Network: Tibet netted

Chris Bonington's assault on an uncharted peak will be hi-tech and live on the Web.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
For centuries, Sepu Kangri was known only to the people who lived in its shadow, deep in Tibet's Diru County. There are no known written accounts of the mountain, known locally as the "Great Snow Peak above the Holy Lake", even though the range is visible from one of Tibet's main yak caravan routes.

Over the next few weeks, all that will change. A team of mountaineers, led by Chris Bonington, are already on their way to a base camp in northern Tibet. From there, they will attempt the first Western ascent of Sepu Kangri. Within hours, their route up the 6,900-metre (22,637ft) mountain, along with their photographs, will appear on Bonington's Web site.

Bonington is no stranger to technology. He used a computer - an Apple II - at base camp during his fifth Everest expedition, and a cameraman is often part of his expedition team.

The difference this time is the speed with which information will reach Bonington's UK base in the northern Lake District. From there, it will be available to anyone who can access the Web.

Bonington admits that he is fascinated by the potential of the Web. "It means that our little expedition can communicate directly with anyone in the world who wants to turn on their computer and look at the Web site," he says. "It is our story, unfiltered."

For mountaineers, this is a sensitive point. Expeditions carry a degree of risk, and the climbing community feels it is often misunderstood by the conventional media, especially when things go wrong. Bonington cites the example of a recent US Everest expedition, where several climbers died. The media relied on garbled information and hearsay, but the expedition's Web site carried the latest news from base camp.

The Sepu Kangri team are relying on satellite communications to keep in touch with base. At base camp, they will use an Apple PowerBook laptop connected to a Saturn B high-speed data terminal, powered in part by a solar panel. The team will use an Olympus digital camera to take photographs at base camp, and then transfer them using the PowerBook to the expedition Web site. The computer can also access the team's e-mail, and provides a rapid link with the UK.

This system is powerful and quite portable, but the ascent itself demands technology which is even more compact. Weight is an issue: the technical term for the expedition is a "lightweight push".

Images, they hope from the summit, will come from an Agfa digital camera connected to an Apple MessagePad 130, a hand-portable "personal digital assistant". Using software specially written by Logica, Bonington will be able to take pictures, load them into the MessagePad and connect to satellite via a miniature BT terminal, the Mobiq, which is not much larger than an office telephone. The total outfit weighs around two-and-a-half kilograms, costs less than pounds 2,000 to buy, and the process of recording and sending it is virtually instantaneous.

The expedition's use of technology goes beyond communications. Bonington first turned to computers for administrative help: in an expedition, good logistics are as vital as mountaineering skills.

Technology can also make the journey safer. The Sepu Kangri team will use GPS (Global Positioning System) as a navigation aid. GPS uses satellites to pinpoint the user's location with a high degree of accuracy. Some climbers and hill walkers dismiss GPS as a gimmick, but Bonington believes that, in uncharted territory, it could be a vital aid. There are no maps of Sepu Kangri: the only chart the expedition has is a road map covering the whole of Tibet. "Even if you don't have a map, you can waymark the way up electronically," Bonington says. This means the team can find its way down, even in poor visibility.

"It could just be a life-saver on this climb," he points out, although it is no substitute for a climber's skills. "With all this technology, you have to be very, very careful that you have the belt and the braces."

Climbing traditionalists argue that technology robs nature of its mystique: heading for the peaks should mean leaving the trappings of modern life behind, and pitching skill and stamina against the rock and the elements. Digital pictures beamed across the world are a long way from the romantic image of intrepid explorers recounting their adventures around the comfort of a warm fire.

Bonington does not believe his use of digital communications is all that different from the film crews that have accompanied important expeditions since the Fifties.

"The beauty of the mountains, and their size, is so great that that engulfs everything else," he says. By next month, that beauty should be there for all to see on the Internet.

Chris Bonington's Web site http://www.bonington.com

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