Expedition Everest: Automation from the Top of the World

I followed Mariusz previous automation expedition when he summited Cho Oyu, the sixth highest mountain in the world, during the 2013 CEDIA EXPO. Knowing that Maruisz’s FIBARO Mount Everest Challenge expedition was underway and that a major avalanche occurred in the midst of his climb made the events far more personal for me. I had a chance to speak with Mariusz yesterday to learn a bit about climbing Everest, automation, and a first-hand account of the disaster.
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Forty-year-old Sigma Designs technical services manager, Mariusz Malkowski, tells me that he isn’t a thrill seeker or adrenaline junky, but after summiting mountains on four continents—many of them solo—I don’t know how much I believe him.

I followed Mariusz' previous automation expedition when he summited Cho Oyu, the sixth-highest mountain in the world, during the 2013 CEDIA EXPO. Beyond “just” conquering another mountain, Mariusz was proving with that expedition that you’re never too far away from home to be in control, and the Z-Wave Alliance sponsored his Himalayan expedition. During one afternoon of the EXPO, Malkowski Skyped in live to the show floor when he reached the 26,906-foot summit. Using his satellite phone, he also checked the status of several Z-Wave devices, and after speaking to the assembled crowd for a moment, used Z-Wave-enabled tech from various manufacturers to unlock a door, turn on some lights, and adjust a thermostat, proving you are never too far away from home for technology to keep you in touch.

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Mariusz Malkowski summited Cho Oyu back in 2013 and Skyped in live to CEDIA EXPO attendees via satellite phone, showing how he could control Z-Wave-enabled technology back home. 
“Knowing” Mariusz in this way, I was definitely interested in his latest climb, the FIBARO Mount Everest Challenge. Of course, everyone knows about the recent avalanche tragedy on the mountain, but few of you probably knew anyone actually on the mountain during the natural disaster. Knowing that Maruisz’s Everest expedition was underway and that the avalanche occurred in the midst of his climb made the events far more personal for me. I had a chance to speak with Mariusz yesterday to learn a bit about climbing Everest, automation, and a first-hand account of the disaster.

When I think of summiting Everest, I imagine it being a group effort including a huge team of support people. Not so much for Mariusz.

“I was operating by myself,” he told me. “I hired a logistical company that got all of my stuff up to the base camp, but from then on I was on my own.”

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Mariusz’s view from base camp A huge part of the Everest climb is an acclimation process of getting used to the elevation—Everest Base Camp sits at 17,598 feet. And for a climber on his own, he must repeatedly travel back and forth, up and down the mountain from base camp to different camp stages on the mountain-toting gear and supplies as well as getting rest and recovering. It takes weeks to get your body prepared and ready to operate at those extreme altitudes, and Mariusz said from the time of reaching Kathmandu to summiting typically takes an expedition around 65 days, with 8–10 days spent just traveling from Kathmandu to Base Camp. Camp 4, which sits at 26,000 feet, or what Mariusz called “the death zone”—is the final stop before the summit at 29,029 feet.

“You are pretty much dying at that altitude,” he explained. “Life cannot be sustained even with external oxygen there. If you were to stay there for a week or two, it’s certain death. The body doesn’t regenerate there. When you get to Camp 4 you’re trying to ingest as much food as you can, typically energy bars. You drink as much water as you can and boil some to take with you for the next day. It is basically just survival. And from there you still have over 700 meters to go. Doing it even with oxygen is tough, and I was planning on doing it without oxygen which would have taken me even longer.”

This would have put Mariusz into the elite-of-the-elite group of one percent of people that have summited without oxygen. But he’s no thrill seeker…

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The FIBARO Expedition flag at Camp 1 

Mariusz left the U.S. on April 2 and had arrived in the Base Camp on the morning of the 13th. “I was in Camp 1 (20,000 feet) on the 19th and Camp 2 (21,000 feet) on the 20th and the avalanche struck on the 25th,” he said, pointing out that this put him about three weeks into the Expedition. Based on his climbing plan, he was optimistically about three weeks out from summiting depending on weather.

“The pity was I felt really, really good at higher camps,” he said. “I slept and ate well. I felt really good and strong and even Sherpas were joking that I was going to summit with them. I was right on their tiptoes right from when the mountain opened, and was the first westerner in Camp 1 and then Camp 2. I was ahead of schedule.”

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Camp 2 
I asked Mariusz to describe conditions on Everest during the climb and what a typical day holds during the trek.

“When you climb, you wake up very early; the first night I left at 2 a.m.,” he said. “The first stretch between Base Camp and Camp 1 is very, very dangerous because of avalanches. Avalanches come when the sun hits and warms the ice, so that’s why lots of people start their day at like 2 o’clock and climb for like four to eight hours.”

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Lhotse Face above Camp 2 
Higher up the mountain is actually not as dangerous and—surprising to me—Mariusz said Everest is really not a technical or difficult mountain from a climbing standpoint, other than the first stage that requires some rope and is “really treacherous.” Instead, Everest is really an endurance climb, especially when you consider that Summit Day will often be 24-30 hours long for most climbers.

