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It is seldom necessary to ask mountaineers why they choose to take on the great peaks. Asked why he wanted to scale Everest, legendary British climber George Mallory reportedly replied “because it’s there”, which seemed all the explanation required. Climbing retains its allure of challenge and endurance but those of us at ground level are these days much closer to the experience.
When a team led by Ramon Portilla decided to attempt Laila Peak, one of the centrepieces of the Karakoram range in northwest Pakistan, they opted to do so in winter for the first time. This not only made the climb more complex and potentially dangerous, it also called for better communications than used previously.
At around 6,200m Laila might not be the highest peak of the range, but it is both one of most beautiful and most challenging.
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“Laila Peak is a technically difficult climb because its sections are so varied,” says Javier Álvaro Palomares, Director of Salomba Ventures. “For example, we had to cross a long slope of more than 45 degrees for 800 vertical metres. Conditions at the base camp are around minus 20 degrees. When we reached the summit, winds were 40 kilometres an hour at minus 35 degrees but are often much worse. In summer it’s one kind of mountain, in winter it’s completely different.”
The team of six experienced mountaineers were joined by two technical and image support staff who would help keep the group in contact with the world and capture video and stills footage.
To make sure that they could update supporters around the world as well as share progress with social media and news outlets, the team needed reliable communications. They turned to Thuraya and service partner Satlink for support, who sponsored the team with Thuraya XT handheld satellite phones and a Thuraya IP satellite modem.
The Thuraya equipment was there for more than just media duty. It also provided a vital link to detailed weather forecasting information that would equip the climbers with the information they needed to make decisions that could affect their safety.
“In these winter conditions, where you only have a few weeks of available climbing it’s essential to keep the team safe. We have used Thuraya mobiles on previous climbs but having the Thuraya IP meant we could receive really precise weather forecasts every day,” says Javier.
“We worked with a meteorologist in Spain who was in contact every day with the European Centre for Weather Forecasts and he was able to email the team data on the weather at the base camp and at camps one and two.”
This precise level of data meant that the climbers were able to make better decisions in a shorter time. That enabled them to start out in bad weather knowing it would improve, as well as staying put when the forecast told them the weather would worsen in coming hours and days.
The team also used the Thuraya XT units to communicate between the camps, much more effective than the walkie-talkies climbers commonly rely on. And it wasn’t all one-way traffic. The climbers measured the wind speeds and temperatures on the mountain and relayed it back to Spain, enabling the meteorologist to compare weather models to real conditions, further improving the accuracy of forecasting.
“We were able to improve data gathering but the main focus was the safety of the team. Without that forecast, they could have put themselves at great risk. We could not always rely on the walkie-talkies but the Thuraya mobiles gave us a guaranteed connection which really improved the margin of safety,” he adds.
Team member Juanjo San Sebastian first came to the Karakoram range 30 years ago to attempt K2. At that time he says, using satellite communications was unimaginable. “We used to have the news delivered by a postman once a month. Now we have precise weather forecasts and can keep in contact with our families.” He also kept in touch with colleagues back home, sending pictures to the marketing department of his employer – a financial institution whose logo is a mountain range.
The team was also able to update social media feeds from base camp, sending images and news from the climb as well as video footage compiled on a weekly basis. Communications Specialist David Perez set up Wi-Fi network to enable multiple team members to connect to their iPhones with no loss in data rate. In very bad weather the team had to leave the Thuraya IP modem outside while they were inside their tent shelter, with no ill effects.
Sebastian Alvaro has been organising and leading expeditions to extreme locations for 30 years.
He says the ability to connect with supporters as well as the team’s friends and family played an important role in boosting recognition and morale on this ascent.
“We have used satellite communications on other expeditions but our experience is that Thuraya has given us the best service in terms of quality and reliability. Not all the team were technical experts but they all found the Thuraya XT and IP simple to set up and use.”
Further expeditions are planned and Sebastian says the climbing team knows it can rely on Thuraya equipment whatever the conditions.
“Before the ascent of Laila Peak we wondered how the equipment would cope on the mountain but it worked perfectly with no breakdowns. The places we visit range from desert to the coldest places on earth. It’s hard on us and very hard for the equipment too. The pioneers had to rely on intuition, improvisation and looking at the sky when attempting a mountain. Knowing we can rely on Thuraya has changed everything.”