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Climbing : Adventure

How Satellite Trackers Save Lives

In early May, Kevin Boniface was riding his new motorcycle in the Colorado Front Range, along an open off-road area not far from the site of infamous Haymen Fire. The ride was going great—until a friend, Tom, who was also riding that day, leaned too sharply, caught his handlebar, and went down.

When Boniface reached Tom, his friend was drooling and concussed, and possibly had broken ribs. “We had the same conversation over and over,” Boniface recalls. “‘How did I get here?’ What happened?’” They were 40 minutes from the nearest paved road, and had no cell-phone service. The injuries appeared quite serious.

Three years earlier, Boniface had invested in a SPOT tracker to have on hand during emergencies. Boniface had only ever used the locator’s “I’m okay” feature before the accident, a preset sending his wife his location at the click of a button. As Tom writhed in pain, Boniface decided now was the time to test his SPOT’s SOS beacon.

“(My SPOT tracker) was really helpful because I probably could have ridden to go get help, but it saved a lot of time,” Boniface says. About 35 minutes later, a sheriff was on site and Tom was in an ambulance.

Boniface didn't realize at the time that he would be part of a company milestone: the rescue was the 3,000th that utilized SPOT's GPS technology. 

Globalstar, the sat phone company which owns Spot, launched their tracker in 2007, and usage of the devices has been climbing ever since. SPOT products can be programmed to send GPS coordinates via stationary low-earth satellites to emergency responders— at $170 for a tracker and $499 for a phone. Most satellite phones run between $1000 and $2000, not counting service fees.


Search and rescue teams traditionally depend on mobile networks, sometimes radio networks, to locate lost adventurers. But according to Globalstar CEO Jay Monroe, 75 percent of the planet's land surface is out of network; you’d be hard-pressed to find a cluster of cellphone towers in Aniakchak National Monument, for instance. Satellite phones and trackers transcend this problem. SPOT's trackers, called SPOT Gen3, and SPOT Global Phones can access low-earth satellites from anywhere in the world.

“Wherever it is in whichever country, the capability of the unit is such that it really takes the search out of search and rescue,” says Monroe. “You know exactly where the person is and all you have to do is go get ‘em.”

When someone presses an SOS beacon, a signal with his or her coordinates goes out to an international dispatch center manned by emergency response company GEOS. GEOS alerts the relevant protective body—here, the sheriff—but also the emergency contact of whoever owns the SPOT, to double-check the owner’s last known coordinates.

“The truth is, about one time a day, we get an emergency rescue and often times it’s life or death,” says Monroe. “If it wasn’t out there—there would be some number of people in my backyard of Colorado who wouldn’t be at this year’s Fourth of July barbeque.”

In Boniface’s case, a county dispatch reporting error sent his wife in a panic to the hospital.

“After the sheriff showed up, I figured I should probably make sure she knew I was okay, so I pressed the okay button,” Boniface says. “She and Tom’s wife saw each other in the emergency room and started putting stuff together.”

Tom, had sustained four fractures to his collarbone, and broke seven ribs, but was expected to make a full recovery.

“He’s definitely gonna buy a SPOT,” Boniface says.

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What Should I Get My Outdoorsy Mom for Mother’s Day?

Would your mother or wife prefer to be climbing, boating, or running rather than brunching this Sunday? If the answer is yes, read on. Skip the flowers and honor what she loves to do by following these gear suggestions from six dedicated moms who also happen to be elite athletes.

Emily Jackson: Professional Freestyle Kayaker


Jackson, one of the best freestyle kayakers in the world, will be competing at the Reno River Festival this Mother's Day weekend while her mom and 9-month-old son, Tucker, watch from a few feet away. "The biggest part of Mother's Day is actually being around your kids or your mom," Jackson says. "Time together is the best gift of all."

But adding some gear to your Mother’s Day date never hurts. Jackson suggests checking out Kokotat's new pink colored dry tops and drysuits. "When I’m out boating, I’m very excited to be wearing my violet gear," Jackson says. "That would make any kayaking chick happy."

