Category Archives: Equipment and Gear

Merry Christmas: Packing for the GT – Just how light is right?

“Ho, ho, ho”, or should it be “groan, groan, groan” as our bodies struggle to digest that enormous amount of food that is traditional to consume at this time of year.

I have been training hard for the past few weeks, however with the parties, dinners, lunches, drinks etc, my self-discipline has slipped with what I have been eating. I am justifying this indulgence by mentally preparing for how LITTLE I will be eating over New Year as we attempt the Grand Traverse on Aoraki Mt Cook, New Zealand’s highest mountain.

The Grand Traverse (GT) is one of those routes which is committing.   Once you get high up on that ridge, it is difficult to get off it.  In fact the easiest way to get off if things turn bad, can be to complete the route and descend down the other side.  Most routes on mountains involve ascending from one point and descending back to that same point. Hence you can set-up your ‘basecamp’ and leave a good deal of your equipment not needed for the climb at the basecamp.  For example, sleeping bags, spare food, spare fuel, tent or bivvy sack.

The Grand Traverse (GT) involves a whopping 3000m of ascent up one side of the Aoraki Mt Cook, then 3000m of descent down the other side. Hence we will not be returning to our starting point and will need to carry all our equipment with us.  This is a very important factor when it comes to gear planning and preparation for this route.  The ridge is very exposed so if the weather turns when we are up high, things will be serious. For the GT route, I feel speed is the key to safety.  Carry too much gear and too much food, we may be warmer and eat more comfortably. But we will also move more slowly and become more tired,  increasing our chances of hitting rough weather.  Carry too little gear, we run the risk of getting too cold or too hungry if things go wrong.

A recent example of a group who carried too much gear, moved too slowly and consequently got stuck in bad weather on the ridge is seen in the YOUTUBE video below.  This was a Japanese pair of climbers in 2008. The footage is from the rescue helicopter who tried to get in and rescue them.  Unfortunately after a number of days being stuck in bad weather, when it was finally calm enough to allow them to fly high up on the ridge, one of the climbers had succumbed to the conditions and passed away.  The temperatures on the summit ridge in bad weather even now in the middle of our summer can reach -20 or -25 degrees Celsius. That’s similar conditions to 8000m peaks in the Himalaya. On a nice day (which I hope we get) the temperature could be in the +20’s to even 30 degrees Celsius. So trying to bring the right equipment to deal with these extremes, all squeezed into a small backpack is a challenge.

So what’s the right amount of gear and food to carry? Tough question. Over the last few weeks I have putting a good deal of thought into this.  Below is the (almost complete) final selection laid out on the floor in my apartment.  I have broken out my credit card and bought some new lighter weight, higher performance items for this climb including ice axe, ice hammer, sleeping bag and bivvy bag.  ‘Light is Right’ is my motto.

P1000227

Key

1  =  Iridium Satellite phone with spare battery and 75 mins prepaid talk time SIMCARD

2 = Panasonic Lumix DMC ruggedized and waterproof camera with spare battery

3 = Climbing harness, prussik cords, slings, belay plate

4 = 4 x ice screws

5 = Black Diamond Sabretooth crampons

6 = Scarpa Omega plastic mountaineering boots

7 = OR Gaitors

8 = 3 x thick thermal socks

9 = Mammut 50l backpack with 1 x snowstake

10 = Black Diamond Venom Ice Axe and Hammer

11 = Waterproof pants

12 = 2 x light weight thermal bottoms (for rest)

13 = 1 x heavy weight thermal bottom (for climbing)

14 = 3 x thermal tops (1 x short sleeve, 1 x medium weight long sleeve, 1 x heavy weight long sleeve)

15 = Windproof polar fleece jacket

16 = Outer shell jacket (wind and water proof)

17 = Down jacket

18 = 700 gm down sleeping bag

19 = 3 x pair gloves (1 x lightweight merino wool and possum fur blend, 1 x fleece wind stopper glove, 1 x heavy insulated glove)

