The Athenian Wilderness Experience

The Ultimate Adventure

At The Athenian School, we are committed to developing resilience and empathy in our students. These attitudes and skills are critical for their success in life. One of the opportunities you will have as an Athenian to develop these attributes is on the Athenian Wilderness Experience (AWE). You and a small group of your classmates will explore the beauty and enchantment of either the High Sierra mountains or the Death Valley desert during your junior year.  Learning how to collaborate, problem-solve, empathize, and believe in yourself and others, you will work together to navigate off-trail terrain, cook group meals, rock climb, and set up camp, we hope you will come to appreciate the freedom from technology, routine, homework, and other responsibilities afforded by this experience.
Twice a year, the campus is reinvigorated by the return of our "AWE heroes," through their positive energy, enthusiasm, triumphance, wonder, self-awareness, and openness. We invite you to participate in the ceremonial end of their adventure to see for yourself the transformative experience that is AWE. Check the school calendar in March and August for "Run-In" specifics.

Course Description

The Athenian Wilderness Experience (AWE) is a 26-day wilderness backpacking course for students in their junior year and is a graduation requirement of all students. Students attend either the spring Death Valley course in the Panamint Range of Death Valley National Park or the summer High Sierra course in the Sierra Nevada high country in Yosemite National Park.

Within the context of a rigorous backpacking expedition, we encourage an appreciation of the natural world, self-awareness, and positive community participation. Students focus on promoting leadership and fellowship abilities, improving physical well-being, recognizing and acting upon individual strengths and weaknesses, and appreciating and care-taking the natural environment. Opportunities abound to develop human interactive skills by sharing responsibilities, making group decisions, taking care of one another, and realizing personal potential.

AWE is a dynamic and concentrated reflection of The Athenian School’s values and mission without the insulation provided by the amenities, complications and diversions of daily routines. Students and parents that choose to enroll in the Athenian Upper School are thereby choosing to participate in this challenging and unique program.


List of 3 frequently asked questions.

  • Why is AWE required?

    The Athenian Wilderness Experience contributes to a foundation in both the Outdoor Adventure and the Environmental Stewardship pillars of The Athenian School and has been a part of the Athenian curriculum since 1969. Dyke Brown, the founder of the Athenian School, based the School’s mission on his experiences with Kurt Hahn and the Salem School. Kurt Hahn’s ideas and philosophy have spawned Round Square, the Gordonstoun School and Outward Bound. Hahn encouraged outdoor adventure as a way to engender a greater sense of compassion, self-discovery, physical fitness and self-reliance. He was invested in students developing mature communication and decision-making skills.
  • What is the course itinerary?

    Main Phase
    Each course begins with a highly intensive period that involves learning new skills and typically lasts about 14 days. Professional outdoor educators direct students in each of the skill areas including (but definitely not limited to!): interpersonal communication, decision-making, environmental ethics, shelter, cooking, navigation, personal care in the back country, weather, travel safety, and first aid topics. 

    Instructors teach and monitor initially, then expect students to begin utilizing what they’ve learned to take on more and more responsibility as the course progresses. Within the main phase is also a rock climbing portion designed to build skills and trust that is run by the directors with help from the logistical support crew. By the end of the Main Phase it is expected that students generally are capable of taking care of themselves and each other in the outdoor environment. Instructors step out of the decision-making process and serve as a resource if needed, as well as insuring that emotionally and physically safe decisions are made.

    This is generally a 3-day, 3-night period. This time is designed to give students a physical break, a mental break, and time to reflect on their experience up to that point. Students are given a very small area with defined boundaries in which they spend time alone. The safety system involves checks by instructors twice a day and whistle communication in case of emergency. They also have individual shelters, water and a “solo pack” of food. 

    Independent Student Travel Phase
    If students have shown their instructors that they are ready, they will end their course with this final phase. They must exhibit care and compassion for one another, a solid understanding of technical skills, and safe decision-making skills before being approved for Independence. During Independence, instructors “shadow” the students and the student group travels on its own. Instructors are usually within twenty minutes of the student group and may travel closer or even with the group if terrain or weather dictates. A safety system involving notes at specific times and locations, a specific written itinerary, and emergency plans are put into place before this phase.
  • Who supports the student groups?

    Each student group is led by two adult, professional outdoor educators.  Additional support for the course is provided by the adult Program Directors and Course Directors, along with student logistical assistants (“logies”). This crew is responsible for repairing and checking all equipment, organizing the food and water re-supplies and running the rock-climbing portions of the trip. There are many details that the AWE support team attends to in order to make a course run smoothly.

    In addition, the directors are in charge of overseeing safety in the field and providing support for instructors and students. A director is in the field throughout the course. They support all groups and are not with any one group exclusively. The logistics crew (including directors) spends the entire course hiking and camping in both back country and front country areas in order to be highly accessible to students and instructors.
    • AWE

Meet the Directors

List of 3 members.