“Somewhere between the bottom of the climb and the summit is the answer to the mystery why we climb.”—Greg Child
This year, Sterling celebrates the 50th anniversary of Expedition, the signature experience that has defined the school from its earliest years.
Expedition is a four-day, three-night wilderness camping experience in December that involves a 25-mile trek across mountainous terrain, often through deep snow, sleet, ice, high winds, and sub-zero temperatures.
It has been a defining event for generations of Sterling students. Defining, not just for the physical and psychological tests endured—both individually and collectively—but more for the life-lesson metaphors learned that can be applied in later years.
Expedition gives substance and meaning to the central tenant at the core of Sterling’s curriculum: experiential education—learning through doing.
As a milestone, the Expedition anniversary will be both a cause for celebration, and also be business as usual at the college. For Expedition has become both the touchstone of what defines Sterling, and part of everyday life on campus (and off).
To the uninitiated, Expedition might be overlooked as just part of the curriculum. But it’s anything but ordinary. More important are the spectacular results it has produced in many Sterling students.
Among them are alumni who took what they learned, climbed the world’s most challenging mountains, helped preserve the planet, or literally saved lives on the battlefield. Others came, saw, and became teachers and mentors to pass the mantle on to future generations. And there are the new kids on the block, full of vim and vigor, anxious to live and learn, and make their mark on the world too.
The genesis of Expedition can be traced to German educator Kurt Hahn who founded Outward Bound in 1941 to provide merchant marines with survival skills at sea. American Josh Miner, who taught at the Gordonstoun School, also founded by Hahn, started the first U.S. Outward Bound School in Colorado in 1962.
Sterling, an early champion of experiential education, was founded in 1958 as a boy’s college preparatory boarding school.
Enter former Sterling headmaster Ted Bermingham, who organized the first winter camping trip that would become the foundation of Expedition.
“The idea of a winter camping experience as an appropriate physical and mental challenge for the Sterling students, aged 13 to 18, came from my own experiences in the army in Germany during the winter of 1945-1946, and subsequent travels in Alaska in 1948,” said Bermingham.
While planning an outdoor adventure for Sterling students, he also learned about the Outward Bound program and its objectives.
“I informally termed the upcoming experience the Bounder Trip, and the name stuck, but none of the participants in the early years were graduates or faculty of the Outward Bound movement,” said Bermingham. “The goal of the trip was to teach, through experience, young men to overcome adversity in which they found themselves under conditions beyond their control and to experience the importance of developing teamwork and leadership qualities under unexpected physical and mental challenges not of their choosing.”
In 1964, the entire student body, along with faculty, camped at both Notch Pond and West Mountain in northeastern Vermont.
“In the first year, there were 134 people going into the woods for three days in the winter,” recalls Bermingham, who is now aged 87, lives in Cabot, and still works out in the woods building trails.
The following year, students and faculty camped at Sterling’s newly acquired 36-square mile “Outward Bound Territory,” named Camp Hahn.
“It was a very special time and I think it worked,” Bermingham continued. “We didn’t lose anyone, and we didn’t have any permanent injuries.
“I think it’s wonderful that this unusual program got to be so important in the early days of the school and valued as an important educational tool. It’s the first time students were faced with challenges way beyond their normal environment.
“They either failed or succeeded based on their own character. I can’t tell you how many people have said how important it was to them. They drew upon it much later in life,” he added.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Onward and Upward
Expedition became the hallmark of the Sterling program, even as the school changed from a boys’ boarding school to the Sterling Institute, then to a two-year associates’ degree program, and finally in 1997 to a bachelor’s degree granting college.
Expedition is a requirement every first-year student must complete at the end of the first semester.
But before embarking upon Expedition, students must take required courses. The first is the intensive course “A Sense of Place,” when first-year students complete two weeks of study of botany, land-use practices, human history, and visits to local artists and farms. Students also participate in outdoor challenges, small-group work, and build core personal, social and community values, and a healthy respect for the environment.
Experiential Education I (known informally as the Bounder class) follows during the Fall semester’s “long block.” It teaches a variety of skills, including navigating off-trail with map and compass, completing an off-trail mountain hike at night, flat-water canoeing, shelter and fire building, group cooking, wood splitting, knot-tying, first-aid, survival skills, and Leave-No-Trace outdoor ethics.
Bounder I culminates with the Expedition itself. (Experiential Education II—also known as Bounder II—fosters group membership and leadership through outdoor experiences such as snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, team orienteering, and making a canoe paddle with hand tools. Both Bounders are important for developing academic, outdoor, and social skills that can be applied both on-and-off campus, in personal relationships, and professionally in later life.)