20 = 1 x Wind stopper balaclava, 1 x buff, 1 x sunhat, 1 x category 3 SWORKE sunglasses

21 = Helmet

22 = OR Alpine Bivvy Bag, plus 1m closed cell foam mattress

23 = 1 x 1l Nalgene bottle for drink and pee, 1 x 0.5l Nalgene for hot drinks, plastic spoon

24 = Dehydrated meals, 3 in 1 milo drinks (need to add some more food)

25 = Energy Gels, Isotonic GU tablets to ass to drinking water

26 = Head torch and Lithium batteries

27 = Waterproof toiletries bag – toothpaste and toothbrush, compeed, notebook and pen, matches sunscreen

One good way to limit the amount you carry is to use a smaller backpack.  Thus I am using my 50 litre Mammut backpack which I used on Everest this year, as opposed to my larger 70 – 80 litre MACPAC. This way I don’t have any option – I have to take less as I just don’t have the room.

I can manage to squeeze all that gear laid on the floor into my backpack as per the picture below. I still need some more food items and will have to add the group equipment (either a 50m x 9mm climbing rope or the MSR stove and fuel), however I am confident it will just fit.

Small packs are a great way to cut down on the amount of kit you carry!

Small packs are a great way to cut down on the amount of kit you carry!

The question now becomes – will this be the right amount of gear and food do this climb safely? I guess time will answer that. Weather permitting, we plan to start climbing this coming Sunday(30th January). I will try to post voice update’s by Iridium satellite phone during the climb.  Of course if the conditions do not favor us, then we may have to change plans.  The mountain will always be there.

I am also very much looking forward to some post climb fun with Stephanie as we enjoy three days sea kayaking in the Abel Tasman National Park at the top of the South Island.

Sea Kayaking in the Abel Tasman national park, New Zealand.

Sea Kayaking in the Abel Tasman national park, New Zealand.

I wish you all a happy, adventure filled, safe and wonderful New Year and 2013 ahead. When you see all that food in front of you during the festive period remember ‘Light is Right’!

Axe

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Communication and electronics on Everest

I just arrived in Kathmandu!! It was very nice to see friends and family at the airport this morning.  I was feeling in a generous spirit so I shouted the coffee at Starbucks. This caught a number of people by surprise as I am quite tightfisted (my great grand parents were from Scotland).

It’s always both an exciting time and a sad time leaving on an expedition. Exciting to think of the upcoming adventure but especially hard to say goodbye to Stephanie and other friends and family. Stephanie will be joining me in ten days time in Kathmandu for 3 nights after I finish my acclimatisation trek on the Annapurna circuit. I leave tomorrow (Monday, 26 March) to walk the Annapurna circuit (independently). I am doing this to kick start the process of acclimatising my body to the higher altitude’s. This involves slowly day by day moving to higher elevations and forcing your body to get used to the reduced oxygen available. This takes time as your body has to produce more red blood cells to transport the limited oxygen more efficiently and also your blood becomes much thicker.

I am looking forward to getting into the mountains and walking by myself for a few days. The Annapurna circuit is known as one of the most beautiful treks in the world. Let’s see if it lives up to its reputation. Not so much looking forward to the headaches, nausea and insomnia which signal the acclimatisation process though.

Well – this blog is dedicated to electronic gadgetry. (I can hear some of you yawning already).

Above is a photo of the gadgets I will be bringing me on Everest 2012. I have numbered each gadget in red and attached below a brief description of each piece of equipment and the reason I chose it.

1. Panasonic CF-19 toughbook laptop computer.(Price around US$5,000)

Reason: Its small light and rugged. Normal laptop computers generally stop working at higher elevations. The moving or spinning hard disk drives in most computers need a tiny cushion of air to spin (you know that whirring sound when you switch on your PC – that’s the sound of the hard disk starting to spin up). At basecamp on Everest the air-pressure is 30% less than that at sea-level. Not only does this affect our bodies, it also screws up computer hard drives. This reduction in air-pressure does not allow the hard disk’s to spin, so they stop working. So computers need to either have solid state hard drives or be specially designed. The Panasonic CF-19 is ruggedised, shock resistant and waterproof and it worked brilliantly last year on Everest. It runs windows XP which is a little dated now, but for the basic work I do on the mountain works fine.

