The How of Hut Trips

School News
April 2, 2018- For as long as Vail Mountain School has been in existence, faculty and students have been finding their way into nearby wilds and sleeping under the stars, so to speak. This close relationship with nature is a defining tradition that is a cornerstone of the school’s mission to Develop Character, Seek Knowledge, and Build Community.

1973 Orientation Trip

An excerpt from the September 21, 1973 issue of The Vail Trail newspaper reads, “Though a hike is not the traditional way to start the school year, it is a great way to start one right. Newcomers and oldtimers got to know each other, a process which often takes weeks in other schools.”

Building on the inspiration found in these fall outings, VMS has evolved a substantial and refined outdoor education program that is now a centerpiece of the curriculum that is integrated into the fabric of the school throughout the year. And without fail, these experiences are always on the top of the list of the students’ favorite memories.

7th Grade Hut Trip

“Hut trips are one of the most valuable learning experiences that VMS offers,” shares Olivia Manula, a VMS senior. “It allows students to learn outside of the classroom and helps to create a well-rounded education. Everyone practices leadership, outdoor skills, communication, and teamwork in real situations, one aspect of the VMS education that I find indispensable.”

Junior Class Sweetwater Trip

The Big Picture

This Thursday, 5th graders will set out for the Shrine Mountain Huts on their first VMS winter hut trip, and the final outdoor education experience of this year. And though the many timeless and beautiful images that come back from these adventures seem to blend together, it’s worth taking a look at the big picture of the year’s accomplishments:
  • Ten different three-day upper school orientation trips to locations ranging from the top of the Continental Divide to Utah’s Canyonlands
  • Two-day middle school orientation trips with overnights for grades 7 and 8
  • A 4th grade fall hut trip designed to provide an introduction to overnight, backcountry travel without the added challenge of snow
  • A 9th grade overnight retreat to Keystone Science Center to engage design challenges and encourage bonding among a class that welcomed 14 new students this year
  • The Junior class overnight trip to Sweetwater that used self-reflection, writing, and art as an extension of the humanities curriculum to explore leadership and identity
  • An upper school winter hut trip that provided the opportunity for new students in grades 9-12 to experience their first-ever hut trips together with veteran VMS classmates
  • An avalanche safety course hut trip with the Glide Project that allowed students to gain Level I certification at a fraction of the typical cost
  • The 8th grade snowmaking field trip, snow science trip to Vail Pass, and culminating hut trip
  • Class hut trips in grades 5, 6, and 7

Cross-Age Leadership

The practice of peer mentoring runs deep in the VMS community with intentional opportunities for cross-age leadership woven throughout all divisions. What starts as book buddies separated by just a couple of years in lower school grows into the special bond that exists between kindergarten students and seniors who are paired each year as “buddies.” Over the past few years, upper school students with a particular passion for outdoor leadership have stepped up to help with hut trips for students in grades 4-8.

4th Grade Hut Trip Journal Entry

“I volunteered because my hut trips with my class are some of the most memorable experiences of my time at VMS so far and I was excited to get to know the fourth grade class and be apart of their experience,” notes Emma Blakslee, a 9th grader who accompanied the 4th grade. “I enjoyed seeing how proud the class was when they made it to the hut and how excited they were to be on the trip. Their confidence in the outdoors grew visibly during the trip, and their enthusiasm was contagious. It reminded me of how lucky I have been to have these opportunities to appreciate the mountains and get to know my teachers and peers better.”

7th Grade Hut Trip

The bonding and appreciation that results from these trips is undeniable. Take, for example, the 7th grade hut trip which was accompanied by seniors Jake Vickerman, Olivia Manula, and junior Ian Hardenbergh. “I chose to go on these trips because it gives me a great opportunity to share my love for the outdoors with the younger students,” says Jake. “The most memorable take away from these trips is knowing that there is always at least one or more students who shares the same stoke as I do for the environment that we are surrounded by.” As evidence, the seventh graders are reported to have made pancakes shaped in the letter “J” as an homage to Jake’s contributions.

A Deliberate Process

Each spring, Liana Sideli, the school’s outdoor education coordinator and guru, marks the day when space at the 10th Mountain Division Huts becomes available for the next year. Like a dedicated fan vying for choice concert tickets, she dives into the reservation system to secure dates for each trip, deliberately scheduled to weave seamlessly into the coming year’s schedule. This planning takes into account curricular ebbs and flows and requires careful coordination with athletics and other programs to make sure that all opportunities are equally balanced.

4th Grade Hut Trip

A few years ago, Ms. Sideli was asked to build out the infrastructure and resources that support our outdoor education program. Since then, she has most certainly taken the ball and run with it as evidenced by the depth of offerings and integration of outdoor education into other areas of the curriculum. But the success of this program takes the work of many, especially when one considers that each grade level hut trip usually consists of three separate, self-sufficient expeditions to different locations.

The Inaugural All-Faculty Retreat to Shrine Mountain Huts in 2016

Like the 10th Mountain Division that established the hut system, it takes an “army” to ensure that these trips go safely, smoothly, and delivers on the school’s mission. Each individual group is typically supported by 2-3 teachers, and while each is equipped with maps and leadership skills to safely and surely navigate the backcountry, teachers are also trained in a signature style that distinguishes VMS hut trips.

This used to happen more organically, similar to the way oral traditions and knowledge are passed down within a community. In more recent years though, Ms. Sideli has instituted formal training that includes faculty hut trips in the fall and winter to learn procedures and protocols, role-playing of emergency scenarios that could arise on backcountry trips, and school-funded training in Wilderness First Responder Certification. At present, the school has more than a dozen WFRs on staff.

The result—a well-oiled machine to create the unique experiences and smiling faces you see here. 

PHOTOS: Hut Trips 2018

VIDEO: 4th Grade Hut Trip

Many thanks to the faculty members who accompanied these trips throughout the year and captured the images seen in these photo albums.