HMI Gap Moves to a Domestic Fall Semester

May 15, 2020

In our efforts to develop a plan to reopen to in-person programming, one of our guiding principles has been to maximize our ability to operate our courses to their planned conclusions. In other words, once students arrive at HMI, we want to have as many options and resources as possible to adapt to ongoing and emerging challenges while continuing to facilitate a high-quality, in-person learning experience.

With this goal in mind, we have made the decision to adapt the HMI Gap fall itinerary to an entirely domestic semester. We made this decision based on continued doubts about the viability of international travel into the foreseeable future and our concern that a group may have to return to the US early if new restrictions are put in place due to new outbreaks.

Instead, we believe we can maximize our students’ experience by focusing on a domestic itinerary for the fall. Currently, our hope and plan is to run our spring programs in their international destinations. We do not yet have specific information on what the domestic destinations will be in place of our time in Patagonia, but we would like to share the guiding principles for how we are developing this new programming. These are:

  • Venues with exceptional adventure opportunities for students, especially in the final portion of the semester, to hone their outdoor skills and take on as much leadership within the program as possible
  • Destinations with critical conservation issues and opportunities to engage in authentic service projects
  • Regions in which we believe students are not at an increased risk of contracting COVID-19 and that continue to have effectively operating rescue and medical infrastructure
  • Areas in which, in the case of additional waves of the nationwide pandemic, we think we could likely continue operating as a “closed-circuit community” until the scheduled conclusion of the course

We are sad that Patagonia will not be part of our fall programming. We have developed a very special connection to the Aysén region of Chile and have every intention of returning there as soon as possible – which we hope will be in January of 2021. At the same time, the US still offers dramatic landscapes as the canvas for adventure. It is with much excitement that we are building an itinerary that journeys into these places, closer to home but captivating nonetheless. We hope you will join us in that excitement.

Preliminary study shows reduced SARS-CoV-2 virulence at high altitude

 May 8, 2020

High-elevation populations may be at a lower risk to COVID-19, according to a new scientific study published on April 22 in the journal Respiratory Physiology & Neurobiology. The authors, an international team of pulmonologists and epidemiologists, report “a decrease of prevalence and impact of SARS-CoV-2 infection in populations living at altitude of above 3,000 masl” (~9,800 feet above sea level). The study, which was based on epidemiological data from Bolivia, Ecuador, and Tibet, concludes: “the reason for decreased severity of the global COVID-19 outbreak at high altitude could relate to both environmental and physiological factors.” The authors speculate that the strong ultraviolet light radiation, significant day-night temperature fluctuation, and the arid, dry climate of high-altitude regions may all contribute to decreasing the virulence of the pathogen. Furthermore, high-altitude inhabitants exhibit lower levels of the ACE2 protein, the very protein that the SARS-CoV-2 virus recognizes in order to infect host cells. 

This is good news for our high-altitude community of Leadville, which proudly claims the title of “America’s highest incorporated city” at elevation 10,152 feet. We will continue to follow this topic for new developments. 

A revised COVID-19 program cancellation and refund policy

May 4, 2020

Our COVID-19 cancellation and refund policy has been revised to apply to all HMI programs. Please view the updated policy here.

A letter for Semester 45 & 46 families from Head of School Danny O'Brien

May 4, 2020

Dear Semester 45 and 46 families, 

Hello from beautiful Leadville, Colorado and welcome to our family! In a time of uncertainty, I am humbled you have elected to entrust your children to us next year. I am also optimistic we will be able to welcome students to campus in August and want to update you on our plans to offer transformative, relevant programming while prioritizing the wellbeing of our students, staff, and local Leadville community. 

As you may know, our campus has been closed for the past six weeks as a result of state public health orders. Our current students returned home on March 15 and have been learning virtually since. Yet, the resilience of our community has astounded me. Though it is not the same as being together in person, we have managed the transition to online learning with grace, poise, and joie de vivre. The inventive and heartfelt ways in which our faculty and staff have continued to care for the academic and social-emotional growth of our students are exemplary. Please take a moment to read this beautiful piece published by Semester 44 student Maple Buescher last month on the website of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer newspaper. It’s a wonderful reflection on what she continues to learn while part of a semester changed–but still worthy–by COVID-19. 

Though we are making our way as best we can, we cannot wait to have students here on campus again. We are pouring our hearts and minds into the creative solutions needed to serve Semesters 45 and 46 because we believe our mission is more important than ever. Our faith that your children are about to experience something wholly relevant and transformative motivates us to welcome students in-person next year. We believe we are doing the work to realize this goal. Dwight Eisenhower said, “Plans are useless, but planning is essential.” My goal today is to share some of our planning. 

First, you should know that we are engaging directly with the governor’s office, outside medical experts, and our local public health officials to create guidance relevant to the needs of our community. One exciting development is that our physician advisor and public health officials have recently told us they expect sufficient coronavirus testing to be available this fall to meet the needs of our community. In our conversations with public health authorities, we are additionally considering everything from how to bring students together from all across the country, to limiting their exposure (“closing the circuit”) once the semester begins. It will be important for us to have plans to enable students to stay on campus if COVID-19 outbreaks flare up next year. Our goal is to avoid students returning home prematurely once they travel to Leadville to begin their semesters. The good news is that the people with whom we are consulting agree on one point: HMI appears almost ideally suited, given our rural location, size, and demographic, to continue uninterrupted in-person learning. While no responsible institution should promise anything about next school year at this juncture, I can assure you of our commitment to have students here and remain learning on campus throughout the term if possible.

