Aspen Achievement Academy (1989-2011) Loa, UT

Wilderness Therapy Program

History and Background Information

Aspen Achievement Academy was an Aspen Education Group behavior-modification program founded in 1989 as “Wilderness Academy”. In June of 1990, the program changed its name to Aspen Achievement Academy. It was marketed as a wilderness therapy program for teenagers ages 13-17. It claimed to enroll teenagers with a history of the following: “Low self-esteem, Lack of motivation, Trouble with teachers, Poor grades, Depression, Confrontational behavior, Substance abuse, Defiance toward authority, Manipulative behavior, and Entitlement.” The program enrolled both boys and girls, but it separated the teens into single-sex groups. The minimum length of stay was 35 days, but it was usually much longer. Aspen Achievement Academy was a NATSAP member from 1999 until its closure in 2011.

Because it was a wilderness program, Aspen Achievement Academy did not have a central campus but instead took the children on backpacking trips in the area surrounding Loa, UT. The address associated with the program was 98 S Main St, Loa, UT 84747.

In 2011, AAA merged with another Aspen Education Group program called Outback Therapeutic Expeditions. At this time, Aspen Achievement Academy was the longest-running wilderness therapy program in the state of Utah.

Founders and Notable Staff

Gil Hallows was the Executive Director of Aspen Achievement Academy beginning in 1996. He also assisted in the creation of other Aspen Education Group programs including Aspen Ranch and Passages to Recovery. He has also been involved in the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Industry Council (OBHIC) since its inception, and he was also a member of the board of NATSAP from 2002 until 2011.

Ken Murphy worked as a Therapist at Aspen Achievement Academy. He began working for Aspen in 1993 at Aspen Youth Alternatives and the Oakley School. According to HEAL, Murphy became a licenses Marriage & Family Therapist in 2009, meaning he worked at Aspen unlicensed for 12 years.

Billy Giblin worked as a Field Instructor at Aspen Achievement Academy beginning in 1993. He later worked for another Aspen Education Group program called Aspen Ranch. After he left Aspen, he worked for a number of other wilderness programs, including Second Nature.

Program Structure

Like other behavior-modification programs, AAA used a level system consisting of 6 levels. Although it was encouraged that the detained teenager completed all 6 levels, it is reported that many residents were allowed to “graduate” when they had only completed as few as three levels. The levels were:

  • Assessment: When the teenager arrived, the person would undergo an Diagnostic Assessment phase, which consisted of a review of the student’s medical history and medication status, a physical examination, urine drug screen and lab work. The purpose was to find out whether the detainee had any medically based problems that must be treated prior to entering the program. It should also asses the detainee physical ability to handle the demands of the field. If a detainee had recently completed a psychological evaluation, the staff would use them to formulate a individualized treatment plan. Otherwise the staff will do the evaluation themselves. For more information on this phase, please follow the link provided here.
  • Mouse: On this pahse, the teenagers were taken to camp site of one of the teams, where the ceremony of introduction takes place. People in Mouse phase are not allowed to talk during. This phase typically lasted around 48 hours. After a short introduction they are taken to a place where they must remain isolated at a shelter and observe how the group function. Any need and food is cared for by the group. They must write about why they think that they are sent there and what they expect to offer the group and what they thinks need to alter in themselves. With the help of a staff person, they have selected, they will undergo a second ceremony blindfolded after they have shown a desire to move up to the next phase. A lot historically inaccurate references Indigenous peoples are also reported to have been part of this phase. For more information on this phase, please follow the link provided here.
  • Coyote: During this phase, which normal last about 14 days, the detainee must do chores and that behavior has consequences. It is also in this phase where the student must read the impact letter to the group. A letter from the parents which given the poor family structure of a typical detainee often is the first time the detainee learns of the motive for forcing the person to the program. As listed on the program website the tasks that a detainee must be able to handle are:
    • Complete a bow drill fire on five separate days.
    • Cooks meals for oneself.
    • Takes appropriate care for gear, clothes, and other possessions.
    • Demonstrates good personal hygiene.
    • Practices safe behavior.
    • Follows directions appropriately.
    • Uses time wisely to complete daily tasks.
    • Demonstrates basic communication skills.
    • Learning how to respect self and others.
    • Reads impact letter from parents in group.
    • Complete all required curriculum activities in a timely manner.
    • Participates and demonstrates competency in daily reviews of yesterday’s activities.
    • Begins to identify issues that brought you to Aspen.
    • Participates in group therapy.
    • Participates in individual therapy.
    • Completes assignments given by therapist in a timely manner.
    • Write two letters home to your parents, including sharing experiences you are having at Aspen.
    • Create three goals to work toward while at Aspen.

For more information on this phase, please follow the link here.

