Decision-Making in a Snowy September

On day three of our backpacking trip, instructors woke to an icy tarp hugging their faces. The culprit: three inches of wet snow and a blown grommet. A nearby student tent lay flat, its occupants exposed to a wintery mix. The date was September 20th, and one thing was clear: summer in Idaho had come to an abrupt end.

As instructors, we faced a difficult situation. Countless days spent in backcountry situations prove over and over again that challenge is often the greatest source of growth: it’s easy for students to lead their peers under warm, blue skies, quite another to do so at 34° and pouring rain. Such situations are central to our educational philosophy: learning happens when you step outside of your comfort zone. On the other hand, as our students had learned not two days prior in their Wilderness First Aid course, hypothermia and other cold-related injuries presented a serious risk in such cold, wet conditions. Continue onward or double back and regroup in better conditions?

Summer in Idaho

My co-instructors and I debated back and forth about the merits and risks of adjusting our course itinerary. Try as we might, we knew that the crucial element of the decision was how our students felt about confronting the challenge ahead. Moreover, this was their course, not ours. So, as rain turned to sleet turned to snow turned back to rain, we voiced our concerns and turned over the reigns to our students. Afterall, they had everything they needed to make the decision: knowledge of cold injuries and the risk they posed;  an acute awareness of each other’s abilities and struggles; and an appreciation for the goals of our time in the backcountry.

Students began discussing the situation, noting each other’s comfort level, speaking to their own goals and anxieties, and weighing risk versus reward. Each student shared organically, and instructors served as little more than autonomous maps, detailing various trail options and mileages. After 10 minutes, students reached a strong consensus: the risk of continued winter conditions was too great for our novice group. We would turn back.

As the group began walking back in the direction we came, I turned to my co-instructor, Meredith, who was slated to teach a lesson on decision-making that evening. We quickly agreed that the lesson was no longer necessary: experience had taught our students far better than we ever could.

Ego tripping

We are studying magical realism in English class and are discussing what about these stories is true. Magical realism arises from real experience, real settings, and real characters but imbues reality with magical and fantastical elements. The magical components are used to provide contrast to daily life, norms and things we take for granted or as givens. They are used to expand our notions of what is possible so that we can more fully see reality and options that exist to improve it. And finally, the goal is to use magical elements to illuminate “truths” that are often hidden in our normal examination of life and ourselves. Writers use this style to portray ordinary life in a way that allows the reader to see it anew, to recognize the everyday magic, horror, beauty and possibility in life or in people.

We used this base to explore extraordinary notions of ourselves and to challenge the idea that when we speak of ourselves and our abilities it is better, more correct, more real, or more reasonable to devalue, minimize and doubt our capabilities. These excerpts of poems come from a prompt to indulge in “ego tripping” ... and every single word is TRUE.

I am unstoppable,
No one can stand in my way
I have climbed the tallest mountains and became one with them
Everest grew up from under me
I have been an eagle
Majestic and mightier than you
Everywhere I soar people watch
My eyes hold the world
Blue oceans and skies... ~EShenck

I am so unique
I don’t even have a shadow
Because nothing in the this world can be compared with me ~AMontes

I am down to earth and up in the sky all at the same time
I “throw like a girl” but can catch a million people in my arms
I have, will, and am going to change the world...
I have friends and a family
I have a bed and a home
I have food on my plate and clothes on my back
I simply have everything~CBecker

I have eyelashes so long and strong you can hang ornaments on them like a Christmas tree,
My feet barely tred on the earth as I run, marking my path in the world~MRhueman

The light from my smile illuminated the path for the three wise men,
Babies cry when they are born because they know they are missing out on a life of endless love from my booming heart~JWinborne

My body was carved from the canyons toughest of stone
The finest artisans worked day and night to create a show that could harness the canyons most determined soul~LMurphy

The latitude that the magical realism style provides allows students to unabashedly speak truths about themselves and endulge in warranted self love. Each one of these students truly is that divine, that beautiful, that capable, and that exceptional.

Written by Irene Shaver --English B

What is the Alzar School?

I get asked this simple (not so simple) question multiple times a week. It is a natural follow-up question to the "Where do you work?" question that is so prevalent in our culture. And every time I try to answer, I find myself stuttering, spluttering, racking my brain for a better way to put words to the very thing that I spend my days doing. The fact of the matter, is that the Alzar School is no one thing.  It is a school, a community, a support system, a haven. It is an adventure, a challenge, a reward, and a mystery - even to the people who know it most intimately. It is a place where connections form, growth is fostered, and new experiences are infinite. It is a place where education is not always synonymous with a four-walled classroom, and a place where time spent in the wilderness is valued.

