High Mountain Institute

High Mountain Institute


The High Mountain Institute's (HMI) programs lie at the intersection of where nature and minds meet. With courses traveling through Patagonia and the American West, students embark on an incredible three-month journey to some of the world's wildest places. With options to choose a rock climbing or wilderness travel focus, students explore these rugged landscapes, investigate pressing environmental issues, and gain real-world experience doing service in the conservation field. By living and traveling with a small group of peers and instructors, students develop lifelong friendships, walk away with valuable leadership skills, and a broadened perspective on the world. They return with a greater sense of purpose and better prepared to succeed in college and beyond.


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Yes, I recommend this program

When I arrived at the airport in Denver, Colorado, I could not even guess the order of events that were about to take place. I knew I would be surprised, but I was unsure of how many times this would occur and how much of it I could handle. Over time I began to realize the beauty in surprises, that sometimes they made our trip better and more meaningful. The beauty in the places we were fortunate and privileged enough to hike through was also valuable. With every destination: Colorado, Utah, and Patagonia, I was truly shocked at what my eyes were seeing and smiled at the idea that maybe paradise does exist on earth. What made it more memorable was being surrounded by my new friends. I enjoyed every moment of my gap semester. I am taking away the core values of what it means to live outdoors, which I plan on applying to each aspect of my life once I return home.

What was the most nerve-racking moment and how did you overcome it?
Hiking through the nonstop rain and wind. I overcame crossing rivers by taking the necessary safety precautions.
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Yes, I recommend this program

I loved HMI Gap. I saw unprecedented growth in so many areas I wanted improvement in before going to college. I got that wanted progress and so much more. I helped build a close-knit community with so many hilarious inside jokes only the twelve of us will ever understand. I learned to be a leader and had many thoughtful discussions about environmental studies. The instructors were superb. The supported us in every way we needed but also let us do our own thing when the situation necessitated that. They taught us numerous lessons on a wide variety of topics. All in all, I learned more about myself and the environment by being intentional in the backcountry than I did in all thirteen years of traditional school teaching me grammar and equations. 10/10 would recommend because I am so pleased I took this gap course.

What was the most nerve-racking moment and how did you overcome it?
We crossed a waist deep, raging river while it was pouring rain. We overcame it by doing a river congo line and taking slow, sure-footed steps and doing it near an eddy to catch us if we fell.
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Yes, I recommend this program

I was drawn into this program immediately, as climbing is a huge part of my life. I learned so much about the technical skills involved in outdoor climbing, and am leaving the course with the skills I need to be a self sufficient climber in the future. More importantly, though, I learned how to live in a small community for weeks at a time, working closely to cook, sleep, and climb with ten other students. This course taught me so much about leadership, teamwork, and resilience. As a student interested in pursuing environmental studies in college, this program was also the perfect opportunity to prepare for college while still taking a much needed break from the classroom structure. I would absolutely recommend this program - the friendships, skills, and experience I’ve gained are going to stay with me throughout my life.

What was the most unfamiliar thing you ate?
I had never seriously backpacked before, so the days of hiking at the beginning of the course were really hard for me. I learned a lot about efficiency and perseverance, and I’m grateful that the course includes some backpacking, despite being centered on rock climbing.
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Yes, I recommend this program

Wonderful views, excellent instructors, smelly students: whats not to love? One or two things but not that many things. The hiking, backpacking, and canyoneering aspects were simply splendid. All the locations we traveled to were beautiful and there were diverse outdoor challenges in each of them. The instructors were-- for the most part--respectful, knowledgeable, professional, and intelligent. There was much to learn about living in the back country and we were taught it well. I could've used a little more autonomy. I felt slightly like a small child again, but that was nice considering I was far from my parents loving arms. I also might've enjoyed more town time and/or cultural immersion during the abroad portion of the course. If you are looking for a challenging and fun introduction to backpacking and long back country expeditions with a little bit of sometimes boring learning worked in, this is the program for you.

