Expedition Communications
updated late 2013
Alan posting from Antartcia

While staying in touch is mandatory and part of an expedition for me, some people want to get away from it all and escape the modern noise that comes with 24 by 7 communications. If that is your case, then take a sat phone for safety but don’t use it unless there is an emergency! Tell everyone that no news is good news and you will see them when you get home. And enjoy your time off the grid

For everyone else, here are several basic ways to keeps friends and family informed while you are on an expedition.

Call a Friend:

  • Call a friend who passes it along or transcribes your conversation and posts on your Facebook page or blog
  • Email an update to a friend who forwards it, posts on Facebook or cuts and pastes it to your blog

Do it Yourself:

  • Phone in a voicemail through a service that posts it directly to your blog
  • Send an email that automatically posts to your WordPress Blog
  • Write a post and upload it using the Internet along with pictures and/or videos directly to your blog

There are many ways to do this communication but I will cover what I have been doing for over 10 years. I have learned a lot and stick with what works – for me. I do all the programming but I am not THAT technical. There are consultants who you can hire at $150 an hour to do the work for you. I started with “Call a Friend” (my wife managed the transcription much to her chagrin) but soon switched to a fully automated system.

The minimum setup you need is a phone, either satellite or cell depending on where you go and what service is available. For more sophisticated and independent postings you need to add a computer of some type, a digital camera and an Internet connection. This will enable you to connect with software that is linked to a website which may include a Blog, WordPress for example. If this sounds confusing, it is and it is not. So let’s break it down.

Websites

The first decision to make is where do you want followers to follow you – Facebook, Twitter, your own Blog or a dedicated website – or a combination of all of these. Also, is this a one time event or something you want to build over time.

For a one time expedition, using Facebook is easy but limited over what you can control and present. A dedicated Blog, WordPress or Blogger for example, gives you significant control over how you present your information plus you can add links and pages for more information, causes or other sites. A dedicated website is the best choice if you want full control over look and feel to build a long term destination for family and friends to follow your adventures for years to come. But all this comes with a bit more work. If this is all too much, there is a one stop shop approach for dispatches coming up. Don’t get overwhelmed with all these choices, it is actually much simpler than you think.

COMMUNICATIONS

This is the crux of your dispatch plan. You have two basic choices: Phones or Bgans. Again, one step at a time. For phones, there are cell phones and/or satellite phones using networks from Iridium or Thuraya depending on where you are climbing. A combination of phones sometimes might be in order.

Iridium vs Thuraya Satellite Phones
I always suggest bringing a sat phone since cell service is not reliable in remote mountain areas even though it may be in the local mountain gateway city. I feel there are only two satellite systems to consider: Thuraya which is best for Asia, Africa and Europe and Iridium for North and South America, the oceans and the poles. Iridium phones are significantly more expensive than a comparable Thuraya handset. Thuraya now offers a clever sleeve that holds the iPhone making your phone book and apps easily accessible. But this could be expensive since many social media apps like Facebook and Twitter stream data thus taking a long time and costing a lot of money just to see a picture of what your friend had for lunch!

Thuraya is the best choice for data if you are climbing in their coverage area (which includes Everest) because once you lock onto a satellite you do not usually lose it whereas with Iridium you are switched between satellites as they move across your view and in my experience, you will lose the data connection during each switch most of the time, even though they tell you it will switch seamlessly.

This lost connection limits your data uploads to a short few minutes preventing a dispatch with several images. If you lose your connection you must restart the upload process meaning lost time, money and sat time. The only time my Iridium connection was rock solid was on Kosciuszko’s summit where I had a 100% clear sky and unlimited visibility. Even in Antarctica, I could only connect for 4 minute periods before losing my data connection. To state the obvious, most mountainous areas rarely have unobstructed views of the sky, duh.

Thuraya can be less expensive than Iridium on a per minute basis by almost 50% depending on your location. For example calls to the US from Nepal cost US$0.90 a minute but from China or Pakistan it goes up to US$1.85 per minute using their NOVO SIM. The NOVO SIM is for Thuraya automatically changes rates based on your GPS location eliminating their prior ECO and Prepaid SIMS. If you buy in bulk, say 500, 1000 or 2500 minutes/units, you can gets 30% discount lowering the per minute costs to US$0.63 or USD$1.33. Iridium is a flat US$1.30 per minute from anywhere in the world.

It might be less expensive over the long run to buy your satellite phone instead of renting it depending on how many trips you plan and how many minutes you will use. Usually renting a phone implies more expensive minutes but not always so shop around. Sat phones range from $800 to $1800 and rentals around $275 a month. Check eBAY for some good deals.

