Mountain School students visit Patagonia, Santiago
By Justin Criado, Senior Staff Writer Jun 5, 2017
High school is typically full of scribbling notes in classes you wish you didn’t have to take, followed in short order by tests based on such notes in an effort to obtain adequate-enough grades for graduation — the final step in freeing yourself from any and all future pointlessness. At least, that was my experience in a rural western Pennsylvania public school.
Things seem vastly different at Telluride Mountain School; indeed, the place is so non-traditional that it’s often referred to as “not having any walls,” meaning students spend just as much time outside of the classroom as in it.
For students in grades 11 and 12, this sort of freeing educational experience includes three-week trips abroad. This year, the high schoolers flew down to Chile for 21 days (April 18-May 5) of backpacking, hiking, camping and full-blown immersion in another culture.
Such trips aren’t vacations, as much as they might seem like it, humanities teacher Emily Shoff explained.
“It’s always tied to our curriculum,” she said. “… It always has some sort of link.”
The trip also offered outdoor education and instruction in environmental science.
Shoff and Director of Experiential Education Tucker Szymkowicz led the students on trips through the newly created Patagonia National Park, and to the cities of Santiago and Valparaiso, among other stops.
After 40 total hours of travel to get to Patagonia National Park, the journey finally began.
“(The students) were pretty worked by the time we got to the trailhead,” Shoff said. “We had some pretty tired feet the first couple hours of the hike.”
Exhaustion soon gave way to exuberance as the group came upon a crystal-clear blue lake, the first of many within the parameters of the park. Shoff explained how the weary travelers dunked their canteens into the liquid in order to rehydrate.
“We all went to refill our water bottles, and asked (about) purification. Our guide said we didn’t need any. It’s glacier water,” Shoff said. “That was a pretty cool moment. The trip just got better after that.”
Patagonia National Park is one of seven such parks slated to be established across the country, Shoff explained.
She added that Chile’s natural landscape is “breathtaking,” and compared it to what Colorado may have looked like 100 years ago.
“You kind of wonder to yourself, ‘What would happen if these lands were just left alone?’” she said. “It’s pretty spectacular how they were preserved.”
Following the four-day camping trip through the park, the group spent the next four days on a farm with a Chilean host family, enjoying authentic, home-cooked Chilean cuisine like lamb.
After saying goodbye to their gracious hosts, the Telluride pride made haste toward Santiago and Valparaiso for the remainder of their trip.
Throughout their excursion to South America, Shoff said, different “challenges” arose for students, ranging from communicating with locals in their native Spanish to getting used to the backcountry.
“I think when (the students) come back they definitely have a broader grasp on what they’re experiencing in the classroom,” said Stephanie Griebe, the school’s Advancement Director.
Griebe explained that every student at Mountain School takes some sort of trip. For example, younger students (in grades 1-4) traveled to Fruita and Moab, while kids in grades 5-8 took trips to southwestern Colorado, Arizona, and the South (Mississippi, Tennessee and Georgia) this school year. High school students get to leave the mainland; this year, for instance, grades 9 and 10 travelled to Costa Rica.
“All their trips are definitely amazing experiences for them,” Griebe said.
Students in grades 9 to 12 will give individual presentations on their trips to Costa Rica and Chile, respectively, on Monday, June 5, at the Wilkinson Public Library from 4:45 to 7 p.m. The event is free and the public is invited.