AS THE IMAGE of his fellow students emerged, Fred Hamerman could see the headline describing his ordeal: 30 DAYS ALONE IN THE WILDERNESS WITH 7 REGISTERED REPUBLICANS!

"I have to sleep next to these people!" he cried.

It wasn't quite so painful after all. Fred was eager as few government majors are, to steep himself in an all-embracing experience. A product of Rye, N.Y., previously untouched by wilderness, he yearned for The New York Times Week in Review section while the other expeditioneers lusted after candy. More than once, not believing the experience of wilderness could be separated from interaction with people, he said "I wish we would argue more."

He got to be good, argumentative friends with another 19-year-old named Steve Ackerman from New Canaan, Conn. They argued so vociferously that the instructors told them to cool it. Steve, who had never experienced the pleasure of wearing a backpack, came down with a high fever and had to be evacuated a week early.

In Amy Salot, a 19-year- old junior from Amherst College, Fred found one other expeditioneer willing to let her hair down, short as her hair was.

Amy trained for the NOLS course by walking around the Country Club of Detroit with a 30-pound load of yearbooks in her new Kelty pack. Loaded for real, the pack nearly outweighed her. Twenty yards out of Billy Goat corral she was gasping for breath. Later on the trail, she caught a lace, toppled forward and the weight of her pack drove her face into the soil--a classically executed "face plant." But she was a tough, determined hiker.

Eric Johnson received medical treatment before his month with NOLS. His acupuncturist mother put the needles in him to help him stop smoking.

At 19, Eric was the wild card of the group. He decided to take the wilderness course in memory of the grandfather who had recently died and left him a bit of money. He slept outside and hunted up mushrooms. Adversity fazed him not at all. "Boy this is like 'Apocalypse Now'!" he said with bona-fide gusto.

"Eric's definitely on a different wave length," drawled Stuart Miller, one of the two young Tarheels on the trip. Stuart and his fellow North Carolinan Robert (Mitch) Mitchner were a study in opposites, though they both had short, drip-dry haircuts. After a fortnight Stuart's wavelength was different too, tuned to thoughts of friends and family in Tuxedo, N.C., and the "big ole cake" he was going to buy at McFarland's Bakery when he got back.

"This is as far away from home as I've ever been," he would say at one point, with a faraway look in his eyes.

Meanwhile Mitch, at 16, was impressing the older women on the trip by quoting Shakespeare and playing the theme from "The Waltons" on his harmonica.

There was another side of the South in Charles Lee James, a young gentleman from Richmond. At 16, he had begun to squire the belles to debutante balls, and he managed to keep himself in social trim in the wilderness. When Lee was around, the smell of soap wafted on the morning air. He wore a yellow scarf knotted at his throat like an ascot, a white hat that dazzled like a glacier in noonday sun, and when necessary, he shaved.

Lee's hat inspired a limerick from Ellen Thompson, a 19-year-old junior at William and Mary College. "There was a young man named Lee/ Who it seemed was completely spot-free . . ." When asked how her feet were-- feet that sometimes looked as if they had been run through a cheese grater--Ellen was unnervingly cheerful, smiling widely and saying, "They're fine!"

On the first night in the wilderness, when the group gathered around after supper to introduce themselves, and talk about their hopes and fears for the month ahead, she had summed up her reasons for enrolling in NOLS with eloquence.

The day had been hard. The students' packs had 22 pounds of food each. The air at 5,000 feet was thin in the lungs. They had trudged along, their heads drooped like the down-facing petals of the snow lilies by the trail. They had cooked their own supper. During "latrine class" they had learned what the trowels they'd packed were for. And then in a circle, each of them spoke. Like most NOLS students, Ellen had chosen on her own to take the program. When it came her turn to speak, she explained why, and what she foresaw in the days ahead:

"If I can do this," she said. "I can do anything."