Dara Torres: 12-Time Olympic Medalist


Professional swimmer Dara Torres and mother of three plans to spend Mother's Day in North Palm Beach, Florida with her mother. Torres suggested Koss FitClip earphones, athletic women-specific headphones the 12-time Olympic medalist helped design. "I did a bunch of work for Koss headphones and we created a headphone that is just for women," Torres says. "The ear bud is 33 percent smaller than a regular earbud."

She prefers the FitClip Series because those buds were built for movement, plus they come in some cool colors. "You can bounce around, jump, do whatever you want, and you don't have to keep pushing them in," Torres says.  

Nancy Bouchard: Former Professional Climber


Nancy Bouchard was a pioneer female gear tester in the nineties and continues to test and write about gear today. The former pro climber went on to be an editor at Rock and Ice, where she started the magazine’s gear-testing program.

She’ll celebrate Mother's Day by doing an outdoor-sport triathlon with her husband and three daughters in her hometown of Bend, Oregon. "We’ll ski and climb and add a third component," Bouchard says. "It would be sweet to go stand-up paddleboarding."

Bouchard’s gift recommendation? A pair of mirrored-lens sunglasses, in honor of the years spent watching her daughters ski race. A good pair of shades makes staring at a snowy slope all day much more bearable. "I like Wiley X P-17 with pol emerald green lenses—they’re indestructible, look seriously cool, and knock at least a decade off my age," Bouchard says.  

Zoe Hart: Professional Mountain Guide


Certified International Mountain Guide and Patagonia Climbing Ambassador Zoe Hart lives in Chamonix, France with her husband Max and her sons—2-year-old Mathias and 5-month-old Mika. Hart will spend Mother's Day in Arco, Italy with her family and a few other friends who also climb and have kids.

"Arco is the ultimate multi-sport venue," Hart says. She get's a ton of great gear from her sponsors, so she only wants gear she can't get from them. "I'd probably love a swanky new Suunto altimeter watch or a nice pair of Oakley sunglasses," Hart wrote in an email.

If you’re reading this, Max, we suggest the Suunto Vector XBlack for its reliable track record or Oakley's new handmade Frogskin LX sunglasses.  

Beth Rodden: Professional Rock Climber


Beth Rodden, one of the most celebrated crack climbers in the world, will only have been a mother for ten days this Mother's Day. Needless to say, she hasn't put much thought into what gifts she wants or what she’s going to do. "We'll probably just hang out," Rodden says.

She did suggest the Osprey FlapJill pack for other moms because of the bag’s versatility. "I've been using it for a crag or bouldering pack and now I'm using it as a diaper pack," Rodden says. It’s easy to access the gear thanks to multiple zippered entry points—turns out this feature works equally well to reach shoes or a jacket as it does to grab diapers or wipes.

Sarah McMahon: Ultrarunner


North Lake Tahoe resident Sarah McMahon and her husband got second place together in last year's 120-mile Transrockies Run. And because Mother's Day falls just a week before she has a 50K race in Reno, McMahon aims to go for a long run this weekend as well as spend time with her husband and three boys.   

She suggests Salomon’s Speedcross 3 trail-running shoe. Not only is this her favorite shoe to run in, it’s also available in a variety of fun colors. McMahon also suggested signing your mother up for a race and paying the entry fee on Mother's Day. "If you're pre-registered, you have that goal," McMahon says. "And if someone else paid for it, you're not backing out."

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8 Questions with Author and Adventurer Sprague Theobald

When documentary filmmaker Sprague Theobald and his wife divorced in 1992, time and distance began to wear away at his relationship with his children.

"Regardless of how hard a family works during a divorce, there is almost always going to be that very large elephant in the middle of the room, sometimes for years," he says. "At one point or another it has to be acknowledged."

So in 2009, Theobald grabbed the elephant by the tusks and took his family—his son, stepson, stepdaughter, and her boyfriend—on an 8,500 adventure across the Northwest Passage. From their starting point in Newport, Rhode Island, through the passage and around Alaska to Seattle, their journey was almost always a contast battle with ice, polar bears, and extreme weather.