Cell Phones
Most guides bring an unlocked GSM phone and buy a local SIM card with a data plan from the local provider. In Nepal, for example, this would be NCELL. In 2013, there was no cell coverage for Manaslu but in 2011 on my Everest experience was that I could get good voice connections at Everest Base Camp (EBC) and spotty up to C2 on the South Side but never got a decent data connection at EBC or higher. Other people found success by going to Gorak Shep where the last tower was located. Some would climb to the highest point near EBC with their phone and computer to get a spotty data connection. My Thuraya sat phone supported GSM networks so I put my NCELL SIM in my Thuraya sat phone and it worked fine.

The costs for NCELL in Nepal is lower than sat phones – a call to the UK or Australia costs about USD$0.05 or to the US were USD$0.02 in late 2013. See their website for the latest..

I posted dispatches on Kilimanjaro using my iPhone and local 3G service when I could not get satellite reception – more on this later.

Bgan

A Bgan is a ‘high’ speed modem device about the size of a laptop computer that connects to the Internet via a satellite. You pay based on the number of characters transferred and received. You simply plug the Bgan into your laptop, click a button to connect to the Internet and start using your normal software. I have used Bgans on several expeditions, including Everest last year, with great success. I uploaded dispatches with pictures and videos directly to my website via WordPress. It is expensive renting for UDS$375 a month plus USD$7 per megabyte. But if you are doing a lot of postings, especially with pictures, it is the only way to go.

I used over 100MB for my Everest 2011 expedition and never surfed. I also uploaded a few videos to YouTube but it was slow. I did download email but had my email software reject any mail larger than 100KB or attachments. By the way, I set up a new email address and told no one other than those I wanted to hear from to avoid Spam or other unwanted messages. You can also create a new email account using simple tools like Gmail from Google.

You must be careful using Bgans because modern websites are designed to download a lot of information in the background (WordPress and Twitter are amongst the worst with their automatic refreshing, also Skype is prohibitive for the same reasons) ; computers update their software automatically and so on. The end result is when you think you are uploading a simple text post and a 100K image, you use 5MB! In all cases, turn off your browser options like automatic updates and loading images to reduce bandwidth. If money is no object this is the way to go for simplicity. This is a base camp solution and not appropriate for high camps or the summit. Also you need to have a reliable power source because it uses battery capacity quickly.

I assume if you want to only post dispatches from a base camp where power and weight is not a consideration, then a Bgan and a laptop computer will be best. But if you want total portability at any camp (extreme altitude or remote) or during long treks, then using a handheld PDA or smartphone connected to a 3G network or satellite phone is the only real solution. That said, hoping you can find an Internet Cafe’ or connection from teahouses is a possibility but it is unreliable in the best of cases.

CONNECTION TO THE INTERNET

On Thuraya, you simply dial 1722 and you have a connection to the Internet just like at home, only it is at 9600 baud. On Iridium you dial 008816000025 and on cell phones you use the 3G data connection, hopefully. In all case, it is extremely, painfully slow so do not expect to surf the web, etc. You pay by the minute and it may take 10 to 15 minutes to upload a dispatch with three pictures or costing around $20 per dispatch. Bgans, already discussed, connect directly to the Internet and are up to 10 times faster but you pay by the character or bandwidth used so the costs may be similar in some situations.

SOFTWARE

The key to all blogging is software and you have a few choices: custom or off the shelf. In all cases you will want to create your dispatch offline and upload only after you connect to the Internet from your Bgan, sat or cell phone otherwise you will spend a tremendous amount of money creating and uploading a dispatch while online and in many cases connection stability will prevent it altogether.

I will go through this in detail, but once you are connected to the Internet, pictures are uploaded by a WordPress client software or moved to the upload directory on the CONTACT 5 software and the text dispatch to the form on the software. You then ask the CONTACT software to connect to their server where it will automatically start uploading your text images and social media updates. It will take anywhere from 3 to 20 minutes depending mostly on the number of images you upload.

CONTACT 5.0
After using a home grown setup for years, for the 7 Summits, I started using the CONTACT 5 software from HumanEdge Technology (HET) to connect to my website. The software is around $300 and runs on a PC, Mac or a PDA ( HP iPAQ). It has evolved over the years to integrate Facebook, Twitter and some blogs with multiple updates using one phone call. It is a one stop shop for basic functionality. You write the dispatch in a text editor and copy it to the CONTACT software on your computer then upload it to the HET server where it is available to your followers. You can use the CONTACT email software and they claim it is more efficient because it strips all attachments but I never used it.

But I wanted the dispatches to look the same as the rest of my site so I integrated it with my WordPress Blog. This is not necessary if you are comfortable with using their presentation on your website. You can see both versions at my site and on the HET site. A hybrid approach is shown by Adventure Consultants who uses the HET system and integrates it into their non WordPress site.