And still, it is more. It is an experience - a way of living. And the people who can best explain what the Alzar School is, are the people who are living it. Who make it what it is: a place where I am proud to work.

In Leadership Class, students were tasked to video their "Elevator Pitch", to explain the Alzar School, and these four current students captured it beautifully.

Desert Walking

Every semester in English class, students read Jon Krakauer's book Into the Wild, which follows the fatal journey of a young protagonist rebelling against society and family to explore western wilderness frontiers. Students debate the protagonist's (Chris McCandless) character, and the elements of authorial bias that color the book's tone. They then write an argumentative essay about whether Chris McCandless was heroic or foolish. Each semester students get fired up about this young man. Discussions are heated and the jury is split - hero vs. fool. Whether it is his lust for adventure or his fight for independence, there is always something that resonates deeply with this adolescent age group. Regardless of which side of the fence students fall on, the story never fails to spark excitement for our next expedition: backpacking in the Owyhee desert of Oregon and Idaho.


The Owyhee expedition was our culminating backpacking expedition this Spring 2015 semester. Students planned the gear and individual packing lists, prepared all the equipment, and student leaders planned campsites based on topographical maps. It is a 27 mile expedition that requires map and compass navigation - completely off-trail. Student leader teams guide our group over mountains and through red rock gulches. Students really get the sense that, like Chris McCandless, they are walking into the wild.




The trip offers an opportunity to pull together many different ideas and subjects we've been tackling in English class as well. Students discuss Joseph Campbell's hero's journey monomyth in analyzing Chris McCandless' odyssey, and then chart their own journey for this expedition and the semester.

They use the same 10 Elements of Leadership with which they analyze student designated leadership performances throughout the semester, and apply it to Chris McCandless to identify whether he was heroic or foolish.

They also get the chance to chat with a contemporary adventurer: Andrew Forsthoefel. Post-college, Andrew set out on an odyssey of his own to walk across America. His mission: listen to people's stories. We listen to his This American Life radio story and then Andrew Skypes into our class and students get the opportunity to ask him questions about his journey, or even advice for their own journeys ahead.

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In his beautiful story, Andrew discusses what it feels like to walk over  30miles in a day alone. He identifies all the types of walking he felt along the way: Fear Walking. Trudge Walking. Float Walking. Weep Walking. Students were so enamored with him and his tale, that they have kept in touch to seek his advice on all manner of challenges from Culminating Leadership Project planning to seeking encouragement for the next "big walk." (Don't worry, he hasn't encouraged anyone to ditch home and set out across the country.)


For English class on the Owyhee expedition, students keep a walking journal. Every day they have to write one sentence that mimics the epic tone Chris McCandless uses when he wrote about his own adventures. Chris McCandless' journal uses the pseudonym "Alexander Supertramp"- and so students must choose their own trail name, and write from this perspective. They then have to title each day - like Andrew Forsthoefel - the type of walking they did that day.



Some excerpts form the wild wanderers of Sp'15:

Alton Wiggers: "Slide walking"
The Riddler takes two steps up, and one slip down going to the top; he needs to reach the summit of a mountain of falling sand.

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Becca Cerra: "Wild Walking"

The sweat beaded on her forehead as Painted Rocket stopped to catch her breath midway up the hill, she gazed down at the wild horses and wish she could join them and feel the wind in her hair.

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Skye Ellison: A.k.a. "Three Terrible Toots"

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On our second to last day in the desert, we declared our types of walking to the echoing red rock of a dry oxbow canyon... followed by a war cry harnessing the epic adventurer within each of us. See below to share in the ceremony:

Thanks for following our journey!

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Alton Wiggers (aka "The Riddler") as Chris McCandless: Portrait in front of Alzar School "Magic School Bus"

Chris McCandless: portrait in front of "Magic Bus" in Alaska


¡Cocinemos las empanadas!

"I can't believe we leave for Chile in nine days!"

These words have been on the lips of everyone here at Alzar School. We're wrapping up our last week of classes before packing our bags and flying down for five weeks of cultural immersion! Our imminent departure becomes more real every day. Chile is in the air and we are all buzzing with excitement.

At Alzar School we spend two afternoons every week involved in activities that are engaging, fun, and that will prepare us for our upcoming expedition. This week our activity has a focus on Chilean culture. In Spanish class this Thursday, each of our students will be presenting a "Chile Micro-Project", a five minute presentation on an element of Chilean culture to serve as an "amuse bouche" for our Chilean adventure.

