Chilling Out

THE BALTIMORE SUN

As he watched in horror, three of Chris Warner's companions froze to death last year on his Mount Everest expedition.

At 21,400 feet, each of them gave up the ghost and slipped into a deep sleep, succumbing not to the punishing 22-mile yak ride or the thinning air but to the brutally cold temperatures that required two sleeping bags at night for survival.

His companions - top of the line, one and all - couldn't take the minus-25 degree temperatures.

Warner placed a frantic 911 call on a satellite phone to a Florida emergency center:

911: "It sounds like your hard drive is shot. Don't worry: We have 24-hour service anywhere. Give us your address, and we'll send a technician to fix it."

Warner: "Red tent. Advance Base Camp. Everest, Tibet. Sorry, I don't know the ZIP code."

911: "Wait a second. Did you say Everest? We don't have a service technician for your region."

But a fourth laptop computer rallied. Although its instruction booklet warned not to use it in temperatures below 50 degrees, a plucky 3-year-old Compaq sucked it up, its liquid crystal screen brought back to life by the open flame of a camp stove.

The expedition was saved, but the warranty was voided.

It isn't easy to write home when you have to thaw your postcards before you mail them, says Warner, a certified alpine guide and avid laptop computer user.

He regularly uses computers to e-mail the folks back home from high-altitude spots such as Mount Everest and Cho Oyu in the Himalayas and Cotopaxi in Ecuador.

This year, as last year, he is enlightening and entertaining Sun readers and those who follow the paper online at Sunspot (www.sunspot.net) with his tales from the side of Everest, at 29,035 feet the world's highest rock pile. Dispatches, photos and video clips glide through the ether from Advance Base Camp, perched at 21,400 feet on the mountain's north side, to The Sun's base camp on North Calvert Street.

Unlike last year, however, Warner's electronic postcards from on high have not required heating before serving.

A company in the Baltimore suburbs has supplied Warner with technology that laughs in the face of minus-40 degrees. TEKsystems of Hanover has turned five Sony VAIO PictureBooks into mountain goats. Four laptops went with Warner, and one is at company headquarters to help technicians troubleshoot glitches.

The company got involved last summer during discussions over another open flame. At a neighborhood cookout, Warner was relaying his computer difficulties to Paul Marzin, TEKsystems' senior systems architect.

"I saw him struggling, and I knew we could help," Marzin says.

After looking at several options, Marzin chose the Sonys for their light weight (2.2 pounds), integrated video camera and microphone, ease in operating with mountaineering gloves on and extended-life batteries good for eight hours between charges.

"All of this is off-the-shelf stuff," Marzin says, "with one exception."

Well, two exceptions.

The electronic exception is a 1.6-gigabyte, solid-state hard drive, "real industrial strength," that costs $2,000, Marzin says.

The hard drive has no moving parts to freeze and is almost impervious to shocks and vibrations.

As for the rest of the box, it is standard. A 600 MHz Transmeta Crusoe CPU, 192 megabytes of RAM, a built-in digital camera, a slot for a 64 MB Memory Stick, digital audio gear and an 8 MB SDRAM graphics chip from ATI are inside. A PC card 24X CD-ROM and USB-connected floppy drive round out the package.

The second exception is Siddhartha Uprety, one of the company's IT systems engineers and a Nepal native who is on his way to his homeland as a kind of high-tech Sherpa at Advance Base Camp.

"I've always seen the mountain from the base of it, and I've always wanted to get there [on the slopes]. This is a hobby come true," Uprety says.

The computer project and support help are being financed by Thingamajob.com, an Internet site that specializes in job placement in the information technology, labor, medical and scientific fields.

Communicating from Everest has never been easy, and even with technological advances, it remains touch and go.

In the 1920s and 1930s, expeditions either used Nepalese runners to bring news to the capital, Kathmandu, or explorers saved it in journals and wrote about their exploits when they returned home.

By 1953, when Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were making their bid for the summit, The Times of London was wrestling with the logistics and the deadline pressure of trying to get the story in time for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

As Jan Morris, The Times correspondent on the expedition, recalled in his book "Coronation Everest": "Some people suggested carrier pigeons, others beacon fires. Some said that since the Buddhist priests of the Everest region had remarkable telepathic powers, they might be willing to simply think the news away. There was a scheme to float news dispatches in cellophane containers down a river that happens to flow from the Everest area into India; where some unfortunate helper, it was proposed, would stand poised upon the bank, like a destitute angler, waiting for a package to appear."

In the end, Morris chose runners to carry the news 170 miles over three mountain ranges between the base camp and Kathmandu. It took a week for the dispatches to make it into print, but Morris got his scoop.

Last year, Canadian climber Byron Smith and his team carried a TV camera and transmission equipment to the summit to send back live pictures from the top of the world. But winds in excess of 100 mph made opening the antenna suicidal.

Warner transmits his reports using a V.90 56K modem inside the laptops coupled with a DIVA T/A ISDN PC card that connects to a 64K Nera World Communicator satellite phone. An antenna array transmits the signal to the INMARSAT satellite over the Indian Ocean. The signal is downloaded in France and beamed to Warner's ISP, Charm Net, in Baltimore.

The TEKsystems team worked past Warner's departure for Kathmandu and express-mailed the laptops to him. Timing prevented Marzin and Uprety from testing the entire communications system before shipping it off.

"We couldn't do an end-to-end test, so we had to wing it," Marzin says.

They must have done something right. What Warner reported from Advance Base Camp was music to TEKsystems' ears: "It was plug and play."

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