Visitors Currently Prohibited on Campus

In an effort to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission non-essential visitors are currently prohibited on our campus. This policy applies to alumni, alumni families, current HMI Semester families, prospective students/families, and all other visitors who are non-essential to the operation of our school. This is not a decision we make lightly, as HMI’s doors have always historically been wide open to our community. Thank you for your understanding–we hope to see you as soon as it is safe.

HMI Semester 46 Arrives on Campus; Departs on Expedition

February 9, 2021

We were very pleased to welcome the students of Semester 46 to campus on Wednesday, January 27th. After two days of orientation and wilderness preparation, the students departed on their 14-day First Expedition to the canyons of southeastern Utah. 

Semester 46 students practiced setting up their tents ("Mids") in the HMI library

Prior to the semester start, all 49 students quarantined for two weeks and received a negative COVID-19 test result. Upon arrival to HMI students were immediately separated into expedition cohorts of 9-10 students each. Every student and wilderness instructor was COVID tested on day one–the results of which have all since come back negative. Students and instructors will receive a second COVID test upon returning to campus. 

Students wore N95 masks while traveling to Utah

HMI Fall Programming Comes to a Successful Conclusion

December 18, 2020

We are very pleased to report the successful completion of our Fall 2020 Semester and Gap programming. Both of these programs ran in an entirely in-person fashion and did not experience a single positive COVID case. Gap students departed from Arizona on December 8, Semester students left our campus in Leadville on December 11. 

HMI Semester students Zoom with their family members during "virtual Family Weekend"

The 49 students of HMI Semester 45 arrived on August 17 after completing a two-week quarantine and testing negative for COVID. Students and faculty were both tested on the first day of the semester, and then again ten days later. Students were broken into isolated groups of 8-9 upon arrival in the airport. After the second round of tests came back negative, and the students completed their 16-day backpacking expedition, students were permitted to merge into a larger, full-semester cohort. For the next 3.5 months, students and adults wore masks whenever indoors and focused on social distancing and hygiene. Students became a “pod” with their individual cabin cohorts and were able to spend evenings with their cabinmates unmasked. Students participated in two more backpacking expeditions and stayed on campus over the week of Thanksgiving so as to reduce the risk of travel-related exposure. 

HMI instructors Temple, Gracie, and Liz enjoying the snow on one of the first wintery days of the semester

The 36 HMI Gap Semester students followed the same pre-programming COVID quarantine and testing protocols as the HMI Semester. The Gap semesters operated in three separate cohorts of twelve students and three instructors each. At the end of a 14-day quarantine period, students were able to enter a “pod” which they then maintained for the duration of the program. The three courses began with a two week backpacking trip in the Sawatch Range of Colorado before splitting off with distinct itineraries and focusing on either rock climbing, backpacking, canyoneering, and/or whitewater rafting. All said, over the course of the 80-day expedition-based semester, students spent almost 70 nights sleeping in the backcountry. 

Gap students take a break from rock climbing in Snow Canyon State Park near St George, Utah.

Our faculty and staff deserve the highest praise for facilitating such extraordinary experiences while navigating by an ever-changing set of COVID health and safety precautions. We are all now looking forward to a well-deserved winter break before pivoting all of our energy toward spring programming. 

HMI Gap to Run Domestic Programming in Spring 2021

December 14, 2020 

In a “normal” year HMI Gap runs all spring programming from Chilean Patagonia. Due to the ongoing pandemic, we’ve concluded that it is not feasible for us to run international programming in Chile this spring.

The Chilean government extended the country’s border closure until December 11 and has not offered a date when that decision will be revised. There is much speculation that this border closure will be extended again as cases continue on the rise. Given the uncertainty about when international travel can resume, we feel that staying within the US in Spring 2021 is the most responsible decision since our top priority is the health and well-being of students and of our host communities in Chile.

This fall we successfully ran three fully-enrolled domestic semesters in the American West and we will run a similar domestic Wilderness & Conservation Semester in the American West as an alternative to the Semester in Patagonia in Spring 2021. Our fall 2020 students have enjoyed the updated domestic itineraries and are sharing rave reviews of the experience over on the HMI blog. Dates for this new spring semester will be February 23-May 13, 2021 and we encourage you to read more about the itineraries for both sections of the semester here. Both domestic sections of the Spring 2021 Wilderness & Conservation Semester in the American West are currently fully enrolled, however, we are still accepting students to the waitlist.

A Day In the Life of Semester 45

November 11, 2020

What is it like to attend HMI during a pandemic? For a taste, check out our new video that premiered at our Semester 45 Virtual Family Weekend

HMI Fall Semester Update: No Positive COVID Cases After 10 Weeks On Campus

October 26, 2020

Today marks ten weeks since the start of the HMI Fall Semester and we are pleased to report that we have so far not had a positive COVID-19 case on our campus. After arriving on August 17, students spent four days on campus before heading into the wilderness on their first backpacking expedition. All students were COVID tested on three different occasions: once shortly before traveling to HMI, once on the first day of the semester, and once halfway through their first backpacking expedition. The first backpacking expedition, which lasted 16 days, also served as a chance for students to quarantine in small groups before merging with the larger HMI Semester community.