On Tuesday, to kick off our cultural week, we rolled up our sleeves, washed our hands, and got to work translating a recipe to make a quintessential Chilean dish: Empanadas de Pino!

The word "empanada" comes from the verb "empanar", meaning to wrap or coat in bread. Empanadas are South American (originating from Spain) pastry turnovers stuffed with savory goodness. In Chile, they can be cooked or fried, and filled with just about anything: shrimp and cheese, mushrooms, tomatoes and basil, corn, or the most traditional option: "pino". Pino is a seasoned mixture of ground beef, onions, raisins, black olives, and hard boiled eggs.

We divided and conquered. Half of us plunged our hands into soft flour and kneaded the dough, while the rest chopped, sautéed, stirred, and seasoned the filling. We filled, folded, and sealed our own empanadas, then we wished them luck and stuck them into the oven. Our hard work was rewarded with the golden brown pastries at dinner. The evening provided an inspiring taste of new flavors and cultural experiences that would begin in - we still can't believe it - only nine days.

The recipe we used is listed in Spanish below! To make them at home, ask your Alzar student to translate the recipe for you or, better yet, to teach you how to make them! (Or, if you don't want to wait for a Spanish speaking sous chef, we adapted our recipe from this recipe in English.)


¿Les gustan?

¿Les gustan?


Receta de empanadas chilenas de pino al horno

(Hace 12 empanadas)

Los ingredientes:

El relleno (the filling)

  • 1/2 kilo de carne molida (1 libra)
  • 4 cebollas amarillas
  • 4 huevos cocidos
  • 1 lata de aceitunas negras
  • 2 cucharadas de ajo
  • 1 cucharada de aceite de oliva
  • sal
  • ½ cucharadita pimienta
  • 1 cucharada paprika
  • ½ cucharadita oregano
  • ½ taza uvas pasas

La masa (the dough)

  • 5 tazas de harina
  • 5 huevos
  • 1 taza manteca
  • 1 cucharada de sal
  • ¾ taza agua tibia

Las instrucciones:

Para el relleno:

  1. Hervir los huevos y picar las cebollas.
  2. Cocina la carne molida con el aceite de oliva, el ajo, la sal, la paprika, la pimienta, y el orégano en un sartén de una temperatura baja en la estufa.
  3. Cuando está cocido, agregar las cebollas picadas y cocinar en una temperatura alta por 5 minutos. Después, vuelve a la temperatura baja hasta que las cebollas estén cocidas y la mezcla esté jugosa (juicy).
  4. Cortar los huevos y echar los huevos y las aceitunas en dos tazones.

Para la masa:

  1. Derretir la manteca en una temperatura baja.
  2. Hacer un "volcán" de harina con un agujero en el medio.
  3. Agregar 5 huevos, la manteca, la cucharada de sal y el agua tibio al agujero lentamente, para comenzar a mezclar suavemente con las manos hasta lograr una masa má homogénea.
  4. Dejarla reposar unos minutos. Si la consistencia es demasiado seca se continúa suavizando con agua, y si le hemos puesto demasiado agua podemos poner más harina.
  5. Usando un rodillo de cocina, hacer discos de masa (muy planos)
  6. En cada disco de masa poner un poco de pino escurrido (sacar un poco el líquido), una aceituna, un trozo de huevo y pasas.
  7. Después de llenar los discos, cerrar los con un dedo y un poco de agua tibia.
  8. Doblar los bordes de las empanadas para que no se escape el relleno.
  9. Pintarlas encima con la yema del huevo para que tengan una pinta dorada
  10. Le damos un par de pinchazos para que luego no acumule aire al hornear.
  11. Poner a hornear a 350 grados 30-45 minutos hasta que las veamos doraditas.
  12. ¡Buen provecho!
    Extendiendo la masa!

    Valentina extendiendo la masa!


Cristóbal, our resident Chilean, on flavor patrol! Make sure the pino tastes authentic!

Cristóbal, our resident Chilean, on flavor patrol! Make sure the pino tastes authentic!

Jasmine cortando los discos

Jasmine cortando los discos

Filling the empanada like a pro!

Filling the empanada like a pro!

Veronica seals her empanadas with a fork!

Veronica seals her empanadas with a fork!

Manjar (aka Dulce de leche), other common treat, made by Cristóbal!

Manjar (aka Dulce de leche), other common treat, made by Cristóbal!


The final verdict... ¿Como están? ¿Qué opinan Nathan y Derek?