Tuesday
Oct092012

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.

Saturday
Sep292012

The bear issue...

As the latest in what is becoming a series of pre-Dark Ice Project articles and in response to a Twitter request, let's talk polar bears.

Always a tough subject since these magnificent carnivores are under severe threat across the majority of their arctic range and any conflict between them and humans can only be due to us invading their habitat. Given this and once it has been accepted that an expedition will enter the realm of the polar bear, precautions must be taken to try and limit the chances of problems arising.

Bears are large, powerful and effective predators and they have an extreme annual lifecycle. This involves adapting their behaviour to the fluctuations of the arctic seasons; fasting through the less plentiful part of the year and frantic feeding and social behaviour for the remainder. The Dark Ice Project will be travelling on sea ice in a high risk area of the Nares Strait. The region has a polynya (open water where seals and other bear prey collect), coastline where dens can be dug and areas with a combination of consolidated ice and fractured ice with leads (cracks which leave water/thin ice exposed).

There are a number of things that we can do protect ourselves, and the bears, from a confrontation that would almost certainly end fatally for one or both of us. These are in an escalating series, from initial action to a last resort.

1. Knowledge of polar bear behaviour

This can include avoiding likely polar bear hotspots, like large snowdrifts in winter where males hide from the worst of the weather and also interpreting polar bear tracks to make sure we end up going in different directions. In the case of an encounter, bears can unpredictable - sometimes shy and sometimes spontaneously aggressive. Showing the bear overtly human behaviour can, with luck, persuade the bear that attacking would be a risk and lead to a stand-down.

2. Warning systems

An ideal system for a highly mobile expedition like ours (i.e. not a static camp) would be a Greenlandic sledge dog with experience of bears, but the amount of dog-food we'd need to haul would be a non-starter. Dogs can sense bears at a distance and throughout the day and night, giving us time and advance warning to react. As an alternative for the night-time when even our best efforts won't stop food odours emanating from our tent, we will use a trip-wire system. 

Trip-wires and early warning systems have routinely failed on other expeditions in recent years and so our system is entirely custom. Up to five posts will be placed with a slightly slack line in between (to stop minor ice fluctuations giving false-alarms). A moderate tug on the line will set off an explosive charge housed within each post, hopefully alerting us and scaring the bear away.

3. Non-lethal projectiles

If a bear approaches during either the working day or the night, flares can be used to frighten a bear away and persuade it that being curious or predatory isn't in its interests. Small pencil flares can be used first and will be kept in a smock pocket at all times. If a more serious warning is needed, a large rocket flare can be fired. 

4. Last resort

In the case that an aggressive bear is taken by surprise or takes us by surprise, or does not respond to flares, the only way to save our lives could be to use a weapon. Blank cartridges and buckshot can be used as further deterrent, but ultimately a solid 'slug' cartridge would be used. Both of us will carry a single barrel shotgun with its stock removed to save weight. Six cartridges will be stored in a neoprene sleeve along the rib/barrel so they are close to hand. In extreme cold conditions gun oil, to keep a weapon free from rust and working smoothly, can 'gloop' up and stop it functioning at all. Before leaving Qaanaaq, we plan to experiment with both a specialist synthetic oil and using the shotguns 'dry'.

Whilst seeing a polar bear in its natural habitat, especially in the striking conditions of the polar winter or early spring, would be a privilege, it is one I would rather miss on this journey. Fingers crossed for a safe few months for both parties.

Tuesday
Sep252012

Worth the weight?

I put out a tweet earlier today mentioning that on a long, unsupported polar expedition for which there is little precedent and lots of unknowns, certain items are 'mission-critical'. Items of equipment or systems which are more important than the urge to save weight and move fast. Items without which, it's all over - for either the expedition, or us.

There were some good suggestions, ranging from hot chocolate to pants to M&Ms. A few expeditions over the last few years have failed when otherwise in good shape due to not having backups for these special pieces of kit. So, here are the items I'll be rating above all others and also the desperate need to lighten my sledges:

The reassuring roar of a stoveCommunications - two independent systems to send word of injury or emergency. Two Iridium 9555 sat phones with 2x batteries (one always kept full), 2x GPS and a Yellowbrick tracker, as well as a McMurdo EPLB.