  • Buffalo: This phase also last about 14 days and after the old self image of the detainee should have broken down, it is time for the person to develop a kind of family / community relation to the team and a higher sense of consequence. Tasks in this phase are:
    • Demonstrates improved communication skills
    • Calls groups when conflict arises
    • Communicates without profanity.
    • Confronts others appropriately.
    • Asks for help and guidance from others appropriately.
    • Gives and receives appropriate feedback to/from others.
    • Assists new Coyotes in adjusting to group.
    • Demonstrates respect toward others.
    • Works toward growth for self rather than external reasons.
    • Promotes teamwork within the group.
    • Write a letter of responsibility to parents and share in group.
    • Assist in the teaching of other detainees in at least two bow drill fire methods.
    • Plans and cooks one meal for the entire group.
    • Make a gift that will be useful to the whole group.
    • Begins to take responsibility for behavior that resulted in being sent to Aspen.
    • Takes more active role in individual therapy.
    • Takes more active role in group therapy.
    • Write at least one letter home to your parents, including the identification of issues that you and your family can work on.
    • Create and commit in writing, two goals for the future in each of the following five categories: physical, intellectual, social, emotional and spiritual.

For more information on this phase, please follow the link here.

  • Eagle: Based on the new inflicted self-image, this phase focus on transition them into the home settings. This phase last about 14 days. Tasks in this phase are:
    • Assist in teaching one curriculum lesson makes gifts for family members
    • Be responsible for leading group in completing a service project.
    • Provides appropriate leadership to other group members.
    • Assist in facilitating one process group.
    • Assist other students with their skill development.
    • Promotes trustworthiness in group.
    • Actively participates in daily process groups.
    • Takes initiative in organizing daily activities.
    • Leads group without exhibiting dominating or controlling qualities
    • Is truthful
    • Admits mistakes, takes ownership.
    • Gives and receives constructive feedback regarding strengths and weaknesses

For more information on this phase, please follow the link here.

  • Reunion: In this phase the detainee was allowed to clean up the camp, their clothes and their body, so their family members don’t face the harsh reality of a detainee being paced 7 weeks in the wilderness with limited possibilities of attending personal hygiene. After a good-bye to the group, the detainee runs about a mile down the track where the family waits. The physical exertion keeps the anger caused by the placement in the program to a minimum. United the family participate in family therapy, parent workshop, family solos, multifamily workshop to delay any kind of PTSD based on the ordeal. The phase end with graduation meal and ceremony, which marks the end of the program. For more information on this phase, please follow the link here.

In the Media

The UK Television show Brat Camp filmed season 3 of its show at Aspen Achievement Academy. However, it has been reported by survivors that the show portrays the program as much nicer than it actually was, due to the presence of cameras and the staff’s knowledge that the public would be viewing what happened there.

Dr. Phil has been known to send teenagers to various Aspen Education Group programs, including Aspen Achievement Academy. One such teenager whom Dr. Phil sent to AAA was Kimberlee Ramsey. In 2006, Kimberlee Ramsey ran away from home following her time at AAA. She disappeared shortly after the discovery that her best friend, Teresa Lynn Vanagas, had been brutally raped and beaten to death on Halloween night in 2006. This initially raised suspicions that Ramsey had been involved in the death of her friend, but she was later found and cleared by police. (Reference)

Aspen Achievement Academy has also been mentioned in several news articles throughout the years as many youths escaped or attempted to escape from the program.

Abuse and Death

Aspen Achievement Academy has widely been reported to have been an abusive program.

In 1991, the mother of a 14-year-old at the program accused a former AAA therapist of abusing her daughter. According to the newspapers, the female staff member allegedly admitted to sodomizing the girl and was fired shortly after. It was reported that one of these assaults occurred on the girl’s graduation night. (Reference)

On October 19th 1993, a 14-year-old boy at AAA attempted to commit suicide by jumping off of a cliff. According to articles about the incident, the boy apparently asked to use the bathroom after eating and jumped off of a cliff in the Henry Mountains, about 20 miles southwest of Hanksville. He fell 75 feet, fractured several bones and suffered head injuries, but ultimately survived. (Reference)

In January of 1996, there was a riot at AAA in which six teens beat a staff member and fled the program. Deputies later found the youths, but Garfield County Attorney Wallace Lee subsequently determined there was not enough information or evidence to charge the teens with any crime. This riot made the authorities reconsider AAA’s license because other parties like tourists, hikers and vacationists frequent the public lands around Capitol Reef National Park and they worried that they could dbe help responsible if these parties were assaulted by runaway youths. (Reference)

In April of 2007, a 16-year-old boy successfully committed suicide at Aspen Achievement Academy. According to reports, he teen attempted to hang himself with a shoelace from a tree at the ranch. He had asked to use the latrine, and when he didn’t respond to prompts from staff, they went looking for him, found him unconscious and revived him. He died in a helicopter transport en route to the hospital.

