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Big Mountains, Big Data: How Technology Helps Push the Boundaries of Human Endeavor

Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.

That was the ad that Sir Ernest Shackleton is said to have placed in a London newspaper to recruit a crew for a 1914 expedition to Antarctica.

Human beings are naturally obsessed with great adventures, especially those in which the risks are formidable, the odds of success are slim, and a great story lies at the end of it all. Reach the poles, sail the Pacific on a balsa raft, climb Mount Everest — the list of such feats is long indeed. But as awe-inspiring as such exploits might have been, they often ended badly. Crews faced hypothermia, scurvy, dehydration, starvation, and more; death dogged them at every corner. For too many, the warnings in the Shackleton ad came true.

Technology Transforms Exploration

Fast forward 100 years to a time when conditions have changed dramatically, thanks largely to advances in technology. While the actual physical challenges remain about the same as before, our ability to deal with them and to survive to tell the story has increased considerably. From highly accurate tracking and measuring devices to near-total global telecommunications coverage (plus dramatically improved food and protective clothing), modern-day explorers have it much easier than their earlier counterparts.

Take Mount Everest expeditions. One of the most famous attempts on Everest was undertaken by British mountaineers George Mallory and Andrew Irvine in 1924. “Perfect weather for the job,” Mallory wrote on June 7, 1924, the day before he and Irvine left for Everest’s summit. They were never seen again. Mallory’s body was found in 1999; 90 years later, Irvine’s is still missing.

Recalling that expedition, the UK’s Guardian newspaper described the climbing attire and gear of the time in these words: “Protected from appalling weather and low temperatures by tweed and cotton, their legs bound in puttees and their feet always half-freezing in inadequate boots, climbers were experimenting on the fringes of human tolerance.”

In addition, early explorers were cut off from all communication while on the mountain. When Sir Edmund Hillary of Britain and Tenzing Norgay of Nepal became the first to summit the world’s highest peak on May 29, 1953 (or, as Hillary put it, they “knocked the bastard off”), the report of their conquest was first hand-delivered by a runner to a Nepalese village, eventually making its way to England by radio and telegraph. The news arrived in London just in time to coincide with the era’s blockbuster social event, the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, on June 2.

Contrast this with the South Pole trek that British polar adventurer Ben Saunders and his teammate Tarka L’Herpiniere undertook in 2013, following explorer Robert F. Scott’s route of a century earlier. Their gear included mobile satellite hubs, freeze-proof laptops, portable solar panels, and a variety of movies and TV shows (everything from Love Actually to Breaking Bad). Saunders blogged regularly from Antarctica, and he also posted updates, pictures, and videos on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media channels.

Today, Mount Everest ascents have become an industry, with numerous guide outfits offering deep-pocketed adventurers the trophy of a lifetime. In 2015, median expedition costs are north of $57,000 per climber, and expeditions now regularly haul routers and satellite terminals to base camp (at nearly 18,000 feet). Not to be outdone, telecom companies such as Nepalese cell provider Ncell and global giants like Huawei and China Mobile provide full 4G service on the mountain. Dubai-based Thuraya even provides a sleeve that converts a standard smartphone into a satellite phone.

Meanwhile, cell-phone penetration is rapidly increasing in Nepal. Today, 86 percent of Nepal’s citizens use cell phones, up from just 15 percent in 2008, according to a December 2014 report from the Nepal Telecommunications Authority. With the telecom infrastructure in place, it’s only a matter of time before both western climbing expeditions and local Sherpa communities start taking greater advantage of these technologies. As just one example, they might gather real-time weather data to keep expeditions better informed about changing conditions.

High-Tech Safety Improvements

Although the Himalayas are hundreds of miles inland, they are directly affected by storms that originate in the Bay of Bengal. In May 1996, one rogue storm killed eight people on Mount Everest, a tragedy described in journalist Jon Krakauer’s best-selling book Into Thin Air. Today, expedition leaders can access real-time weather and satellite data (with the assistance of technologies such as SAP HANA). That, in turn, allows them to determine more precisely how long they have before the weather turns bad, giving them enough time to move their teams to safer locations down the mountain.

For Mount Everest climbers ascending via the South Col route, one of the scariest obstacles is the Khumbu Icefall, a steep section where the Khumbu glacier drops and, in the process, breaks into massive ice chunks, some larger than a house. The Khumbu glacier moves 3 to 6 feet every day; until very recently, getting past it involved playing an icy version of Russian roulette.

That game has changed with the introduction of the Extreme Ice Survey, an innovative time-lapse photography project with cameras set up at 28 locations world wide, including one at Khumbu. The camera snaps a photo every 30 minutes during daylight hours and also uses precise geolocation indicators to determine where and how quickly the glacier is melting. Technology-savvy Everest guides now use the two-plus years of this time-lapsed imagery (about 8,000 images per year) to calculate the odds that a particular section of Khumbu will cave and determine the times that will likely be the safest to cross the icefall.

Reportedly, Mallory was once asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, to which he famously replied: “Because it’s there.” A century later, the climb still requires a special breed of human being who desires and is prepared to undertake a potentially hazardous journey. But in many ways, today’s technologies are helping make a safe return far less doubtful.

About SAP Startup Focus:

SAP Startup Focus works with startups in the big data, predictive analytics, and real-time analytics spaces, supporting businesses in building innovative applications using the SAP HANA database platform. More than 1,800 companies currently participate in the program. Join the conversation on Twitter by following @SAPStartups, or follow the author on Twitter: @BansalManju. 

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