Students begin each day with a temperature and health check

Upon returning from first expedition, students and faculty settled into a routine that included many COVID-19 modifications and protocols. Each morning before entering our main building, students partake in a health and temperature check. While inside any building–with the exception of meals and cabin time–students and faculty wear masks at all times. While the warm weather lasted, many activities were pushed outside including meals and faculty-student meetings.

Dylan's math class took place in the bus barn for the first two months of the semester

Despite the masks and other precautions, the magic of HMI feels as palpable as ever. Students run on frosty mornings, chop wood to keep their cabins warm, and dance and sing in the kitchen during cook crew. As the cold weather forces more of our activities indoors, we will continue to be vigilant with our COVID protocols. With so many schools operating virtually this fall, each new day on campus feels like a gift. 

For a full album of “Semester 45 day in the life” photos, click here

Masked students gather in the lounge

HMI Gap Update: A Safe and Successful First Few Weeks

October 13, 2020

Three groups of High Mountain Institute Gap students, our largest Gap cohort ever, arrived in Leadville, CO on September 20th, 2020. 

Students traveled via both plane and car, and prior to the semester start we encouraged all 36 students to quarantine for two weeks and get a COVID-19 test (and negative result, of course) prior to coming to HMI. Every student and wilderness instructor was COVID tested at the start of the program–the results of which have all since come back negative. Each of the groups stayed in their own site at a local campground, and we were able to spend the vast majority of orientation outside. 

Approximately halfway through their first expedition, students and staff received another COVID-19 test on their “re-ration” day. Gap students participated in health checks each morning to to catch early signs of COVID-like symptoms. We creatively adapted CDC-recommended social-distancing guidelines for a wilderness expedition and followed these throughout the first two weeks of the program. 

After receiving the results of the third round of testing (again, all negative!) Gap students were able to enter a “pod” with peers on their specific course. Each group celebrated with ceremoniously removing their masks and lots of hugging and excitement! All Gap students will be able to continue to be in close contact with each other unless someone develops symptoms. In this case, we will revert back to the social-distancing structure of our first expedition and monitor the situation with appropriate quarantine and additional testing. For the remainder of the semester, we will continue to socially distance while in the presence of folks “outside of our pod” and will exert conservative judgment in the limited public spaces we enter.

We are grateful to our instructors and students for taking the necessary steps to protect one another and are looking forward to continuing to build caring and intentional communities within each group and within the entirety of our wonderful Gap cohort!

HMI Profiled in Outside Magazine

September 26, 2020

From Outside Magazine: College Kids Are Flocking to Outdoor Education Programs by Sara Harrison

When 19-year-old Sabine Blumenthal first left college, she was in denial. Like the rest of her classmates at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, she was sent home in March as the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread across the United States. Even though she was stuck finishing out her freshman year across the country in Seattle, Blumenthal was sure she’d be back at school in the fall. But as the pandemic stretched on, she started to realize that college wouldn’t be the same when or if she returned. She wondered if she could stand another semester cooped up at home or if she would feel OK spending most of her time alone in her dorm room. “That was hard for me to picture,” she says.

 So, in June, Blumenthal applied to a gap year program at the High Mountain Institute (HMI) in Leadville, Colorado. The program includes rock climbing and an emphasis on public land conservation—topics and skills she thinks will be useful in the future, since she’d like to pursue a career in outdoor education. Blumenthal had done a semester-long program through the organization in high school but had never seriously considered taking a gap year. “I had this one-track mind: full steam ahead,” she says.

But in the wake of the pandemic, Blumenthal is reassessing what’s right for her. “I’ve been at home for four months now and felt really stuck and in limbo,” she says. “This is going to be really good for me to take a risk again.” 

Blumenthal applied to HMI before her college announced it would resume an in-person fall semester, albeit with numerous COVID-19 protocols and many classes still held online. Now, as many colleges and school districts return to virtual or hybrid classrooms, many students are weighing other options. Harvard recently reported that 20 percent of incoming freshmen are deferring for a year, and one survey by Simpson Scarborough, a research and marketing firm focused on higher education, found that 40 percent of first-year college students and 28 percent of returning students were likely or highly likely to defer. In the meantime, outdoor semester programs for high schoolers and students taking a gap year are experiencing record demand. But there isn’t space for everyone. 

Ray McGaughey, director of admissions at HMI, says he gets up to five inquiries every day for its gap year program, which normally has space for only 24 students. HMI added—and almost instantly filled—a third 12-student section, growing the program 50 percent from last year. McGaughey says they could probably add a fourth or even fifth section and fill those as well.