Survivor Testimonies

9/10/2019: (PARENT) “They recommended and coordinated with two men picking up my daughter and bringing her to the Academy. In route she asked to speak with her mother and was told “No”. At the academy they did not have parents come visit and be a part of the healing. It’s been 13 years now since I have seen her, the week of her going to the Academy. The Academy noted significant mental health issues and thought of hospitalizing her but did not. She felt abandoned, dissociated and developed false allegations. The Academy had a severe lack of addressing family dynamics, which contributed to the placement. Her brother went to another treatment school in Utah. The family came and were an active part of the healing. The outcome was a happier child with more self-assurance and self-esteem upon his return home.” – Carolyn (Yelp)

4/18/2017: (SURVIVOR) “Was sent there when I was 14 it was worst experience in my life I was there for 3 1/2 months and finally got kicked out which they said was impossible. I ran away all the time was restrained countless times by 20 year old staff that prob had 2 weeks of training. We had to drink water from cow ponds and put iodine in water but it was always hot smelly and dirty water and that’s what we got for hiking all day in the heat. We couldn’t eat group food if we didn’t make a fire from sticks every single night or if we were on separates. We got 10 tortillas jar of pb and block of cheese to last us a week of personal food we ate that for breakfast and lunch and group food would be like a box of Mac cheese divided by 10. I was on separates all the time so I barely ate. I refused to talk to the therapist who was a joke came out once a week for like 2 hours for 10 kids. No privacy at all if on suicide or run watch you have to be arms length away from 2 staff at all times when your not you have to be in eyes distance. Never bathed got dime size of soap coffee can of water and washcloth once a week. Never saw a toilet. Ran away to a town was gone almost 24 hours and they didn’t tell my parents til they found us and acted like it was no big deal and we were safe entire time. I found that out when I got home because we weren’t allowed to talk to them only through letters that we got once a week. We were never told any future information like how long the hike for the day was or how long we were stuck there or even the time of the day. It was worst time and I read it got shut down. How many of these camps still operate?” – u/survivedutah2002 (Reddit)

9/18/2016: (SURVIVOR) “I am incredibly happy that they shut this place down… I remember flying into Salt Lake City, and driving to Provo to spend the night at some people’s house where they fed us Belgian Waffles and all sorts of stuff before starving me for the following 3 days… A banana, and a can of peaches??? I know my parents had no idea about what this place was all about… I was 14 and I can tell you that I will never, ever forget about this place…. Sleeping under the stars, and waking up with my hair frozen from the rain… Hiking 15 miles in a day, pushing a Wagon with all our gear, and people trying to run away throughout…. The best memories were when my parents came out and I ran barefoot down the gravel road to see them… Once my parents experienced what we had gone through it was eye opening for them… The best thing in Bicknell was the Milkshake place named Jillians that we all talked about everyday until we graduated and were finally able to get some real food…. Wow, 20 years later I feel like I was out there yesterday…” – Anonymous (Just Another Hike)

10/22/2015: (SURVIVOR) “I went to Aspen back in 1992. (Yes, I’m that old) The program was a complete joke. I had NEVER done drugs, never smoked a cigarette, never been arrested, nor had I been in trouble at school. Aspen took money from my parents, promising they could do something positive. Every kid in the program had been on drugs or attempted suicide. Every kid in the program came from upper-middle class or rich homes. That’s just for openers. During the program…in the Utah desert…there was a massive snowstorm with high winds. We couldn’t eat, light a fire, drink water or MOVE for nearly a day. The counselor, “Steve”, said candidly, “I just realized that we could actually die here”. Reading about the kids who died in the Aspen Achievement academy in years since then doesn’t shock me. They were an incompetent organization who were full of fake native American cultural ideas, horrible and disorganized approach to education, and abusive staff. I would NEVER write a book about this delusional place. The author of this book is someone I met personally. I hope this perspective helps anyone who buys into the hype and nonsense that Aspen was good for anyone.” – Yadi (Amazon)

