Thursday, October 29, 2009


And once again I find myself outward bound. The room has been cleaned, my coaches locker cleaned out at school, and everything cleaned up, with as many loose ends tied as possible. Savoring the moments in the comfort of my home, I strike out again for another task. This one for a Instructor Training Course with the Wilderness Medical Institute of NOLS. New people, a new place, new challenges and uncertainty. It is hard to leave the family and the friends. It is hard to leave the community that speaks with their hands. It is all challenging, and can be stressful, but it brings new life and excitement of which I live for.

All to0 quickly I am across the country. Strange to think that it would take 5 days to drive here but I can close my eyes, and suddenly I am here in a matter of mere hours. Commercial air travel is something I never get used to. Just north of Seattle for the night, then a 19 hour drive to Lander, Wyoming. My truck, Timmy, has been waiting for me here, and it was wonderful to see him again. I greeted him like I would one of our dogs. Timmy and I have been through a lot together. Reliable and always ready! The adventure continues.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Downeast Maine!

A 28-day sailing course taking me my co-instructor 100 miles "downeast" almost to the Canadian border! I'd done the legs of the journey to and from fabled Cross Island but never the round trip, and never as Captain of the ship. So finally after too many years of putting it off, I got the course!

The course was wonderful. 300 miles were made over the course of 28 days. It was wonderful to be back in a pulling boat and really go on an expedition. No circles, no futsing around, just getting ourselves through the fog and rain and wind to Cross Island and then back.

My partner in crime: Dr. Ice (aka D. Rice)

Mistake Island!

The view from Cross Island: an array of 26 radio towers used to communicate with underwater submarines. Fascinating!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Waddington Mountaineering in B.C.

Here we are in the Waddington Range! Excuse the out of orderness of the pics and writings. The task of updating everything is a bit overwhelming and some things are working and some are not.

We had to move through days of this stuff.

Slide alder...a cherished sight. Yeah, right. Better than devil's club perhaps...

The Jenga!
Mother Teresa is a wicked mountaineer!

The bushwacking began: 3 days of moving 1/3 of a mile for each arduous hour. We sweated our way only 3 miles for 9 hours of toil. I would be in the lead sometimes wondering how these students are following me, and not knowing how I was going to get through what we called "the jenga" - a lincoln log array of fallen pine trees that had succumbed to the pine beetle infestation.

But eventually we made it to the snow and alpine territory, and it was beautiful. We climbed some wonderful peaks and had long days of glaciated mountain travel. It was fantastic to be back in the same mountain range that I'd been on two years ago, some new territory, and some old.

We had many crevasse punch throughs, but thankfully no one went through more than up to their waist. There were some exciting times though, and some HUGE, GAPING crevasses that we crossed on relatively small snow bridges. That's all for now. Hopefully the pics will tell some of the rest of the story.

The above picture is from climbing Jubilee Peak. We awoke early and as we made our way up the peak, the sun rose EXACTLY between the two peaks of Mt. Waddington. It was an amazing sight. Many things had to align for that to work out!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

To the Waddington

Students come in the morning, the endless list are getting smaller and smaller and transitioning to field lists of things to do. Generally much more enjoyable than the precourse lists such as: Pull and check: fuel bottles, library, tents, stoves, ropes, rock climbing gear, ice screws, snow pro, and on and on...decide how much food to take, look at the students medicals, the route, pull the maps,...The whole process reminds me of high school musicals. A week to go, it always seemed like we were never going to be ready but we always were. And now we're ready, oddly enough. though there are many details to take care of after the students get here tomorrow morning at 7:20am. It'll be non-stop activity until 3:30 when we are scheduled to leave.

A day and a half of driving to the interior of B.C. then a week of heavy bushwacking and then days and days in the snow and in the mountains. We probably won't see anyone except Mike, who will resupply us via helicopter! We'll be out for a month and hopefully in the process make some mountaineers, as well as better communicators, leaders and environmentally conscious people. Generally, my aim is to make better people. i'll do my best. That's it for now! To Infinity and Beyond!

