updated early 2016
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:
Do it Yourself:
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.
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.
This is the crux of your dispatch plan. You have two basic choices: Phones or satellite modems. 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
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 depending on location. For example calls to the US from Nepal or China cost US$0.90 using their NOVO SIM. The rate jumps to US1.85 from Pakistan. Iridium is a flat US$1.20 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.
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 early 2016. See their website for the latest. On the north side of Everest, you can use China Mobile. I have never used them but understand its best to get someone local to buy the SIM card. Its best to check with your logistics provider well before you arrive in China to arrange all of this.
I posted dispatches on Kilimanjaro using my iPhone and local 3G service when I could not get satellite reception – more on this later.
A ‘high’ speed satellite 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. For some units you need to have special software on your laptop to connect to the modem and its mandatory you load this before you leave home. But for units like the Thuraya IP+, you simply connect to the unit using WIFI from your laptop, click a button to connect to the Internet and start using your normal software. I have used them on several expeditions, including Everest and K2, 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 satellite modems 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 sat modem 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, smartphone connected to a 3G network or a GPS device (covered later) or a satellite phone are the only real solutions. 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.
As I update this page in early 2016, most large operators now provide Internet connect at their base camps using the Thuraya IP+ sat modem. It costs about $3,000 and for "unlimited" internet connect time, it costs about $3,000 per month. This is expensive but when spread out over a team, it is the only way to go.
CONNECTION TO THE INTERNET
On a Thuraya hand set, you simply dial 1722 and you have a connection to the Internet just like at home, only it is at 9600 baud. On an Iridium handset 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. Satellite modems, 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.
EverestLInk is a service started in 2015 using microwave links throughout the Khumbu. They claim to offer Wi-Fi hotspots in Lukla, Phakding, Monju,Namche Bazaar, Tengboche, Dingboche, Lobuche, Gorakshep, Kala Patthar, Pheriche, Kyanjuma,Everest Base Camp, Dole, Phortse, Macchermo, Gokyo, Thangna, and many more. I tried to use their service in 2015 but was constantly frustrated with lack of availability and the signal being kidnapped by the teahouses. I contacted them for 2016 and they assure me all the reliability issues had been fixed but I would not go to Everest counting on EverestLInk as my sole provider. However when it worked, it worked well at a reasonable price of 1 GB for US37.00 in 2015.
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 satellite modem, 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.
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
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.
Another useful Plugins is WP Twitter that will automatically update your 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, Android, 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.
TEXT AND PICTURE DISPATCHES
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.
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 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 satellite modem 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.
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 and Text Messaging
If you want followers to see your latest location and perhaps send them a short text message, then the two most popular systems are SPOT and Delorme. Both send your current GPS location to their websites, Facebook, Twitter, etc. They use satellites so you must have a clear view of the sky to connect to the satellite. SPOT uses Globalstar and Delorme uses Iridium.
The SPOT system is simple to use but in terms of messages, only sends pre-programmed messages to pre-setup contacts. The Delorme systems allows you to send text messages to your contacts but is more expensive at $380 for the unit and $65 per month for the subscription plan. A SPOT costs $180 for the unit and an annual subscription of $200. I have used the SPOT tracker extensively. Be careful of all these devices in terms of battery usage.
For completeness, I mention this device but it is not longer available from SPOT. When I contacted them, they said they were working on a two-way messaging device but had no introduction date available. In any event the SPOT Connect was an additional device that connects to your smartphone thus allowing you to send text messages (and GPS coordinates) like the Delorme.
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 or JetPack which works well for all my posts including my audio dispatches, not just for CONTACT created dispatches.
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 satellite modem 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 satellite modem.
For K2 and Lhotse in 2014 on, I used a Thuraya IP+ satellite modem that connected to my MacBook Air via WIFI. I wrote my dispatches using Apple Pages, created movies using Apple iMovie and uploaded it all using FileZilla (note to configure the upload setting to 0 seconds for retry in the connection section) to my Wordpress directories. This was faster than using the FTP solution built into Wordpress but things change so it may be OK to upload everything from Wordpress today.
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:
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.