They have audio and video uploading capability but I never used them due to sat time and connection reliability considerations. Remember that once you lose the connection you use start all over. I once spent 40 sat minutes trying to upload one dispatch plus three pictures only to reduce it to one picture to keep the upload under 5 minutes

HET has instructions on how to link the dispatch you upload to their server and then to your WordPress Blog using the WordPress plugin, FeedWordPress, and it is not hard but I found it duplicated posts occasionally. They know about this and are working on it. It does take a bit of work to make it look the same and function well. But “out of the box” it is easy, inexpensive, reliable and proven. If you go this way, plan on a couple of months to get comfortable with the system before you leave home, especially if you want to do any integration at all.

A free alternative to CONTACT is PocketSharp MT that also runs on a PDA or older Smartphone.. While developed to use the blogging service MovableType, which I don't; recommend, it can be easily modified to connect to Wordpress. It is a bit cumbersome and does not offer Twitter and Facebook integration but those can be easily be addressed with other solutions mentioned next. I cannot comment on the speed difference but it is not huge and would be made up through not paying for the software.

WORDPRESS, FACEBOOK and TWITTER
Another alternate is to download a WordPress app for your computer, iPhone or iPad or for Android phones and directly upload your dispatch and picture to a WordPress Blog or your own website WordPress Blog. This assumes you have an Internet connection from your smart phone or are using a Bgan satellite modem to connect to the Internet from your computer (not from your phone).

A nice WordPress solution is the plugin Postie. This allows you to write a dispatch, along with pictures, and email it to your blog for immediate posting. Of course, this assumes you have Internet access either thru a smart phone’s 3G network or a sat phone to send the email. I successfully used this on Manaslu and would strongly suggest testing it thoroughly before leaving home.

Two more useful Plugins are WordBooker and WP Twitter. These tools will automatically update your Facebook and Twitter accounts with your new WordPress posts so everyone who follows you will see an update.

If all you want to do is update Twitter, then Twittermail is an easy tool that takes your email and reposts it on your Twitter account. Similarly, you can also configure Facebook to post from an email.

So, when to use CONTACT or these other tools? My experience is that the CONTACT software is faster and uses less sat time because it strips out a lot of the communications overhead. The email to WordPress options might be better if you have access to a reliable Internet connection but you will have to set the connections up whereas CONTACT does all this for you. In either case, if you loose the Internet connection, you must start over so in the end it is all about a solid satellite phone or 3G connection that should drive your decision.

COMPUTERS and POWER
You need some kind of computer to create text dispatches and edit pictures. There are three choices: laptop, handheld (iPAQ) or smartphone (iPhone, Blackberry, etc.). The biggest considerations are power, power and power, connectivity then keyboard and finally durability. You need a closed cell battery to power a laptop because you cannot recharge it directly from most solar panels. You will always want to use a 12V (car adapter) to charge your equipment because it is most efficient.

I never rely on my expedition operators for power or their shared laptop computers because 1) everyone else (including their Sherpas) are accessing it to charge iPods, phones etc. thus putting a drain on the system and 2) they only work 50% of the time so I go self sufficient. I use a solar panel and a small battery, both purchased from HET but solutions from Goal Zero or Brunton are good alternatives today.

If you only want to send updates from base camp then a laptop is a good solution. If you want a portable solution for higher camps where weight and power are serious considerations, then a pocket PC like the HP iPAQ is a good solution, however the HP iPAQ is no longer manufactured but HET still sells them for now or you can buy on Ebay. I used an Apple MacBook Air for my 7 Summits with excellent success. You must avoid any computer with a moving hard disc and spend the money for a solid state disc for reliability.

A good trade-off is to post text and pictures from base camp and voice dispatches for the high camps.

You can try to rely on a smartphone for taking pictures but my experience is the power drain and lack of a true optical zoom prevents it from being truly useful. Modern digital cameras are still the best choice for image quality and battery life.

TEXT AND PICTURE DISPATCHES

Your pictures need to be resized from the 2-5mb size file created by your digital camera to something less than 100Kb in order to minimize sat time. Also, you will reduce the actual image size from 3264×2448 for most 8mp cameras to something like 640 x400 or smaller for presentation on your website. This is all done by using software like Pocket Artist on the PDA or iPhone or the iPaq or software from Picasa or iPhoto on your laptop.

Video

Video is probably the one thing people want to send from an expedition and is the most difficult and expensive. You see videos from the professional expeditions but they often come from world-class film crews with lots of time, money and specialized gear. Don’t be discouraged. You can approach their capability with a couple of tricks. First, use a Bgan for communication. Second use a high quality camera in HD mode e.g. at least 720p at 30 frames per second.

