|Photo credit: ITU/P. Ticon
On Thursday 30 June 2011, at 1234 hours local time,
a team of ITU staff reached the summit of Mont Blanc,
4810 metres above sea level. Fittingly for the staff of
the world’s telecommunication agency, the climbers immediately
established radio contact with ITU’s amateur
radio station. How did the team face up to such a great
Flying the ITU flag
An international team of three men and three women took
part in the ITU Mont Blanc 2011 project. The objective of the
project was to embark on a great human adventure that would
enhance the enjoyment of combined effort, foster a spirit of solidarity
among ITU staff, and — in line with ITU’s mission to connect
the world — establish radio contact from the roof of Europe.
The support of ITU’s top management enabled the team to
be properly prepared and equipped to face the dangers of the
mountain. Dr Touré gave his full backing to this team-building
project, which should pave the way for similar initiatives contributing
to the spirit of one ITU.
In this article, the team shares their impressions of a splendid
human adventure, involving the kind of activity that lays emphasis
on cohesion, team spirit and transcending one’s own capabilities.
The team’s ascent had everything to do with flying the ITU
What inspired the ITU team?
Patrick Ticon, the initiator of the project and team leader
had for years longed to climb Mont Blanc, the white mountain
that — on a clear day — you can see from the cafeteria on the
15th floor of the ITU tower. Patrick says “My guiding lights in this
project were an enjoyment of effort and sense of shared pleasure.
I know from experience that everyone’s best is revealed through
effort. It provides an opportunity to discover wonderful people
through learning and succeeding together. Differences are a
source of wealth that we sometimes need to cultivate.”
|Photo credit: ITU/P. Ticon
|The Mont Blanc expedition team (from left to right):
Marta Nury Munoz Echeverri; Patrick Ticon; Bernadette
Maurissen; Karima Benkirane-Demlek; Michel Mbarga;
and Kim Dong-Sik
Michel Mbarga explains “This project is a way of demonstrating
the kind of strength that gives ITU staff members the determination
to carry out and accomplish their various missions.”
Marta Nury Munoz Echeverri, who loves mountains and has
been climbing them for years, was keen to climb for ITU. “In the
course of preparing for our ascent, we found ourselves dealing
with and getting to know colleagues we had previously encountered
here and there during working hours and with whom our
only contact had ever been the briefest of greetings,” she recalls.
Karima Benkirane-Demlek, who loves sports but not highmountain
trekking, says although she was apprehensive she
didn’t hesitate for one second to join the team. “The prospect
of being part of a team representing the Union and of climbing
one of the world’s highest summits convinced me to accept the
challenge and prepare myself as best I could.”
Bernadette Maurissen saw climbing Mont Blanc as “a great
sporting and human adventure.” She enjoys her day job as a
nurse, and was “proud to be able to represent ITU through this
Kim Dong-Sik saw the Mont Blanc challenge as “a real good
opportunity to work together in an extreme environment”, recalling
that recent natural disasters had highlighted the importance
of communication and the role of ITU.
|Patrick Ticon TM74UIT on Mont Blanc carrying a handheld transceiver
The team had to be strong both physically and mentally. This
meant following a serious training programme. As a warm-up, on
5 March 2011, the team climbed Le Crêt de la Neige on snowshoes.
The next stage involved some mid-level mountain expeditions:
Le Reculet (1719 metres) on 2 April, Lac Jovet (2240 metres)
on 15 April, and Col d’Anterne (2250 metres) on 28 April, as
well as repeated ascents of Le Salève. Then it was time for some
high-level mountain climbs, with the ascent of Le Buet (3096 metres)
on 3 June, Le Reculet again on 4 June, and Le Buet once
more on 12 June.
Karima recalls the arduous training schedule. “From our very
first training expedition, I discovered something grandiose and
magical about walking in the mountains, despite the difficulties
and the physical ordeal that can be a part of it.”
A schedule of progressive training is the way to reduce
the risk associated with poor physical condition. Yet the effect
of training went far beyond the mitigation of risk. During the
training sessions, genuine bonds of friendship grew between the
Facing the challenges
High-altitude mountaineering always involves risk, whether
geographic, climatic, material, training, acclimatization or guidance.