Almost all the software I use is freeware. I am amazed at the powerful programs which you can get free of charge if you look around on the net. I like free stuff because I am quite tightfisted (my great grand parents were from Scotland).

Some of the programs I use most frequently (and are all free) include:

  • Google’s PICASA for photo editing and storage
  • OPEN Office for wordprocessing e.g writing drafts of blogs. This freeware does most of the basic function that MICROSOFT office does. It allows you to open or save documents in Microsoft word formats also if you need to.
  • ANY VIDEO CONVERTOR (AVC). This small application is so handy and very easy to use. It takes any photo or video and allows you to trim it, save it in different formats, and most importantly reduce the resolution. So when I take small video snippets on my Contour Helmet cam even a 60 second file may be 10 – 20MB. Much to large to email back or upload to YOUTUBE from basecamp. AVC will quickly and easily reduce the resolution and file size to something more manageable. Normally for me I try and shrink the video down to 1MB. This of course means you loose significant resolution however its enough to give viewers an idea of what’s going on.
  • WordPress. I use wordpress.com to host my blog. This also is completely free. I could pay a small fee per year to get my own domain name e.g. www.Axeoneverest.com, however I am too tight fisted to do this (my great grand parents were from Scotland).
  • Microsoft Outlook. This is what I use for email. It is simple to set-up and configure.
  • SKYPE – the bandwidth of the China Telecom connection was not fast enough at basecamp in 2011 to get quality voice calls, however I used the text messaging service in SKYPE at times.
  1. Garmin handheld GPS.(Cost approx S$300)Reason: Its pretty hard to get lost on Everest’s North Ridge route, even in bad weather. Unless you are a complete muppit. I may get lost. My point is I don’t use the GARMIN for storing way-points and navigating much on Everest, however I do use it as a check on the elevations of each camp and to recalibrate my altimeter watch which works off the ambient air-pressure and thus is affected by changes in weather. The GPS elevation I get from the GARMIN are remarkably accurate, I would put +/- 20m as a general estimate of the elevation accuracies.
  1. NOKIA 2730C Mobile phone.(Cost less than S$100)Reason: This is a very basic NOKIA phone. I use it simply for SMS and voice calls. I like it for its simplicity and its battery life. The battery will last for days and days if I just turn it on and off a few times a day to check messages and SMS. It also uses the same battery as the CONTOUR helmet cam. I have a China Telecom SIM CARD (thank you to Ms Fanny for organising) which I use in the NOKIA. This works at the small villages of Zhangmu, Nyalam and Tingri in Tibet on the drive in and also at Everest Basecamp during the day light hours only(as the mobile repeater at basecamp runs off solar power and shuts down at night).
  1. Thuruya XT Satellite Phone. (Cost approx US$1000)Reason: Thuruya make a wonderful, light weight, easy to use and easy to top-up the call time sat phone. The call costs are US$0.60c /minute from Tibet to Singapore and NZ, the two countries I call most often. I can also send and receive SMS from this phone. I use this for all communications above Everest basecamp. My general experience is the call quality is good. Thuruya also allows people to send me short text messages from their website for free, which is a great morale booster to receive these when I am on the mountain.
  1. Blackberry mobile phone. (Cost – approx S$1000)Reason: This is completely unsuited to bringing to remote places, mainly because the battery life sucks. It is a work phone so I can receive work emails (although I have not tested this in Tibet) on it – I am not sure if this is an advantage or a disadvantage! The only other advantage is that it somehow allows users to access facebook in China. Facebook is blocked in China along with YOUTUBE and many other sites. The Blackberry encryption system somehow circumvents this.
  2. Shortwave Radio(Costs S$25)Reason: I don’t use this much. It can pick up BBC world service in very remote locations such as Everest.
  3. SONY WALKMAN – ZAPPIN(Cost S$ 150)Reason: This little thing rocks. It stores a few hundred songs, is tiny, no cables and had a long 10+ hour battery life. I currently have downloaded around 150 songs to it.
  4. Contour HD helmet mounted camera. (Cost S$ 450)

