Assistant Professor Michael Hawley of the Media Lab and five graduate students are scaling the heights of success -- literally -- in a research project aptly named the Everest Extreme Expedition, which is testing telemedicine equipment in some of the harshest conditions imaginable, near the summit of Mt. Everest.
After traveling to Nepal late last month, the MIT group hiked 10 days with sherpas (native porters) and yaks to an Everest base camp at 17,500 feet, where they pitched their tents in a field of boulders atop a glacier at the foot of the Khumbu ice fall. At that altitude, the temperature ranges from 0ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½F or below at night to a 45ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½F high made hot by the sun shining through a thin atmosphere and reflecting off the ice and snow.
From the relative comfort of that camp, which is higher than the highest peak in the US mainland, the team is monitoring the physical condition of the American Everest Expedition, a climbing team of five experienced mountaineers whose on-line biographies read like a Who's Who of Climbing.
Those climbers, led by Wally Berg, one of the world's leading mountaineers who has summited Mt. Everest three times already, are headed up to the summit on a geological mission. They are attempting "to establish a fixed-point surveying station on the highest bedrock in the world," said Professor Hawley. The mountaineers were assembled for this purpose by Brad Washburn, founder of Boston's Museum of Science and the climber and cartographer who mapped Mt. McKinley, the Grand Canyon and Mt. Everest.
The team had hoped to reach the 29,028 foot summit by now, but ice and snow have slowed their ascent. They've had to ascend part of the way to Camps II, III and IV (the South Col) then descend a couple of times, waiting for conditions to allow them to continue to the summit.
As the mountaineers make their ascent on the survey mission, they're also testing some of the Media Lab's technology by wearing biofeedback devices that relay data about their physiological condition directly to the MIT team's computers at base camp. They're carrying GeoPaks in their backpacks which transmit atmospheric and GPS data to the MIT computers so that the physiological data can be linked to environmental conditions. And as they travel, they've left a few weather probes that will broadcast weather information to a waiting satellite.
The Bio-Paks, GeoPaks and weather probes were all designed and built by Professor Hawley, the Alex Dreyfoos Jr. (1954) Assistant Professor of Media Arts and Sciences, and his research group at the Media Lab, as were the computers and other devices that process the data at base camp.
"Our team is part of the first purely scientific expedition to go to Everest," said Professor Hawley in an e-mail message from Mt. Everest. "It's thrilling to watch our technology move up the mountain, literally to the top of the world." But he said, the Bio-Paks, "while important to us, are just one of many forays being undertaken on this expedition."
"Wally's efforts in helping with other experiments, like the weather probe, or the bio and geo packs, have been heroicï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½It sounds simple enough: capture a few sensor measurements, like a heartbeat, and transmit it to a digital network. But try doing it on Everest, where every ounce counts. It is hard to convey what it meant for Wally to bravely put the bio-pack harness on, and hike up into the ice fall," wrote Professor Hawley.
Some of Professor Hawley's new technology was tested in the 1997 "Marathon man" experiment, when Professor Hawley and students ran the Boston Marathon wearing the biofeedback devices they designed. Now the Everest Expedition climbers are equipped with those devices -- four tiny sensors no larger than a penny.
Each climber is wearing the Nonin blood oxygen sensor on his forehead, Sensor Scientific thermistors under his arms to measure body surface temperature, and a Polar heart rate sensor strapped to his chest. Each also swallowed a PED Body Core Temperature Monitor that will transmit, from inside his stomach, his inner body temperature.
The small sensors transmit data to the climber's Media Lab-supplied neoprene vests, which in turn transmit information to the Media Lab team at base camp -- assuming, that is, that all the equipment continues to function in the extreme conditions. So far, the MIT team has managed to get things up and keep them running.
"Our tents are pitched right at the foot of the monstrous Khumbu ice fall, yet somehow the team continues to solder, code and test," wrote Professor Hawley, praising the teams' stoicism. The group has established a web site that provides information about all aspects of the mission, from the latest data gathered by the weather probes to graduate student Matt Lau's journal entries.
"Once the generators go off and the chatter of after-dinner conversation dies down, this place is like capturing a piece of eternity," said Mr. Lau in a May 10 journal entry. "The midnight sky holds such a perfect blue that you get the impression you're staring into a calm and endless seaï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ And if it weren't enough for the heavens to remind you of the insignificance of your size, ground-shaking avalanches and the slow but steady creeping of the glacier let you know that even this planet, which seems so quiet and familiar, is still alive and moving, and that man, no matter how much he thinks he controls his world, is still subject to the movements of the Earth."
The juxtaposition of the research team's environment -- one of the most harsh, remote places on Earth -- with the high-tech world of the Media Lab is a little mind-boggling and will probably make for fascinating anecdotes when the group returns.
"Base camp is a somewhat surreal place," said Professor Hawley in his May 18 e-mail. "To add to the weirdness, there I was last night, shivering in my shorts in the snow while being interviewed by Peter Jennings. Oddly enough, our video link worked perfectly, but ABC took nearly half an hour to get the signals properly connected. Peter was kind enough to personally read us the news (Frank Sinatra, nuclear tests in India, etc.)." The Jennings-Hawley interview via video link was scheduled to air on ABC Nightly News on May 18, but did not run that night. However, a live interview with Professor Hawley was aired on Nightline that evening.
In addition to the MIT researchers and the Everest Extreme Expedition climbing team, the project also involves physicians and medical technicians from the Yale University School of Medicine who were at the base camp, satellite communications by AT&T, and the geological research project headed by Brad Washburn. USA Today reporter Tim Friend accompanied the team to base camp; the project web site has a link to the articles he's written from Mt. Everest.
MIT graduate students participating in the trek are Jesse Darley of mechanical engineering; Mr. Lau of electrical engineering and computer science; and Natalia Marmasse, Rob Poor and Maria Redin of media arts and sciences. They plan to leave the mountain on May 23 and return to Boston next month.
Anyone wishing to follow the expedition on the web can do so by checking in regularly at http://www.everest.org. The web site also offers individuals the opportunity to join an e-mail list to automatically receive daily updates on the mountaineer's progress.
Sponsors for the Media Lab research and expedition include ASCII Corp.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 20, 1998.