Why We Hut

Originally Published in Tuesday News October 11, 2016

Hut trips are an inextricable part of the VMS experience and for decades have been a place where our students and faculty commune with nature and come closer together as a community. They also serve as a venue for coursework like Wilderness First Aid during Intraterm, or learning about complex water systems in AP Environmental Science, or gaining first-hand knowledge about snow science and backcountry safety during the Eighth Grade Hut Trip.

To the outside observer, these excursions are merely camping trips in rustic cabins, but anyone who has been a part of a VMS hut trip will tell you that they are so much more. The magic that takes place in these treeline refuges is no accident; it is the result of significant planning and intentionally choreographed activities that have been refined over time to produce these uniquely VMS experiences and outcomes.

A Stepping Stone

The Fourth Grade Hut Trip began three years ago. The intention was to provide an incremental step between the Third Grade Character Counts Sleepover and the Fifth Grade Winter Hut Trip. Climbing to treeline with a heavy backpack and spending the night in the “woods” can be daunting. And while rising to the task with the support of one’s classmates and teachers is a part of the experience, doing it on telemark skis with winter weather makes it that much more challenging. The fourth grade trip takes place during fall when the temperature is more moderate allowing students to dress more comfortably, carry less, and travel on one’s own two feet. The trails are also better defined, making hiking easier. Along the way and over the course of the two days, the students are also introduced to the ins and outs of the backcountry such as reading maps, where to go to the bathroom, and how to cook dinner at 11,000 feet for a large group. With questions such as these and more answered, the students are well-prepared and know what to expect during their first winter hut trip the following year.

Welcome to the Outdoors

Sangree M. Froelicher Hut is nestled in the treeline at 11,650’. On the way up, one emerges into a seemingly barren high alpine tundra that reveals jaw-dropping views of massive mountain ranges, fall foliage, and the valley below. This vista, along with the realization that the hut is within reach, elicits a bit of euphoria. Most students have been up ski lifts that provide similar vantage points, but for many this was first time they had seen anything like this. During last week’s trip, this moment also provided a rare opportunity to learn about the other creatures with whom we share the space. As if on cue, a lucky student and teacher who were walking behind the group emerged from treeline and saw a pair of elk come galloping full speed through the grass about ten yards above them. The elk did not even acknowledge their presence as they passed by, but there is no question that this encounter made a lasting impression that they will recall for years to come.

There are many serendipitous moments like this that help instill a respect for nature, but there are also several planned activities designed to do the same. Perennial favorites of the fourth graders include fort building, as well as a hike to the peak above the hut. Making forts is a great way to show how one might seek shelter in the wilderness, but it is also a valuable lesson in community. Working together, one can carry larger logs to build bigger structures that in turn allow one to benefit from the warmth of safety of a larger group. As for the hike, with packs left behind at the hut, the students were free to find their own path straight up fall line to the top of the mountain. Make no mistake, the terrain is by no means forgiving, and it takes some time to ascend, but the scramble also provides an up close and personal look at the small but robust plants that manage to survive in this rugged environment. Perhaps these qualities served as inspiration for the students who discovered unrealized strength. “This was the first time I had ever hiked to the top of a mountain,” noted one of the fourth graders, “I stood on the very top and I felt like the king of the world.”

Leading by Example

In addition to homebase teachers, hut trips draw on the leadership of faculty members from a variety of disciplines and sometimes, upper school students. During last week’s trip, The fourth grade was accompanied by Ms. Warner (homebase), Ms. Bilow (Spanish), Ms. Sideli (outdoor education), and Mr. Lambert (student support services). Nick Charles, who is a member of the senior class, also joined the fourth grade for their outing. From time to time, upper school students with outdoor leadership skills accompany hut trip groups as a means of enriching cross-age bonds and to provide role modeling of student leadership. Nick has attended VMS since kindergarten and cites hut trips as among his most memorable experiences from the past thirteen years. This trip was no exception. “I went on the trip because I wanted to pay it forward and be that kid that I looked up to when I was younger,” noted Charles. “One of the most fulfilling experiences was fort building. I picked up a huge log that was full of dead rot so it was actually quite light. The kids looked at me like I had just done something incredible, though, and it made me feel like a superhero. I remembered at that moment what it was like for me as a kid looking up to the older students. This trip kind of tied it all together for me.” Throughout the two days, Nick stepped up in many ways whether leading the group, channeling his inner fourth grader to entertain his younger peers, or working one-on-one with students to help them find the strength in themselves to push forward. One of the fourth graders shared, “I did not know (Nick) before the trip, but in the end, we made a real bond of friendship.”

Focus on Community

“Fourth grade is a time when friendships may become more exclusive,” says Lower School Director, Julie Schlossinger. “We spend time throughout the year in planned activities to reinforce the importance and value of being inclusive of others and to focus on community.” During the hut trip, the importance of the group is emphasized from the start. The first conversations at the trailhead are about how to work together as a team and individuals are assigned jobs. The trail leader focuses simultaneously on the path ahead as well as the group behind them. The pace they set keeps everyone together.  The group hydrator and sunscreen police help protect their peers from exposure to the elements. A spontaneous dance party captain keeps spirits high and muscles loose, and one important individual decides whether a given break is a “pack on” or “pack off” break.

The focus on community continues at the hut where discussions center on sharing space and responsibilities. They go over the rule about keeping one’s things within arms reach so that belongings do not encroach on one another's space. Students also work together to prepare meals and do dishes. Downtime in the hut provides opportunities for the students to ferret out games and art supplies left by others and contribute to hut log books.

A nearly unanimous highlight of the trip for all of the faculty members was the evening campfire before bedtime. Sitting in a circle, students were asked to reflect on the day and share a high point, something that was difficult, and a shout out to someone who they wanted to recognize. Mr. Lambert, who has been on several VMS hut trips with students of all ages, characterized the student reflections as “Arguably the most thoughtful that he had heard from any group.” There were several mentions of fort building, hiking to the top of the mountain, and other shared experiences, but it was the level of thoughtfulness and awareness of group dynamics that set this apart. One of the fourth graders shared the following back at school that represents the sentiment well: “We’ve been together since kindergarten and I feel like we are more connected and don’t disagree as much after this trip. In school, we learn more about academics. On the hut trip, we learned more about being friends and helping each other.”

PHOTOS: 4th Grade Hut Trip