June 20, 2005 It’s often joked that you never really appreciate a computer until it goes down on you, which is precisely why the market for ruggedised computers exists. As we find more ways to depend on the computer, it’s inevitable that stories of computers withstanding incredible punishment will surface and such is the case with a recent Everest ascent by the ultra-ruggedised Panasonic Toughbook CF-18. On May 31, 2005, Australian Rex Pemberton reached the summit of Mt Everest and at 21years, became the youngest Australian to stand on top of the World’s tallest mountain. Rex’s Toughbook was his constant companion for the months leading up to the successful ascent, and was used for over two months on the mountain to type his daily diary, read e-mails from home, store digital photos and video footage taken on the climb, and to make notes for a book and documentary on the expedition. With the Toughbook connected to a satellite phone, the diary was e-mailed back to Australia for uploading to his web site.
In the extreme conditions of this high-altitude environment, the equipment used to support such an expedition, needs to be able to stand up to extraordinarily harsh punishment, - including facing temperature ranges from -30C to 40C, vibration and potential damage from transportation through the mountains, as well as destructive elements such as snow, dust, and condensation.
The Toughbook CF-18 was used to send email via satellite phone, enabling him to maintain a crucial link with the outside world during the entire journey. His diary tracks a two-month journey from acclimatisation in Nepal to Base Camp at 5,350 metres to the -30C chill of Camp 4 at 7980 meters - and then ascending the summit of Everest, at 8848 metres, the highest point on the Earth.
Rex’s Toughbook CF-18 also enabled him to create a vital connection to his team at base camp and at home and allowed him to communicate at far greater length and detail possible than had he been limited to calls on a satellite phone. During his final bid for the summit, his supporters were also able to use the Toughbook to provide 'step by step' updates.
The Toughbook became an official member of the exhibition after passing with flying colours during Rex's training trips in the New Zealand Alps in February.
Each Panasonic Toughbook CF-18 is purpose-built for survival in extreme conditions, with features designed to prevent damage and protect valuable data from impact, moisture, water and dust. The Toughbook has a powerful battery for extended life in the field of up to eight hours without recharging. The Toughbook also has a swivel LCD design that converts from a notebook to a tablet PC.
Built-in ruggedised features include a full magnesium-alloy case, impact-isolated screen and hard drive, sealed port and connector covers, ruggedised case hinge and moisture and dust-resistant LCD, keyboard and touchpad.
Toughbooks endure stringent MIL-STD-801F (military standard) testing procedures that measure for dust, water, vibration, extreme temperature and moisture resistance as well as drop shock absorption - making them tough enough to handle diverse applications from battlefield intelligence to emergency care. Specifications include operation to -28C, thermal shock tests in a temperature range from -28C to over 60C (operational); and operation at an altitude of up to 15,000 feet (4572m).
Even so, the trip to Everest would have to be its toughest test yet, with the Toughbook ultimately required to perform far beyond the original manufacturing parameters.
In the early stages of the trip, at Base Camp, the Toughbook was used outside in the warmth of a sunny day, where the 'Day Brite' anti-reflective technology ensured that the screen was still readable in the harsh glare reflecting off snow and glaciers.
More typical of the Toughbook experience however, was the exposure to extremes of temperature - from relative warmth in the tent at Base Camp during the day, to the bitter cold where temperatures drop to -30C during the night; and being taken directly from a warm tent to a glacial mountainside as the team travelled on. It was then that the product proved the value of its resilience to thermal shock.
It also resisted both the dust of the arid area at the base of the Khumbu Glacier, and the potential damage from ingress of snow and condensation.
At -10C outside Rex's tent and 5500m, the Toughbook was still achieving a battery life of around three hours. To make regular charging possible as life dropped off in colder conditions, the Toughbook was charged off either AC or DC power, vital as the higher camps were only powered by small portable generators.
The Toughbook's resilience to vibration and shock and its strong magnesium alloy casing stood it in good stead as it made its journey with Rex - carried in a pack that would sometimes be hauled up the mountain on a rope.
As Rex continued to write his daily logs in his tent, the outside temperature could be as low as -30 degrees. The touchscreen of the Toughbook was vital as it allowed Rex to type with gloves, or with limited mobility in his hands due to the freezing air. The notebook also provided some much-needed relaxation, allowing Rex to play computer games and MP3s in his 'downtime' between the ascents and descents required for acclimatisation.
The effect on the human body in a hostile, high-altitude environment has been described by Rex as 'taking one breath feels like you are running back-to-back marathons and then swimming 50m pool lengths.'
One of Rex's email reports stated: "It is good that I can find the on switch to my Panasonic Toughbook, because I can't really see straight. My vision is a bit blurred, I am guessing it is a symptom of being the highest human on earth two nights back. We hit camp 3 at 7150m, up at that level there is about 35% of the oxygen in the air rather than the 100% oxygen rate at sea level."
Like Rex, the Toughbook proved to be more than a match for its environment. Writing from 6,300 (20,669 feet) metres at Camp 2, he was very enthusiastic about having taken the Toughbook so far: "I have personally managed to lug my Toughbook up to Camp 2. I am sure that right now it is the highest computer in the world and it is functioning perfectly."
The Toughbook ultimately made it to Camp 3, and at 7150m (24,000 feet) certainly broke any previous records for the product's resilience, if not that of any notebook. As long as it was kept warm, it remained operable - an amazing feat with the environment outside the tent described as: "high wind, sub 30 degrees, almost always snowing, causing spindrift to fill every pocket or anything that is left open." While Rex heard reports of notebook failure from other Everest teams, the CF-18 kept going.
“It was the only one of all the computers that made it to base camp to operate flawlessly. The others would simply refuse to start because their hard drives were frozen or sometimes, when people were trying to operate them in the warmth of the midday sun they would start okay and then crash a minute or two later. The Toughbook warms up the hard drive first and it didn’t give me one moment of concern in the entire trip.
As it continued to operate well beyond its manufacturing specifications, the Toughbook was an important outlet for Rex to continue to communicate the highs and the lows to the rest of the world, and in the final stages, his excitement and disappointment as he and the team waited for the jet stream to move away from the summit so they could make the final ascent of Everest.
According to Rex Pemberton: "Going to the top of the world takes determination, training, perseverance and resilience. As an important part of my support team, the Toughbook played its part and delivered when it came to surviving the 'toughest test on earth.'"
You can track Rex's adventure at his web site.
Though just 21 years of age, Rex is nowhere near the youngest person to have reached the summit of the World's tallest mountain. "There was a 20 year old American female Jess Roskelley who summited a day or two before i did," says Rex. And a 21 year old Brit, Jake Meyer, became the youngest person from the UK to summit Everest a few days later. But the youngest person to reach the summit of Everest is actually a local female climber Ming Kipa Sherpa, who summited Everest in 2003 at age 15. A local also held the previous record which was 16 years and 17 days by Temba Tshiri in 2001.