Reason: This little camera I use for video. I don’t take a helmet on Everest, but I have an elastic strap I modified to fit around my head. It’s really simple to use and take’s really nice clear video with only two buttons for operation. Check out my one week training video on the left handside of this post for an example of what the Contour Camera can do. My only gripe is that operating with gloves its easy to accidentally open the battery compartment when trying to turn it on and then watch your battery bounce off 3000m into space below you. It always pisses me off when that happens as I am tightfisted(my great grand parents were from Scotland).

9. Pentax OPTIO RZ10 (Cost S$ 400)

Reason – I had problems with my camera system on Everest last year. I bought a CANON D10 powershot with me which had worked well on previous expeditions. But it stopped working after 4 weeks on Everest, and I did not have a back-up. I chose two camera’s for this trip and was looking for the following functionality.

  1. Both camera to be small compact and lightweight
  2. Large button operation – easy to operate with gloves on. This was the hardest thing to find. There are literally hundreds of great little camera’s out there but when you try and find ones you can operate wearing gloves or mittens then it seems to cut out 98% of them. There is no point taking a beautiful big camera with you that a: is too heavy, b: you cant operate with gloves on and c: it freezes up.
  3. Cold weather operation. Very important on Everest especially where temperatures get to minus 40 or 50 degrees C. You have to keep the camera inside your jacket close to your body to stop it freezing then take it out quickly and take a photo before it freezes. For this reason the camera must be small enough to fit comfortably inside your jacket.
  4. Batteries and memory cards. I wanted both camera’s to share the same battery and memory cards to simplify things so I only needed to bring one charger and download cable etc..

The Pentax OPTIO RZ10 has nice large buttons, 14 Mega Pixels, 10x zoom. It has HD video recording but I don’t find the video quality near as good as from my Contour helmet cam.

  1. Pentax OPTIO WG-1 ruggedised digital camera.(Cost approx S$ 400)Reason: This is basically a ruggedised version of the camera above, same basic functionality however it has slightly lower resolution and zoom. It makes up for this my being temperature rated to minus 10 degrees, water proof to 33 feet and shock proof. It also has nice large buttons and one feature I particularly like and am continually amused by, but is really quite useless is that it makes a squeaking sound like a mouse being strangled every time I take a photo.
  2. Head torches.Reason: Two head torches, one main one (the Petzl) and a back-up (black diamond). The Petzl is a beautiful reliable, powerful beam head torch. It’s downside is its size and when I wear large goggles and an oxygen mask it wont fit properly on my head as my face is quite small. The back-up Black Diamond is the biggest piece of shit, not the most reliable head torch I have ever used. I don’t recommend this model. However I own it now and am too tight fisted (my great grand parents were from Scotland) to throw it away.
  3. Charging cables.Reason: I have two charging systems for every piece of kit I have. AC 220V chargers for use in Kathmandu and towns/villages where there is mains power supply. DC 12V chargers with cigarette lighter adapters which I use as basecamp and on the mountain where we rely completely on solar power.
  4. 16GB USB memory sticks and 8GB SD flash cardsReason: for backing up data and using in video and camera.
  5. Electrical power socket adapterReason: fits any country in the worlds electrical socket.
  6. AC charger for camera batteriesReason: to charge camera batteries in towns and villages where there is mains supply power
  7. Portable battery charger to recharge SONY WALKMAN.Reason: This runs off 2 x disposable double A batteries and allows me to recharge my SONY WALKMAN wherever I am. It also connects to my blackberry and will run the blackberry but will not charge the battery – must be a voltage issue.
  8. Rechargeable batteries for camera, Nokia phone and Contour HD video camera.Reason: The Contour video and the NOKIA share the same battery. The two Pentax camera’s share the same battery. This is cool. The more devices you can get which share the same batteries the better. Means you have higher redundancy and less chargers and cables to bring along.
  9. DC cable for camera battery chargerReason: Charging camera batteries off solar panels on the mountain
  10. DC charger for Panasonic toughbookReason: Charging Panasonic toughbook computer off solar panels on the mountain