Sunday, June 14, 2009


Yes, it's been a while, except for the Mozambique post, but the trip to Mozambique was almost a year ago. Since then:
Soccer coaching of The Learning Center for the Deaf's Varsity Boys team,
A NOLS sailing course in Baja with co-instructor, and member of the Crazy Horse Team, Rob Lloyd. This trip involved much spear fishing and free diving - we caught about 300 lbs of fish during the month.
A few weeks with brother Will in Venice, CA riding the waves...
Then NOLS Avalanche Training followed by split snowboard training, followed by rock climbing training. Then some personal trips, a Crazy Horse reunion in Moab Utah, involving lots of desert golf (9 irons, tennis balls, and holes such as: "around that tree, off the rock and into the fire pit.")
Teaching a NOLS instructor course - quite fun to have some influence on a small group of instructors. Some will be working this summer - I feel like a father having taught my kids what they need to know, now they have to figure out the rest for themselves. Dealing with an empty nest now, but the nest is about to be refilled in a few days.

Briefing for a month long mountaineering course starts tomorrow. Two other instructors and I will be taking 12 students into the mountains of British Columbia in order to school them in the ways of mountaineering, leadership, and living in tune with the planet. (They'll also learn a bit about State Radio, Sign Language and moon rockets - but those things aren't on the NOLS curriculum...yet.)

Excuse the speedy catch up, but the prospect of writing everything was so daunting, it was not happening. Now I will try to stay up with things. I will try to get pics up later. Into the Waddington Range of B.C.!

Saturday, May 30, 2009


After a full eleven months of working at the Deaf school plus spending about three weeks of vacation working with Deaf groups in the wilderness, it was time to take a personal vacation.

With a good friend's peace corp stint in Mozambique almost finished, I grabbed the opportunity to visit her. Leaving everything going on at home was challenging but I managed to get packed up and on the plane. Four long planes and two cab rides later and having crossed both the prime meridian as well as the equator, I arrived in Jenny's rual village of Amatongas.

One of the most memorable experiences from those first days was going to church. Being a mixture of Portuguese and local dialects, I understood nothing. I sat there on a little wooden log enjoying the faces, the singing, and the whole scene. Toward the end of the service and after the preacher gave the entire serman again in English for my sole benefit, he had me and Jenny come before the congregation to introduce me (everyone already knew Jenny). I was introduced and then he asked if we'd like to shake hands. I nodded and soon realized he meant with the whole congregation. So up they came one by one and Jenny I greeted each one. A fantastic way to be introduced to the community.

On the way home it was requested that we stopped by a local man's home to offer prayers of well-being. He was suffering from Malaria. He came outside, looking cold in his jacket, and we prayed and all offered what we could in the form of words and prayers.

Before I left home I looked around my room to see if there was anything else I should bring. I spied a flashlight that had a laser on it and thought it might be fun to play with. And one early evening just as it had gotten dark I decided to try it out.

From inside the house with the laser point through a hole in the screen door I turned it on. Suddenly one kid noticed it and yelled, "Itcho!" I turned it off..and then on again...and soon began the calls and laughter that we would hear most nights afterwards. From 5 to more than 10 kids running about the sand yard yelling "itcho, itcho, ITCHO!" which later we found out means, "There!"

The kids would chase the little red light all around the year, trying to step on it, slap it, or even cup it in their hands. They quite enjoyed themselves and the joy and delight that we could feel in their laughter was exquisit. They ran around and around and around until they were exhausted, though still wanting more, at which point they were sent home. Needless to say, the "itcho," as we began to call the laser, staying in Amatongas so Jenny could continue the fun.

Another day while Jenny was making soap and knitting with some of the community's women, I wandered over to the abandoned train station as I though I heard some sort of ball game happening. Northing was happening but soon I was to play some of the most fun soccer I have ever played.

The station was one big room - doors on either end to serve as goals. I was told I was on a team awith two boys and we began to play. We did not have a regulation soccer ball. Instead we had maybe the coolest soccer ball I have ever played with. It was Mateo's ball - carefully handcrafted with definite skill, maturity and quiet pride. An inflated condom served as the ball's core. Around this were wrapped discarded plastic bags and this was all wrapped in bits and pieces of yarn or strips of fabric. More plastic bags were added followed by more yarn. The finished product was amazing. Perfectly round and wonderful to play with.