Second, I want you to know that HMI is well-positioned to emerge from this crisis. Our culture of careful budgeting, loyal community support, and commitment to extraordinary programming are sustaining us. The HMI Semester is already fully enrolled for next year, separating us from all but a few of our peer schools. We have also increased our financial aid budget to meet unexpected need created by the economic downturn. This was the right thing to do, and I am glad we are in the position to do it. The impacts of COVID-19 are real, but so is the strength of our school. HMI’s long-term outlook is as bright as the relevance of our mission. We will weather this storm thanks to a community that continues to provide both inspiration and support–a community into which we are thrilled to welcome you.

Lastly, we will strive to keep you informed of our planning and share important updates promptly. We have added a COVID-19 Updates page to our website to facilitate our communications. Included on this page are updates to our cancellation and refund policy. We have not changed our commitment to refund tuition and deposits if we are unable to run our semester or if we must radically alter how the curriculum will look before we begin. Our new policy is more broad, covering all HMI programs, not simply the HMI Semester. 

Our overarching goal though this period of uncertainty is to communicate with you in good faith and with transparency. Please do not hesitate to email or call me (719-486-8200, ext 101) if you ever have a thought or question about HMI or how we are thinking about providing for student wellbeing. I’d be glad to talk, and cannot wait to meet you soon.


Danny O’Brien

Head of School

Local health providers announce expanded COVID-19 testing

April 30, 2020

Good news for Leadville and Lake County: Rocky Mountain Family Practice and Saint Vincent Hospital, in collaboration with the Lake County Public Health Department have announced expanded COVID-19 testing availability for the county. According to a recent press release, the following two forms of testing are now readily available: 

1. Coronavirus nasal swab or nasal flush testing: open to anyone who is sick or at the provider’s discretion.

2. Antibody testing: open to anyone.

HMI is in touch with local health providers and public health officials and is following testing availability closely. For more information, view the Leadville Herald Democrat coverage of the announcement.

Spring Semester 2020 as described by a current HMI student

April 21, 2020

Like nearly every school in the country, we were forced to close our doors in mid-March due to the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. HMI Semester 44 students returned home, and have been finishing out the semester via online learning. 

HMI Semester 44 student Maple Buescher recently wrote a powerful op-ed that described the heart-wrenching transition for wilderness trips and experiential education to online learning.  Read it at

HMI Semesters 45 & 46 now fully enrolled!

April 15, 2020

We are very pleased to announce that Semester 45 (Fall 2020) and Semester 46 (Spring 2021) are now fully enrolled at 48 students each! At a time of great uncertainty we are honored by the trust that each enrolled family has placed in us. We cannot wait to welcome each cohort to campus next year. 

At this time we are still accepting late applications to our waitlist

Because the class lists are subject to change we do not release them to enrolled families until about one month before the start of the semester. Until then, please enjoy this map of sending schools 

We are proud to have students hailing from 74 different high schools across 23 different states in our classes next year. 

A message from Head of School Danny O'Brien for accepted & enrolled HMI families

March 30, 2020

Dear families of HMI Semester-admitted students,

I first want to congratulate you on your child’s acceptance into HMI Semester 45 or 46! We have great confidence in the students to whom we were able to extend offers of admission and are excited to welcome this cohort to Leadville.

I also acknowledge that the decision to enroll your child in HMI is a more complicated one than it appeared even one month ago. We find ourselves walking in the dark, our headlamps able to illuminate only the next few steps in front of us. As a parent, I am being more careful about where I place resources and the decisions I make with my children. In an uncertain time, however, we believe that HMI is more important than ever and a wise investment for you and your child.

Know first that we are planning to run our upcoming fall and spring semesters uninterrupted. In the event, however, that global circumstances mean we will be unable to start one or both programs, we will refund all tuition and deposits. You may now find our cancellation and refund policies further explained here.

Equally important, I come to work each day convinced about the relevancy of our mission. We hope HMI is one of the most important educational choices your child ever makes, a springboard for how they approach the remainder of high school, college, and their lives beyond. The skills we teach feel particularly important today. HMI students learn quickly on expedition that they cannot control much: everything from the weather to hiking conditions are beyond our power to shape. On expedition, we grow through succeeding in the face of adversity, making decisions when the path ahead is unclear, considering perspectives different from our own, and learning the value of contributing to the wellbeing of a community.

We recently heard from Dan Lustick, a Semester 8 alumnus who is now a nurse practitioner at a primary and urgent care clinic in Boston. On the frontlines of the COVID-19 outbreak, Dan wanted to share how his time at HMI as a teenager has shaped his life. He said:

“When you enter the backcountry, you cannot possibly anticipate every scenario you are going to face. You learn how to be comfortable with a certain amount of uncertainty. You learn how to ask for help, and you learn how to stay calm when things feel out of your control. And how staying calm helps you perform better and those around you perform better.… One of the greatest things I can offer my patients is to help them feel comfortable with uncertainty, to control the things they can control. What I know is that you do not need to be a primary-care provider to help people around you. All HMI alumni have the skills to help the people around us be more comfortable in these uncertain times.”

I believe, now more than ever, that our communities need everything HMI alumni learn when nature and minds meet. Families across the country entrust this school with the care of their children. This is a sacred trust I carry with me always, more so during rapidly evolving and unsettling times. We hope you will entrust us with your child too.

In partnership,

Danny O’Brien

Head of School

Communication log: Semester 44 and COVID-19