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MIT students install weather probes on Mt. Everest trek

An expedition to Mt. Everest that included two MIT graduate students on its field team was a success. Not only did expedition leader and veteran climber Pete Athans become the first Western climber to have summitted Everest six times, but all the scientific goals of the expedition were met this year for the first time.

Part of the 1999 Everest Millenium Expedition field team -- Matthew Lau and Chris Metcalfe, graduate researchers at the Media Lab -- placed advanced telometry around the world's highest peak to monitor weather conditions year-round.

It was not all smooth sailing for the climbers, who included Mr. Athans, three fellow Western alpinists and a group of Sherpas. In an anxious e-mail report, Mr. Lau reported from base camp on May 4 that the climbers had planned to make their summit bid the day before, but were held back by high winds and unexpected snow.

Forced to spend an extra night in the "death zone" above 25,000 feet, where the extremely thin air takes a serious toll on the body, the climbers used up a full day's worth of bottled oxygen. Fortunately, another expedition agreed to lend them enough oxygen for the summit attempt.

If they couldn't start for the summit that night, a new jet stream forming in Pakistan would have closed the summit window for more than a week, Mr. Lau said.

But by 10pm on May 4, "the wind miraculously died down and the skies remained clear all through the night" and the next day, Mr. Lau wrote, "the weather could not have been more perfect." At 10:31am on May 5, after having left the highest camp around 12 hours earlier, Mr. Athans became the first person to summit Everest this year. What's more, he broke trail through thick snow and climbed solo to fix ropes over tricky ascents for those who followed him.

Team member Bill Crouse, regional sales manager for The North Face, summitted after Mr. Athans. Because of the calm air in a place where hurricane-force winds are the norm, the pair spent two hours at the summit doing scientific work.

In 1998, MIT students hiked the mountain to position two probes at South Col and at a Sherpa village at 16,000 feet. The probes continuously transmitted data to MIT until the batteries died in August 1998. The new lithium-powered probes have a life expectancy of one year.

Last year, mountaineers also tested Media Lab technology by wearing biofeedback devices that relayed data about their physiological condition directly to the MIT team's computers at base camp. The GeoPaks in their backpacks transmitted atmospheric and GPS (global positioning system) data to the MIT computers so the physiological data could be linked to environmental conditions.

The Bio-Paks, GeoPaks and weather probes were all designed and built by Michael J. 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 processed the data at base camp (MIT Tech Talk, May 20, 1998).

Museum of Science director Brad Washburn has set research agendas for Everest expeditions for the past four years, but each year, some part has remained undone. This year, the field team installed permanent GPS survey points at South Col (27,000 feet) and at the highest bedrock of the mountain; completed simultaneous GPS measurement of the summit, South Col and Kala Pattar to see if Everest is growing taller; and installed weather monitoring devices at various points of the mountain.

Weather on Mt. Everest can mean life or death to climbers. The four battery-powered weather probes now anchored on the mountain are embedded with satellite uplinks, which continually relay information to a ground station. The ground station in turn forwards the data by e-mail. The probes measure air temperature and barometric pressure; provide a rough estimate of wind speed, the amount of sun radiation and its position; and indicate whether there is snow cover.

On May 1, Mr. Metcalfe reported via e-mail that Mr. Lau and (team member and GPS researcher) David Mencin "took advantage of the good weather to trek up some 400 feet to install one of the MIT weather probes. This probe will hopefully continue broadcasting weather data for the next year or so."

Mr. Lau (SB 1997) last year was part of the MIT/Yale/NASA Extreme Everest Expedition that studied technology for remote environmental and medical sensing in harsh environments. Mr. Metcalfe is working on a master's degree in media technology in the Media Lab's Information and Entertainment section headed by Andrew Lippman, associate director of the Media Lab and lecturer.

A version of this article appeared in the May 12, 1999 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 43, Number 30).

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