mate on a ship. His job was to share his wilderness knowledge with the students. Did they know that they could keep themselves warmer at night by spooning a dollop of margarine into their hot chocolate? Or that beavers have transparent eyelids and in bygone times weighed up to 800 pounds?

In simply spending a month with a bunch of privileged East Coast kids-- "members of the $200 K Club," he called them--he was a living lesson in another way of life.