Read the full article here

HMI Semester 45 Students Arrive on Campus; Depart on First Expedition

August 25, 2020

We were very pleased to welcome the students of Semester 45 to campus on Monday, August 17th. After four days of orientation and wilderness preparation, students departed on their 16-day First Expedition on Thursday, August 20th. 

Students moving in on opening day. Students kept their possessions in cabins, but slept outdoors under tarps for their first three nights on campus before expedition.

Prior to the semester start, all 49 students quarantined for two weeks and received a negative COVID-19 test result. Upon arrival to HMI students were immediately separated into expedition cohorts of 9-10 students each. Every student and wilderness instructor was COVID tested on day one–the results of which have all since come back negative. Students will receive a second COVID test approximately halfway through their expedition.

HMI Kitchen & Wilderness Fellow Amy Zhang gets COVID tested by HMI physician advisor Dr. Lisa Zwerdlinger

Students spent almost no time indoors during their first four days on campus. Students slept in tents, learned their introductory wilderness skills, and ate their meals outside. The general sentiment was one of excitement with a healthy dose of nerves mixed in. After a spring defined by online school and a summer with few organized youth activities, HMI students were elated to once again be on a school campus preparing for a group adventure.

Students departed on 1st Expedition on Thursday, August 20

On Thursday morning, the five expedition groups departed to their various starting points across the Sawatch and Collegiate ranges of the Colorado Rockies. While HMI backpacking expeditions will be somewhat transformed under COVID protocols–mask wearing and physical distancing will be required much of the time–we are confident the student experience will be as powerful as ever.

HMI Successfully Completes 2020 Summer Programming

July 25, 2020

We are pleased to announce the successful completion of our modified 2020 summer program: the HMI Summer Expedition. Summer Expedition was a success and a great learning experience for our school. Seventeen high school students participated in two two-week backpacking expeditions in our nearby Sawatch Range. By all accounts, students built character, laughed, made memories, and had fun in the backcountry. In general, students and instructors adapted gracefully to our new COVID-19 safety protocols and no student or instructor tested positive or experienced COVID-19 symptoms over the course of the trip. Both students and instructors offered us feedback on our COVID-19 Operating Plan that we will be incorporating in our upcoming fall semester. 

A testimonial from a Summer Expedition 2020 parent

Dear HMI,

On behalf of my husband and myself, I would like to thank you and your team for Ethan’s amazing experience.  Since coming home he has been a different young man.  Before Ethan left on July 5th he was always a good guy and pretty adventurous  (as his parent’s we’re biased).  After all, it was his own doing to research the various outdoor programs and it was his idea to select and pursue HMI.   As his parents we were committed to supporting him in any way we can.  As you can imagine, when the world was hit with COVID – 19 and so much in life became uncertain, this program was the one thing that kept Ethan’s attitude and spirits up.  As you know all too well, it was a bit of a roller coaster. He was delighted when the program was back on.

Not hearing Ethan’s voice for two weeks wasn’t unusual for us, since he spent many summers at a sleep away camp for two weeks. However we always seemed to know exactly where he and what he doing while at camp.  This was different for us all.  We didn’t know, nor could we imagine where he was and what he was thinking. When he called us upon returning to camp, his voice sounded strong.  When I asked how things were, his response to me was “Mom, it was transformative”.  You can imagine the peace I had in my heart hearing him say that.  When we picked Ethan up at Logan the first thing he said to us was “This is not really where I want to be right now”.  Hearing him say those words made us feel great.  We knew that meant he just experienced something special. We were thrilled for him.

That night while eating dinner he shared so many stories with us, and pictures followed.  He was tired, and he was sad, and yet he felt different.  He was calm and at peace and has been since he returned.  Each day we learn more and more about his experience.  He often tells us about the amazing bond he formed with a group of strangers.  The appreciation and respect he has for his instructors Lupe, Maddie and Sam.  He tells us about the lessons he learned.  Some of which are “listen more”, his favorite is one from Lupe about having $5, a cup of coffee and a story to share (I might not have gotten that exactly right).  He also learned that we don’t need much to feel alive and appreciate the world around us.  He understands what it means to look up at the sky, or at a mountain, or swim in a cold lake and feel how massive our world is.

I can go on and on. But I think you get what I’m trying to say.  Thank you for doing all you and your team do, and did to make this an amazing experience.  Please know that all the hard work, and all the thoughtful planning is appreciated by Ethan and by us.

We wish you all a healthy and peaceful rest of the summer.  Please share our gratitude with the entire HMI community.

Thank you!