What is your advice to future travelers on this program?
Don't bother with puff pants they suck. Just get some nice fleece pants and some nice long undies. Bring a packable journal, and don't forget your positive attitude.
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Yes, I recommend this program

Before HMI I had never hiked with a full pack, had only car camped a few times with my family, and never had spent more than a day or two in the backcountry. Now I can carry everything I'll need to live comfortably for over a week rain, shine, cold, or warm all in my backpack. The community that we've built over this semester has been one of the strongest and most supportive spaces that I have ever been a part of. I've learned about environmental science and the ethics surrounding it as well as more than I ever thought I would about myself and my own goals. If you are interested in the outdoors, leadership, environmental studies, traveling, and experiencing new things then you should really really really really sign up for the next HMI semester.

What was the most unfamiliar thing you ate?
Peanut butter-banana-tuna-jelly tort. I was not good, but gains were had.


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Alumni Interviews

These are in-depth Q&A sessions with verified alumni.

Why did you choose this program?

HMI was on my radar for a few years before I ever dreamed of signing up myself, because I knew a couple of people who had gone and loved it. But my Junior year, when I was starting to think about a gap year, I had an English teacher who prioritized talking about what a meaningful education looks like. That class convinced me that I wanted to use my gap time to pair rigorous academic questions with place-based, hands-on learning, and HMI was the perfect marriage of those two things.

What did your program provider (or university) assist you with, and what did you have to organize on your own?

The wonderful staff at HMI were fantastic at answering all of my many questions leading up to the program. I remember feeling confused about everything from forms to gear to travel arrangements, and they were so patient with every single inquiry.

They also gave us participants a recommended travel itinerary, so while we had to make bookings on our own there were pretty clear suggestions, which really simplified the process.

As for gear, the packing list had a ton of information about where to buy certain things and what to look for in various pieces of equipment. Additionally, the program had options to rent most pieces of gear from the High Mountain Institute campus.

What is one piece of advice you'd give to someone going on your program?

I'd tell someone about to embark on an HMI semester to leave their expectations at the door.

With any big transition, things will (and should) surprise you. Let yourself be open to that, even if the surprises aren't always comfortable. Maybe your pack is heavier than you'd bargained for, or it's really cold, or you're just not 'feeling it' that day.

Whatever the circumstance, remember that those unexpected moments have value, and for every jarring discomfort there's a moment (or two, or three) that will take your breath away with its beauty and majesty.

What does an average day/week look like as a participant of this program?

When we're in the field, every day shares a pretty similar routine: wake up, make breakfast, hike, set up camp, eat dinner, have evening meeting and maybe a class or two on topics ranging from land management in Utah to group dynamics to the geology behind Patagonian rock formations. But within that outline, there's a ton of room for variation.

Some days on my semester included mid-hike sledding breaks, hilarious, deep, and/ or completely random conversations on the trail, swimming, and gazing at ancient ruins. We both got into a rhythm and woke up each day knowing anything could happen, which felt like the perfect mix.

Going into your experience abroad, what was your biggest fear, and how did you overcome it? How did your views on the issue change?

I was really nervous that I would come away from the program and still not feel totally comfortable in the backcountry. Within a few days in Colorado's Sawatch Range, these fears became irrelevant.

Regardless of experience level, everyone got up to speed pretty quickly, and by the end of the semester, we were comfortably traveling without instructors and completed a 24-hour solo in Patagonia. These are feats that would have terrified me just 2.5 months prior, and it was amazing to see how quickly my confidence grew in that regard.

What would you say to someone who is unsure about taking a gap year?

I think that gap years are an incredibly unique opportunity in your life to redefine what education has the potential to be and the power to do and to take ownership of your learning in a way that just isn't possible in a typical classroom setting. Chances are that college, or any next step will be there when you return. However you use your gap time, I firmly believe that it can be just as much or more of an investment in your future - personal, academic, and financial - as any more 'traditional' life path.

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