We played and played and played then took a break for lunch and then went back to play some more. None of these kids knew much English and I know little Portuguese. We knew numbers of each others' languages to keep track of the score - and the rest we did through smiles and gestures. I was heartbroken when the kids said, "mana?" meaning "tomorrow?" - asking if I could play again. At last they understood that I was going home to America.

Not knowing if I'd ever return, I didn't want to leave. I know I would love playing with the kids but I didn't really understand how impactful the whole experience would be . These kids have nothing except what they make or find. And they are independent, strong and happy. There is so much to write, but it is still overwhelming, so I've just picked out a few memories. Hopefully the pictures will tell more. I was there for only a short time, but it was an amazing time that I shall not forget any time soon. I hope to return, for the people, the soccer, the land, and of course, a few more rounds of itcho. Thank you, Jen!

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

TLC-OB Sailing


(A Letter to our sponsers:)

After three days of paid “course prep”, more than six months of planning, and maybe five years of my own dreaming, the students arrived with the noon sun. With only seven days together, we did our best to get onto the boats with an expediency of two instructors who know the power of life at sea. We checked their gear, gave them heavy duty foul weather gear (we would need them) and life jackets otherwise known as personal flotation devices. Then we had gave our required US Coast Guard briefings and an introduction to the 30-foot sprit rigged wooden ketch known to its sailors as a pulling boat. Finally, we granted our new sailors permission to come aboard, stow their gear and get ready to shove off. This is where the first challenge was given to them.

My co-instructor, John Wilcox, gave the “watch” the task. They needed to figure out how to get off the dock and to the mooring, which was about 30 yards away. They were given 5 minutes to make a plan, and then we shoved off.

It was not the prettiest rowing I have ever seen, but for this rowing initiative, it is never pretty. The beautiful part is watching the understanding that comes during the discussion afterwards – that they see it helps to have the rowers face the rear of the boat so they can see the captain, that it helps to approach from downwind, that the watch needs to plan out the entire maneuver, not just the beginning of it. They understand, not because we told them, but because they tried first, recognized some things worked, some things didn’t, and then could understand the why behind how best to move a pulling boat under oars. This learning methodology continued throughout the course.

We left our home port of Wheeler Bay under oars at around 1800 hours and were anchored safely in Long Cove at 1900 hours with a light southerly breeze of about 5 knots. John stayed in the cockpit to help the cooks make our dinner while I took the rest forward and taught them how to set up our shelter. Soon dinner was deliciously had, our shelter was up, the rotating anchor watch was explained and tired bodies were ready for their first night of sleeping on the oars – our long wooden oars are laid from bow to stern and students sleep on their foam pads which are laid over the oars. (Sounding worse than it is, I once had one watch so accustomed to sleeping on the oars that when we spent a night on a tent platform on Hurricane Island, the group elected to bring the oars to the tent platform so they could sleep on them.)

I was delighted to be woken up many times that first night by the anchor watch person as it proved to me that the students were taking their job seriously. The students questioned the rocks, the tide, and the anchor. These students were on it. And I could rest a little easier knowing they would not hesitate to sound the alarm should anything be amiss.

After each person serving roughly an hour’s anchor watch and sleeping a night on the oars, it was 0500 hours – wake up time. And then “dip” time. Each day, much to the early morning disgruntleness of students (and some staff), we take a “dip” into the ocean – to clean ourselves and to wake ourselves up. It can be quite enjoyable, especially after the fact, and frequently one student will tell another with a shrug of the shoulders, who is preparing for the morning ritural, “It’s not that bad.” After all, it was the end of July when the temperature of the water was a balmy 58 degrees F. This contrasts to the May water (and air) temperatures of the mid 40’s.

Breakfast was had, an introduction lesson on the charts was given, some new knots were learned and were were finally ready to sail. We raised our sails, lifted the “hook” at 0930h and were on our way south towards Burnt Island. We had a delightful sail, and the students learned the fundamentals of sailing – points of sail, tacking, gibing – along with more terminology – being in irons, leeward, windward, and so on. By the time we arrived at Burnt, they could tack and gibe and take the boat where they wanted. There was still some refining to do but they were doing very well for the first day of sailing.

