Earth Society president and hiking enthusiast Caroline Goggins (‘16) spent the spring semester of her junior year far removed from the cozy Collegiate bubble. Her destination was the High Mountain Institute (HMI) in Leadville, Colorado, where she studied and explored alongside 48 other high school juniors and seniors. Two days after her arrival, students were divided into expedition groups, and they set out for 14 days of camping and hiking in Utah. There were three major expeditions over the course of the semester, all of which involved 10-14 days of travel through unfamiliar territory. A combination of exertion, low temperatures, and simply being in an unknown place with unknown people made the first week a difficult adjustment. Goggins agreed, however, that the need to rely heavily on each other brought the groups together and ensured a positive semester to come.
Back at HMI, she met the girls she would share a cabin with for the following five months. The entire campus supports HMI’s mission of promoting personal growth while fostering a supportive community in a natural environment. The cabins are heated by wood, and their source of light comes strictly from solar power. Students themselves are responsible for cooking in the kitchens and cleaning up after themselves, as the school employs no outside help. Goggins commented on the surprising quality of the food they prepared and noted that she, “made some dope food,” in the Utah backcountry. Expeditions also supported an eco-friendly mindset, and students were encouraged to “leave no trace” as they learned the basics of backpacking in Utah canyons and used Telemark skis and built “quigloos” in Colorado. Trash, waste (yes, that waste), and belongings were kept with the groups at all times until their return to Leadville, which aimed to keep the land free of proof that anyone had ever set foot there. On one expedition, Goggins came down with the stomach flu, but there was no other option except to continue moving forward with her group in a snowy, inhospitable Colorado environment where nighttime temperatures often dropped below 10º.
Even though she spent most of her time outside and connecting with nature, Goggins did in fact do schoolwork during her time at HMI. While at the campus, she took classes just like the rest of us and was able to keep up with her Collegiate course load. Learning on expeditions was very different from classroom schoolwork, and students received packets from most teachers to work on during daily study halls. Other teachers went on expedition with the students, and their lectures were centered around the day’s location. Science classes described the specific geography of a region, and students read relevant news articles for their English and history classes.
When asked what she had taken away from her semester out west, Goggins immediately focused on the relationships that she made with her fellow students. She originally left Richmond in order to find a change, saying “I had been at Collegiate since kindergarten, and I wanted to meet new people.” And she did just that. This should be no surprise, as her only communication with the outside world was via email or payphone. Students formed strong bonds with their teachers as well, as they were not only responsible for classroom learning, but also for leading expeditions. Goggins noted, “You don’t ever get the opportunity to get to know people in such an intentional community, whereas otherwise people are on their phones all the time or worried about school.” In addition to forming a strong community with the people she lived and explored with, Goggins also came to understand the importance of taking time to herself, which can be hard to find in a competitive and busy independent school environment. This was a surprise to her, as she had always considered herself to be very extroverted and had often spent most of her free time with her friends while in Richmond.
Even though intense hikes and difficult conditions don’t sound like they would work for just anyone, Goggins said that she feels that everyone should try a program like HMI. Collegiate’s constant cycle of work, sports, and a competitive social environment can weigh on a person, and sometimes the best thing to do is to get away in order to find yourself. Caroline Goggins found herself in the mountains of Colorado, and she hopes that everyone finds what will help them to do the same.
All photo credits: Caroline Goggins (’16).