Svetlana and Michael (and Ethan too)

LA Times & Chronicle of Higher Education Highlight HMI Gap as an Alternative to Online College

July 16, 2020

From the Los Angeles Times: For college students, taking a gap year might be the best way to outwit coronavirus by Stacey Leasca

“Janak Bhakta, a soft-spoken 17-year-old from Tustin, had big plans for 2020. He wanted to spend time away from academics to learn, grow and mature by traveling the world. Then the coronavirus pandemic struck and turned those plans to dust.

‘The ideal plan was to travel internationally, but obviously that’s not going to happen,’ Bhakta says about his planned gap year. He filled out applications for Outward Bound Costa Rica and NOLS Baja, two leading outdoor and leadership organizations, but both programs were canceled due to travel restrictions and health concerns.

Bhakta was still able to find the perfect fit with the Colorado-based High Mountain Institute, which puts gap-year participants in national parks to assist in local conservation efforts….”

Janak Bhakta will join Colorado-based High Mountain Institute, which puts gap-year participants in national parks to assist in local conservation efforts.(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)
We cannot wait to welcome Janak to the fall Wilderness & Conservation: American West HMI Gap semester! At this time we are accepting applications for our fall gap semester waitlist. Applications are being accepted for our spring gap semesters on a rolling basis. 
A similar story featured HMI in the Chronicle of Higher Education on July 28th. 

Students Back on Campus for the 2020 HMI Summer Expedition

July 9, 2020

After too many months of silent corridors and communal outdoor spaces, we were very pleased to welcome students back to HMI this past Sunday for our abbreviated 2020 Summer Expedition course. After a few days of orientation and prep, two distinct groups headed out into the wilderness for their 14-day backpacking expedition. For more information about the program including an overview of the COVID-19 precautions and protocols students and staff are following, view our recent Summer Expedition blog post

HMI students are back on campus!

COVID-19 Program Modification FAQs Published: HMI Semester

July 7, 2020

{Jump to COVID-19 Program Modifications FAQ}

Dear Semester 45 students and families, 

Thank you to those of you who submitted questions about our COVID-19 Operations Guidance over the past few weeks. As Director of Wilderness Programs & Risk Management, I am one of the lead authors of our plan and I have worked with Danny to compile a set of frequently asked questions relating to the program modifications. You may view the FAQ in document form and/or watch this 20-minute video I have recorded where I go through the FAQ question-by-question. 

Perhaps the most important step you should be planning for right now is your student’s pre-program COVID-19 test. We ask that your student get tested before traveling to Colorado, allowing enough time for the results to be returned to you before your travel day. If you believe you will be unable to get tested in your region, please reach out to us immediately as we may be able to help you. 

We will continue to check our Operating Plan Questionnaire in the coming weeks. Please submit your questions using this form, or reach out to us directly. We look forward to welcoming you to HMI shortly. 


Justin Talbot

Director of Wilderness Programs & Risk Management 

HMI Gap Announces Updated Domestic Itineraries for Fall 2020 Semesters

July 6th, 2020

We are excited to begin an incredible Gap adventure this September. With that in mind, we are proud to release itineraries for our fall semesters!

Both programs will travel the Colorado River from its source to the sea, both geographically and thematically. They begin in the mountains of central Colorado, explore the labyrinth of canyons and mesas of southern Utah, and conclude in the Sonoran Desert in Arizona, where the Colorado River empties into the Sea of Cortez. 

Please review the specific itineraries for the Climbing & Conservation and Wilderness & Conservation. As we’ve said before, we’re saddened that we are unable to go to Patagonia this November, but these new destinations are comparably dramatic and offer outstanding opportunities for adventure and the exploration of conservation issues. We are currently still planning to run our Semester in Patagonia and Andes Leadership Semester in their advertised destinations and will release any changes to those courses as soon as possible.

These itineraries, coupled with our COVID-19 Operations Plan, give us great confidence in our ability to facilitate a high-quality, in-person experience. Barring new significant government restrictions or other changes we do not anticipate at this time in the areas we will travel, we expect to run our fall Gap semesters to their conclusion on December 8.

Please reach out to with any questions or concerns you may have about this new information.

HMI Publishes Draft of Fall 2020 COVID-19 Program Modifications

June 15, 2020

{Jump to COVID-19 Program Operations Guidance Draft}

Dear Semester 45 Families,

Hello from beautiful Colorado! We are excited to welcome Semester 45 to campus in August. We are currently planning to run our full semester and, after extensive and fruitful conversations with local public health officials and the office of the Governor of Colorado, have high confidence that, given what we know now, students will be able to remain in Leadville for the duration of the term. This is wonderful news for us—and we imagine for you too. We will be thrilled to have students on campus and learning in our classrooms again.

