(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 tech and gear conference. In our previous part we covered the polar ice caps with some of the biggest names there, in this part we have assembled another unique bunch, this time with focus on high altitude technology and gear.
We hooked up with Simone Moro over dinner (Italian of course) in Silicon Valley. Moro has more than 50 expeditions, 10 of them in winter and first winter ascents of Shisha Pangma, Makalu and Gasherbrum. He is also a high altitude heli rescue pilot and described by Joby Ogwyn as "the guy in the mountaineering world that is best on tech."
Canadian climbing documentary cameraman and movie maker Elia Saikaly has 5 Everest and 2 Cho Oyu expeditions under his belt. A 12 part Everest reality show won him the 2014 CINE Golden Eagle Award (Steven Spielberg and Robert De Niro are among previous winners). This spring, Elia (world record holder for deadlift - 505 lbs - at 17 years btw) was stuck in camp 1 on Everest when the big avalanche hit.
Louis Rousseau from Quebec (edited 12/10) has become a Pakistan 8000 meter veteran with several expeditions to K2, a new route on Nanga Parbat and a new route winter attempt with Gerfied Göschl in 2011 on Gasherbrum I.
In 1999 Joby Ogwyn became the youngest American to summit Mount Everest. Besides mountaineering (speed ascent record on Cho Oyu) Joby has moved on to Base Jumping and Wingsuit flying. Backed by NBC and the Discovery Channel Joby was scheduled to do a live wingsuit jump from the summit of Everest this past spring but the expedition was called off due to the accidents. Joby is currently working on an IMAX about wingsuiting.
Alan Arnette from Colorado runs the popular Everest blog www.alanarnette.com and summited K2 this summer. Alan is now planning a quest for all the 14 8000 meter summits.
Ryan Waters, one of the world's foremost cross-expedition explorers, has done more than 10, 8000 meter expeditions. He did the first ski traverse of Antarctica without resupplies or kites, and skied unassisted to the North Pole earlier this spring. We caught up with Ryan on his way to Punta Arenas, Chile, where he traveled to examine a new expedition with Eric Larsen.
For the commercial outfitters' perspective we enrolled Caroline Blaikie, operation manager at New Zealand based Adventure Consultants, one of the top Everest guiding services (founded by late Himalaya legend Rob Hall). Caroline is a 6 time Everest Base Camp manager and holds a degree in physiology. Guide Tim Robertson has worked for Adventure Consultants for 10 years and recently used the Thuraya Sat Sleeve on Ama Dablam.
Tom Sjogren (moderator) skied unassisted 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 cofounded HumanEdgeTech outfitting many of the world's most extreme expeditions and participating in specialized tech projects.
On to the digital fireside chat.
Tom: Joby, you were on Everest last spring for an attempt to do a wingsuit jump from the summit. How was the setup?
Joby: It was a very special situation. I have a big storage in Nepal with gear from my last 15 years of exploration but we had a great budget so I could get everything new this time. I had daily deliveries to my place in California and I think I went through testing 30 different brands only for gloves. Ended up with really cool form fitted mountain biking gloves for the jump. I had 6 Eddie Bauer down suits and since I have mostly been jumping the last years it was really impressive to see how clothing had developed. Much more attention to detail.
Tom: What about tech - the jump was supposed to be live?
Joby: We had 40 people just in our technician team in BC and NBC had their own high speed up-link. True live - full HD stream - and a budget of $3 million just for the transmissions. We had pretty much all the bells and whistles, live biometrics and the latest Thuraya sat sleeves. Everything worked but the whole expedition was cut short after the 18th. We hardly left BC except for helping some people getting out of the icefall.
Elia: We spent 8 hours filming in the icefall during the 17th and were at Camp 1 when the avalanche hit. It was a lot of avalanches this year but someone said "that was a big one". I counted 27 people at Camp 1 and we waited 4 days until the icefall doctor had made a route we could descend through. It was interesting - nobody was eager to start the down climb...
Tom: The icefall route seems to have moved increasingly leftwards each year?
Elia: Yes, it's an easier route for the climbers. I believe it was only 12 ladders this year [could be more than 20 ladders previous years].
