Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Everest Calling

First cell call from Mount Everest was recorded on a blog

Your cellphone chirrups. Your colleagues around the boardroom regard the interruption with obvious annoyance and frustration. But holding up a hand with the cellphone in it, you defend yourself, saying: “Sorry, I need to take this. It’s from the top of Mount Everest.”
36-year-old Rod Baber, a British mountaineer, has made the first cellphone call from Mount Everest.

It was no easy feat either. First off, Baber would have had to remove his oxygen mask which meant not only would he have difficulty breathing, but would be even more susceptible to the cold. Baber had to tape the phone’s batteries to his body to prevent them from freezing and becoming useless. The initial transmission was not live, or made to a living person, but recorded on a voicemail account created by the expedition’s sponsor Motorola, and subsequently posted on Baber’s blog.

Gasping at almost 9km above sea level, Baber says, “Hi, this is Rod. Making the world’s highest phone call on the 21st of May. [Fumble]. It’s 5:37am. It’s about minus 30 C. It’s cold. It’s fantastic. The Himalayas are everywhere. I can’t feel my toes. Everyone’s in good spirits. We got here in record time.” He then describes what he wants to do once back at base camp.

The 2nd call he made was live, to his wife and children in Cirencester, Gloucestershire,in the UK. Typically climbers spend only around 15 minutes on the roof of the world, so Baber had to be brief. He told his family: “It’s amazing. I can’t feel my toes.” Baber then sent this first ever text message from Everest, to Motorola: “One small text for man, one giant leap for mobilekind – thanks Motorola.” We will probably hear Baber’s message and see the text message used in television commercials to promote the Motorola brand around the world.

Having already seen Baber’s story flighted in various media, I am reminded of South African software billionaire Mark Shuttleworth’s trip into space. Knowing the world would be reporting on this story, I contacted the advertising agencies that did promotions for Shuttleworth (the world’s second space tourist) and suggested Mark record a message in space on a simple Dictaphone which could later be relayed as inexpensive but powerful radio commercials to promote tourism to the country (a much underutilized, and under marketed resource). Som thing like:
“This is Mark Shuttleworth. Space really is our final frontier, but you don’t have to come to outer space to find your inner space. Visit South Africa.”
Perhaps an additional website for information could have been provided, along with in-support outdoor advertising. In an email Mr Shuttleworth indicated that the Russians were strict in terms of what cosmonauts were allowed to do and take with them. Every gram had to be calibrated. So unfortunately, that opportunity slipped away unused.

Nevertheless, it is somewhat surprising to hear that the first cell transmissions from Everest only took place this year, in 2007. Satellite transmissions have of course been made in the past, one of the most famous was from Rob Hall, the New Zealander who was patched through to his pregnant wife in that fateful year, 1996, before succumbing on the mountain.

But cellular technologies have been present around the world for some time. People have made the claim in thousands of contemporary conversations that with a cellphone one is reachable (theoretically), everywhere, from Mount Everest, to the bottom of the ocean. That has not been 100% true in the case of the cellphone. Baber’s call was thanks to China Telecom’s new base station at Rongbuk which is 19km from the summit of Everest, and 8km from base camp. It is one positive development of the unhappy taking over of Tibet by China that at least the local communities may benefit from the deeper pockets of the intrusive Chinese regime. Until now, regional telecommunications had only been possible using shortwave radios and the heavier and more expensive satellite phones.

Baber remains fortunate to have been able to transmit from Everest, given the extreme cold. To illustrate just how susceptible batteries and the like are to becoming dysfunctional in the extreme cold of high altitude, I refer to the almost 6km high Kilimanjaro (a third lower than Everest), a peak I climbed in the mid 90’s. Once on the volcanoes rim, which is probably half as cold as Everest, perhaps minus 10, or minus 15, we discovered that the camera’s battery was simply too cold to use. After stuffing the camera between my inner shell (a cycle jersey) and my skin, I was able to resurrect a few faint pulses of battery power. It was sufficient for a summit photo, but there was an agonizing moment where the person I handed the camera to said, “It’s not working.” By the simple action of removing it and handing someone else the camera, exposing it to the icy air, the battery had once again lost the small amount of body heat I’d imbued it with. Thus I had to re-heat the camera for the all important photograph and try again. ‘It’s still not working. It’s dead.” After the third time my companion was able to take a photograph, freezing the image into the camera’s cold digital mind space.

In the near future, space tourists (perhaps on Virgin Galactic rocketships) may demand to be able to communicate from space to their families and friends. Companies like Connext (who provide internet from airlines) already provide us with connectivity at 30 000 feet, but once again only satellite phones are likely to work from space right now. But given the extreme energy demands of space travel, I personally do not believe space tourism will last more than a season or two, if it ever gets off the ground. Then again, with human beings, anything is possible.

Background for this article from www.ananova.com and The Sunday Times London.

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