"Doing something new and adventurous builds a new history, one that is valid and present and can be referred back to time and again," says Theobald, who wrote about the trip in his book The Other Side of The Ice: One Family's Treacherous Journey Negotiating the Northwest Passage.

We caught up with Theobald via email to talk about the trip, his book, and if spending time outdoors can heal damaged relationships.

Did you know going into your voyage that the journey would result in a memoir and a documentary?
When the idea of the trip occurred to me, all I had in mind was the hope to carve a documentary out of it. At the time my focus was climate change. It was by divine intervention that my family joined and got involved. My stepdaughter, Dominique, and I had done several thousands of offshore miles together. My son, Sefton, hadn't done so many, but college was keeping him from being able to do the full Arctic trip. My stepson Chauncey and I hadn't spoken in over 12 years. About a month before we were to depart from Newport, I got an email from him asking if he could be a part of this adventure. After years of trying to initiate a dialog with him, I jumped at the chance. Dominique freed up her schedule and Sefton had a semester of college waived. The kids all knew that I was going to be doing the documentary about climate change but that was pretty much all they knew. Once the trip started and we were all under the same roof, all together for the first time in 15 years, I quickly saw that the real story was about family. There was no filming agenda to uncover feelings or discuss past history. If this new angle was going to work, it was going to have to be organic and on the kids' terms. The chances were very good that it may not have worked at all. Such is the gamble you make when producing documentaries!

As for the book, I had no plans to write a book–life was hard enough! About six months after the trip ended, an article was done about it and an agent in New York read it and tracked me down. Over many cups of coffee, he talked me into writing a book about the experience. It was the best coffee meeting I ever had!

You embarked on this journey 15 years after your divorce. What took you so long?
It took that long because as a filmmaker and sailor I was pretty busy chasing down jobs that would have immediate effect: pay. The Northwest Passage trip took seven very long years of planning and fundraising. Nordhaven Yachts quickly jumped aboard and said that they would meet every dollar of my budget. Sadly, three months before we left for the trip, Nordhaven had to pull every penny of their proposed funding. We had met a year earlier when they had told me they would cover the entire budget. I had also met with an ex-executive at a major sports channel who said, "You'll never have to spend another dime on the trip. We want it and you!" I never heard from him again. As it ended up, all the funding came out of my own pocket—something I will be dealing with for a very long time to come.

To answer the question about why it took so long to get the kids together: After the divorce, each child and I had spent time together, one-on-one, but as life goes, never all together at the same time. After a few years, due to justified hurt and sadly avoidable miscommunications, Chauncey and I spent absolutely no time together. The kids moved to the other side of the country with their mom and visiting became a bit more challenging. In any given situation or disagreement there are two very distinct and appropriate realities. As the kids spend more time with their mother, they very naturally and rightly experience life according to one reality. There were many past scenarios which may or may not have been accurate, that they learned as truth. There were many untold hurts and angers, which I wasn't able to address all at once. At the time of the divorce, they were very young and I didn't want to overwhelm the kids with "he saids" and "she saids." I just hoped that as they grew they would become more curious about me and my life decisions. 

What were the group dynamics starting out?
Starting out, the dynamic was great: excitement and anticipation of trying to accomplish something so few ever have kept us going. It's estimated that more men have walked on the moon than have successfully done the passage in one season.

And how were the dynamics by journey's end?
As with any trip, in an expedition of this nature there were casualties along the way. The one major casualty was that Dominique and Clinton decided not to continue their relationship while we were in Greeenland, but wanted to continue the trip. Shortly after that, the appropriateness of her decision became very apparent to me as I found that Clinton's offshore experience wasn't quite what I was led to believe. After several very unacceptable incidents aboard the ship, he very ungraciously parted ways with us in Nome. I was qualified to run the boat as I have about 40,000 offshore miles, but the whole point in hiring Clinton was to help run the ship so that I could concentrate on the film. From the start I found that our plan simply didn't work. It was prearranged that due to his work schedule Greg would have to leave early as well.

