Adeline Turner reaches new heights by spending semester in the mountains

Ingrid Houtkooper

From the coast of Maine, to the beaches of the Bahamas and even the ancient city of Rome, many students in Marin County are taking whatever opportunity they can to immerse themselves in new experiences and push themselves outside of their comfort zones. For junior Adeline Turner, changing her learning environment meant enrolling in the semester-long school High Mountain Institute (HMI) in Leadville, CO. Backpacking through valleys and exploring nature, Adeline spent four months with 45 other teens building deep relationships and discovering new things about herself and her surroundings. 

Having grown up backpacking with her family, Adeline was drawn to HMI for the wilderness and outdoor appeal, specifically the backpacking expeditions. Over the course of the semester, there are three backpacking trips, each lasting at least 10 days.

“[Each day we would wake up and] backpack or hike anywhere from two hours to four [and hike] anywhere from one mile to six or seven, but there’s no trail most of the time, so it’s hard navigating,” Adeline said. “We would go a mile but it would take us two hours because we’re going through a slot canyon or were having to retrace our steps to figure out where we are. But that part was fun.” 

After spending hours backpacking through Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, Adeline Turner (right) poses for a picture with a fellow HMI student

When they weren’t hiking through canyons, cooking themselves dinner, or searching for drinking water, the students would have school lessons integrated into the expeditions. 

“Once we got to camp we would set up our tarps and sometimes do classes like survival skills or an English class cause we brought books…Then we just got to hang out at the camp, which is really fun, or sometimes just go wander around or explore,” Adeline said. 

Despite not knowing anyone on her first expedition, there were plenty of ways to break the ice. After backpacking all day, the group would sit in a circle and play games to get to know one another. One specific game was called “Circles.”

“One person gives their life story in one minute and then each person in the circle will ask them a question. They’re supposed to ask deep questions and there’s a different person doing that each night,” Adeline said.

Activities like these helped the 46 kids attending HMI connect with one another, something that was very intimidating at first. 

“I was the last bus to get [to the school,] so everyone was already there and unpacked. Everyone was so nice, asking things like, ‘how are you?’ or ‘where are you from?’ ‘how did you find out about HMI?’ [The faculty] mixed up table groups each night for the first week so we could get to know each other. It’s terrifying, but once you get to know everyone, it’s super fun,” Adeline said. 

Although it was nerve racking to be the last to arrive, Adeline felt lucky to have been in contact with Chloe Cullen, another student at HMI who attends Marin Academy in San Rafael. The two of them met through a mutual friend who knew they were both going to HMI.

“We ended up booking the same flight so we could fly out together and it was super nice to be able to talk to someone who was also going,” Cullen said. “It made me feel better because [Adeline was just as] nervous going and meeting all these new people….When we got off the plane [we] had to find a huge group of people. It was overwhelming, but it was nice to have a familiar face that I could talk to.” 

For both Cullen and Adeline, having someone to arrive with helped to relieve some stress. Eliza Turner, Adelines mom, understands that transitioning to a new environment can be scary.

“It’s stressful going to a new place with people that you’ve never met from all over the country…. [In Marin] it’s all so familiar so I think [many teens are] aching for something a little unfamiliar at this point too,” Eliza said. 

Although there may have been regular courses, such as English, Math and Science, school at HMI was an unfamiliar experience. Schooling remained a very big part of the students’ lives, Monday through Saturday. 

“We rotated through [six] classes. Each day there was a different schedule, and they were each 80 minute periods. They were pretty long, but they were super interesting,” Adeline said. “They were definitely challenging, all of the courses made me really think. But I really loved the classes and there was a lot more interaction and hands-on kind of learning.

The students were provided with Chromebooks for school, but otherwise it was a tech-free environment, meaning the students did not have their phones. Although the lack of technology limited her contact with her parents, Eliza was more than happy for Adeline to be smart-phone-free for four months. 

“I think it would be hard to settle into your own new world if you’re constantly trying to connect with your old one. So I knew that no news was good news. She probably called every two weeks and we could write her letters. I was fine with it… I totally trusted that she was in good hands and that she was living a really rich life,” Eliza said.

For Cullen, not having her phone also allowed her to stay more present. 

“I felt so much more motivated to go out and do cool things, go on walks with people, or go on runs. I didn’t have that distraction or that thing that I could fall back on if I was bored. I had to find things to do. It just felt so much more natural and I felt so much more grounded,” Cullen said. 

Having gotten away from phones, Marin and her typical routine, Adeline says she learned a lot about herself and what she appreciates about life and friends. 

“I would definitely recommend [HMI], you don’t even have to like the outdoors. If you just want something new I would definitely try it. I feel like I was doing the same thing for the last few months, or even years, and it was really nice to do something different,” Adeline said.