Caroline Bauwens ’19 Leads Student Backcountry Expeditions at High Mountain Institute in Leadville, Colorado

The experience of backcountry pooping relies heavily upon the toilet paper material and the timing. Optimal toilet paper includes: moss, pine cones with closed capsules, snow (my personal favorite), and smooth rocks. Optimal timing includes: anytime your bowels finally agree with your diet.

The faces of the students as I explain this are what make this internship so peculiarly fun. As a summer intern for the High Mountain Institute in Colorado, I am in charge of taking high school students on 2 10-day expeditions through the Colorado Sawatch Range. Based out of Leadville, at 10,000 feet, HMI merges physically challenging backcountry exploration and intellectual pursuits.

29 students arrived on campus after a week of staff training and 3 days of expedition preparations ensued. Us 6 interns, the underdogs hoping to gain some professional experience, and 5 faculty, the more experienced professionals in charge of teaching the summer classes, greeted them with open arms, water, and tips for altitude acclimatization. In 2 days we covered all there was to know about surviving in the backcountry: personal hygiene, broadcasting your toothpaste and water, whisperlite stove operations, packing a pack, setting up a tent and tarp with trucker’s hitches, purifying your water to avoid giardia, among other how-to’s.

On July 9th, we got back from our first 10-day expedition.

For the expedition, students and staff were separated into 3 larger hiking groups. In 10 days, we covered 33 miles following the Continental Divide and Colorado Trail, going up to nearly 13,000 feet in altitude. The students in my group grew very close to each others, thanks to the hours of long, oftentimes intense, backpacking.

Our daily schedule rarely wavered: early morning wake-up, usually all packed and cooking breakfast by 7:30am; we left camp around 9am, hiked from one site to another, with a different designated student heading the group as “Leader of the Day”; we arrived at our predetermined camp site usually by 4 or 5pm, set up tarp sites and cook sites, and then dinner.

Dinner in our group was a fantastic experience. Most of these students have never been backpacking, much less cooked meals out here. Yet, they all flourished around the whisperlights, making meals such as pasta in cheesy pesto sauce, scrumptious caramel cinnamon rolls, and brussel sprout pizza. These were our best hours of the day – dinner allowed everyone to decompress from the strenuous day. Once cleaned up, we gathered for evening meeting to go over the next day’s plan and “Circle”. Circle is an HMI tradition in which everyone sits in a circle and passes around a “power object” and answers an often introspective question. Everyone loved circle and is was a truly magical way to end our days.

Part of the HMI experience is about tying these wilderness trips to place-based education. Our days are peppered with classes, including a humanities, science, and P&P (Practice and Principles of the Natural World) class. These filled our hiking breaks and evenings as the students worked on their assignments. Of course, we want to keep these light and entertaining, with the spirit of summer never leaving our minds. As such, part of the job is coming up with creative ways of teaching these classes.

For backcountry pooping, that creativity manifested itself in the 5 star method. This cumulative system alleviates the stress of backcountry pooping for first-timers. 1 star means it was an easy hole to dig; 2 stars include the elements of the first but the position was equally as smooth; 3 stars means the first two and a view; 4 stars are rare and achieved when wildlife is spotted; the elusive 5th star requires eye contact with wildlife. Bonus is awarded when they are also pooping.

Although long and stressful – especially when a thunder storms rolls over us as we hike over a saddle – this experience has been so insightful. Hiking to the trailhead on the 10th day, I could tell that the students felt empowered and self-content after their experience. Being a catalyst for these positive moments has been a wonderful way to spend my summer.


Experiences like Caroline’s are made possible by the Whitman Internship Grant, which provides funding for students to participate in unpaid internships at both for-profit and non-profit organizations. To learn how you could secure a Whitman Internship Grant or host a Whitman intern at your organization, click here or contact Assistant Director for Internship Programs Victoria Wolff

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