Tech to help Everest climber keep in touch

Equipped with satellite phone and GPS tracking device, Singapore-based sales manager Grant Rawlinson plans to maintain communication line with his family as he attempts to scale world's highest peak.
Written by Eileen Yu, Contributor on

SINGAPORE--Scaling the world's tallest peak will undoubtedly be a harrowing experience and when Grant Rawlinson attempts to conquer Mount Everest, he wants to be able to communicate with his loved ones throughout the arduous journey.

Grant Rawlinson

Come Wednesday, 37-year-old Rawlinson will begin his two-month Everest expedition with a team of six, including two others from Singapore and a New Zealander. Among the items in his backpack will be a Thuruya XT handheld Satellite phone, a Nokia 2730 mobile phone and a De-Lorma GPS Spot Tracker.

In an interview with ZDNet Asia, the Singapore permanent resident said he purchased the satellite phone after a recent expedition--which was delayed by two days--sent his mother scurrying to the police in a panic because he was unable to contact and update her on his whereabouts.

Prepping for Everest

When he is not climbing rocky hills, Rawlinson spends his days as the Asia-Pacific sales manager of Norwegian marine electronics manufacturer, Kongsberg Maritime.
He spent the last seven months training for the Everest expedition which cost US$50,000, covering airfare, equipment and training. Two thirds of the amount have been funded by four sponsors: John Foord; ThePRElement; PIAS (Professional Investment Advisory Services); and the Sri Trang Group.
His Everest climb will support two charity causes which focus on education for the underprivileged: the Humaneity Youth Development Program and the Central Asia Institute.

In his blog, the mountaineer talked about the archaic form of communication where Everest climbers in the 1920s would lie blankets or sleeping bags on the snow to form and send signals to base camp. He related how in 1924, George Mallory and Andrew Irvine disappeared high on the North Ridge of Mount Everest and were never seen alive again. Mallory's wife received a two-line telegram informing her of the loss only to receive weeks later, a letter from her late husband which was sent months before his death.

With a satellite phone in hand, Rawlinson will be able to receive and send e-mail to update his Singaporean wife, Stephanie Ong, about his Everest experience. Ong, whom he married in December, will also be able to monitor his whereabouts via the GPS Spot Tracker, which tracks his position on the mountain and overlays the information on Google Earth.

The 105 followers of his blog will also be able to receive updates via his blog and send text messages to him via the Thuruya messaging system.

The communication channel is especially comforting for his family, though he noted that "mum still worries".

Despite his appreciation of how technology has helped improve communication channels, Rawlinson said he would want to be able to retreat into the remote wilderness and not have to hear "someone screaming into their phones".

The avid mountaineer, who has climbed over 30 peaks worldwide, talks to ZDNet Asia about his preparation for the Everest expedition:

Q: What made you think about technology in your preparations for this trip?
Rawlinson: In my previous mountaineering expeditions, I sometimes had problems communicating with the outside world, especially when I went to more remote areas where there were no possibility of using mobile phones. And when you're mountaineering, a lot of the time, you're very reliant on the weather in terms of whether you can get in or get out of the mountains. You would have a plan which you inform everyone on, regarding which date you're going in and which date you're coming out, but this is very dependent on the weather. Sometimes you can be delayed by a few days. And when you're delayed, you can make people very worried.

De-Lorma GPS Spot Tracker

Just two months ago, in New Zealand, I went on a climb which was meant to be for six days but it actually took us eight days. So we got out two days late and by that stage, my mother had called the police because she was very worried. She had been waiting at the airport and I didn't show up on the flight. She knew I was climbing and thought something bad had happened, so she contacted the police. My wife was also very worried because I had no way of contacting anybody.

Wasn't there any base camp there?
Nope, nothing. It also cost me an additional S$1,000 because I missed my flights and had to get new flights. I realized then that I wasted $1,000 which I could have used to buy a satellite phone. So that gave me some motivation to get a satellite telephone for the Everest trip.

I watched the Discovery Channel's Everest: Beyond the Limit documentary series and the expedition team that was filmed looked like they had communications equipment with them. Is that going to be same for yours?
Some people are, some aren't. It's very much a personal decision. One thing about technology is, it allows you to communicate with your sponsors and it's good for them to be able to receive updates. They like to know where we are and what we're doing. So the technology can be very useful.

Thuruya XT handheld Satellite phone

In your daily life or past expeditions, were there incidences where technology had failed?
Well, in the New Zealand climb, I had expected at some stage I'd pick up some mobile coverage but I had none in the eight days I was there. So that caused us a big problem and that's been one of the biggest problems really.