Our goal in this email is to share with you our current plans for Semester 45 and managing risks associated with COVID-19. We believe our plan will allow students to have a transformative experience while mitigating opportunities for virus exposure and spread. Risk management has been a pillar of our school since HMI’s founding in 1998—the key to the approach is considering reward, consequence, and likelihood. We are striving to balance these principles as we prepare for the first HMI Semester of the COVID-19 era. Some practices we introduce in the plan will look different than what has been traditional during most semesters at HMI, but our students will likely not notice many of them. These measures seek to reduce the risk of virus transmission while not altering essential parts of the semester.

Our plan includes elements of available testing, social distancing, personal protection usage, increased hygiene practices, and routine symptom monitoring. Though we have included redundancies in many areas to account for problems we can anticipate (false negative test results, for example) or have yet imagined, the plan is not foolproof. It is possible COVID-19 will find its way to our expeditions or campus this fall; students and staff may get the virus. We have developed protocols for this eventuality too, and are lucky symptoms tend to be mild in young, healthy populations. We would like to offer you, however, the opportunity to opt out of Semester 45 if you want an experience for your child that features no chance of virus transmission. Though we are proud of our plan and believe it mitigates many risks, it would be irresponsible to promise an absolute outcome. Thank you in advance for understanding this.

Our plan will also take the cooperation of our entire community to implement fully. Some aspects, such as early social distancing between expedition groups, will—as I am sure you have learned yourselves this spring—challenge the natural inclinations of adolescents. We have built HMI on close interactions as well; we will this fall, however, have to at times distance the participants while maintaining the interactions. Each of us understands this intellectually but will have to get used to the new expectations in practice. Over the course of the semester, we will strive mightily to follow the protocols outlined in our plan and do our best to improve as we go. The newness of what we will ask of employees and students is one of the reasons we have, as I mentioned, included redundancies when possible to avoid over-reliance on only one risk-management approach.

You may now find a summary of our COVID-19 operations plan on our website. It is important to note the plan will change as public health advisories and common practices evolve—we are writing a plan for the future based on what we know today. Nonetheless, we are asking all families and students to read the plan first because of our commitment to transparency and, second, because the plan asks some of students and families before they travel to HMI. You will need to acknowledge you understand risks involved; we will ask you to do so as part of an additional release parents and guardians will need to sign. (You will receive a separate email soon with instructions for signing the additional release.)

At this time, there are two important Semester 45 events we are still evaluating: Family Weekend (November 6 – 7) and Thanksgiving Break (November 21 – 29). Given the virus transmission risks, we are considering a virtual Family Weekend and a change to the semester calendar so that students remain in session over the week of Thanksgiving. In this scenario, the semester would end a week earlier, on December 11 instead of December 18. Our plan is to make a decision about these events by the start of Semester 45, but we want you to begin to prepare for either eventuality now. It might be worthwhile to purchase only a one-way ticket for your student to Colorado at this time and wait to book Family Weekend, holiday, and end-of-semester travel until we know more. We know Thanksgiving is an important holiday, and we do not take the decision of keeping students on campus lightly. All we can promise at this time is that we will have a wonderful Thanksgiving celebration at HMI if need be. 

There is a lot to digest, and we welcome your feedback or thoughts. We have created a Google Form for this purpose so that we may aggregate frequently asked questions and share the answers with you shortly. HMI maintains excellence by constantly examining our practices, asking how we can do better, and making changes based on our own analysis and the feedback of others. Our response to COVID-19 will be no different. It leads, however, to a final request: patience. We pride ourselves on our professionalism and thoroughness. This fall, though, much will be new and untested. We have tried to anticipate many eventualities, especially those related to health and risk. At times, however, we will have to address unanticipated events as they happen. We will make mistakes, we will learn from them, and we will improve. The manifestation of so much being new, however, is that we are not able to promise that our execution will be as seamless as we normally expect of ourselves and you rightfully expect of us. We will, however, do our best. If this caveat concerns you, we understand and would welcome your child to a future HMI program. If it does not, thank you in advance for being partners in this endeavor.

We look forward to welcoming your student in August!

With gratitude,

Danny O’Brien

Head of School

HMI to Run Modified Summer 2020 Programming

June 3, 2020

Dear Summer Term Families,

First, thank you for the outpouring of support you have offered over the past day. We share in your disappointment about Summer Term but are inspired by your faith in HMI during a difficult time. 

We have also been humbled by the many notes and emails asking us to reconsider our decision or offer an alternative experience. We understand how important engagement with the natural world is, and it is clear you see it too. Your passion is evident and led us to consider once again what might be possible.

While running Summer Term is not viable because of the complexity involved in providing an extraordinary experience, we believe it might be possible to offer an 18-day wilderness program for a limited number of students. We think we can internally do this because, by running a field-based experience, we reduce the variables involved in operating our traditional Summer Term significantly. 

The dates of the program would be July 5-July 22. With the exception of the first few and final days of the expedition, students would be backpacking through the Rockies, camping, and learning elements of HMI’s time-honored leadership curriculum for the entire 18 days. Tuition for students would be $5500; we would honor existing financial aid awards.

