Technology in Adventure: Lessons from an Everest Attempt

Sarah Jane Pell, a researcher at the Exertion Games Lab at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Melbourne, Australia and a self-described artist-adventurer, initially planned to climb Mount Everest in April 2015 to document her experiences with high-definition 360-degree video and record artistic expressions on the summit. She hoped to provide human-computer interaction designers with initial research on how to embrace adventure. As part of the Exertion Games Lab, which focuses on exploring the role of games in order to design better interactive experiences, Pell is particularly interested in human movement and performing arts.

She was initially hired at RMIT as a visiting researcher to explore digital systems supporting performance for underwater play. She chose Mount Everest as an extreme location for her field work, but she never expected to have her journey interrupted by a powerful earthquake that struck Nepal a few weeks into her trek. Pell then reoriented her research based on her experiences during her expedition to focus on technology’s role in adventure.

On April 25, 2015, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit the region just before noon local time, killing eighteen climbers on Everest and more than 8,000 across Nepal, while displacing another 2.8 million people, according to a Washington Post article written by Annie Gowen.

Everest Base Camp
A view of Everest Base Camp (source: ilker ender/Creative Commons).

A few weeks before the earthquake, Pell had arrived in Lukla Airport and begun her ten-day trek to Everest Base camp. Due to an unforeseen incident with her climber’s permit days before the earthquake, Pell had left Everest, traveling to Kathmandu to resolve the issue before returning to Everest Base Camp (EBC). She was on the fourth floor of her hotel in the capital when the earthquake struck. She survived, and in the days after the disaster, documented what she experienced through personal video. She returned home to Australia a few weeks later, where she evaluated her own personal journey with adventure technology.

Pell describes how technology helped and hindered her during her trek in her recent article.

Throughout her journey on Everest, Pell had field-tested various adventure technology, including both high-tech equipment, such as wearable biofeedback systems, and low-tech equipment, such as “non-smart” phones. She sought to understand how that technology interacted with the extreme environment of Mount Everest. For example, she used technology like her Jawbone fitness tracker to help her prepare physically for the climb, and to monitor her progress and preparedness.

Pell was even able to record with her phone the moments after the quake, as she and others were waiting for inevitable aftershocks. One of the more surprising experiences she had was discovering how smart technology failed her due to limited connectivity and power. Instead, she had to depend on lower-tech solutions. For example, she was only able to get reception from a 2G phone and observed local people stringing up plastic bags of water above their stoves in order to detect aftershocks, which would produce ripples in the water. Despite the fact that earthquake-related apps exist, Pell was not able to use them due to the lack of Internet and power.

khumbutse view of everest
A view of Mount Everest from Khumbutse Mountain (source: Peellden/Creative Commons).

Pell’s trek on Mount Everest, and the events that occurred post-earthquake, presented her with both straightforward and unexpected ways to interact with and depend on technology. Based on her first-hand experience, she and Mueller explored two dimensions of the relationship between technology design and adventure within their paper. Pell and Mueller defined one type that supports the instrumental and experiential components of adventure, or in other words, how technology can be used to measure and document adventure. The second type supports the expected and unexpected components of adventure.

The first dimension helps to achieve goals and to monitor and improve performance, such as Pell’s Jawbone, which helped her track her physical training in preparation for her trek, and also to create a deeper engagement with the environment, as she did with her camera. The second dimension explores the idea that technology typically plays expected roles, like using a camera to document experiences, but that it can also can play unexpected roles in adventure. For example, as Pell was evacuating the hotel in which she was staying during the earthquake, she used her laptop to shield herself from falling debris. The use of her computer was hardly one she anticipated.

Pell and Mueller further introduce four roles that technology can play during an adventure: coach, rescuer, documentarian, and mentor. The roles of coach and documentarian both fall into the expected technology categories, where the coach role provides structured guidance and the documentarian role helps support the experiential aspects of adventure. Pell’s apps served as her coach in her training, and her camera served the role of documentarian on Everest.

On the unexpected side of technology, they describe the roles of rescuer and mentor. In the most dire of circumstances, technology serving the role of rescuer can provide emergency services to help the adventurer survive. Meanwhile, technology that plays the role of a mentor supports the adventurer by helping her to reflect on her experience and what she learned from it.

Pell hopes to apply her personal account on Everest and subsequent research to other situations, including future game design for her research lab Exertion Games Lab. She and Mueller see the important connection and influence that human-computer interaction can have in supporting active lifestyles. Pell recently applied her research on technology and adventure as the Simulation Astronaut for the European Commission Project MOONWALK.

When asked about plans to attempt to summit Everest again, Pell commented in her interview that she is preparing to undertake an experiment in another extreme environment at an even higher altitude: a NASA Noctilucent Cloud Imaging and Tomography Experiment in Suborbital Space, as the first Artist-Astronaut candidate. She hopes to continue to design new ways to use media and communications technologies for communicating the experience of the performance in another extreme environment.

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