Part of the challenge of Expedition is the wilderness landscape, according to Distinguished Professor Ned Houston, who has completed 33 annual Expeditions since 1978. Vegetation varies from low-lying northern hardwood to highland evergreens. There is much evidence of moose: both tracks and the animals themselves on occasion. Other wildlife includes deer, small mammals, the occasional fisher cat, and black bear. The terrain forces careful route-finding. Weather determines much of the character of each trip; it may include snow depth varying from a few inches to several feet, or rain, freezing rain, and wind.
On the last day when students and faculty guides trek back to Craftsbury, high points include catching sight of the church steeple on the Common, and a tumultuous welcome by the Sterling community at the Common, with cheering and clapping, banging spoons on pots, setting off fireworks, and handing out hot cider. A sumptuous feast for all follows in Dunbar—home again at last!
Make no mistake though, Expedition is no cakewalk.
“Expedition is stressful,” said Houston. “You get put in unexpected situations, you have to keep your wits about you, and you have to learn to work as a team. So when the going gets a little rocky, you learn how to hang in there.
“Even though the activities are contrived in the minds of some—after all, who would go camp in the snow in below-zero temps!—they are very tangible and direct,” Houston added. “Students do not need me as a faculty member to tell them how important a fire is. The conditions speak to such imperatives.”
Strength Out of Stress
Alumnus Justin Parks ’66 was on the first expedition with Bermingham and recalls one instance faced with a “life-or-death” challenge: the insulin of a faculty member froze and he went into diabetic shock.
“The only choice was to carry him out, but he was six feet, 280 lbs,” said Parks. “We jerry-rigged a stretcher and carried him several miles through deep snow. The good news is that we got him back safely, and he recovered.
“It was a pain at the time, but on reflection, I realized I was able to surpass my own expectations of myself of what I could overcome, be it physical or psychological.”
Parks would go on to be a war hero of the highest distinction—earning the Purple Heart and Bronze Star for service in Vietnam.
“I was nearly killed several times, and I was wounded,” he said, crediting the skills he learned on Expedition for his survival. “The Bounder program laid a lot of foundation stones for me to be able to do things later in life. It was part of my early experience and makeup in life, and set the stage for the rest of my life.”
Other alumni also flourished as a result of Expedition. They include Jennifer Jordan ’76 and Julie Wormser ’86.
Jordan swapped one mountain in Vermont for another in Nepal and transformed her Expedition experience into a career as an award-winning author, filmmaker, and screenwriter. Two tales in particular utilized her outdoor expertise.
In The Last Man on the Mountain: The Death of an American Adventurer on K2 (W.W. Norton, 2010), she recounts how she discovered the remains of American Dudley Wolfe, the first man to attempt the ascent of K2—considered even more challenging and dangerous than Mt. Everest—while exploring the mountain herself 63 years after Wolfe disappeared. The book won the 2010 National Outdoor Book Award.
It followed her other disturbing discovery: five women climbers had all tragically lost their lives while attempting to climb K2. This led to a film documentary called K2, which aired on National Geographic Channel December 2003, and won a slew of film festival awards.
“For me, the Bounder program and the entire Sterling culture gave me a grounding I had never had,” said Jordan. “Reared in Vermont, I nonetheless had no real connection to the earth and sky of the place until Sterling introduced me to the soil, trees, wind, air, and animals of my beautiful state.
“In addition, Sterling also helped me channel my independence into community, my strong will into cooperation, and my physical strength into team work.
“Bounder introduced me to that experience, Sterling helped me celebrate and cherish it. As it marks its 50th birthday, I can only imagine the hundreds of Sterling grads who now join me in raising our glasses and bowing our heads in thanks to the humble, hardy, and ever-welcoming place we all hold dear in our hearts,” Jordan added.
Wormser is equally ecstatic about Expedition and Sterling, and where it took her personally and professionally.
“I grew up in a Boston suburb where my understanding of intelligence and success was limited to academic grades,” said Wormser, who is also a current Sterling College trustee. “I went to Sterling because I wanted more grounding in traditional skills. Expedition for me and for many was a transformative experience. It sent my life off in a whole new direction—adding far more heart and hands to my head.
“I was a student in 1985-86 and came back to teach in 1992-93,” she continued. “Expedition was very primitive. We would have to create a shelter using a plastic tarp, cut wood and build a fire to keep warm, and feed our pack as a big group.
“It was a psychology of being both self-sufficient, and interdependent, taking care of each other, making sure no one got left behind.
“It had nothing to do with the weather. . .it was an internal struggle. It was about becoming an adult and what you had to deal with later in life—a metaphor—something you had a lot in the program.
“I have another metaphor for it: It’s like parenting—it’s not without its pleasures, but it can be relentless!” she laughs.