Of course, we are still operating in the realm of uncertainty. First, we await guidance from Governor Jared Polis. While we expect this guidance to come soon and align with our plans, nothing is certain. Second, we also expect the Governor to reserve the right to revoke permission for travel programs like HMI to run through mid-June. Third, a sufficient number of you would have to express interest to make the option financially and programmatically viable for HMI. Lastly, we will ask participants and families to agree to certain principles as a condition of enrollment. Among these will be the agreement of your child to social distance outside of your immediate family in the period before traveling to HMI, to share with us the results of a COVID viral test (if available in your area) taken shortly before the program, and for you to travel to Colorado to assume care of your child in the event of a positive COVID diagnosis at HMI.

All of this may sound too tentative for you at this time. We certainly understand this. Determining interest levels in this option is our first step. Please fill out this form to let us know if your child would take part in a potential expedition by Friday, June 5 at 9:00 am. We are only offering this option to currently enrolled Summer Term students. If there is more interest than we have slots, we will allocate them by lottery. Once we determine interest, we will make a final decision internally by Friday evening, June 5 about the viability of making this happen. We would then proceed with our planning, but everyone needs to know circumstances beyond our control might still lead us to cancel this modified opportunity.

Thank you once again for your communication over the last day. We have tried to respond thoughtfully and carefully. We believe so much in the power of engaging adolescents with the natural world and would feel remiss if we did not fully explore the possibilities of this opportunity.

Please contact me if you have any questions. 


Danny O’Brien

Head of School

High Mountain Institute


HMI Summer Term 2020 Cancelled

June 2, 2020

Dear Summer Term Families,

I am so sorry to share with you the need to cancel the 2020 HMI Summer Term. This is likely upsetting news to hear. We at HMI are devastated: the opportunity to learn, play, and live together in a vibrant, inclusive community that cherishes the outdoors is uniquely valuable, especially in these times. That belief, one that is central to our school’s mission, has compelled us to spend the past few months maintaining extraordinary optimism and working doggedly to create a viable plan to reopen HMI and run all of our programs.

However, we have recently incurred significant setbacks. Principally, the state of Colorado issued guidance for summer programs 8 days ago that was much more restrictive than our sources had led us to expect. We spent the last week earnestly pursuing myriad avenues to work within these guidelines and to seek changes to them as we do not feel many were applicable to our circumstances. State government moves slowly, and as of this writing, less than four weeks from the start of Summer Term and two weeks before the arrival of our summer staff, we still do not have clear indications of what–if any–modifications the state will make to their public health orders. This leaves us little time to make necessary adjustments while continuing to plan to deliver an excellent product to our students. For Summer Term to work, we needed confidence in our own risk management plans and timely support from outside authorities. These two factors have not aligned. With no clear indications of what the State will expect from us, we simply do not have confidence at this moment that we will be able to offer a summer experience up to the standards you expect of HMI and we expect of ourselves.

 We thank you for the patience you’ve granted us, and the confidence you’ve invested in us as a school. We expect to be able to welcome students for our fall programs and will begin now to prepare for them in this newly-complicated world. To that end, we will extend to your student an automatic acceptance to a future HMI program that has available space. We will also begin issuing refunds to families immediately. 

 While this is not the summer that any of us imagined, we hope that you can find ways to bring the HMI mission home this summer– pursuing genuine connections with individuals in your local community and exploring the natural world wherever possible. 

Our best wishes,

Danny O’Brien

Head of School

High Mountain Institute

HMI Gap Moves to a Domestic Fall Semester

May 15, 2020

In our efforts to develop a plan to reopen to in-person programming, one of our guiding principles has been to maximize our ability to operate our courses to their planned conclusions. In other words, once students arrive at HMI, we want to have as many options and resources as possible to adapt to ongoing and emerging challenges while continuing to facilitate a high-quality, in-person learning experience.

With this goal in mind, we have made the decision to adapt the HMI Gap fall itinerary to an entirely domestic semester. We made this decision based on continued doubts about the viability of international travel into the foreseeable future and our concern that a group may have to return to the US early if new restrictions are put in place due to new outbreaks.

Instead, we believe we can maximize our students’ experience by focusing on a domestic itinerary for the fall. Currently, our hope and plan is to run our spring programs in their international destinations. We do not yet have specific information on what the domestic destinations will be in place of our time in Patagonia, but we would like to share the guiding principles for how we are developing this new programming. These are:

  • Venues with exceptional adventure opportunities for students, especially in the final portion of the semester, to hone their outdoor skills and take on as much leadership within the program as possible
  • Destinations with critical conservation issues and opportunities to engage in authentic service projects
  • Regions in which we believe students are not at an increased risk of contracting COVID-19 and that continue to have effectively operating rescue and medical infrastructure
  • Areas in which, in the case of additional waves of the nationwide pandemic, we think we could likely continue operating as a “closed-circuit community” until the scheduled conclusion of the course

We are sad that Patagonia will not be part of our fall programming. We have developed a very special connection to the Aysén region of Chile and have every intention of returning there as soon as possible – which we hope will be in January of 2021. At the same time, the US still offers dramatic landscapes as the canvas for adventure. It is with much excitement that we are building an itinerary that journeys into these places, closer to home but captivating nonetheless. We hope you will join us in that excitement.