4/30/2012: (SURVIVOR) “I went to Aspen Achievement Academy. I was sent there from 4-21-05 for about 9 weeks. I remember it being difficult, but not abusive (but thats just me). you gain more privilege with ranks you can obtain with time and camping/therapy related tasks. Everyone starts out as a “mouse” for a 3-4 days. You dont get any warm food, you’re given a bag of granola, a bag of oats to mix with iodine water, and a raw head of broccoli. You aren’t allowed to talk/socialize with the other kids for whatever reason, just the counselors that serve as alternating chaperones every week. One you graduate from “mouse” to “coyote” you get more privileges like a mount for your pack, talking, sit around the fire, eat warm food etc… Some people graduated the program without progressing further but if you completed the list of tasks you could graduate from “coyote” to “buffalo”. one of these tasks was to read aloud your “impact letter” from your parents outlining every imperfection that justified sending you away. I made it to “buffalo” a week or two before i got sent to graduation group. It got me an even more comfortable frame for my pack, i was given some sci-fi fantasy book that was supposed to have some pseudo-therapeutic themes, and i could occasionally use the counselors mini gas stove for meals (i only used it twice though). Usually there was only 1 “buffalo/eagle” per group, reserved for the most senior kid who is responsible for the chores , setup/breakdown of camp and ensuring that there isn’t a trace of us left behind. There was only 1 “eagle” in my graduation group, it was pretty apparent they just made it easy on him and gave him all the privilige they could after an immediate family member died and they wouldnt let him go home for the funeral. At the “eagle” rank you are allowed “F.I.” (future information) regarding where you will hike that day and for what distance, access to maps and radio, when future events might occur… I was the last group that got to learn about trapping food. Also, One day after hours of uphill hiking i passed out from dehydration/over heating briefly, this happened to someone else a few weeks later. I heard some fucked up things about there aftercare program, Aspen Ranch, i’d like to hear a first hand account of what that was like. The aftercare i went to, Hidden Lake Academy required that you go to a wilderness program before hand, otherwise you had to go through their questionably bootleg wilderness program called Ridge Creek, but anyways i heard a lot on the more hardcore legitimate wilderness programs. SUWS and Aspen Achievement Academy set the standard of what a wilderness program should be. But there were others, i vaguely remember the names Twin Peaks, and Ascension having a more troubling rep with the kids. But hey, you were just labeled a lying manipulator if you tried complaining about it. Something i really hated was when a guest counselor wold come for the day and modify everyones bow drill sets and hit everyone with a few cans of fruit and pop a candid shot of us smiling busting a fire on a new set. I know it seems salty but the pics were just a service to parents, in helping them believe they just shipped their kid out to summer camp. The therapist that came out for 1 day every week greatly lowered my mood stabilizer without asking me, or telling me. I’m pretty sure she wasn’t even qualified to alter/ prescribe medication. This was after my 3rd or 4th check in from her. I’m fine without meds now, but while i’m stuck in the desert it isn’t an appropriate time to start experimenting with my bipolar meds.” – u/ShearGenius89 (Reddit)

2/1/2011: (SURVIVOR) “I went to Aspen and was abused by the staff. It horrifies me how these programs go to any length to manipulate parents into thinking these programs can be beneficial. If you google “Wilderness Program” and even “Aspen Achievement Academy” you will find a plethora of reports of abusive practices. Aspen owns many programs– many of which have been shut down for teen deaths from dehydration, deadly restraints, and heat exaustion. Anyone who raves about this book is giving into the scandal. Check out recent bills in congress ie. Hr911 and Hr 4247. At least now things are being done to stop these predators and alert parents.” – AspenSurvivor (Amazon)

1/16/2011: (SURVIVOR) Link to H.E.’s Survivor Testimony

12/11/2010: (SURVIVOR) “I am 26 years old and was held prisoner at Aspen Achievement Academy for 2 and a half months in the winter of 1994. I had no idea that this program was still operating, as I had heard while at another program that a child had died there, but apparently that is not the case. While at Aspen, I was forcibly deprived of food and made to hike long distances for the first 72 hours of my stay. At one point, I threw myself in a ditch and tried to cut my wrists with a mildly sharp rock that I found, during which time I was laughed at by my “counselors.” Also, during this period I was suffering from extreme heroin and cocaine withdrawal, that had left me at a weight of only 130 lbs, and was never allowed to see a doctor, or provided with any medical treatment for my extreme pain and nausea; I collapsed almost unconscious on the second day, and was dragged by my “pack” strap for almost a mile, while being constantly derided by my “counselors.” We were made to carry packs weighing up to 100lbs, which were made of only a camping tarp tied together with a seatbelt strap. After my two months without drugs, I had gained no weight whatsoever due to the lack of nourishing food. The horror that I and my fellow captives suffered over that hellish period is more deserving of a treatment by Solzhenitsyn than by me, but for the sake of brevity I will tell anyone thinking of sending their child to this program to consider that I still, 10 years later have nightmares of Aspen, and what they put us through. My childhood effectively ended that day in my fifteenth year, when I arrived at Aspen Achievement Academy.” – Anonymous (Just Another Hike)

Related Media

HEAL Program Information – Aspen Achievement Academy

Aspen Achievement Academy Website Homepage (archived, 2002)

Train them like rats (The Guardian, 2/22/2006)

Aspen Achievement Academy – Secret Prisons for Teens

Aspen Achievement Academy – Wikipedia

Utah wilderness, youth therapy programs closing (Salt Lake Tribune, 3/25/2011)