The Athenian School in Danville offers a unique graduation requirement that challenges students to the max – physically, mentally and emotionally.
A 26-day course, the Athenian Wilderness Experience, takes students to Death Valley National Park in March or to the High Sierras in August. Depending upon the location, temperatures can soar above 90 or 100 degrees or fall below 32 degrees.
Today, 44 students aged 16 to 17 returned from Death Valley.
"A lot of people assume that because it's the desert that it's flat and warm. It's very hilly and can be very cold," said Phoebe Dameron, co-director of the program. "We usually see snow at the higher elevations. We start hiking at 1,500 feet and will go to 7,500 to 8,000 feet."
The course begins with a highly intense 14-day wilderness skills training, such as how to navigate the rough terrain, create a shelter, cook outdoor meals, administer first aid, and deal with a myriad of interpersonal issues that challenge the group. The learning takes place while students hike a variety of terrains (canyons, ridges, meadows and boulder fields) carrying 40 to 55 pound backpacks. That includes about 20 pounds of water in their dromedaries, packs with about a 3-day supply of water.
One of the goals of the program is to dissipate social cliques and preconceived notions students have of each other.
"When you're traveling in the wilderness you're forced to be together and work with each other," said Jason Ham, co-director of the program, and a former U.S. Forest Service backcountry ranger. "It's very focused and you can't go home at the end of the day. There's no Facebook, no cell phone, no conversation with family to distract you from the moment. The single most important thing in my mind is learning to communicate with your peers in an empathetic way. Being able to listen to your peers and understand what they're saying."
The challenging initial two weeks is followed by three days and three nights of solo time. Each student gets a defined area to stay, and there are twice daily checks by instructors. It gives them a physical and mental break from the riggers of hiking and interpersonal relations, and an opportunity to reflect on the past two weeks.
"Learning how to problem solve in a real world sense, not giving up," according to Ham, is an important benefit of the program. "People mature a lot on these courses."
They also learn good hygiene so they can stay clean and healthy. Recycling a used tea bag to cleanse your face is one example.
"One of the things people find hard to understand about the course is how, on a day-to-day basis, are the people able to manage their hygiene and not take a shower," said Ham. "Students either embrace the ideas from the instructors for staying clean or they embrace being very dirty. If you decide you want to be clean, it's actually easy to do or easier than when you're at home. You have plenty of time in the wilderness. You start to learn how to be clean like people who live outdoors."
The last phase of the course allows students to travel independently if they have mastered technical skills, exhibited care and compassion for their group members, and learned how to make safe decisions. Instructors "shadow" the group so they're no more than thirty minutes away.
There is also a service component to the program. Students help with trail maintenance and park preservation, allowing for a deeper appreciation of the wilderness and an understanding of important ecological practices such as "leave no trace."
The course ended today with a long bus ride back to the outskirts of Danville, followed by an eight mile run to The Athenian School. Family and friends anxiously awaited the return of the students. As each one crossed the makeshift finish line (an outstretched roll of toilet paper), the crowd erupted with cheers and shouts of joy.
Students and loved ones waiting for them knew that twenty-six days is a long time to be gone, especially without a shower.