She continued, “I didn’t think I was very good at being a student, or making friends. I was very humbled at how not-good I was at things. Then you do Expedition, and the ultimate grade is: ‘Am I full, am I dry, are my companions also full and dry?’ The metaphors I take from Expedition I use in everyday life,” she added.
Wormser continued to be an environmental steward in her professional life. She went on to distinguish herself as Regional Associate of The Wilderness Society and initiated The New England Wilderness Act of 2006 that doubled the amount of federally-designated wilderness between Maine and Maryland, preserving tens of thousands of acres of new lands, and protecting new stretches of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, Long Trail, and Catamount Trail.
Not bad for someone who struggled with her state of mind on Expedition, worried about breaking her ax handle while cutting firewood.
She went on to become Executive Director of The Boston Harbor Association that cleaned up the most polluted waterway in America. Today, she is working on Preparing for the Rising Tide, a “no-regret and co-benefit” effort to mitigate and prepare communities for rising sea levels in an era of climate change.
No matter what alumni achieved after Expedition, there’s always a new batch of recruits on the rise. One, Brighde Moffat ’15, is a transfer student from Bard College who will graduate next spring with a self-designed major in Cultural Geography.
Moffat transferred to Sterling after spending two summers working and living outdoors with trail crews with the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps.
“When I was looking for a college, I read Sterling’s mission statement and liked the part about experiential challenges,” she said. “I wanted to go to Sterling because their approach to education was really intriguing. I could take a behavioral sciences class and learn how people interact in small groups, or I could go to Sterling and learn it firsthand.”
She offered that “My friend, Claire, and I had this expression ‘Laugh or Die’ on Expedition.” Moffat explained that the 2013 Expedition was particularly brutal, with heavy snow and sub-zero temperatures. She and others were woken in the middle of the night by course instructor Adrian Owens to discover they had slid out from under their overhead tarp and, but for their heads, were buried under two feet of snow.
“He valiantly tried to help us, shoveling the snow off and then tried to push us back in under our tarp,” said Moffat. “It was very cold out and we were very disoriented.”
Despite Owens’ efforts, the women woke up the next morning, this time “a good way down the hill, far away from the camp,” she added.
“At some point, we realized we had to shake off our sleeping bags, build a fire, and boil some snow for water to stay hydrated,” Moffat continued. “It taught me that resilience and good attitudes are important in any situation—something I could use in the real world.
“Bounder really provides a lot of metaphors on how to be a real-life human being. It poses a really tough question: What are you going to have to do when you’re with a group of people out in the wilderness: are you going to stop or keep going, and will everyone be safe?” Moffat added.
She recalls being at the march in Washington D.C. earlier this year to protest the Keystone XL pipeline along with Bill McKibben, the veteran Vermont-based environmental activist and honorary Sterling alumnus who was one of the first to sound the alarm on global warming a generation ago.
“He did say that Sterling is one of the most important places on the planet,” Moffat said. “Because at Sterling, there’s a real history of being able to see where you’ve been, where you are now, and where you’re going. Sterling is a really experiential place. Here, you can get a feel for the kind of world you want to live in, and what kind of world we can create.”
The Lighter Side of Expedition
While Expedition may be about the “big stuff” of staying alive, or keeping your head above water —or snow, there are also lighter moments.
Houston remembers one Expedition when everyone was huddled round the fire on a bleak winter’s night in the snow, wind and cold.
“And then someone comes around with a bowl of popcorn,” said Houston. “That was a real icebreaker. . .we may be miserable, but hey, we’ve got popcorn!”
There was also a long-standing tradition of taking an extra-special guest along for Expedition.
David Linck, retired faculty member, recalls: “On one of the early Expeditions, as a total fluke, I strapped a pink flamingo to the back of my backpack. We deposited it on the top of the Bigelow basin, which was the destination. We climbed a tree and strapped it in there.”
The tradition continued for about ten years, Linck said. “One year we brought a white flamingo, one year a junior flamingo. . .the joke was, maybe the flamingo population could make a go of it in northern Vermont.”
When Expedition didn’t make it all the way to the top of Bigelow, the flamingos came home. However, Linck, who retired in 2006, took a hike up to Bigelow some years later and found, as he said, “bits of flamingo.”
“I often wonder what a deer hunter does when he gets up there [in the trees] and sees a pink flamingo,” Linck said, laughing.
Expedition gives special significance to Sterling’s motto: Working Hands. Working Minds.
As Expedition celebrates its golden anniversary, future students at Sterling can trust its challenges will continue to offer a noble and worthy legacy. •
There will be a celebration of Expedition on February 7, 2015. For more information, email Sydney Flowers ’01, Director of Alumni Relations, at firstname.lastname@example.org.