NEW YORK TIMES January 17, 2003
Because It’s There: Putting Everest Online
By NANCY GOHRING
IF the 25-below-zero temperature, howling wind and grim effects of altitude sickness do not make most of those trying to scale Mount Everest feel a world away from home, the near-complete lack of communications on and around Everest surely does.
This year, just in time for the 50th anniversary of Sir Edmund Hillary’s first ascent of Everest, climbers on the mountain will have the chance to connect with the world below by e-mail. That is because Tsering Gyaltsen, the grandson of the only surviving Sherpa to have accompanied Hillary on that famed climb, is planning to build the world’s highest Internet cafe at base camp.
It is fitting that the added comfort comes courtesy of a Sherpa, one of the clan of Nepalese who take charge of getting most everything up the mountain for the usually wealthy adventurers seeking the thrill of topping the world’s highest peak.
But in contrast to many climber services, this one does not stand to benefit foreign-run outfitters primarily. Although it is an obvious perk for the climbers, the residents of a nearby town may get Internet access because of it, and the mountain may get a bit cleaner.
The technical challenge is significant. Wireless radios will be positioned on moving glaciers, and gear must be insulated against temperatures far colder than they were designed to withstand. And at the helm of the project is Mr. Gyaltsen, who is not wealthy and has no formal technical training.
But tenacious he is. From halfway around the world, Mr. Gyaltsen has attracted an all-star cast of technologists in the United States dedicated to furthering his goal.
It started when Gordon Cook, author and publisher of a monthly newsletter, The Cook Report on Internet (www.cookreport.com), met Mr. Gyaltsen by chance during a visit to Nepal in November. Mr. Cook was so intrigued by Mr. Gyaltsen’s success at independently restoring phone service to his town, Namche Bazar - cut off for more than a year after Maoists tore down a government-owned telecommunications tower in 2001 - that he started asking friends to lend their expertise to his work.
“I put my full network at Tsering’s disposal,” Mr. Cook said.
At the time, Mr. Gyaltsen had set up a satellite Internet link and cybercafe in Namche Bazar, a six-day hike below the Everest base camp, and was trying to figure out how to make it more available to his neighbors. Then one night over a beer, he and a friend who works for the Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee, a nonprofit environmental group that is responsible for disposing of the mounds of garbage on Everest, hatched the idea for an Internet cafe at base camp.
The proceeds would help bring in money for the committee, which Mr.
Gyaltsen said that as a Sherpa he felt it “my duty to help.”
Mr. Cook brought in Dave Hughes, a leading wireless-technology thinker who has studied the performance of wireless equipment in extreme weather in Alaska for the National Science Foundation. One of the first calls Mr. Hughes placed was to his friend Jim Forster, who holds the title of distinguished engineer at the networking giant Cisco Systems.
Mr. Forster eagerly donated three Wi-Fi radios on behalf of his company. Such radios enable the creation of wireless networks that can relay data within a couple of hundred feet or as far as several miles as the crow flies, much the way that local-area networks, or LAN’s, work in offices.
“What I like about this project is that it demonstrates that the technology developed for a LAN in a building can be applicable beyond that,” Mr. Forster said. “This may be as far outside the building as you can get.”
From his base in Colorado Springs, Mr. Hughes, 74, is using a Web-based conferencing system as a long-distance tool to teach Mr. Gyaltsen and his colleagues how to set up the base-camp network. Mr. Gyaltsen is working with technicians on loan from two Internet service providers, Square Networks and Worldlink, based in Nepal’s capital, Katmandu. Another friend of Mr. Cook’s, Mike Trest, an independent consultant and satellite expert, is helping to teach the Nepalese about satellites.
The network will consist of a small satellite dish, planted about 1,500 feet above base camp, that can provide two-way communications. Because the dish must operate from firm ground, it cannot be used directly at base camp, which is on a moving glacier. The $10,000 satellite dish, which Mr. Gyaltsen purchased with a bank loan and funds from Square Networks, will connect to the cybercafe at base camp over the Wi-Fi radios. The dish will beam data to a satellite in orbit and to an Internet service provider in Israel.
It sounds as if it would be challenging for Mr. Hughes to teach relative novices how to set up such a complicated network from nearly 8,000 miles away. But Mr. Hughes - who was teaching a college class online in 1982, a decade before most people had heard of the Internet - says that the 13-hour time difference is not the biggest problem.
“The distance is easy,” Mr. Hughes said. “It’s the culture that’s hard.”
Once, Mr. Gyaltsen disappeared from e-mail and the online network for two days. Mr. Cook later learned that after the deaths of some villagers, nearby Buddhist monks had instructed people in the town to attend a special ceremony at the monastery - nearly a full day’s walk from home.
Another time, Mr. Gyaltsen was incommunicado for a couple of days because some drunken climbers in Namche Bazar had tripped over the wires connecting his Internet cafe to his satellite dish there.
Cisco and Mr. Gyaltsen are working out the seemingly endless bureaucratic requirements for importing the radios to Nepal. Once they have arrived, Mr. Gyaltsen will transport them by plane to Lukla, a town at roughly 9,800 feet, then up by yak train to Namche Bazar (more than 11,000 feet) and on to the base camp (nearly 18,000 feet) before the final leg of the trip.
Mr. Gyaltsen and the pollution committee, which will technically own the radios, are still deciding what to charge users.
They are considering a flat fee of $2,000 to $5,000 per expedition, which can number 5 to 20 people. That price might sound steep, but Mr. Gyaltsen says it paled in comparison with the cost of the expedition itself, typically $65,000 a person.
The satellite link and Internet service will cost the operators less than $1,000 a month for the climbing season. Any profits will go to the pollution committee. While initial expectations for profits are modest, organizers believe it is safe to say that the Sherpas will not come up short in the end.
“There’s a handful of us prepared to make sure that Tsering doesn’t lose anything,” Mr. Trest said.
Mr. Gyaltsen’s goal is to begin the network in March, in time for the climbing season. He expects 1,000 people to pass through base camp between mid-March and the start of the monsoon in early June, for a typical stay of four weeks before ascending the summit.
While those involved in the project are intrigued by the technical challenge, most seem far more interested in the cultural ramifications.
Mr. Hughes and Mr. Cook are particularly intrigued by how the radios can be used during the off season. Mr. Gyaltsen hopes to move them to Namche Bazar, where they will be hooked up to his existing satellite dish. The radios will provide Internet reception over a nearby hill to a school with about 250 students. With such a link in place, Mr. Hughes and a friend who once taught English in Nepal hope to establish a distance-learning program.
The possibility of better educating his neighbors, improving life in town and encouraging educated people to stay has inspired Mr. Gyaltsen.
“My friends who are well educated, they are doctors or engineers, they don’t want to come back here,” he said. “But these are the people we need here.” If the town has more to offer in terms of Internet connectivity and development, educated people may want to return, he reasons.
Mr. Cook and Mr. Forster also see the effort as a potential model for poor communities around the world that are seeking to set up communications networks without relying on huge, often government-run telecommunications corporations.
“It’s such a classic example of how one person brought telecom into an area where the phone company wouldn’t,” Mr. Cook said.