“The nice thing about me going solo and going kind of against all the traffic was I pretty much had the mountain to myself,” Mariusz recalled. “In Camp 2 there were maybe, tops, 20 Sherpas and me. Base Camp is a totally different experience with like 1,200 people living there. It’s like a small village. You hear music at night with people having fun and stuff.”

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Mariusz said that life at Everest Base Camp is pretty boring. 
He said life at Base Camp is really pretty boring. “You wake up, you go and eat breakfast, you go read a book—I had a couple hundred books with me on my iPad—then you eat lunch, you read more, then you do laundry. It’s boring, but that’s part of the mountaineering that you still have to do.”

Temps were shockingly comfortable sounding: Mariusz said that it reached 70s during the day with the sun radiating off the snow, before plunging to around zero degrees at night.

“I was fortunate to have pretty good weather, no clouds in higher camps and nice skyline,” he said. “It was beautiful.”

Mariusz’s first inclination that there was a problem was when the ground started to shake, but he didn’t expect the worst.

“The land started to tremble and I knew right away it was an earthquake and a pretty big one,” he said. “I’ve been through a couple of earthquakes so I knew what was happening, but no one expected what was going to happen next, which was the avalanche. It was humongous, at least a mile wide and a couple hundred feet if not couple hundred yards tall, it was like a big cloud coming at us. The only thing I could do was to duck for cover and hope it passes. I was inside my tent, I got out, I saw the avalanche and I got behind my tent and hid in a little crevasse, and once it was all done I had a couple of inches of snow on me. It was pretty crazy. We then went around checking on other people and a friend of mine and I went to the medical tent and saw how we could be of help and started bringing injured people to doctors so they could be examined. That lasted for about eight hours, and the next day I started organizing my gear, I decided it was time to call it quits. I was going to walk my way back to the closest point where I could get off that mountain.”

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Top, damage after avalanche one. Bottom, damages in Kathmandu 
The closest exit point for Mariusz was two “fast days” walking away toward an airport called Lukla, but nothing was flying except emergency equipment. His next out was the closest village that had roads, but that was another five days' hike away. And from there Mariusz would hitch rides or catch a bus to work back to Kathmandu.

Fortunately Mariusz’s sponsor, FIBARO, was able to send a helicopter to pick him up very close to base camp and whisked him back to Kathmandu where he caught a plane and was back in the States in about 28 hours.

One minute freezing at the bottom of the highest point on earth, the next in your warm living room in Greater New York….

I asked Mariusz if he ever thought about continuing on with the expedition, or if that was even an option.

“We didn’t know to the extent how badly Nepal was damaged, but once I got to Kathmandu, it was pretty obvious that nothing was going to happen on the mountain,” he answered. “Even if the mountain was OK, they have bigger problems. The mountain itself closed pretty quick. The Sherpas all left to go to their homes to check on families. I don’t think there will be a single person on Everest this year. In recent days you can have 200 people on the summit on one day, but it’s gonna be a different year for Everest.”

Had Mariusz made it to the top, he had a pretty simple plan for his automation demonstration. “When you’re so high, your mind doesn’t operate,” he said. “We thought of a very simple thing of me calling home, and setting up a little light that would shine on a little picture of me saying, ‘I made it and I’m coming back!’ I was just going to turn that light on. We had more elaborate setup for ISC West where I called in from the Everest Base Camp and we opened some doors. We also had a little scenario that actually happened to me before. We had a pipe burst in our house, and we got a text message that said there was a water leak and we shut off the water valve. I also opened a door for neighbors so they could check the house, then I would call and open the garage door for the plumber to come and fix the pipe. At the end we brewed some coffee from Keurig.”

Mariusz’s phone of choice from the top of the world? An iPhone.

“I actually picked up a really neat piece that takes your iPhone in like a cradle called SatSleeve by Thuraya,” he said. “The speed is not the greatest—we’re talking 60 kbps—but for home automation that’s more than enough. It’s a pretty neat device with a battery backup so it charges the battery as you go. That’s the only thing that worked during the earthquake because the cell stations were either out, or if they weren’t, then they were overloaded. The sat phone works really good.”

Mariusz is planning on taking a break from big mountains for a bit, saying this particular climb took a toll on his family. “I’m toying with the idea of taking my family and doing something easy like Machu Picchu or Kilimanjaro, just to take my little one,” he said. “But next year, who knows? Maybe I come back to Everest. The sponsor says they’re standing by, saying, ‘Hey, let’s do it again.’ It’s definitely something that I want to do.”

Here’s to planting your flag at the top, Mr. Mariusz, and turning your lights on while you’re up there!

The FIBARO Mt. Everest Challenge was sponsored by the Z-Wave Alliance, Vivint, Kwikset, Yale/ASSA ABLOY, Nortek Security & Control, Sigma Designs, FortrezZ, and ZWaveProducts.com.

You can see video shot by Mariusz at Everest here

John Sciacca is principal of Custom Theater and Audio in Myrtle Beach, SC.

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