Now in its sixth year, Mammoth Lakes Academy (MLA) is offering its students not only an alternative approach to education, but also a unique and rewarding outdoor program.
MLA students participate in a fall orientation trip, winter and spring climbing and mountaineering trips, and summer “High Sierra Odyssey” camping trip, among others.
These trips are not luxury outings, but down-in-the-dirt adventures that take students away from the world they know and present them with new and exciting challenges—with a perfect safety record, noted Director Trip Armstrong.
MLA students recently returned from Zion, where they tackled Orderville canyon, exiting through the Narrows; Pine Creek canyon; Keyhole canyon at night; Spry canyon; and Angel’s Landing.
These same students embarked for Red Rock National Conservation Area outside of Las Vegas on Oct. 9, returning on Monday, Oct. 13.
Armstrong founded MLA out of a desire “to create an alternative to the public school, because different students have different ways of learning,” he said. “I thought it was an opportunity that some kids could really benefit from.”
MLA offers a CAVA (California Virtual Academy) online curriculum for students in 9th through 12th grades, which Armstrong complements by teaching classes in math, science, and Spanish (Vane teaches language arts and history).
In addition, the outdoor program takes students to the local Sierra Nevada mountains, Yosemite, Red Rocks, Zion, Canyonlands, Arches, and Grand Staircase-Escalante, for five to ten day camping trips that include activities like hiking, rock climbing, and canyoneering.
Armstrong said he created the outdoor program for two purposes: the first, to encourage a sense of community within the small student body (MLA currently has 14 students), and the second, to offer students a chance to learn and grow in an outdoor setting.
“When you have a small school like this, you have quite a bit more social interaction between the students,” he said. “Typical class barriers tend to get broken down. The outdoor component was one way to get everybody together and more comfortable with that.”
Armstrong, who guided for six years while attending graduate school at UC Davis, said he saw firsthand the benefits of putting people in outdoor—and frequently uncomfortable—situations.
“I think anything students do in the outdoors, where they gain the awareness and the confidence to do something they’ve never done before, makes them more capable of doing anything in life,” he said.
MLA’s outdoor program offers an opportunity for growth not just during the trip activities, but also in the planning of the trips themselves.
“We’re now to the point where the kids are running the show themselves,” Armstrong said. “They buy and cook the food, and raise money to purchase all the camping supplies. A lot of times, they have done research for the trip; where to go, what permits to get.”
Students must also learn to pack the proper clothing and gear both for the entire camping trip and for individual day trips, embarking without the comfort of cell phones, computers, or other electronic distractions.
“Besides wanting to get the kids together, I think it’s a critical component of this education that kids spend time away from distractions,” said Armstrong. “It empowers them to really pay attention to each other and to themselves … And then to get away from those distractions together; there’s something simple, beautiful, and powerful about that.”
MLA parents attested to the positive effect the outdoor program has had on their children.
Dennis Peterson, whose son Sam is in 10th grade, said he’s seen the program encourage camaraderie and confidence.
“The closeness developed on the excursions is awesome,” he said. “The students have to look out for each other, especially in the case of rock climbing and canyoneering. When you have another student on the end of the rope, their life depends on you.”
Peterson said he saw firsthand how students matured after applying themselves to the challenges of rock climbing. “When I joined the group at Red Rocks it was great to see kids stretch themselves,” he said. “I had the pleasure to watch the students build on their knowledge and skill. I could see how much it helped their confidence. If a student commits to mastering a rock climbing ‘problem’ and has possibly never climbed before, what else could they achieve due to this confidence boost? You don’t get that from a trip to an amusement park.”
Amy Conrad, whose son Jack is in 11th grade, agreed that MLA trips are not your average school field trips. She offered the example of the summer High Sierra Odyssey trip, this year a 10-day backpacking outing from Baxter to Bishop Pass through Kings Canyon National Park.
“Two or three times per week the [kids] met at Shady rest to run, or at different trailheads to hike to make sure they were in shape,” she recalled. “They had to calculate how much food they would need, weigh it, weigh their backpacks to make sure they were not too heavy …
“When they finished the 10-day trip they had an incredible sense of accomplishment. These teenagers came out of 10 days in the Kings Canyon without any complaints, despite blistered feet, sunburns and lots of joint and muscle aches. They were beaming because they had completed a physically demanding trip and had accomplished something really difficult.”
Conrad noted that the trips also offer an incentive for students to do better in school, as students can only participate with a grade of 70 percent or above.
“My son, who has had an erratic academic history, has become obsessive about completing his assignments and doing well in school so he can earn the privilege of going on these trips,” she said. “The goal of being able to go on these trips, in combination with his improved time management and organization skills, has really allowed him to become a more focused, mature student.”
Ruth Hensley, whose daughter Patty graduated last year, and whose son Peter is currently in 10th grade, said the trips also offer students exposure to the area and the wider world. “We live in this gorgeous place, but the exposure they would have had to backpacking and climbing would never have been the same without the Academy,” she said.
While Patty is taking what she learned to her first semester of college at UC Davis, Hensley said she sees Peter continuing to grow at MLA.
“I think the kids develop a lot of self-reliance and confidence,” agreed Lynne Wilson, whose daughter Kate is in 11th grade. “Kate came back from her first trip really excited to do something she hadn’t done before. She was much more confident going into her second trip; every time since, her confidence in her own ability has increased, and her willingness to pitch in and take more of a leadership role.”
“These trips foster life skills,” said Meredith Manzano, whose son Harrison is in 10th grade. “This is Harrison’s second year at MLA. I have watched him develop into a confident young man with a commendable set of skills; skills that will assist him as an adult. These trips build self-reliance, leadership and a sense of community. It’s not every day that you can combine a diverse group of young adults into a cohesive unit, but these trips accomplish just that.”
Sue Jamieson, whose son Hayden is now a senior at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, said MLA’s outdoor program changed Hayden’s life. Hayden is now a sponsored climber, and works for the Westminster climbing department, guiding other students around Utah.
“It all started because of Trip,” she said. “If Hayden hadn’t gone to MLA, he probably wouldn’t have even gone off to college.”
Jamieson said she, too, had a unique experience with the outdoor program. “I would never have gotten to go canyoneering in Zion, had it not been for Trip,” she said. “It’s not something that just anybody can do, and those are some of my best memories ever. Parents should be stoked as well.”
Armstrong said the outdoor program will continue to evolve in the coming years. One addition will be a series of safety courses designed to teach students how to lead belay, ascend a rope, or escape a belay; orienteering, choosing campsites, and how to survive a night in the wild.
Students will also have a chance to hike out of Lone Pine to meet up with the Bighorn Sheep roundup this fall, and, once the snow falls, will begin weekly Tuesday cross country ski outings out of Tamarack Lodge.
Armstrong noted that these outdoor adventures are only getting better. “Zion this year was our best trip yet,” he said.
He recalled a nighttime canyoneering adventure in which students hiked and rappelled in the dark: “It was a really novel experience. I had them all turn off their headlamps and listen to the sounds of the night, then I asked if they wanted to go through the canyon quietly, or with the typical teen cacophony. They voted to go through quietly.
“It was wonderful for me to see the level of confidence they exuded, rappelling in the dark,” he said. “It was 10 o’clock by the time we got through the canyon, and they were up early the next morning for another outing.”