Latest news from the Himalaya and Karakoram

Monday, 5 September 2016

The Mountain Company sends a Thuraya satellite phone on all of our treks in Nepal, Pakistan and Bhutan

We have recently introduced a company policy of sending Thuraya satellite phone with our guides on all treks in Nepal, Pakistan and Bhutan.

The question to ask is whether a satellite phone is really needed for a trek in Nepal, Pakistan or Bhutan? The answer is yes that having reliable communications in the field via a satellite phone such as Thuraya is critical for group safety, risk management and contingency planning in an emergency situation.

Please see photo below of four Thuraya satellite phones delivered today and this means The Mountain Company now has a total of twelve satellite phones for use on our 2016 Autumn treks in Nepal and Bhutan.

Photo: some of The Mountain Company's Thuraya satellite phones
The Mountain Company sends a Thuraya satellite phone and also three fully charged batteries with each group. This means there will be sufficient battery power for extended treks and our groups do not have to rely on solar panels (as these do not work if cloudy) or unreliable power from local villages or lodges.

However just giving a satellite phone to our guides is not sufficient as we need to ensure they check messages sent and keep in regular contact. For example The Mountain Company receives weather forecasts from everestweather.com throughout the trekking seasons in Nepal, Pakistan and Bhutan and we will send SMS texts with the forecast summary to direct to the group's satellite phones. If the leader does not turn the satellite phone on to check for messages or call into The Mountain Company operation centre then they will not be aware if there is cyclone or large storm coming their way!

The Mountain Company has developed a communications policy for both our Western and Nepali leaders and this has been designed to enhance the safety for both crew and trekking group. Our communications policy means we can keep in touch with our leaders and groups in the field by monitoring their progress and provide support when required. A summary of The Mountain Company's communications policy is as follows:
  • Group leader must switch their Thuraya satellite phone on every day after 6pm to check for incoming SMS text messages.
  • Group leader must call The Mountain Company at a minimum every four days to give an update on their progress.
  • Group leader must call The Mountain Company on the day before crossing any high pass over 4,500m to receive an update on weather forecast and conditions. They should also phone to confirm when the group and crew have all crossed the pass safely.
  • Group leader must call The Mountain Company for approval before making any significant changes to the itinerary.
  • Group leader must call The Mountain Company if any member of the group or crew is sick or injured.
  • Group leader to call The Mountain Company at any time if they need any advice, help or support while leading a group.
Having led many treks throughout the Himalaya over the years I am frequently surprised how many groups met along the way do not have access to satellite communications in the field. If you are looking to join a group trek in the Himalaya I suggest you ask the operator during your enquiry (and before booking!) if your trek leader will have a satellite phone. Please do not assume if you are booking with a European or American trek operator that a satellite phone will be always be sent with your group!

Following the Nepal earthquakes in Spring 2015 we found that having direct communications with our leaders through their satellite phones was critical in finding out the status of our groups (luckily they were all fine) and deciding on their plans for rest of their trip. In the past we relied upon the cell phone system in Everest and Annapurna region however this is not reliable especially as many of cell phone towers are powered by solar panels. 

During our contingency planning at The Mountain Company we have considered the worst case situation of an extreme event such as a high magnitude earthquake that could destroy the entire cell phone system of one of our destination countries of Nepal, Pakistan or Bhutan. If this happened then having reliable satellite phone communications would be critical for contacting our groups in the field and organising their emergency evacuation. Unfortunately earthquakes and cyclones will certainly happen again in the Himalaya and Karakoram (hopefully not in our life time) however we need to be prepared for this and have robust contingency plans in place.

Roland Hunter

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