The following morning we had a 0500 wake up and went for a run on Burnt Island. It was nice to get our legs on land again since we hadn’t been on land at all during the previous day. We ran through woods and fields and then took our dip off the Burnt Island pier which, at low tide, was about 15 feet above the water. This proved exciting for some and very challenging for others. All made the jump and all were awake and excited afterwards either for the fun of the jump or for the satisfaction of pushing through their fears. Back to the boat for breakfast and then out to the east (cliff) side of the island where the students would begin to understand what is known as “the brotherhood (or sisterhood) of the rope.” Climbing is rarely a solo sport, and there was much teamwork in getting each person to the top of their climb. With each climb a belayer standing below, in control of the rope, stood just above the high tide line. As most of the students had never climbed before, nor thought that they might be able to scale a near vertical 30 foot rock face, all were happy and excited at the end.

After regrouping at the boats, we prepared for solo drop. One by one, and armed with only the essentials, we dropped the students off around the outer edge of the island. They would be alone during the afternoon and night - something that is increasingly rare in this day and age. They would generally enjoy the time to themselves after a day and a half of being on a 30 foot boot with 7 other people. They would have time to reflect on the first part of the course, the upcoming second part of the course, their life, or they could chose to do nothing at all. But regardless of what they planned to do, being alone on an island coast is an impactful experience.
I walked past each person’s solo site just before dark to make sure all was well. Some students were already asleep while others were sitting on a rock or log, quietly looking over the ocean. It is always a peaceful time.

We had a long way to go the following morning so students were picked from their solo sights at first light. All were well and when we discussed the experience over breakfast, it became apparent that the experience of being alone with only a tarp as shelter on the edge of an island on the Maine coast was not something that they will forget. Clearly, some self-confidence had been gained during the night.

The fog had rolled in during the night and it was to stay with us for two days. We had hoped to cross West Penobscot Bay and anchor near Hurricane Island but with the fog, the Northeast headwinds, and a foul tide, we soon realized it would be safer not to cross so that we would not be caught out in the fog as the sun went down. The navigation in the fog kept us busy, recording our headings and our speeds to give us dead reckoned positions on the chart. We made it to Mosquito Head cove and spend a nice evening there. With a light rain that had begun, the tarp was set up quickly and soon we had a cozy cocoon of warmth and relative dryness in which to cook dinner, write in our journals and chat before the meal.

As is normally the custom for a Hurricane Island sailing course, with everyone holding hands, a quote is shared with the group and followed by a moment of silence before our meal. But apparently this was no ordinary course. As you will see at the end of the video, this moment of silence quickly became a time where we would all shake our hands, laugh and smile at one another.

The fog continued the next day and we made slow progress back towards Wheeler Bay. We all took turns at the oars and made our way with a combination of wind power and human power. Rowing always makes the students very appreciative of the wind. We arrived the following day after a beautiful morning sail – what luxury to have a good wind and good visibility. The fog had finally cleared to reveal the beautiful Maine coast and a perfect wind had come up. An Outward Bound boat full of instructors came a few miles out to say hello and then it was time to head in. We arrived to many staff waving and smiling to welcome us home. After doing a very thorough boat and gear clean, we had a wonderful last evening meeting in which we discussed each day of the course and each student told what the course had meant - and was going to mean - to them.

On the morning of their pickup the students had their final challenge. The “marathon” - a long early morning run after a pulling boat row out to a buoy. The run completed and one last dip taken, it was time for the course to end. The students exchanged course certificates with their peers, in turn, commenting on how each person helped to make our group a great one.

Tears were coming from student eyes as they pulled away in the van and parents have told me of lasting effects. I wish the course had been longer but I was so happy that it really happened. We had rain, fog, sailing, rowing, rock climbing, swimming, running and lots of games. The students stayed positive throughout the whole course and showed great support of one another. There were many times when the whole boat was overtaken with laughter. As to what else the students have learned, I will let the DVD and the students’ sponsor letters speak for themselves. Thank you again for all your support.


Ben Urmston and the intrepid crew of Pulling Boat #6

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do then by the ones you did. So throw off the bowline, sail away from the safe harbor, catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”