(HumanEdgeTech) It's a jungle out there when it comes to expedition gear, with truth and small brands getting eaten first. Big names buy the best in-store placements; media reviews are tailored to advertisers and sponsored athletes praise one brand while bringing another (not all but some). The same goes for electronics, power and satellite based communication.
What to do then when your butt really depends on gear that works? In an attempt to find out what really does and what doesn't we lined up some of the year's top explorers in a virtual roundtable polar tech and gear conference. Power and communications were main topics but we also touched on gear in general.
Hannah McKeand made her first trip from Hercules Inlet to the South Pole in 2004. In 2006 she returned and soloed the route in 40 days, breaking all speed records (including the men's) while sending live pictures and dispatches all the way. Everest has a number of famous repeaters; less known Hannah is actually the world's foremost South Pole repeater with 6 skiing trips to the spot.
Eric Larsen skied 3 times to the brutal North Pole, latest this spring in an unsupported expedition with Ryan Waters. One of the few to do dispatches with images from the tough expedition, Eric previously also did two complete South Pole expeditions and climbed Everest off season (in fall) with a small team of Sherpa fixing the entire route.
Antony Jinman is the new kid on the block. Among a number of achievements Antony did a tech heavy solo unsupported expedition to the South Pole this year. In addition to daily trip reports and flying a drone (adding to expedition difficulty), Jinman is one of the few who has used Iridium Openport to send broadcast quality video from the Arctic.
Geoff Wilson did the longest solo expedition at Antarctica this past season. Wilson traversed the entire continent by kite while also lugging full communication gear for updates.
Tom Sjogren (moderator) skied unsupported to the South Pole and North Pole back to back many years ago while doing the first ever live dispatches from such expeditions. Using early wearable computing on the ice, Tom also built a WiFi network to the summit of Mount Everest in 1999. He later co-founded HumanEdgeTech outfitting many of the world's most extreme expeditions and other specialized projects.
Chiming in is veteran polar explorer Sjur Modre, part of the legendary Norwegian "Murder brothers", founder of Sportsnett and inventor of among other things the famous polar Alpha boot.
Here goes (the QA was edited to fit the topics):
Tom (in San Mateo, Silicon Valley): What did you use for Text messaging and Tracking?
Hannah (at Salt Lake City airport waiting for flight to Punta Arenas):
I've been using a deLorme InReach while climbing in Utah all summer and it's been amazing. Very simple to send and receive messages and I can't wait to bring it down to Antarctica this season. OK, it's not like I can do images but I'm heading the Emperor Penguin Camp this year and this is a very simple solution to stay in touch with people.
Eric (stay at home dad in Boulder):
I'm a little biased since I was one of the first InReach users already on my Everest expedition. This spring Ryan and I used the SE-2 for tracking and short messages and it took the cold really well. Battery lasts forever but you should switch it off when not in use. I'm totally pleased with the InReach and also like their new "Freedom plan".
Antony (somewhere in UK):
I brought an InReach too but most of my updates were over laptop or pad so didn't really use it that much.
Geoff (back to bizzo Down Under):
The InReach 2 way messaging unit was my only catastrophic failure; the lithium battery didn’t cope with the temps at all and died - removing my 3rd communication option - adding some stress and removing my locator beacon.
Tom: Which Satellite phones did you use?
Geoff: I had an amazing time with gear - I had tried and tested over and over again as I probably went in under-experienced and needed complete faith in all my tech gear… The satphones (the 9555 s I think the older version) were robust and very reliable… no failures
Hannah: I use the previous model Iridium 9555 and always bring two (also ALE requirement for expeditions). Sometimes the battery life could be on the low side so I always bring an extra battery for each phone.
Eric: I still use the old Iridium 9505A since it works with the PDA (more below) and the newer 9555 model. Haven't tried the latest 9575 yet. Don't understand why ALE require 2 sat phones at Antarctica. On phone and one InReach should be enough.
Antony: I used 2 of the latest Iridium 9575 extreme. No issues.
Tom: How did you update your Website - what kind of equipment did you use for dispatching?
Hannah: On my solo trip in 2006 I used your PDA solution and Contact but working as a guide on my other trips I really haven't felt the need to do web updates. More important has been to stay in touch with ALE over phone.
Eric: I used an Iridium AxcessPoint sending images over the app from my pad and it worked pretty good. I even did images up to 1000px wide. But to the North Pole this spring we actually used your PDA solution with the old Iridium 9505A.
