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Who says being a technical officer of an expedition is a “paid holiday” to somewhere exotic? Before you judge, think again ….

Baked Apples anyone???

My daily routine schedule is as follows -

a) Wake up at 7:45am (typically, earlier – but the temperature is too brrrrrrrrrr to even warm up my brain – so I maintain a very intimate relationship with my down jacket and sleeping bag until the sun warms up the interior of my tent to a nice and cosy 18 deg C).

b) Breakfast at 8:15am (the chief cook – a Sherpa himself, will bang on his frying pan with a frying handle long enough for the dead to be woken up. Incidentally, I wonder how long will his frying pan / handle last – but I think it should be long enough to serve us through the expedition or he must have lots of spares around)>

c) Work starts at 9am in the Comms tent.

First, previous night’s snow must be cleared (if any) unless you prefer to work with an aqualung. The “king a la king” – our two solar panels are then taken out gently to be laid on the ground outside the comms tent. Actually, these solar panels are supposed to be military standards issue, but I think Pentagon didn’t think that mil-specs include being exposed to -30 deg C at night and 30 deg C during the day. We actually found two broken wires inside one solar panel and I had to “operate” on it to solder the broken wires together. Luckily, Humpty Dumpty has some capable “king men” to glue him back!

Baked Apples anyone???
Next, the computers and all the electronic hardware are taken out to be baked in the sun. This is necessary because the night here is very cold and condensation does form on printed boards. If one should attempt to power on the hardware in such a condition, that poor guy might receive a most disagreeable shock followed by a last grasp from the dying machine. Since we have only a limited supply of such machines, we have to avoid inflicting such final treatment to them.

We then verify that the solar panels and the power supply is okay before we start connecting the electronic hardware into them for charging their built-in batteries. Hold it …. we aren’t running a PUB power station here – we have only generating capability for 6 amps of 12 volts supply only – hardly enough to power a typical kitchen water kettle. That means we can’t just plug everything we want to charge into an “infinite” power socket that virtually everyone in Singapore has taken for granted. Here, we have to prioritise things and charge those that are vital for its immediate use.

A typical work schedule might be “email download and upload”. Everyone in Singapore is familiar with a telephone and its usage. In this wilderness, there is no phone line and to communicate with the rest of the world, we have to rely on a very exotic (and expensive) technology – satellites. So, the connections to the Internet means we have to connect to a communications satellite, many of them are really established for ships at sea. Inmarsat (International Maritime Satellite) is the most famous of them and we use them here too. We have to know where the satellite is located otherwise, we get NO connections.

After pointing the antenna to the relevant satellite, we power up the modem unit and plug its connector into the computer. Only then we can start sending and receiving emails. Because satellite connections are slow, we can only do emails at 2400 bps (most homes in Singapore can send emails at 56,000 bps and faster). Patience is a virtue here. Sending pictures (a 40Kbyte JPEG file) takes 5 to 10 minutes here. Sometimes, we experience line drops (nothing extraordinary with satellite communications). These can be caused by heavy clouds or snowfalls in the direction of the antenna. Sometimes, the reasons are unknown. Whatever the reasons, a line drop means we have to re-establish connections all over again – a waste of money as far as we are concerned. Cost of satellite time varies from US$0.80 to US$13.00 per minute depending on which device we use.

Personal emails, official reports and photographs (the ones that you see in the website) are the main items we transmit and receive daily. The really biggie ones (large JPEGS bound for newspapers and movies) are sent using another technique – utilising the Nera M4 World Communicator, which is capable of sending data at 64,000 bps (ISDN speeds). Digital photos have to processed by Adobe Photoshop before transmission – to keep its size down. Movies have to edited by Final Cut Pro and compressed using QuickTime before we can even talk of sending it back to Singapore by M4.

If you think this is fun, think again. The comms tent is unheated and we are at the mercy of the outside weather. Sometimes, it gets so hot during the day, I have to work in short sleeves and rolled up trousers. Then it can get so cold you reach for the down jacket – all within 5 minutes.

d) We normally break for lunch at about 12 noon which takes about 1 hour.

e) Work starts again at about 1pm and typically, continues until about 5pm (when the cold starts to make itself felt). It might end earlier if the weather decides otherwise. So, we are literally at the mercy of the elements …. something you don’t experience in Singapore (sheltered in your home).

f) We then packed up everything and locked them inside the aluminium trunk for the night. This is the only security we have – but then, we hardly have thiefs which can make use of all those electronic equipment we have.

g) Dinner time is normally 6:30pm.. After dinner, we head for our tents and “sweet dreams” after that – rest enough to start again the next day.

Anyone for a restful holiday here? You are welcomed to try ……..

Ting Sern

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