Expert Advice - Exped Essentials

Deciding what equipment to bring on an Antarctic expedition is no easy task. There are 101 (well probably more) essentials, all of which must be lightweight, indestructible, and fit into one sled. ALE’s Expedition Manager, Steve Jones, provides some expert advice for teams heading onto the ice.

What kind of phone should I bring and how many?

ALE requires each expedition team to carry two Iridium phones, each with its own SIM, batteries and spare batteries, and a recharging system. Soloists and ski-kiting expeditions need to carry an Iridium tracking beacon in addition to the two phones. It also makes sense for kiting teams to bring VHF radios so they can stay in touch with each other as they travel.

Some models of Iridium phone are easier to use than others. The 9575 Extreme is reported to be slow to power up and has a small and fiddly on switch that can’t be used when wearing gloves. Our technical staff prefer the 9555 although the antenna is fragile. The US made 9505A is arguably the most robust model. For expeditions carrying two phones it makes sense to bring two phones of the same model so that the batteries and accessories are interchangeable.

Could an InReach beacon substitute for an Iridium backup phone?

The InReach beacon has grown in popularity and is stable and easy to operate. But while it offers tracking and two-way text messaging, it does not replace a second Iridium phone. We need to have two-way voice communications with each expedition or field party in case of emergency and due to a high number of Iridium handset failures we require each team to carry two phones. An Iridium tracking beacon is additional to that, and not a substitute for a second phone.

The ability to follow an expedition’s positions and progress on a website has been really successful for many recent expeditions. It is interesting that there are several competing models of Iridium tracking beacons all with basically similar components. Delorme has emerged as the most popular model for Antarctic expeditions in the last couple of years, perhaps due to better marketing.

What do you think about the Iridium Go?

The Iridium GO! is a very positive development for Iridium and we are interested to see them in use in Antarctica for the first time this season. As they are new, we want to gain experience of them in Antarctica before commenting in detail, other than to say that they look to be the obvious product for anyone buying new or upgrading their Iridium equipment. Our requirements for redundancy in critical systems mean that if they prove to be as good as hoped then future expeditions would have the option of substituting an Iridium GO! in place of an Iridium phone.

Any other tech or safety related issues that people should be aware of?

Antarctica is as challenging a place – as it was a hundred years ago. New equipment designed for extreme use on most of the Earth’s surface breaks down in Antarctica, just as much as the motor sledges used by Captain Scott did. Broken wiring, faulty electronics, leaking fuel and contaminated food remain challenges for expeditions in 2014 and every detail needs just as careful planning and testing.

Expedition skiers continue to be vulnerable to cold injury on their legs, and occasionally buttocks and abdomens – the so called ‘polar thigh’. The motion of skiing into a headwind or with a tailwind compresses legwear. Skiers need to plan their clothing layers carefully so that even in those conditions, there is enough insulation and room for trapped air to prevent cold injury.

We equip our ALE guided ski expeditions to the South Pole with lightweight crevasse safety equipment and we recommend all expeditions with more than one person in them do the same. Skiers on the two most popular routes to the South Pole (from Hercules Inlet and from the Messner Start) have encountered crevasses. Having a rope and basic crevasse safety equipment enables skiers to rope up if they must cross a snow bridge. This seems very sensible and worth carrying. Each expedition has to make its own decisions on route finding and crevasse safety and skiers need to be comfortable with their experience and ability so that they are competent to evaluate the risks and their own method of travel.

Any advice you can give to help explorers (skiers, mountaineers, tourists) have a successful Antarctica trip?

For expedition planners:

The key thing is to contact ALE with an outline early in the planning process, so that we can advise on feasibility and provide a cost estimate; then to keep in touch and seek advice as the plans develop. There are many third party experts who can only provide partial or out-of-date information and we offer unlimited planning support so it makes sense to use it.

For expedition skiers dependent on sponsorship:

We have seen a trend of enquiries from comparative novices aspiring to break records and to eclipse existing polar achievements. These overly ambitious plans seldom achieve funding and so it is worth emphasizing that good expeditions with an interesting story can gain sponsors and financial backers without breaking records. There is no substitute for Antarctic expedition experience and it is worth planning do something achievable for a first expedition and to use it to gain experience and credibility for future projects.

For teams in the field:

Despite good planning and good guiding things can go wrong. Each expedition will have done their best to plan and equip the expedition well, but once the journey starts anything can happen. We are there to provide support and to help, so please ask. We would much rather an expedition is well equipped, and well supported medically, and go on to succeed than struggle for the sake of asking for something. If a team needs or wants something – such as a medical re-supply; replacement for spilt fuel or fuel-contaminated food; a new ski pole – they should advise our Union Glacier Operations team as soon as possible, so that we can take into account all opportunities for helping the expedition. This may include discussing with the team whether they need the items immediately or can wait until the next planned resupply; or deciding whether to lose an ‘unsupported’ status in order to complete their journey.

Improved ALE infrastructure

ALE’s investment in new and improved facilities at our main Union Glacier base, at our blue ice runway and in Punta Arenas continues and we are proud of the developments and the vastly improved facilities and capabilities that we can offer to our guests, compared with even a few years ago.

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