Geoff: The Modem [AxcessPoint] made by iridium was light and robust (if encased in foam). I had a pair as I felt it was very light construction for the environment but it did very well. Mac Air was my main platform for images/comms - sensational - solid state tech and never missed a beat
Antony: The main comm was the small ASUS solid state PC which was great for editing video and images but I also used an Iridium AxcessPoint with a Pad. I used the iPAD to control my drone. Did web updates with pictures every day; had 8000 kids following me and answered 3-4 questions they sent each day.
Tom: Eric, you really put your self out there in your dispatches...
Eric: If you tell your story - tell your story! You need to be true to your experience.
Tom: what did you use for power?
Hannah: I got some foldable panels but actually like my old rollable from 2006 better. It's still working great after 10 years.
Eric: There is no such thing as a power problem in Antarctica. So much sun so you just need to stay on top of your charging and you are fine. I like the rollable too. But I also like the GoalZero that is heavier but very user friendly.
Antony: I used 2 P50 batteries and HumanEdgeTech's Feather 2. Worked great. The Parrot [drone] factory rebuilt the Parrot charger for me so it worked with the P50.
Geoff: 2 x Solar panels - exceptional. Feather 2 from you - performed brilliantly [Feather 2 62W]. The P50s went well - one failed in last 1/3 of trip - but the system was simply brilliant… the ability to have multiple type outlet is superb on the P50. All my gear got absolutely slammed - I can’t describe how bad the ice was for the middle 1000 km - I honestly opened the sled every night expecting nothing to work, but it just kept on going.
Tom: Antony, you used the Iridium Openport High Speed system up at Baffin. How did that work out?
Antony: I took a group up to Ellesmere Island for the Diamond Jubilee and we did a "Royal Greeting" of 30 sec broadcast quality video using the Iridium OpenPort. Worked great but at 15 kg it's more like a basecamp solution than something you pull on your sledge
Tom: Any general recommendations?
Hannah: Simplicity is important!
Eric: I'm a bit conservative and like gear I used before.
Antony: I bring two of everything! Dispatches and communication is so important for what I do so I can't afford not bringing backups.
Tom: Advice on gear and other outside of tech?
Eric: People get "polar thighs" and other issues skiing to the South Pole. It's important to constantly check in with yourself. Remember each expedition has its own variables and even if you climbed Everest - Antarctica is different. Small things like a nose beak for your goggles are important. It's not always about going ultralight - it's about being right.
Antony: I got a great advice from Jeff Sommers - take some insulated foam and spread it over your whole tent floor and then place your thermarest on top of it. Light and isolates great. I had two sleeping bags but it was so warm in the tent so I mostly used my down to sleep on and my synthetic as a blanket. Love my Hilleberg 2 person tent and got most of my gear from Sportsnett.no. Alpha boots (with new synthetic inner boot), 3-pin Rattefella binding. Swiss expedition ski poles and Amundsen Skis. Remember. Everything WILL brake. Proper preparations contribute towards it.
Hannah: I love the new Arctic sleeping system from Norway.
Tom: Sjur, what's the deal with the Arctic Bedding?
Sjur (mailing from Norway): A long time ago I helped two Danish guys – Kristian and Gregers – on their South Pole journey. I designed a bag that would allow the mattresses to be fully rolled out and inflated along with the sleeping bag, and to have everything on top of the sled. The idea is that you can pitch the tent and only have one piece extra to bring in or the other way around in the morning. Later on I started the production of this bag and called it Arctic Bedding while I had Sportsnett. When I sold Sportsnett I brought the Bedding into Piteraq and XC Sports, and it has been quite a success. Almost all Greenland crossings use it, and it has become a popular item for people in Norway as well.
There is a 2-way zipper going around on 3 sides to allow easy access and opening while inside the tent. It is stiff enough to put on top of a Paris sled due to the stiffness that both the sleeping bag and the mats create together. Using this Bedding for a long time, we have found that a lot of items go in it during the day. I put the stove, extra clothes and thermos/daily ration of food in it. And it also serves well as a sofa while resting out on track.
This year's version was made as light as possible, and now we are designing a more durable version for those who need it for rougher terrain or multi trips. We also make 1/2 bags and 1/1 bags that fit inside the Paris. So quite fun that the product has become a international piece of Arctic equipment.
Geoff: Foot warmers from you guys - life savers - my inexperience at judging extreme cramp/pain of frostnip/frostbite… I wouldn’t go there again without them despite the extra weight. I have all fingers and toes thanks to them.
Stats, Highlights and Lhypes: South Pole updated at AdventureStats
Geoff Wilson, post South Pole traverse interview
ExWeb interview with Antony Jinman, flying a drone at the South Pole
ExWeb interview with Eric Larsen, "a mix of poetry and hell to the North Pole”
ExWeb interview Hannah McKeand, “Focus on yourself as an animal”