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

Incredible experience—great community and self development

I decided to attend HMI gap because I was not having a good time at college online. And I’m so glad I did! I learned so many backcountry trip skills in telemark skiing, climbing, backpacking, canyoneering and more. The instructors are all so warm and wonderful role models and I got really close with the other students. The environmental studies curriculum is relevant, immersive, and pretty chill in terms of academic difficulty. I also attended the HMI high school semester and had a wonderful time
There too but also got different things out of it. All the stars!

What is your advice to future travelers on this program?
Bring mio for your water and don’t spend too much time on your phone on transition days! Time with your fellow students is so precious.
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Yes, I recommend this program

Wilderness and Conservation in the American West

I never thought I would be taking a year off after high school to backpack in the Southwest, but I'm so glad I did. Though I had little experience with camping and traveling in the wilderness areas, HMI gap made it possible for me to have an incredible three months in a super special community. We rafted the Colorado river, skied in the Rocky Mountains, and traveled through many slot canyons and deserts in Arizona and Utah. These are experiences I never thought I would have the chance to enjoy, much less with the group of 14 amazing people who I had the privilege of meeting and becoming friends with. One of the best aspects of this trip was how much it prompted me to grow and how much I learned about myself and the world around me, and I am super grateful that I had the opportunity to be a part of it.

What is your advice to future travelers on this program?
I would tell future students to make the most of every day. Even on long hiking days, your cook group is going to have a great time hanging out that evening, and every chance you get to see a big horn sheep or another really cool plant/animal in the places you travel is a special opportunity. The days start to go by fast, and you'll want to spend every minute of it enjoying the time you have.
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Yes, I recommend this program

Awesome Way to Explore a Gap Year

The HMI Gap Semester offers some of the most beautiful scenery someone could ever see and amazing people someone could ever meet. Everyone from the expedition organizers to the expedition leaders are helpful and do their best to make sure that each person has what they need in every backpacking environment. As someone who has never backpacked before, I felt like I was in good hands all the time. Not to mention, the food is awesome as students get to pick what they want to eat and learn what is best to bring. For anyone looking to learn about themselves over a gap semester, they would be hard pressed to find one better than what HMI offers.

What was the most nerve-racking moment and how did you overcome it?
I have never skied before, and there was a ten day expedition that used telemark skis to help navigate snow in the backcountry. I rented skis from HMI, and instructors took us to local ski place in Leadville to practice. However, the expedition was hard as the cold and this new skill were mentally draining. Because of the supportive people and looking inside myself for strength, I overcame the traveling and difficulties that come with living outside in the snow. I look back greatly at this moment because I pushed myself the most during the semester that I would not have been able to do without HMI.
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Yes, I recommend this program

HMI Gap: The Best Semester of My Life!!

HMI gave me the perfect mixture of outdoor adventure, leadership skills, and environmental studies to create a genuinely phenomenal semester! I had spent very little time camping, backpacking, or climbing before the program, but HMI equipped me with all of the mental and physical tools to combat every challenge I would face. They helped me reframe my relationship with the outdoors and truly become comfortable in a wide variety of activities. HMI also created the space for an incredible and unique community. I had an amazing relationship with each individual participant and the group as a whole- we were genuinely a new family. Finally, I was so impressed by HMI's curriculum that brought together readings and discussions which allowed us to evaluate the many perspectives on nature and how they each address contemporary issues. These learnings allowed me to intentionally consider my personal environmental ethic and look at deep changes in my life. Overall, HMI was a wonderful experience of learning and adventure.

What was the most surprising thing you saw or did?
The most surprising thing I did with HMI was traveling through Gravel Canyon in Jacob's Chair National Monument. It was an incredibly long day and we left camp before the sun rose and got back well after it set. We scrambled over boulders, wandered through slot canyons, and had to repel to the next section of the canyon three different times! It was intense and difficult at times, but also incredibly fun and massively rewarding. We were all surprised at how far we had come with our hiking, endurance, and technical repels and had an amazing day.
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Yes, I recommend this program

Wilderness and Conservation 2

I had the best semester of my life doing this program! I got to meet awesome people and make some of my best friends ever. I also got to have some of the coolest experiences of my life and the instructors were super encouraging and supportive. I learned so much about myself and I feel that I’ve grown so much after doing this program. I would recommend this to anyone who wants to grow, make connections, and spend time outdoors. The people on my trip were awesome and I felt close with every single one of them. We got to have deep conversations and hilarious conversations alike.

What was your funniest moment?
Our funniest moment was on Halloween when we all created costumes with what we had in our packs on the last night of a backpacking expedition and had a dance party.


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Alumni Interviews

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

Emma Barker

Emma is from Burlington, Vermont and is a graduate of Burlington High School. She loves running, playing violin, singing, and any kind of outdoor adventure.

Why did you choose this program?

I'd always wanted to do some kind of wilderness expedition or trip - but it just never ended up happening when I was younger. When I realized I could take a gap year to go do something awesome in the backcountry I was pretty much hooked - HMI particularly appealed to me because of the environmental studies/conservation curriculum which appealed to my curious, academic side as well as my desire to go adventuring!

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

I had to figure out travel to and from the program myself, and get gear. HMI was incredibly supportive before and during this semester, though: There was a comprehensive gear list to work off of, there were lots of staff who were incredibly receptive to the (many) questions I had going in, and during the semester the instructors of my semester were always open to questions and provided support when I needed it.

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

First: bring a wildlife book or guide of some kind! And generally bring your curious spirit. There's SO MUCH you can learn just by asking questions out there and looking for the answers, and it's totally worth making the extra effort to understand the landscapes around you.
Second: you're going to spend a lot of time with a small group of people. Be open to them all during the whole semester. It feels great to be given a clean slate during the semester, and even better when you can reciprocate that for everyone.
Last, and perhaps most important: This is truly a once-in-a-lifetime kind of experience. Approach it every day with gratitude and wonder and an open heart.

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

The wilderness and conservation semester (HMI's heaviest backpacking semester) is essentially a series of 2-week-long expeditions. In the backcountry, most days mean waking up, cooking breakfast on the WhisperLite and packing a lunch, and then packing up camp to leave for a hike to the next campsite. When you get there, you set up camp, hang out and explore depending on the length of the hiking day, cook dinner, and then turn in for a night under the stars, usually exhausted and incredibly glad for the warmth of your sleeping bag. There are usually some layover days where we do day hikes or play group games sprinkled into the expeditions. Then, between expeditions, we stay in a hostel, clean our gear and get it ready for the next expedition, reconnect with family and friends, and rest up.

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 quite nervous about spending so much time with so small a group, and also about the climbing portion of our semester.
I shouldn't have worried about the group - the community is facilitated well by instructors, and I think HMI attracts interesting, kind people so we really got along. There were obviously some moments of conflict, but we worked through them, and if I needed time alone I could usually take a moment when we got into camp to journal or nap or whatever I needed.
In terms of the climbing, I felt like I was incredibly good hands - the HMI staff are really qualified and competent and great teachers, so the climbing portion ended up being for me a real chance to conquer some fears.

What should I bring with me?

You should bring small games and things like that. Playing cards was a huge icebreaker for us, and playing party games like Salad Bowl and others was a lot of fun.
Bring plenty of bandanas - you'd be amazed at the multitude of uses they have!
Bring books related to the places you'll be in - I thought it was totally worth the extra weight to be able to read about the landscapes we trekked through.
Bring a packable daypack - the bigger the better! We use them for all kinds of things, and being able to fit more stuff in them is very helpful...

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