The Dark Ice Project

The time has come and after the months have flown by at breakneck speed, the Dark Ice Project is due to launch in the next few days. As ever, weather and conditions will dictate the terms and this is the final post on my personal blog until our return. But no fear! To follow our progress and interact with us live, please head over to:

Expedition Website: www.darkiceproject.com where there will be a live tracking map and detailed blog entries.

Live daily updates: twitter.com/alexhibbert

Many thanks to all those who have shown their support over the months (and years). Now, it's over to us. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all in advance and stay warm!

Alex and Justin.


Cold Chamber Testing

As part of our final rounds of equipment testing and thanks to Jim House and team at Portsmouth University, we were able to spend time in a cold chamber. Temperature, humidity and wind speed could be accurately controlled and we had various questions we needed answered. For example, breathability of Montane and Bridgedale clothing, warmth when static, effectiveness of damp socks and the performance our our goggle/mask combination.

After five hours of running half hour tests with every conceivable combination and using both visible light and thermal imaging filming, we had a full run of test passes with two exceptions. In full clothing and down insulation, there was minor fogging of goggles, caused mainly by breath not being fully channelled out from the mask. A dry anti-fog wipe seems to have sorted this out, which is a good thing since our eyesight will be critical in route finding and avoiding polar bears. Peripheral vision was impaired by the goggles and hood and so we're also looking to improve this.

Also, our electrics performed without a hitch and we were able to use an iPod Touch which was regularly moved from warm to extreme cold environments and back. The glove and stylus system was very successful and a number of consumer plastics were super-cooled and retained their plasticity, instead of going brittle.

Finally, the department's cold immersion tank became available and so Justin and I could fully evaluate the Hansen polar suits (thanks to Inge Solheim for these). A couple of pinhole leaks became very obvious (!) as our damp clothing underneath gave the game away. A quick dose of seam sealer solved this problem. 

Here are some photographs which tell the rest of the story:




Dark Ice Project communications

As my first major expedition, the 1374-mile The Long Haul in 2008 frustrated me for one reason in particular. Our budget was tighter than a tight thing on a tight day and our comms were limited to a daily SMS-length message to our blog. Proper accounts of our experiences, let alone photos and videos, had to wait until our return. Only four years on, this complete lack of real-time dialogue with the global audience is simply unthinkable now.

For the 2012-14 series of Dark Ice Project expeditions to the North Pole in winter, our plan is somewhat niftier. Here it is:

For public communication

A set-up combining an Iridium 9555 Satellite Phone pre-charged with large quantities of minutes and data (this total can be added to whilst on the ice) and standard and high capacity batteries, one always charged. An Iridium AxcessPoint wifi router (with rechargeable battery) connected to the phone by USB. This will then connect wirelessly with, wait for it, an iPod Touch 4th Gen which will remain inside a dehumidified (silica gel) pouch and be kept warm in a sleeping bag to be used in the mornings. The tiny bandwidth allowed by the Iridium satellites will be maximised by stripping everything from the iPod apart from the Iridium Web and Mail app, the camera app, Twitter and two apps to compress the size of photos and videos. Although high quality photos taken with the expedition's full-size camera will have to wait until the journey is over, images (and an occasional video) taken by the iPod Touch can be uploaded to our blog and Twitter without endless card-readers and cables. It will all be done in-iPod, edited and then uploaded along with our journal entries. Neat eh?

Apple devices have been routinely dismissed by expeditions because touchscreens perform poorly in the cold, large screens drain batteries and you can't use them with gloves on. We get around these problems by only using them after a night of body warmth, having a special stylus to tap the touchscreen and by using the iPod Touch in a low-power setting which combined with an excellent battery beats all the outdated options (like PDAs and separate cameras). Here's a rough idea of the set-up:

The dehumidified waterproof pouch is not to keep the iPod Touch dry from water as such but instead to stop condensation forming on the inside and outside of the device when it moves from a cold to a warm place and vice versa. It will be charged via a lithium AA-powered Apple charger.

If this system fails then SMS-length tweets can still be sent direct from the Iridium phone.

For safety

McMurdo Fastfind EPLB - a GPS-linked beacon to summon rescue in event of a major emergency.

Yellowbrick tracker - to make sure our hometeam know our exact location in the event of lost comms elsewhere. Our movement or lack of, shown over consequtive days, could give clues as to our status if satellite phones fail. A simplified track on a map of our progress will be shared online.

Backup Iridium 9555 Satellite Phone pre-charged with minutes and data. Standard and high capacity batteries, both always charged.

Over 800 lithium AA batteries to charge other batteries or power devices directly.


The point is...

The first question at every public speech or at the head of every enquiring email is consistent: why? This can be in the most innocent form of curiosity or in the more challenging tone of 'what's the point'? What is the point of polar travel? Even after considering the responses of countless polar travellers, I still did not have an answer for this when writing my first book, The Long Haul. I sidestepped the question clumsily. My mind was reignited on this question by the discussion following the supersonic freefall by Felix Baumgartner and the ignorance it can expose from one or two with the privilege of writing for national newspapers.