A lot of families go through difficult situations; why do you think spending time outdoors can help people move on?
I was hoping was that there wasn't a prescribed way of dealing with it. Just as I didn't want to ignore it for the rest of my kids' lives, I also didn't want to ask everyone to "gather 'round" because I needed to get some facts straight. When you have a third focus, such as we did–a very powerful, brutal, and life-threatening focus, you learn a heal of a lot more about what a person is made of and what makes them tick. It was my hope that my kids saw, under extreme pressure from before the start of the trip, who I was and what I would accept in my life. On the trip it was the kids and me, not the kids trying to watch their mother and me work through insurmountable issues. 

Why did you choose such a difficult and dangerous voyage? 
It may sound trite but the trip chose me. Ever since I was a kid I was fascinated with The Passage, by how it could exist but not exist. How Franklin could take two 100-foot ships and 120 men into it and simply vanish? How almost 30 other expeditions could go to find him with many not returning. To this day we have no conclusive idea of what happened to Franklin and his men. One night in 2006, I was at dinner with some New Yorkers; one of them asked: "What would be the ultimate adventure for you?" Before my brain could control my mouth I answered, "To try to find and transit the Northwest Passage." The next day I started making phone calls. And for the most part, it all kind of fell into place from there."

What was the scariest moment?
Several times I was scared right down to my socks. More times than not I thought that it was all over, that we were going to end up as names in the maritime history books. Perhaps the most terrifying was when we were trapped in Peel Sound by ice sheets up to ten feet thick, which were pushing us toward a rock-bound shore. Through the binoculars I could see the ice sheets exploding and shattering due to the extreme pressures of the hidden currents. Some quick calculations showed us that we were about three hours away from the same fate: being crushed and driven under the ice. I went to my bunk to try and come to grips with it all and that's when I saw the headline in my mind: "Father Unites Family Only To Lead Them To Their Deaths." The headline was as real as it gets, not a projection of fear but an actuality. Unless there was some divine intervention, it was going to be over for all of us. We had Arctic camping gear and the like, but regardless of what you may read, the area is rife with polar bears, the only mammal besides humans that kills simply to kill, not always because they're hungry or threatened.

How has your relationship with your family been since you completed the trip?
We landed in Seattle in November 2009. A day doesn't go by that I'm not rocked by a memory from the trip. I've asked my kids how they feel about it now that time has passed and they are also still very moved by it. The relationship I have with my kids is indescribable. The love, trust, and understanding that we all found during those historic five months and 8,500 miles (our boat Bagan, was the first production powerboat to transit The Passage) has given us an amazing base from which to look both forward and backward. This is not to say that we talk every day on the phone now, or have great emotional moments every time we do talk, but it's there–there's a strong connection in our hearts. In fact, our relationship is so "normal" now, that I was just saying to a friend the other day: "Why is it that the only time I hear from my kids is when they need to borrow money or something?" It couldn't be more wonderful!

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Finding Adventure Beyond Nature

"One need never leave the confines of New York City to get all the greenery one could wish..."

Well, that's arrogant, more than a little myopic (have New Yorkers ever been accused of that?). These words are welded into the railing surrounding the World Financial Center harbor in lower Manhattan. 

Recently, I found myself in New York City, the city where I was born, though not raised, and to which I returned in my twenties. I found myself thinking about several earlier trips to the city with our kids and, oddly, I found myself trying to define adventure. 

Oddly, because I tend to think of adventure as heading into the wilderness, but maybe that's because of where I came from. New York is closer to the environment I was used to as a child than is the vast outdoor childhood of my kids. Maybe adventuring just means exploring an environment that's unknown to you. As it turned out, for my Montana-based kids—kids for whom a half-mile-high mountain was a familiar playground by the time they were ten, who could paddle rivers, and hike forests—heading into the urban tangle, navigating subways, streets and avenues, was an adventure. But when we first took our kids to New York City we were worried. What exactly does one do with energetic, physical, adventuresome kids in a big city?

