Himalayan Experience founder Russell Brice on making IT work on the world's highest mountain...In the latest article in our series about the use of technology in extreme environments, Tim Ferguson talks to mountaineer Russell Brice.
New Zealand-born mountaineer Russell Brice has been climbing the world's mountains for three decades and guiding people up the Himalayas and Alps for more than 20 years.
Brice started climbing in New Zealand and, after having racked up several years of climbing experience, helped set up the country's first mountain guide association.
Brice first led an expedition of six people up Mount Everest in 1994. In 1999, he doubled the size of the expedition, and doubled it again in 2004 - each summit attempt can now take up to 24 people.
Brice's Himalayan Experience guiding organisation runs one expedition up Everest in the spring - when the temperatures, snowfall and jetstream make the conditions more favourable - and another up Manaslu, the eighth-tallest mountain in the world in the autumn.
Brice spoke to silicon.com about the role technology plays in supporting his expeditions in some of the most remote and inaccessible parts of the world, and the challenges of dealing with extreme temperatures and conditions.
Satellite phones and 3G
Communications technology has come a long way since the first satellite phone was seen on the slopes of Everest in 1988, complete with its three suitcases of hardware, a 1.5-metre diameter dish and calls charged at $30 per minute.
Fast-forward to 2011, and climbers can now get a mobile phone signal at Everest base camp, after coverage arrived last year when a mast was erected in a nearby village. 3G networks followed this year.
"When I first went on expedition we used to have a mail runner. This guy would come to base camp and then he'd take your letters down the valley and three weeks later he'd come back with a pile of letters and pick up the next ones - that's how we started. Then we got telephones and then we got email and of course everything is so instantaneous now. People are blogging and they're running their businesses while they're on expedition and all sorts of things like that," Brice said.
Despite the arrival of 3G, Brice prefers...
...to rely on his satellite communications, provided by Inmarsat, saying the base camp's mobile signal isn't reliable enough and is too reliant on solar power - easily disrupted by a few days of cloudy weather - with connectivity suffering from the large amount of users trying to get on the limited network.
Laptops at base camp
Low tech is also the name of the game when it comes to hardware, with relatively basic but tough laptops the preferred option for expedition members.
Brice first took a laptop to Everest base camp in 1998. It had 1MB of memory and fellow climbers said using computers on the mountains would never catch on.
Now, each expedition has four laptops that help the expedition successfully reach the peaks, holding vital data, allowing climbers to keep in email contact with home and for Himalayan Experience to send out its newsletter about the current expedition.
"The computer has changed the way we do things considerably," Brice said.
The expedition team has been using the same four laptops since 1998, machines that have proved impressively reliable.
"I can't get rid of them - they've been on yaks, they've been on trucks, they've been dropped and they're still going. I'm going to have to change them now because they're not big enough to support the software that modern programs have got and I use them just for sending and receiving emails, but they have been incredible workhorses," Brice said.
When laptops first appeared on Everest, half of them would crash and their hard drives would fail due to temperatures on the mountains, which can fluctuate between minus 20 degrees C at night and 15 degrees during the day.
Over the years, Brice and his team have learned how to minimise hardware failures.
"If we want to crash our computers we just try and turn it on while it's getting warm in the morning or getting cold at night. With our computers in base camp, we wait until the sun is in the camp and the temperature has become quite stable."
Despite being able to work around these problems, Brice intends to replace the current computers with devices that have solid-state drives so there are no moving parts that can freeze.
Could the next generation of mountain top hardware be tablets? According to Brice, members of expeditions are now bringing iPhone, Blackberry and Kindle devices with them and are able to use them without a problem, suggesting other touchscreen devices would be viable.
However, he added that using technology that is too lightweight and fragile could have its downsides. "Things have to be packed up into kit bags and barrels then they're sent off by yak. And if a yak drops a...
...load you could break your screen and if you break your screen, you're screwed," he said.
But as gadget use grows, it's presenting a new problem for expeditions.
"The average person will probably have four or five electronic devices. He'll have his mobile phone, computer, iPad or Kindle or something like that, an iPod and then an electronic camera. The average person coming to base camp at the moment has at least five electronic devices, all of which need to be charged, so our constant battle is how to provide enough power."
Himalayan Experience has a supply of batteries it takes up to its base camps to power the satellite phones and radios, and it also takes solar panels which are used to charge other devices such as laptops and expedition members' gadgets. Batteries are still used alongside solar panels in the event of cloudy weather stopping the panels working.
A decision was taken not to use generators for power, partly to avoid creating pollution but also because generators can be unreliable and inefficient at high altitudes, Brice said.