Simone: It's definitely more to the left to make the crossing quicker and I think we should consider moving it all the way to the right, close to Nuptse that has much more rocks exposed (and safer) than it used to.
Caroline: On Everest some operators have suggestions on how to lessen the icefall exposure. We could use helicopters to ferry up gear to Camp 1 pre season and also remove waste with helis. Another suggestion would be to leave some heavy hardware up at C2 between season. It could be stored securely and would have a positive environmental impact since we now bring the same gear up and down each season.
Simone: I also think we should consider using avalanche beacons in Himalaya. It's very common in the Alps and greatly increases the chance of finding someone within the 15 min window. It also decreases exposure of rescue workers.
Tom: What about the avalanche "airbags"?
Simone: They are extremely efficient but still too heavy for high altitude mountaineering.
Tom: Talking more about safety and specifically sat com. What do you bring high up?
Louis: Safety starts already in Base Camp. When I arrive in BC I walk around and gather as many satellite phone numbers I can from other climbers. Radios/Walkie Talkies are often not working but sat phones work pretty much all the time. I can also text directly for logistics and family and friends of course. I use my Thuraya XT. It's light and with good battery life. I always bring extra battery and store it in zip lock plastic in my inner layer, close to the body.
Simone: I use Thuraya XT but also have one of the first phones made by Thuraya, more than 10 years now. I bring 3 batteries when climbing high. One battery will only be used if there is an emergency. I've seen too many climbers with dead batteries when they need the phone the most.
Louis: I can give an example when the satellite phone definitely saved a life. We were high up on Gasherbrum II in 2011 with a guy with a bad case of pulmonary edema. He couldn't move at the time but we got him a bottle of oxygen. Problem was the mask didn't work and we had the mountain between us and BC so radio had no connection. We used the Thuraya and managed to get a guy up with a mask before nightfall. I'm certain he wouldn't have survived the night...
Tom: What about trackers like InReach and Spot with emergency buttons?
Ryan: I use a really old Thuraya 7100 on the mountain but I used InReach on 2-3 polar trips including North Pole this spring and I'm thinking of using it on climbs as well.
Alan: DeLorme InReach got a lot of attraction. The two way texting is very useful and powerful. Almost like a must have and replacing Spot that lacks two way.
Louis: I used the Spot but I think you need to be careful with the settings. My unit stopped updating the map after I think 50 positions which showed me in a crevasse and made people back home pretty worried. Could have been that I didn't spent enough time with the manual though.
Elia: I love the InReach!
Tom: What about sending images, text to website and family/friends from high up on the mountain. It's been 15 years since HumanEdgeTech developed the PDA/sat phone solution. Now it's being replaced by a Thuraya sat sleeve with iPhone/Android and the new Iridium Go. What's your experiences of those?
Caroline: Pretty good experience with the sat sleeve. Steve (Moffat) updated our website using CONTACT from Cho Oyu recently and Tim did it from Ama Dablam. A bit of a learning curve. Works great as a phone but the data requires a good connection.
Tim: Yeah the placement is really important. Steve told me to aim the arial/antenna west (Tom's note: The Thurays satellite is over Madagaskar) and that made a difference. I also noticed that if I hold it in my hand it gave a better signal than if putting it down on a stone or similar. So a bit quirky to send from lower down but easier higher up on the mountain. It's really easy to carry - we use a waterproof soft-case. The battery life was better for the sleeve than for the iPhone but might be able to tweak the settings. Fully charged you get a couple of days out of it.
Alan: I would personally probably not use it. I like independent devices to avoid cascading problems.
Simone: I used the sat sleeve during my Nanga winter expedition last year and even sent pictures. Worked good but a bit heavy on power.
Tom: We have our first users of Go out on Antarctica right now. We built an addition to CONTACT so you can update direct. Works really nice. A 30kb picture took almost exactly 30 seconds in our tests to upload so not bad.
Caroline: We got a Go out with our Vinson expedition. Works great and we might use the Go in the Himalayas as well.
Ryan: I used the old PDA solution with the Thuraya 7100 last month on Manaslu. Used CONTACT to update my website and it worked great. I'm looking at getting a Go now.
Next, final: Video, power, BC tech and cool gear in general.
ExWeb Special: 2014 Polar Tech Roundtable Conference