To New York's credit, the city is trying hard to create "greenery," to make sure leafy, open spaces are available to people all across the city (not just for those living near Central Park). And they're succeeding. The spaces are beautiful. The adventure is finding them.

When I'm alone in the city, I just wander, look at the architecture, visit museums, find my old haunts. But ambling walks were not going to cut it with our kids. Unless...we could make it a game.

In my twenties, I discovered a network of "pocket parks," mostly in midtown Manhattan. So on one of our first trips, my husband, Peter, and our kids, Molly and Skyler, and I set off on a scavenger hunt. Our goal: to find as many pocket parks as possible. Like coming on a secret glade in a tangled rainforest, these tiny parks tucked into concrete canyons are magical refuges; several have walls of water, effectively replacing the sound of car horns with a steady, soothing whoosh. Our kids were enchanted. We found four before we retired to the Plaza Hotel in search of food and the mischievous, storybook character, Eloise.

The bellhop looked regretfully at Molly. "She's just stepped out," he said, absolutely straight faced.

For our kids, everything about that trip was new and exciting, from staring out the front window of the lead subway car—watching the tracks curve and straighten, the subterranean stop lights change from red to green—to riding the elevators up to the observation deck of one of the original World Trade Towers to peer down at the tiny toy cars one hundred and ten floors below.

From the World Trade Center, we headed a few blocks west to the Hudson River and our favorite park, the Battery Park City Esplanade, a 36-acre complex of riverside gardens. (It's also a popular site for Saturday afternoon wedding photos. On our very first trip when Molly was one, she got scooped into the arms of an Asian couple, posing in white gown and tux. Nothing like a strange blonde toddler in your wedding photos for a conversation starter.)

She was too young that first time to do more than walk or ride piggy back, but with older kids if you pack rollerblades, a skate board, or a fold-up scooter (which also serves as camouflage if your child wants to pass for a Manhattan school kid) you can keep your children occupied for hours, winding through open lawns, past fountain-sprayed ponds, whimsical sculpture parks, beach-volleyball courts, skate parks and mini-golf greens. And now, if you don't want to pack your own wheels, you can rent a Citi Bike from ubiquitous rows of blue bike stands. Strolling along the esplanade you'll pass a floating origami-like glass pavilion, the New Jersey-bound ferry terminal.

It reminded me of taking the ferry to Staten Island, which you can catch at Manhattan's southern tip. One of the five boroughs of New York City, Staten Island is a 25-minute, boat trip away. I used to go with my father when I was the kid visiting the city, just for the fun of the ride. It's easy to forget, amid the skyscrapers, that New York is a city of islands and waterways, on the brink of an ocean. But looking out over the river, at the widening harbor, at freighters and barges, tugboats and ferries, one can really feel it.

Returning to the Battery Park City Esplanade this time, I discovered something new, lodged at the end of Vesey St.: the Irish Hunger Memorial. It commemorates the potato famine that first sent the Irish to our shores and urges us, today, to consider modern issues of hunger. Probably doesn't sound like a prime destination for kids. But it would be for mine. It's a "wild" hill, built on a frame of glass and limestone. Embedded at its foot are the remains of a nineteenth-century, Irish, stone cottage. From there paths meander upward through an overgrown-grass-and-rock landscape, a "fallow field." At the top, one hovers over New York Harbor, where, still thrusting her torch in the air, is the Statue of Liberty, as commanding a presence as ever. Beyond her are the immigrant-clearing houses of Ellis Island. You can't get a much more visceral connection to the metaphor of America.

Turning around, one's eyes follow the sleek, faceted sides of the new World Trade Tower rising up to its sky-piercing spire at the top. The 9/11 Memorial is still under construction at its base. At this point, had my kids been there, at that cusp of past and future, it would have been a provocative moment for a conversation.

New York is fabulous for this—for provoking the conversation. The conversation about the relationship between man and nature, between man and man; the conversation about what man can create—you're surrounded by it and it's magnificent—but also what man can destroy. These are the conversations we often have with our kids, but for "wilderness" kids, the city gives these discussions a whole new spin.

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