A Semester Away: Students Taking a Deeper look into the Natural World

Gisele Cestaro, News Editor

Masters students Lexi Wachen, Declan Myers, and Kayla Shelley left their friends and families for a whole semester to make new discoveries in the mountains of Colorado and Idaho. The High Mountain Institute (HMI) and Alzar are both semester-long programs that strive to educate by participating in outdoor expeditions, making students more cognizant of the natural world surrounding them. 

Wachen, a current senior, spent the second semester of her junior year at the Alzar School, which was located in Idaho (instead of both Chile and Idaho due to the restrictions of COVID-19). School days at Alzar lasted from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m, with activities for two hours afterwards, and then study hall to conclude every day. 

“It was a really long school day. It was definitely like the second you put your head on the pillow you were out every day,” Wachen said. 

Every part of Wachen’s day was filled with an expedition or activity, which meant no time for missing her phone which was taken away at the beginning of the trip. Although it seemed stressful at first, it was a way to become in touch with the real world, without the presence of technology. 

“I think it just made connections so much more genuine and wholesome since everything wasn’t based around social media,” Wachen said. 

Before leaving for her trip, Wachen had doubts, considering it was her junior year, but also wanted a change of pace. Looking back on it, she said she has grown immensely and acknowledges she wouldn’t be the person she is today if she hadn’t taken the opportunity. 

“I noticed I didn’t get stressed over the little things, and I was finally understanding what I want and how to get there,” Wachen said. 

Myers and Shelley attended HMI their junior years during separate semesters. Although they weren’t present at the same time, they had similar academic and expedition schedules. Classes were not full time, because every three to four weeks students would take a trip into the mountains or desert. 

Senior Declan Myers reflected back to his first expedition block out west. He recalled,  “My first expedition was into the Colorado Rockies, where we summited a few fourteeners [14,000 feet]. Our second and third ones were in the desert in Utah. We would go into the Canyonlands, and we would bring our own foods, stove and look for water.” Over the course of that week they would backpack over sixty miles.

Because she attended HMI during the winter, senior Kayla Shelly went on a ski expedition. They were there for two weeks during one of the biggest storms in Colorado at the time, the temperature hitting -20 degrees Fahrenheit and getting up to 26 inches of snow. “It was the most insane thing I’ve ever done. We put up tents in the snow, built kitchens and made quigloos,” Shelley said.

Quigloos are shelters that are made from loose snow, which are then hollowed out. It was blizzarding most of the time, so the quigloos weren’t too helpful when it came to keeping the students warm. Following the night’s harsh temperatures, the students would go on an early sunrise ski. 

Despite all three students being in different places at different times of the year, they still had the same battle to fight, which was Covid. As full as their experiences felt, they knew they were missing out on certain activities. “We couldn’t go into the town of Leadville like a normal HMI semester since there were so many cases,” Myers said. 

Safety precautions were taken such as social distancing, and wearing masks inside, but regardless, 36 out of 46 of the people in Shelley’s cabin got Covid. Shelley was in the hospital for a couple days, and she lost both her taste and smell. 

“We would quarantine for ten days but the issue was one person would test positive this day and then five days later, someone else would test positive,” she said. 

Being quarantined for a whole month meant Zoom school and not being allowed to leave the cabin, nevertheless, she recalled that this experience allowed her to become closer with her friends. 

All three students returned to Masters with more knowledge about themselves and the world around them; getting to be on social media again after months of taking off was overwhelming and all three students preferred the time without it. 

Looking back at the four months spent out west, being able to immerse themselves in a new environment and get used to change taught them more than they expected. Wachen said, “Just completely embracing this new environment allowed me to learn so much more about the world around me, and I grew in more ways than I could’ve ever imagined.”