Floatation methods - in snow, not water. Walking in deep snow isn't an option, so we'll have a pair of skis with a repair kit for the bindings, plus a pair of snowshoes each.

Stoves - Without a stove, there is no heat and no water. We'll have three MSR stoves with 6 pumps (which can be unreliable in extreme low temps).

Extremities protection - frostbite will attack hands and feet first, plus mitts especially are at risk of loss in high winds. Multiple sets of gloves and mitts (from Montane) will be kept in drybags. They, plus socks (from Bridgedale) and liners, are the only items which would need to be immediately replaced in the case of falling in the water. Other clothing can be dried using body heat whilst hauling.

Lighting - on a winter/early spring expedition, you can't see without light! 2 lamps each plus more than enough AA battery power.

Theoretically, if all of these bases are covered and backups are kept in separate locations, an expedition can proceed, injuries notwithstanding, regardless of what happens as long as resilience and resourcefulness are maintained.

Monday
Sep172012

Our route this winter

The North 2012/North 2013 expedition is unusual in a lot of ways; not just because it's in winter, or much longer than a typical North Pole attempt, or unsupported, or from the final new starting point. It's a complex plan which is very different from a single long expedition - dropped off at the start and collected from the destination. There are different options for how we might proceed and each one would constitute a different success.

There is one ultimate goal - the North Pole. In a style which is fast becoming typical of my approach to polar 'problems', the plan to achieve this differs from others you may have seen over previous years. The past few years have seen precious few serious attempts on the Pole, partly due to withdrawl due to poor admin, bad weather and also a vast reduction in the amount of corporate funding available - perhaps a positive thing but a subject best kept for another time.

Getting to a launching point from which to go for the Pole has always been the tricky bit and the pickup equally so, but for different reasons. It costs a great deal and the tiny handful of pilots willing to make the flight ensure that prices are high and conditions strict regarding when they will fly. Most self-styled explorers have been proven to roll over and give up when it all seems a bit too complex, but there are other ways.

Etah, GreenlandThe expedition/s, for simplicity referred to hereafter as just North, combine the pressure to launch an expedition with limited funding and a desire to genuinely and without a list of caveats, raise the bar. Part of the planned route and timeline is as it is through necessity and part through choice.

The first section, the Nares Strait phase, is merely (despite it being an epic 90 day winter expedition in its own right) a preparatory exercise to make the second phase possible. We need to move fast to reach the Pole and perhaps return back to Qaanaaq before the ice breaks up from mid-April. In order for both of us to be strong and fit for the 480-mile push for the Pole and what may follow, first hauling 350kg+ in shuttles up the Nares Strait in the depths of winter would not help. For this reason, the expedition is split into two; this winter coming to prepare the route and depots and then the second winter to move fast up the straits and then launch for the Pole. 

The Nares Strait phase is not unsupported - it is, whilst obviously a truly brutal expedition, a precursor to North 2013. We will enlist the brilliant dog-driving skills of the local hunters for the first couple of days if the ice is good enough, then leave them to return to the warmth of home as we haul on. We will use the shelter of abandoned hunting huts for the first hundred miles if possible. One example is at Etah, once the northern-most populated settlement on Earth. A couple of wooden buildings are left and will be used for temporary relief from the conditions.

Once the 90 or more days of toil is complete this winter, using whatever means we can muster, we will be in a strong position to push for the Pole in 2013/14. Feeding off the laid depots of food and fuel, we will with luck arrive on the shores of the Arctic Ocean with enough time to reach the Pole before the sun rises and then make a decision about further travel, either back south to Qaanaaq or through to the Russian ice base at Barneo.

One minor irritation has been the lack of ice this summer high up the Nares Strait. A research ship has reached the Hall Basin (nearly at the top of the straits) in August and this meant that, should we have known, we could have laid the depots in relative comfort using a small boat this summer. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and the ice conditions were unexpected. The freeze-up is now accelerating at a pace after a record low ice coverage this summer.

Sunday
Sep022012

Interview with expedition sponsors Montane

Alex has recently had his interview with sponsors Montane published. It can be read here!