Why radio is the mountaineer's best tech friend
According to Brice, the most essential piece of technology on the mountain is radio - something he learned through bitter experience following the 1996 Everest disaster in which 15 people died, including Brice's friend Rob Hall.
"When we look at the whole reason why he died - he had a radio but his second guide, who was only 100m from him, didn't and so if he'd been able to talk to his other people on the mountain then maybe that accident wouldn't have been so dramatic. They could have co-ordinated a lot of things."
The fact that not everyone on the mountain that day had radios was something Brice could see was "totally wrong". In response, Brice bought radios for every person on his expeditions including sherpas so they could stay in touch with each other and those back at base camp.
The previous approach that saw mountaineers radio in at set times was also changed - in the intervals between contact, conditions could deteriorate - so team members back at base camp had 24-hour contact with those on the mountain.
The value of good weather forecasting
The other major failing that led to the 1996 Everest disaster was a lack of accurate, up-to-date weather information. "These guys didn't have a reliable weather forecast so they stuck their head out of the tent and said, 'This is a nice day' and started off up the mountain. Five days later, they're going to the summit, then they got caught in the storm and bad weather," Brice said.
Brice went to find out how weather forecasting could be improved and approached the UK's Met Office in Bracknell for assistance.
Initially, the information was just a...
...fax of text but it developed into images of weather charts delivered via email in around 2000. Himalayan Experience now has its weather forecasting delivered by Swiss-based company Meteotest.
"The main thing is the temperature and the jetstream, and we can predict that some days in advance with various models from around the world," Brice said.
"This has improved the safety on the mountain incredibly. Today we just about have information overload where we get so much information but we can really predict the weather by the quarter day. We reckon we can tell what the wind speed is going to be when we get to the summit, so if there's going to be less wind at one o'clock in the afternoon, then we're going to leave from our high camp later on so we get there at the least windy period. Now there's a tremendous amount of science coming into where we should be on the mountain at any particular time," Brice said.
With all of the information the expedition leaders now have access to, they need to be wary of an affliction that many office workers have to deal with: information overload.
"You need to make your own baselines - I'm going to look at this model and this model and that model - and maybe you'll learn over a period of time whether one is more reliable than the other and so on. After a period of time, you get to know which ones you want to work with," Brice said.
Another element of avoiding information overload is ensuring information doesn't get sent out from base camp too freely.
"If there's a problem on the mountain, sometimes people are sending this information but maybe it's not correct. This has caused many, many problems in the last few years. Sometimes that information is just coming too quick - maybe the name of a person has gone out that he's dead and he's not dead, something like that," Brice said.
Technology to the rescue
There are no official rescue organisations operating in the Himalayas so in the event of an emergency, expedition teams have to co-ordinate rescue operations themselves.
The different expedition organisations often work together on rescues and use common radio channels to alert people that action needs to be taken.
If a rescue helicopter is needed...
...satellite phones or the local mobile connection are used to call Kathmandu and arrange for one to be deployed. "It's pretty much ad hoc according to what works best at that particular time," Brice said.
There are more advanced technologies being used by some organisations but Brice said these sometimes cause more problems than improve safety. For example, American Spot technology can be used to track people's whereabouts and also send out a distress call when the electronic beacon is triggered by the person wearing it. However, there have been instances of these beacons being set off by accident, causing "a huge set of dominoes" that sees the company that runs the system in the US contacting the embassy in Kathmandu before authorities are sent out to the mountains.
"Then we find out which team this person's on and then we find out where they are and then find out that it's gone off accidentally and he's having a cup of tea at the South Col," Brice said.
Although Brice has considered using similar technology, he and his team decided radio remains the most effective technology for now. "If I had 20 people all within a metre of each other sending that information back to me on a computer then I'm not very much wiser. It's about how to control all of these things," he said.
The issue of locating people on Everest doesn't require sophisticated GPS technology as regular radio contact and the fact that climbers are attached to a fixed rope all the way to the summit means co-ordinators back at base camp have a pretty good idea of climbers' locations.
There will be scope to use GPS technology in the future, Brice believes - perhaps playing a more prominent role in monitoring expedition members' health as they ascend mountains.
Measurements such as oxygen content in blood and pulse rate could be constantly monitored so that if early signs of altitude sickness or hypothermia develop, people can be told to come back down the mountain before they push themselves too far.
But will it make a huge impact on overall safety? Brice is doubtful.
"I suspect in the future we might end up with a person climbing a mountain and he'll be tracked by GPS and he will be sending all of his information back down to us. Does that make it any safer? Not really. If the man falls off the mountain it still doesn't help us, all that we know is he's fallen off the mountain and he's died or not died."