Everest 2011 New Communication

Apr 1, 2011
Outside Magazine

Eric Simonson addressing the Everest 2011 Group (Courtesy AlanArnette.com)

Sometimes I think I enjoy writing about climbing more than I enjoy climbing – that is until I start climbing. The truth is I love both. The opportunity to share with anyone about this sport, my passion – alpine mountaineering; is an honor. But it is also work.

So my last day in Kathmandu was spent getting some new technology to try out while climbing Everest. As I wrote a few months ago, the Swedish cell phone company Ncell, bought out the local provider and expanded their network in theory to the summit of Everest.

I already came prepared with all the usual proven communication technology I have used for years – sat phones, Bgan modems, computers, PDAs – the works. But the technology from Ncell uses standard cell phone 3G voice and data services on standard GSM phones and laptop computers. I know, I know too much information.

So, with one of my teammates, Gineth who is attempting to be the first Costa Rican to summit Everest, we set off in the alleys of Kathmandu to find the Ncell store and buy the goods. Meanwhile many of our team played tourists by visiting nearby Pashupatinath to observe the long tradition of cremation along the Bagmati river that flows into the Ganges in India.

We set out mid morning after a team meeting and abiding by the request to have our base camp duffel bag in the hotel lobby ASAP. This duffel holds all our climbing gear and is already on it’s way to base camp via helicopters, yaks and porters. It holds our boots, -40 sleeping bags, down layers, down suit, harness, crampons – all the critical stuff.

We still have our trekking duffel that will meet us every night as we make our way through the Khumbu to Everest Base Camp. This bag has another sleeping bag, change of clothes, a few layers for rain, snow and cold and other miscellaneous items. For me it also holds much of my communication gear so I can write along the way.

Gineth and I took our lives in our hands as we crossed the streets in the rush hour of the morning looking for the Ncell sign. Soon we found it across from the French Embassy. A well dressed guard held his night stick with flair as we walked by, his face masked pulled tightly to keep the ever-present dust out of his lungs. But I digress.

We entered the store, which doubled as an Internet cafe. However it was electrical blackout time so a determined generator hummed away by the front door creating a healthy competition to see who could be heard. A young man was preoccupied by, well I never figured out what he was doing before, during and as we left his store. But somehow he understood we needed a SIM card for our phones and a wireless USB stick for our computers.

With a business opportunity presenting itself, his distractions took second place for a moment as he asked for, in order: passport, visa, passport photo, form filed out in duplicate including our grandfather’s name and finally a finger print of our left and right thumb on the form. The US DHS would have been proud.

Without negotiation we met all the request and soon were installing SIM cards, entering a hieroglyphics of asterisks, pound signs and numbers obtained via text messages from an unknown source; our young proprietor soon had our phones talking to the local network. I called my own US cell phone to verify it worked while Gineth called her husband in California – I think my cell phone was happier given it was 2:00 AM in California.

With half our objective complete we had to go to another Ncell store to get our computers hooked to the data network. Another 15 minutes of dodging tuk-tuks and inhaling more CO2 than a day’s output in Congress, we found the next store and started the same process: passports, photos, fingerprints. I was starting to get paranoid.

But with purple thumbs we pushed forward and soon we trying to understand data plans, scratch cards, expiry dates and; well anyway we got our USB sticks and went to lunch!

Back in my hotel room, I plugged it into my MacBook Air and amazingly it worked as advertised. So what does this mean?

In theory, I can access the Internet at incredibly low rates, about 1/100 that of a satellite phone all the way from Lukla to Everest Base Camp. In theory, I can make phone calls from the summit. In theory, I can …

I qualify all of this because there are limits to cell phone technology. It is line of sight and there are a few mountains where we are going that could block the signal.

Also, there is a limit of the number of people who can connect to the system at any one time. And judging by the fact the EVERY Sherpa, porter, and yak in Nepal has a cell phone plus literally hundreds of climbers and thousand of trekkers; space may be limited to put it mildly.

But if it works, I can send more updates and save a bit of money. If it doesn’t I will still do my updates using my standard satellite tools. Either way, I hope to bring everyone into the world I love and the cause that transcends mountains.

We leave at 5:30 AM tomorrow morning for our hour flight to Lukla, the most dangerous airport in the world! How’s that for a headline? The short airstrip is perched on the edge of a cliff and sadly every few years a deadly crash occurs.

But we will push on and make our first steps in the Khumbu looking forward to a night at the village of Phakding. From there we will trek to the capital of the Khumbu, Namche Bazzar, at 11,286 feet. We will spend three nights there and it will be the location of my next dispatch.

Last night, IMG hosted a group dinner with co-owner Eric Simonson flying in from Seattle to make sure all was going to plan, greet everyone and make a few words – a traditional manner of communication!. He is staying for a week or so to meet other IMG teams arriving for other expeditions on Lhotse and elsewhere. It was a great evening with high spirits.

Other teams and half the IMG Everest climbers who left this morning,  are already in the Khumbu so the march is on! You can feel the excitement in the air no matter your objective: climb, trek or visit. I have already met several people that I have been emailing with for years including a few on our team and another, Matt, from New Zealand here with Adventure Consultants.

We all share some common bonds, the love of climbing but also having lost loved ones to Alzheimer’s. I cannot put into words how gratifying it is to shake their hands, look in their eyes and know we have the common bond of an important cause at hand. That is what communication is all about.

Climb On!
Memories are Everything

Arnette is a speaker, mountaineer and Alzheimer's Advocate. He is climbing the 7 Summits throughout 2001. He has summited Vinson and Aconcagua already and leaves for Everest in late March. All to raise $1 million for Alzheimer's research. You can read more on his site.

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