I use a USB modem with a China Telecom SIMCARD inside it to upload most of my blog posts.  This connects wirelessly to the China Mobile cellphone towers along the drive into basecamp and even at basecamp itself. The only downside to this is that everything you send out is monitored. I did not believe this until last years expedition. A certain trekker in a group sharing our basecamp, uploaded some ‘sensitive’ remarks about her view point of a particular country. The next morning soldiers appeared at our tent and took her away for a good few hours talking to. She came back visibly upset and did not talk further about the incident.

If I want to communicate from the 5 camps above basecamp, where there is no more China Mobile coverage – I have four options:

  1. Call or SMS David Lim in Singapore using my satellite phone to write a post on my behalf
  2. Connect to internet using a BGAN (satellite modem) which is quite expensive and they charge per MB of upload and download.
  3. Call my website wordpress.com and leave a voice message update. This is a very cool feature where I have a number I call and leave a voice message. After I hang up it automatically posts my voice message to my blog. Its also free (apart from the cost of the call) which I like as I am quite tightfisted (my great grand parents were from Scotland).
  4. Send a smoke signal

That’s all for now, sorry for mentioning so many times in this post that my great grandparents were from Scotland. I am actually very proud to have Scottish ancestry. My beard even turns ginger when it gets longer and I like to think I look a little like those rugged Scottish highlander types you see in the movies who hide in the hills then kill the english soldiers when they turn up in their villages for a cup of tea and to collect the taxes. I can’t remember the movies name unfortunately. What I can remember is that I did not watch it at the movies but I downloaded it for free off the internet as I am quite tightfisted (my great grand parents were from Scotland).

Love

Axe    

Communicating from Mt Everest

In 1924, George Mallory and Andrew Irvine disappeared high on the North Ridge of Mt Everest, never to be seen (alive) again. A search party was dispatched to their high camp to look for the two lost climbers. The only form of communications available between the team members lower on the mountain and the climbers high up on the mountain was to lie blankets or sleeping bags in the snow. The positions the blankets were laid was used as a form of signal between parties. Attached is the note showing the signal code system which the 1924 expedition devised.

The signal's to be made using blankets laid in the snow

 Below is the amazing photograph – shot from basecamp using a telescopic lens (pretty high-tech back in 1924), showing the sleeping bags lying in a cross formation on the snow.

Photograph of the crossed blankets

This was the signal that the climbers from the high camp were conveying to their leaders down at basecamp. The terrible news that Mallory and Irvine were lost and their was no hope. For my attempt on Everest starting in 8 days time, fortunately we will not need to use blankets in the snow to communicate. Having been on a number of expeditions over the years, and spent many nights and days lying in tents or mountain huts during bad weather or awaiting helicopter pick-ups, I know full well the importance that communications with the outside world can have in terms of positively boosting morale. As Everest will be a very long expedition (63 days in total), I have made sure I have a strong communications system in place. Below is a list of the main devices I will be bringing along to communicate with the outside world.

Satellite Phone

I will be bring a Thuruya XT handheld Satellite telephone with me. This system is amazing. It is the same size as a standard mobile phone – yet gets reception over all of the Asian region, The phone itself retails for US$1,100, however I picked mine for a steal (not literally) at US$400. Calls are also surprisingly cheap with the Sat phone, at around US$1.50/minute – this is cheaper than international roaming costs using a mobile phone.