It is now time. This is the point:

- Firstly, we must strip away the easy additions which can give a polar expedition purpose - charity, medical research and the like. Let's just consider the expedition on its own as an end in itself.

- If someone is to say that a polar expedition has no point, he or she must also ask themselves the following questions: do they listen to music, watch or play sport or visit the cinema? If the answer is yes, they must instantly boycott all of these things. That includes reading this blog post or any other website apart from the news, weather or wikipedia. None of these things have ANY biological purpose of any sort - they are pointless too.

- You can say that a polar expedition costs a great deal and so is different to kicking a ball around in the park, plus it can commit vast government resources in the event of an emergency. Compare this cost though to that of policing and treating injuries at major sports events worldwide and we can safely say it wouldn't even show up on a pie chart.

- We are all different. I loathe football but I do not even for a moment suggest it should be banned on the basis of being pointless. I accept that plenty of people find inspiration and intrigue in the game and leave it at that. The exact same is true for polar travel and for its own audience which reads the books and watches the footage.

- The origins of music were as a way for cultures to pass on vital information and stories to benefit the subsequent generations - something which has mostly become absent from modern music. The origins of polar travel involved a desire to find new living space and natural resources and to add to our knowledge of the world. Both of these historic bases are biologically important to a person as a living entity. Now, music just has mostly entertainment value and polar travel has morphed now that we know what is at the Poles.

- Does this mean that polar expeditions are now reduced to banal forms of alternative entertainment? Absolutely not. These 'pointless' uses of our time lead to creativity, progress, culture and empathy.

- Wally Herbert said 'and what of those who ask? It is as well for them that there are others who feel the answer and never need to ask.' Superiority complex, maybe. But he was right. There is something intangible about the lure of the Poles, as there is with so many valuable parts of life.

(- The similarities with music do not end there. On a slight tangent, a song designed on a computer with plenty of sampling ('borrowing'), automation and a generous dose of autotune can be compared to a heavily commercial, guided and foreshortened polar trip. Similarly, an exquisitely crafted song with dozens of components and expert musical skill and unique talent can be compared to an inventive, independent, full-scale and unprecedented polar journey. All of these have a similar end result but simply are not equal.)

- In general terms then, if you accept that there is a need for something in life apart from those necessary to survive, you therefore agree that there is a point in polar travel. Life would be a colourless and insufferable experience without these.

I am usually of the opinion that every view held should be subject to counter-arguments and new perspectives. Without this, we have only stubbornness and no progress. In this case however, I will place my neck on the block and say that I would be very surprised to hear a view which does not find the above inherently definitive.

Thank goodness there is a point in the pointless.


Facebook eight years on...

There's been a lot said over the past few months about the future of Facebook; first from media reports of bullying and harassment based mainly on the social network and more recently, a poor IPO showing. An odd thing to comment on, you might think, but like it or not (no pun intended), Facebook has become a powerful force and my own experience has been long. In fact, I joined Facebook only a few months into being a fresher at university, days after Facebook was initially made available to three UK universities. I've seen it grow from those early days immortalised in the film The Social Network and to the present day. At the time, there is no doubt, Facebook was the hub of the social lives of every single person at university. It was universal, within our bubble. Recently however, my use of it is has reduced gradually to the point of only the occasional check and making no real active effort; my time instead focussed on Twitter. This is partly because I took the decision to not have a business presence on Facebook, possibly to hide the endless embarrassing university photos (!) and for a raft of other reasons:

- Facebook lost its way when it stopped being the Facebook. It was supposed to be a university network based entirely on the interactions of students at high-end institutions. The owners knew that to grow and become yet richer it must inevitably be opened to all, but at this point it critically lost the exclusive attraction; the magic.

- It fell into the trap of being too customisable, like bebo and myspace which failed. The consistent ease through which pages could originally be navigated was the key. Adding 'pirates' and 'being bitten by a zombie' was just irritating. The new timeline is roundly condemned as confusing.

- Facebook became what it was largely through good fortune, I believe, but rhetoric and claims from Zuckerberg et al in the meantime point to a retrospective vision and wider purpose. The Facebook was the product of a talented but socially ambitious and frustrated student. It became reactive over time to innovation, not a source of it.

- A push towards the only possible revenue generation, advertising, was impossible to sustain. People go on Facebook to chat and share, not to buy things. Making ads subtle means even fewer people will click and make advertisers pay. People go on Google to buy things, hence the sustained power of the arch-rival through adverts.

I think that Facebook will eventually fall out of favour altogether, as it has done with me - at first a genuine life hub and now a relic which has lost its way. Twitter has stayed true to its beginnings and fundamentally has more value, although Facebook can be given credit for taking social networks from a side-line to part of modern life. Other networks such as LinkedIn, Vimeo and others have recognised their limits and will thrive as such. Google+ is yet to be proven but doesn't seem to have any of the magic that Facebook had and lost.