Preliminary study shows reduced SARS-CoV-2 virulence at high altitude

 May 8, 2020

High-elevation populations may be at a lower risk to COVID-19, according to a new scientific study published on April 22 in the journal Respiratory Physiology & Neurobiology. The authors, an international team of pulmonologists and epidemiologists, report “a decrease of prevalence and impact of SARS-CoV-2 infection in populations living at altitude of above 3,000 masl” (~9,800 feet above sea level). The study, which was based on epidemiological data from Bolivia, Ecuador, and Tibet, concludes: “the reason for decreased severity of the global COVID-19 outbreak at high altitude could relate to both environmental and physiological factors.” The authors speculate that the strong ultraviolet light radiation, significant day-night temperature fluctuation, and the arid, dry climate of high-altitude regions may all contribute to decreasing the virulence of the pathogen. Furthermore, high-altitude inhabitants exhibit lower levels of the ACE2 protein, the very protein that the SARS-CoV-2 virus recognizes in order to infect host cells. 

This is good news for our high-altitude community of Leadville, which proudly claims the title of “America’s highest incorporated city” at elevation 10,152 feet. We will continue to follow this topic for new developments. 

A revised COVID-19 program cancellation and refund policy

May 4, 2020

Our COVID-19 cancellation and refund policy has been revised to apply to all HMI programs. Please view the updated policy here.

A letter for Semester 45 & 46 families from Head of School Danny O'Brien

May 4, 2020

Dear Semester 45 and 46 families, 

Hello from beautiful Leadville, Colorado and welcome to our family! In a time of uncertainty, I am humbled you have elected to entrust your children to us next year. I am also optimistic we will be able to welcome students to campus in August and want to update you on our plans to offer transformative, relevant programming while prioritizing the wellbeing of our students, staff, and local Leadville community. 

As you may know, our campus has been closed for the past six weeks as a result of state public health orders. Our current students returned home on March 15 and have been learning virtually since. Yet, the resilience of our community has astounded me. Though it is not the same as being together in person, we have managed the transition to online learning with grace, poise, and joie de vivre. The inventive and heartfelt ways in which our faculty and staff have continued to care for the academic and social-emotional growth of our students are exemplary. Please take a moment to read this beautiful piece published by Semester 44 student Maple Buescher last month on the website of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer newspaper. It’s a wonderful reflection on what she continues to learn while part of a semester changed–but still worthy–by COVID-19. 

Though we are making our way as best we can, we cannot wait to have students here on campus again. We are pouring our hearts and minds into the creative solutions needed to serve Semesters 45 and 46 because we believe our mission is more important than ever. Our faith that your children are about to experience something wholly relevant and transformative motivates us to welcome students in-person next year. We believe we are doing the work to realize this goal. Dwight Eisenhower said, “Plans are useless, but planning is essential.” My goal today is to share some of our planning. 

First, you should know that we are engaging directly with the governor’s office, outside medical experts, and our local public health officials to create guidance relevant to the needs of our community. One exciting development is that our physician advisor and public health officials have recently told us they expect sufficient coronavirus testing to be available this fall to meet the needs of our community. In our conversations with public health authorities, we are additionally considering everything from how to bring students together from all across the country, to limiting their exposure (“closing the circuit”) once the semester begins. It will be important for us to have plans to enable students to stay on campus if COVID-19 outbreaks flare up next year. Our goal is to avoid students returning home prematurely once they travel to Leadville to begin their semesters. The good news is that the people with whom we are consulting agree on one point: HMI appears almost ideally suited, given our rural location, size, and demographic, to continue uninterrupted in-person learning. While no responsible institution should promise anything about next school year at this juncture, I can assure you of our commitment to have students here and remain learning on campus throughout the term if possible.

Second, I want you to know that HMI is well-positioned to emerge from this crisis. Our culture of careful budgeting, loyal community support, and commitment to extraordinary programming are sustaining us. The HMI Semester is already fully enrolled for next year, separating us from all but a few of our peer schools. We have also increased our financial aid budget to meet unexpected need created by the economic downturn. This was the right thing to do, and I am glad we are in the position to do it. The impacts of COVID-19 are real, but so is the strength of our school. HMI’s long-term outlook is as bright as the relevance of our mission. We will weather this storm thanks to a community that continues to provide both inspiration and support–a community into which we are thrilled to welcome you.