I can make and receive phone called from the Satellite phone and I can also send and receive short text messages of 100 characters or less. To send a short text message to me you can visit the website:

https://sms.thuraya.com/

(Even though it says 160 characters – be sure to limit it to 100 characters only). I can receive these messages for free – however the text messaging system for Thuruya is not particularly robust and sometimes falls over with messages not getting through. If you would like my Sat phone number please drop me a private email to rawly@singnet.com.sg

Mobile Phone

From base camp at Everest there is 3G mobile phone reception. I will be bringing my Nokia mobile phone (model 2730). This is a very simple phone with limited functionality however suits an expedition very well. The battery lasts for days (literally), as opposed to hours with the latest power hungry PDA/IPHONE types, and it is small, lightweight and fairly rugged. At a cost of S$100-00 this will allow me to stay connected using my Singapore mobile SIM card on international roaming. I have also purchased a Chinese Telecom SIMCARD, which I will use to cut down on call costs. Contrary to popular belief that mobile coverage extends all the way to the summit of Everest these days, unfortunately the mobiles will only work at basecamp and some limited positions above basecamp.

Thuruya XT Satellite phone on the left, Nokia mobile phone on the right.

De-Lorme/SPOT GPS Tracker

Ian Mullane (who with his two team mates in 2 weeks will head off on a thrilling adventure of his own in a race to the North pole) has kindly loaned me his De-Lorme GPS SPOT Tracker. This system basically tracks my progress in near real-time on the mountain. It then transmits the position via a SPOT communications satellite, back to a central server which publishes the positions online, overlaid on Google Earth. Every ten minutes you can see an update of my position on the mountain! Quite amazing. To be honest, I am not comfortable with the thought of someone monitoring my position every 10 minutes. I like getting away from civilisation when I get into the hills, but having said that – there is so many people on Everest these days I should have chosen another peak if I wanted solitude! I tested the SPOT tracker on Sunday morning. I set off at 4AM on a 110km bike ride around Singapore, with the tracker turned on. 4 hours later I got home and switched on the PC – only to find that yes, I had turned on the GPS unit but – forgot to activate the tracking function so it had not updated any positions! A lesson well learnt!

Attached is the link to the GPS SPOT tracking page: http://share.findmespot.com/shared/faces/viewspots.jsp?glId=0hDXReP9TR1TDblibuZ2DRncN5amQiLbI

De-Lorme GPS on the left, SPOT tracker on the right

The link will not display anything when the unit is not switched on. I am still deciding if I will use this on Everest or not. Maybe I will use it on the 5 day summit push only, however the extra weight and the fact there is two units to carry (the GPS and the SPOT tracking unit) kind of puts me off. A neat feature of the system is the ability to send text messages to Facebook or Twitter accounts. I think I will make my decision once I get to the big hill about how much I will utulise it.

EMAIL/BLOG

In 1924, George Mallory’s wife received a short 2 line telegram informing her that her husband had ‘been lost’ on Everest. This was how she found out that her husband had died and would not be returning home. Weeks after this she actually received a letter in the post from George himself. Of course it had been sent from the mountain many months before he died, and had taken a longtime to travel overland and by sea all the way from Tebet to the United Kingdom. My wife/ family (and whoever signs upto my blog) will be able to receive emails and updates as regularly as I can write and send them from Everest basecamp! I will have email access and whist visiting China two weeks ago, I picked up (with the kind support of the staff from Geomarine) two data SIM cards mounted in USB modems. I simply plug these into my Panasonic toughbook computer and can connect wirelessly to the internet from basecamp.

So that’s a quick overview of the comm’s set-up on Everest. Its really is getting very easy to stay connected in todays world. You should be able to follow my progress on at least a weekly basis.

With only 8 days to go before I leave for Kathmandu, there is many of things left to do. Packing, clearing work, travelling to Bangladesh for work, training, presentation evening on Friday at the SCC and crazily enough, finalising sponsorship details which have literally come pouring in at the last minute!

Off belay,

Axe

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