Sat Phone Blogging — First Attempt

Post by blogger | February 6, 2010      

Last week I got our satphone blogging setup somewhat completed, so I’m out on the first test run. Up at a hut in Colorado, doing some backcountry
skiing. Have the remote antenna outside, and I’m sitting here in luxury that’s not exactly a tent on the Kahiltna, but is a good place to start with something this tricky.
This text and photos in this blog were transmitted over my satphone system, then published once I got home. Since I don’t have an unlimited budget for satphone minutes, we’ll be sending our expedition blog posts and photos as quick and basic emails, and several “ground” people will assemble and publish as blog posts.

Lou k2 Waybacks

Along with testing my 'satblog' system, I brought out my Denali skis and boots. Plank choice at this time is my K2 Waybacks. I wish they matched my Baker Superlights in weight (they're about 4 ounces heavier each) but they ski great so I guess I'd better not whine or K2 Backside brand manager Mike Hattrup might whip me with one of his ski poles. My right boot is also too tight. Time for another trip to the boot fitter, I guess, as I don't want to count on it packing out just about the time my toes are turning black. Note the artifacts from heavy jpeg compression. I got this photo down to about 10k in size, which is pretty amazing. It sent in just a couple of minutes using the slow Iridium modem, which is basically 'dialup' speed, if any of you were born long enough ago to know what that is.

Come to think of it, even if I did have a stimulus grant for satphone time, I probably wouldn’t want to take the time in camp to do the actual grunt work of making a blog post from the text and photos. Not a huge time burden, but every minute will count when we’re up there in the reality zone. Instead, dashing off a quick raw dispatch with three or four photos shouldn’t take more than 45 minutes or so. And if conditions are mellow, I’ve got the solar power and equipment to go for quite a bit of content and some crafted writing.

Colorado backcountry skiing.

I like this shot of Lisa, reminds me of a painting what with the snow drizzling in front of the glass. The MAJOR jpeg compression I'm using didn't seem to mess with it much.

And despite all our high tec stuff, if things get extreme we’ll do what a lot of expeditions do and simply dictate our blog posts to voicemail or a phone recorder, then our ground person can keyboard them in (job security, anyone?). So one way or another, you’ll be able to see what trials, tribulations and successes we have way up there on the Big One.

My Iridium satphone blogging setup.

The system (sans remote antenna). That's two folding Brunton solar panels (Solaris 26), two Brunton battery packs, an Acer Aspire One netbook with solid state hard drive, and an Iridium 9555 sat phone. I found that the stock cabling was heavy and unweildy, so I trimmed everything up as best I could. Would have liked to eliminate the stupid 'cigarette lighter' receptacles, but both the satphone and the computer charging adapters are designed to fit that type of plug -- so without major electrical cobbling I'm stuck with those.

The whole nerdy mess fits in a Pelican case at about 12 pounds. I can probably get the weight down a few pounds. And if we want to really go light we can eliminate one of the solar panels. I haven’t experimented with charging the satphone or computer directly from the panels, have been using the battery pack as a charge controller and voltage regulator as I’m paranoid about frying something that costs way more than bacon. But leaving the battery behind as well would make the system incredibly light. Some expedition bloggers just do their sat-posts from a PDA, but with seven guys shooting photos I want some photo editing capability, so the small netbook loaded with Picassa and optimized Photoshop 6.0 seems appropriate. Nonetheless, to save weight I might strip out the wireless card as well as the fan. Or, do they have wireless on Denali yet? Heck, they have a helicopter ready for us if we need it and a hospital at 14,000 feet, why not internet service? Park Service courtesy beers at every camp would be appreciated as well.

What did I learn? Amazing I could sent the photos and text with the antenna deployed in a timbered gulch that blocked most of the sky. Testimony to Iridium. The Brunton panels need a frame so they’re easy to deploy and move around. My jury rigged remote antenna is flat, and gets covered with snow if the wind isn’t blowing. And my shortie USB cable is, too short. Onward.

(Please note: I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel here and am well aware that many folks out there send emails and blogs from portable satellite systems. However, it seems there are just about as many ways and budgets to do this as there are people out there doing it, so I’m left to developing the system that’s best for our style and the WildSnow business plan. Main thing is that the diminutive Iridium 9555 is a sweet little number. So it all works around that. Beyond blogging, I’ve been pretty psyched to own a satphone. Kind of makes all my messing around with ham radios and cell phone amplifiers look sort of lame. On the other hand, satphones are not exactly cheap to purchase or use and this one might very well end up on Ebay after we’re done. Tradeoffs.)


Please Enjoy A Few Suggested WildSnow Posts


15 Responses to “Sat Phone Blogging — First Attempt”

  1. Wyatt February 7th, 2010 11:49 pm

    Its going to be AWESOME to get wildsnow updates while you’re up there!

    Don’t forget to clear unnecessary programs from the netbook to keep the weight of the hard drive down. 😉

  2. Nathan February 8th, 2010 1:37 am

    This is a pretty cool new gadget you are using. And it is also great to use outdoor. Thanks for sharing the info.