The other problem in the mountains, with electronic devices, is the cold. It can stop devices from working, especially cameras and also your handheld GPS device. So you have to keep them close to your body and keep them warm. And take them out only when you need to use them.

Do those thoughts worry you? Because you can't not sure if they're going to keep ticking when you're on your trip.
Definitely. I don't try to be overly reliant on technology. The most important thing is to remember is technology is there basically as an aid or something which can enhance your journey. As a mountaineer, you should never really be 100 percent reliant on any specific piece of technology because if it does fail--and it can fail, for example, the battery can go flat, or you can drop it or lose it or reception stops working--then you'll be in trouble.

And your family, I assume, has been told about the new gadgets you'll be bringing with you to Everest?
Yep, my wife, especially, is very happy. We've been testing the GPS Spot Tracker which allows me to send messages back to Facebook or Twitter from anywhere. She'll be able to see me at any time and that gives her a lot of peace of mind.

Every 10 minutes, the tracker sends data of my position on the mountain which is relayed back to the central sever, which then overlays the information on Google Earth.

Will this tracking stop after base camp?

Rawlinson's Facebook profile

It goes all the way to the summit and it has been tested before. I'm not sure if I'd use it all the way to the summit because it's added weight. It's not that much heavier, probably as heavy as two of my wallets, but weight is always a concern when you're up there. I'll see how I feel on that day whether I'll use it or not.

Tell us about the journey you'll be taking.
I'll leave Wednesday to Kathmandu where I'll spend four days. Then I'll leave from there on Monday to start the drive into China. I'm leaving from Chinese side, not the Nepalese side. So we're driving into Tibet, along the Friendship Highway which goes from Kathmanu to Lhasa. We'll then turn off at a place called Tingri, before heading off to the Everest base camp.

Along that road, most of the way, there will be 3G mobile coverage. I've purchased a China Telecom SIM card so I'll use that all the way into base camp, and there you can also get cellular reception. Above base camp, I'll be switching to satellite phone.

Will you continue to Tweet, blog?
I'll be doing that all the way from Kathmandu, updating my position so people can follow my actual location.

How are you planning to charge your devices?
All the batteries I'm taking are lithium, not alkaline, because they work better in cold weather. At base camp, they have solar panels which we can use to charge our laptops and devices, which need to have rechargeable batteries. I've packed taken about 20 to 30 disposable lithium AAA batteries and another 20 to 30 disposable AA batteries to last about two months.

Will that add to the weight though?
Yeh, but we can drive all the way to base camp so it won't be much of an issue.

If you look at tech and how it's progressing, do you have a wishlist for the IT vendor community that could help make your mountain-climbing easier?
Not really, to be honest. I'm probably not the best person to talk about this because I prefer if there were still places in the world you can go to where you don't have mobile phone reception and you don't have to listen to someone screaming and shouting into their mobile phone.

I think the tech today is amazing compared to what it used to be, but I do hope it won't advance to a stage where every single point in our planet you go to, you can hear someone screaming into their phone. It's nice to know there's still some isolation and remoteness in some parts of the world.

Is there any technology or gadget in your daily life that you're totally depend on?
My mobile phone, and my laptop. Those are the only two gadgets I really rely on.

But you could do without them for a day, especially when you're in the wilderness and don't want someone shouting into the phone?
Oh yeh, I could definitely do that.

You'll be starting off very soon for your trip. Nervous?
Yeh, a bit nervous now. I've been training for seven months so it's a big challenge. It's killed 40 people since 1990, in this particular route that I'm trying to do. It'll definitely be a very big challenge.

This North Ridge route is more challenging than the normal route from the South. I've chosen this because there are fewer people, so it'll hopefully be less crowded, and it's cheaper.

We're targeting to summit around the third week of May.

What's the first thing and gadget you'll be taking out when you reach the summit?
The first thing I'd do is have a good look around. Then, I'll take some photos of the sponsors' flag and if the weather allows, I'll attempt to make a satellite phone call. I'm just taking a normal point-and-shoot camera that I'll be keeping warm in my jacket, close to my body.

So, after Everest, what's there left to climb?
There's lots more. There're many thousands mountains in the world that haven't been climbed before. So Everest is just another challenge. There are definitely more difficult trails.

I would like to climb some unclimbed or virgin peaks as we call them in mountaineering.

Can't you just go ride a rollercoaster and get your thrills there? It's a lot safer.
No, not as much fun for me!


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