Magazine article Geographical

Outdoor Technology: Essential Gear: Expeditioners Are Increasingly Employing High-Tech Equipment to Stay Safe and Keep in Touch with the outside World, Says Paul Deegan

Magazine article Geographical

Outdoor Technology: Essential Gear: Expeditioners Are Increasingly Employing High-Tech Equipment to Stay Safe and Keep in Touch with the outside World, Says Paul Deegan

Article excerpt

During the autumn of 1988, co led a 47 strong expedition to Nepal. The aim was to clean up the 35 years' worth of mountaineers' rubbish that had accumulated at the foot of Mount Everest. We ran into our first major snag in Kathmandu when we discovered that a backlog of flight delays was going to prevent us from flying to the start of our trek in Lukla for a fortnight. It was imperative that we flew within 48 hours, as otherwise we would have insufficient time to acclimatise properly and fill our trash bags.

After a day of exploring every conceivable option, a single solution presented itself: a couple of expensive flights in a helicopter. On a weekend. Unsurprisingly, the pilot turned all Linda Evangelista on us, and refused to get out of bed for anything Less than the gross domestic product of a small African nation. The only way to secure the extravagant money we required was to speak to UK outdoor retailer Survival Aids, which had enthusiastically supported the project from the outset. And to do that, it was necessary to put a request in for an international call to the managing director, Nick Steven, some six hours in advance of when I wanted to speak to him.

After a long half day of waiting, I was finally put through by a friendly Nepalese operator and spoke to Nick on a connection that required several seconds' worth of silence between each volley of words to allow for the delay on the line. There was a particularly long delay after I explained just how much money would be required to rent a helicopter for half a day. But Nick came up trumps and we flew the next morning.

Fast forward to 1993, when I made a call from Everest Base Camp using a satellite phone the size of a family suitcase. I was automatically patched through to the UK, and for the princely sum of 8 [pounds sterling] a minute, I could talk away to my heart's content. For three minutes.

Eleven years on, and I returned to Everest for the sixth time. By now, satellite phones had shrunk to the size of a box of Jaffa Cakes. I was able to Lie back in my tent making calls for just 1 [pounds sterling] a minute, and send and receive text messages for just a few pence.

These three experiences vividly illustrate the speed with which technology has come to affect so many aspects of our outdoor experiences. Navigating, communicating, recording, even the clothing we wear, are now directly influenced by technology in a way that explorers of the 19th and 20th centuries could barely have even dreamt about. There no longer seems to be any limit as to what can be achieved by marrying technology with the natural world.

Boon or bane?

Technology in the great outdoors is, of course, nothing new. Scott and Shackleton both took vehicles with them to the South Pole: if they could have found a way to use them effectively, they would undoubtedly have done so. The latest advances in two-way radios were employed, with mixed results, on the 1953 Everest expedition. And short-wave communications remained an integral part of many expeditions until the advent of affordable satellite the late 1990s.

Whether technology is always a good thing is debatable. The most discussed issue is the propensity of irresponsible hikers and climbers to get into trouble and then rely on a mobile phone call to the local mountain-rescue team. Critics also point out that using technology in the outdoors often alienates expedition members flora the natural world surrounding them. Hundreds of hours are invariably spent coaxing high-tech kit into life in adverse weather conditions. This is time that could potentially be spent more profitably by relaxing, sleeping and eating between bouts of physically demanding work.

However, this article has been written to celebrate rather than condemn today s advances and tomorrow's possibilities. Ultimately, the decision about whether to embrace technology on your expeditions and journeys is yours. …

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