  3. Joel Gay February 8th, 2010 8:29 am

    I can’t wait to get your dispatches from Denali, but a word of caution on the satphone technology. We had the same idea when I covered the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race for the Anchorage Daily News but soon discovered that the satellite coverage that far north was so skimpy that I couldn’t send a big files, and even voice was sometimes sketchy. The technology has certainly improved since 2005, but keep in mind your latitude and satellite coverage as you plan your trip.

  4. Lou February 8th, 2010 8:42 am

    Joel, good point. One reason I went with Iridium is that it’s said they cover AK just fine. But if the system doesn’t work, then so be it, we’ll file updates using voice.

    That said, Al Gore was the first person to make a call on the Iridium network, so how could I be going wrong?

    Joking aside, their system is pretty amazing.

  5. KDog February 8th, 2010 9:05 am


    I too have wondered about those clunky cigarette lighter adapters. I think that with todays technology someone could come up with a smaller, lighter, more robust adapter with a more positive locking connection. Weren’t these things in cars from the 50’s? With big, dumb glass fuses that always blow and you never have one in your truck to replace it.

    I have one for my phone, bluetooth, iPod, iPod speakers, Autonet , laptop, they’re all over my truck and camper. I guess it’s some sort of standard now that will never be upgraded because too many devices use them.

    On another subject. What do Sat Phone minutes cost these days? Are you on a plan with a minimum monthly charge or just billed for usage? I’ve thought about a Sat phone for emergency use, but didn’t want to pay a high monthly cost for something sitting in the bottom of my pack until I needed it.

  6. Lou February 8th, 2010 9:13 am

    Check all the Iridium plans. I’m doing it by loading a SIM card with minutes, which vary in price so I’m not going to quote here. But if you just want a phone for emergencies they have an emergency plan that’s a monthly charge then an expensive pay-as-you-go for the minutes. If I keep my phone, I’ll probably convert to the emergency plan.

    Any way you look at it, the things are pricey. I spend so much time in backcountry with no cell coverage, having the satphone is a joy and worth the money. But even so I’m not sure I would have gotten into it if it wasn’t for the Denali trip.

    Have to admit it also gave me a huge peace of mind in Europe, when we were in areas without cell coverage. Though I did have to figure out what the correct emergency numbers were.

    You can’t just dial 911 on a satphone, as the calls are done as international calls with a country code and full phone number. Thus, you have to do your homework.

  7. Lou February 8th, 2010 9:17 am

    Kdog, if my clone was willing, I’d have him take apart the device adapter transformers and wire them up with a simple plug such as the two-prong automotive plugs I generally use for this sort of thing. But my clone says he’s too busy.

    Unfortunately, both the satphone and computer don’t appear to take straight 12 volts DC, and I don’t want to experiment on them. My ham radio does, and I can wire it directly to any 12 volt source without any sort of adapter.

  8. KDog February 8th, 2010 10:30 am


    How about multiple clones? Why clone one when you can clone two at twice the price? :biggrin:

    Gotta love these wonderful, compact, portable high tech devices with these HUGE transformer blocks you have to lug around.

  9. Thomas B February 8th, 2010 11:24 am

    as mentioned above sat phones up here can be in and out, they all say they have great coverage but you won’t always get a connection.

  10. Lou February 8th, 2010 11:35 am

    If they’re as good as mine was the other day in a tree filled gulch, then I’ll be ok. It only takes about 90 seconds to hook up and send an email, not much longer for a photo if it’s compressed.

  11. Nick February 8th, 2010 11:56 am

    Cool – glad this is up and running – looking forward to the Denali posts.

  12. Brenda February 8th, 2010 12:02 pm

    Lou, are you at all worried about those skinny little cables snapping in the cold? Do the cables have any sort of cold rating, or at least good quality jackets? Even inside the cook-tent, it might be pretty chilly.

  13. kilowati February 8th, 2010 5:00 pm

    My in-laws rented me a sat phone before allowing their daughter to backpack with me through Wrangell St Elias. Thankfully, we didn’t need it, but we placed a call to the lower 48 just for kicks while waiting for our pilot. The call quality was close to that of my cell phone in Denver. Pretty impressive considering that was the most remote place I’ve ever been in my life.

  14. Lou February 8th, 2010 6:26 pm

    Brenda, yes, I’ve been freezer testing stuff. Have not done enough testing with the cables yet. But I will. Did freeze the computer to zero and try to turn it on. It actually turned on but the LCD didn’t work of course. Also cooled it to 18 degrees F and it worked, and the LCD worked. But strategy with computer in cold temps is you warm it up first, then turn it on and the heat of the electronics keeps it warm enough to function. Nonetheless, I’ll be doing some stuff to make sure I’m working in a warm enough environment. For example, a well built snowcave stays at 32 degrees F and that’s plenty warm to run the computer and sat phone.

  15. brian February 9th, 2010 12:00 pm

    Hey Lou,
    One interesting thing that could happen as you go really high in your ski boots on Denali is liner foam expansion. I’m not sure how much air is actually in ski boot liners but I have noticed this phenomenon with Millet climbing boots. The first time I wore them guiding on Denali they got super tight while flying in. Kind of freaked me out until I realized what was happening. I did not notice it as much with the slower ascent rate while walking up the mountain. Perhaps other readers have some experience with this. Bottom line for me would be not to start out tight.

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