Lastly, we will strive to keep you informed of our planning and share important updates promptly. We have added a COVID-19 Updates page to our website to facilitate our communications. Included on this page are updates to our cancellation and refund policy. We have not changed our commitment to refund tuition and deposits if we are unable to run our semester or if we must radically alter how the curriculum will look before we begin. Our new policy is more broad, covering all HMI programs, not simply the HMI Semester. 

Our overarching goal though this period of uncertainty is to communicate with you in good faith and with transparency. Please do not hesitate to email or call me (719-486-8200, ext 101) if you ever have a thought or question about HMI or how we are thinking about providing for student wellbeing. I’d be glad to talk, and cannot wait to meet you soon.


Danny O’Brien

Head of School

Local health providers announce expanded COVID-19 testing

April 30, 2020

Good news for Leadville and Lake County: Rocky Mountain Family Practice and Saint Vincent Hospital, in collaboration with the Lake County Public Health Department have announced expanded COVID-19 testing availability for the county. According to a recent press release, the following two forms of testing are now readily available: 

1. Coronavirus nasal swab or nasal flush testing: open to anyone who is sick or at the provider’s discretion.

2. Antibody testing: open to anyone.

HMI is in touch with local health providers and public health officials and is following testing availability closely. For more information, view the Leadville Herald Democrat coverage of the announcement.

Spring Semester 2020 as described by a current HMI student

April 21, 2020

Like nearly every school in the country, we were forced to close our doors in mid-March due to the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. HMI Semester 44 students returned home, and have been finishing out the semester via online learning. 

HMI Semester 44 student Maple Buescher recently wrote a powerful op-ed that described the heart-wrenching transition for wilderness trips and experiential education to online learning.  Read it at

HMI Semesters 45 & 46 now fully enrolled

April 15, 2020

We are very pleased to announce that Semester 45 (Fall 2020) and Semester 46 (Spring 2021) are now fully enrolled at 48 students each! At a time of great uncertainty we are honored by the trust that each enrolled family has placed in us. We cannot wait to welcome each cohort to campus next year. 

At this time we are still accepting late applications to our waitlist

Because the class lists are subject to change we do not release them to enrolled families until about one month before the start of the semester. Until then, please enjoy this map of sending schools 

We are proud to have students hailing from 74 different high schools across 23 different states in our classes next year. 

A message from Head of School Danny O'Brien for accepted & enrolled HMI families

March 30, 2020

Dear families of HMI Semester-admitted students,

I first want to congratulate you on your child’s acceptance into HMI Semester 45 or 46! We have great confidence in the students to whom we were able to extend offers of admission and are excited to welcome this cohort to Leadville.

I also acknowledge that the decision to enroll your child in HMI is a more complicated one than it appeared even one month ago. We find ourselves walking in the dark, our headlamps able to illuminate only the next few steps in front of us. As a parent, I am being more careful about where I place resources and the decisions I make with my children. In an uncertain time, however, we believe that HMI is more important than ever and a wise investment for you and your child.

Know first that we are planning to run our upcoming fall and spring semesters uninterrupted. In the event, however, that global circumstances mean we will be unable to start one or both programs, we will refund all tuition and deposits. You may now find our cancellation and refund policies further explained here.

Equally important, I come to work each day convinced about the relevancy of our mission. We hope HMI is one of the most important educational choices your child ever makes, a springboard for how they approach the remainder of high school, college, and their lives beyond. The skills we teach feel particularly important today. HMI students learn quickly on expedition that they cannot control much: everything from the weather to hiking conditions are beyond our power to shape. On expedition, we grow through succeeding in the face of adversity, making decisions when the path ahead is unclear, considering perspectives different from our own, and learning the value of contributing to the wellbeing of a community.

We recently heard from Dan Lustick, a Semester 8 alumnus who is now a nurse practitioner at a primary and urgent care clinic in Boston. On the frontlines of the COVID-19 outbreak, Dan wanted to share how his time at HMI as a teenager has shaped his life. He said:

“When you enter the backcountry, you cannot possibly anticipate every scenario you are going to face. You learn how to be comfortable with a certain amount of uncertainty. You learn how to ask for help, and you learn how to stay calm when things feel out of your control. And how staying calm helps you perform better and those around you perform better.… One of the greatest things I can offer my patients is to help them feel comfortable with uncertainty, to control the things they can control. What I know is that you do not need to be a primary-care provider to help people around you. All HMI alumni have the skills to help the people around us be more comfortable in these uncertain times.”

I believe, now more than ever, that our communities need everything HMI alumni learn when nature and minds meet. Families across the country entrust this school with the care of their children. This is a sacred trust I carry with me always, more so during rapidly evolving and unsettling times. We hope you will entrust us with your child too.

In partnership,

Danny O’Brien

Head of School

Communication log: Semester 44 and COVID-19