Once you make your video, edit it to only show the most important scenes – it will probably be less than a minute at most. Software like Apple’s iMovie and Adobe’s Premier Elements are perfect but be warned you may end up editing video more than climbing your mountain. But one last step makes this all work if you want to upload your short video from base camp– compress the size. A short video can be 100mb is size, way too large to upload economically via satellite. MPEG Streamclip from Squared5 allows you to reduce the size without losing too much quality. You can easily take a 30 second HD video from 50mb to 6mb and amaze people watching it on your website.

AUDIO DISPATCHES

I like to mix up my dispatches using audio and text. Audio is very simple. There are two services I have used, both with pros and cons:

Hipcast is very easy to use and to connect to your existing WordPress blog. Pro is that you can review your message before posting it and/or erase it and re-record when you realize you have been rambling or said something you really don’t want the world to hear. Con is that they charge $5 a month, not bad when you consider what you get. I used it for years now with excellent success including from the summit of Everest in 2011.

iPadio is similar to Hipcast but no editing features. Easy to integrate into WordPress and has the added benefit of posting a voice to text translation of your voice. However, I found it did not work well for me and would need someone at home to review and correct. It is free. I used it on one of my climb (Denali) and the voice only worked fine.

GPS TRACKING

I used the SPOT tracker for all 7 Summits and it mostly worked well. Their software, accessed from your account page, allows you to link with WordPress, Facebook and Twitter – it is very simple. This means every time it sends your position or you use the “check-in” button it shows up on the Google Earth map, your WordPress Blog, Facebook and Twitter, assuming you set all of them up. You have complete control. ne note it is a send only system and you cannot receive message or send custom messages once you leave your computer. Delorme (see below) does not have these limitations.

This is a great feature for your followers and highly recommended but it only keeps the last 14 days of locations so have someone at home copy the locations weekly if you want to record it forever. Be aware that it uses satellites thus if you cannot see the sky, you will not transmit a signal so in high canyon wall areas and rocky formations, the signal may bounce resulting in a location way off your true course or not transmit at all. Not a huge concern but good to let your followers know if they see nothing or something strange, don’t worry.

Text Messaging Only

A relatively new product is from Delorme. A small, handheld device that uses the Iridium satellite system to send AND receive text messages. It connects via Bluetooth to a smartphone (iPhone, Android, etc) making the user interface familiar and simple. You can configure the device to post to Twitter and Facebook. Identical to SPOT it also offers GPS tracking and SOS messages. The only downside is the Delorme system is quite expensive so depending on your usage a Satphone may be a better value. Delorme uses the Iridium system so you must be aware of short data connection times.

NOTIFYING USERS OF NEW DISPATCHES

It is nice to allow followers to receive an email every time you post a new dispatch. The CONTACT software has a subscriber feature for this but I use a WordPress plug in called Subscribe 2 which works well for all my posts including my audio dispatches, not just for CONTACT created dispatches.

My System

OK, so what exactly did I use for the 7 Summits? Here goes: I took pictures and video with Canon and Nikon digital cameras. I wrote the dispatches on either my Apple MacBook Air or iPAQ PDA using a standard text editor. I downsized my pictures using PocketArtist or Picasa and/or resized my videos using MPEG Streamclip then copied the text and pictures to the CONTACT 5 software on my iPAQ or MacBook Air. Next, I connected to the Internet using a Thuraya handset, an Iridium handset or my Bgan depending on the expedition.

The CONTACT 5 software uploaded to the HET server where another WordPress plugin, FeedWordPress, linked the post and pictures to my WordPress Blog on my site. Once on my site, the WordPress plugins WordBooker and WP Twitter posted messages on Facebook and Twitter of a new dispatch and the plugin Subscribe 2 sent notifications to my subscribers of a new post on my Blog.

All this happened with one phone call from each continent usually in a few minutes.

Similarly, when I posted a voice dispatch, I used Hipcast that posted a link automatically to my WordPress blog and the same Facebook, Twitter and subscriber notifications. The same for my SPOT GPS Tracker updates.

Occasionally, I posted updates directly to WordPress from coffee shops or using the Bgan.

Summary

Sharing your adventure with followers in real time is fun and a great way to generate publicity for your adventure if that is an objective. I have found writing about my feelings, thoughts, fears, and hopes is what people are interested in and not how many feet I climbed today or the mechanics of the climb. While an important part of a day, your followers are interested in how you are doing not so much as to what what you are doing.

You will need:
1. Voice Communication
2. Data (Internet) connection
3. Computer
4. Digital Camera with removable memory card
5. Word Processing software
6. Image and video editing software
7. Website and/or Blog (WordPress) with plugins
8. POWER, power, power

You can see my complete gear list at my site. See my dispatch blog for the 7 Summits here.

If all this is confusing and you feel lost, I understand. Forget it all, enjoy your climb, make memories and go home and tell those stories with the energy, passion and impact you experienced in making them.

Climb on!

Alan