In 2010, there were 64 rescue missions on Mont Blanc and
four climbers died.
The ITU plan to climb Mont Blanc scrupulously followed the
recommended approaches to limiting risk: employing a competent
high-mountain guide to provide training and accompany
the climbers; ensuring that the team followed a sustained and
rigorous training programme to be in good physical shape, and
understood the climbing techniques and equipment that would
be required; and being kitted out with suitable equipment.
Using amateur radio to keep in contact
When the project started to take shape, Attila Matas, a radio
engineer, offered to track the expedition, and help train Patrick
so that he could pass the exam necessary to obtain an amateur
radio licence before the expedition set off for Mont Blanc.
|Attila Matas at the ITU amateur club station 4U1ITU in Geneva in
communication with the APRS server (http://aprs.fi) that collects global
real-time position information from radio amateur stations
The idea was for the climbers to transmit their position
and altitude every five minutes so that Attila could track their
progress from the 4U1ITU radio club at ITU headquarters.
But the usual equipment has a range of 30 kilometres, and the
point-to-point distance from ITU headquarters to the summit
of Mont Blanc is 75 km and distance to Italy (Grand Paradis) is
130 kilometres. Attila had to resort to some tricks to overcome
the technical challenge. As he explains, “we used a 7 elements
Yagi antenna normally used for amateur-satellite communication
on the roof of the ITU and we turned it in the direction of Mont
Blanc. Information from the handheld transmitter YEASU VX-8GR
(beacon) carried by Patrick F4GRZ was processed at 4U1ITU radio
club at ITU headquarters using the APRS* tracking system, and
then channelled to Finland where there is a global amateur radio
tracking server (http://aprs.fi). The server in Finland is open to
the whole world, so anybody in the world could track the expedition
on the web in real time. We used a similar radio also for
FM voice communication. The ITU call sign was 4U1ITU, and the
French Administration licensed the special call sign TM74UIT for
Keeping track of the ITU climbers
The Automatic Packet Reporting System (APRS) and
FM communication channels were set up to track online
the position of the mountaineers and maintain
voice (FM) communication with the expedition using
amateur radio communication equipment.
For the APRS communication on 144.800 MHz, the
4U1ITU amateur station used a Kenwood TH-D7A
transceiver. For voice (FM) communication on
145.525 MHz, the 4U1ITU amateur station used a
YAESU FT-736R transceiver.
Patrick Ticon F4GRZ/TM74UIT was carrying a YEASU
VX-8GR handheld transceiver.
The radio amateur stations were able to maintain
reliable APRS communication every five minutes and
FM communication every hour. This amateur radio
operation improved the safety of the ITU Mont Blanc
2011 expedition (through on-line tracking and voice
contact) and showcased new online communication
methods using modern portable amateur
Satellite tracking step by step to the summit
By Sunday, 26 June 2011 (Day 1 of the expedition), the team
was ready. The guide was waiting. The accommodation was
booked. And special insurance coverage had been taken out.
On that Sunday, the six members of the team met on the forecourt
of the ITU tower, and set off in two cars for Argentière to
pick up their mountaineering gear (helmets, harnesses, ice-axes
and crampons), on their way to meet their guide, Serge Bazin,
at Montenvers station in Chamonix. From there, they made their
way to the ice school near the Mer de Glace (1908 metres) to
spend the day familiarizing themselves with the equipment, returning
to Chamonix to stay for the night.
On Day 2 (Monday 27 June), after a morning with Serge
at the climbing school near Chamonix, the team travelled to
Courmayeur in Italy, to spend the night at the Victor Emmanuel II
refuge (2750 metres).
Day 3 (Tuesday, 28 June) saw the team leave the Victor
Emmanuel II refuge at 0430 hours to climb the Grand Paradis
(4067 metres), arriving at the summit at 0915 hours (first
APRS tracking). After climbing down, with a stop at the Victor
Emmanuel II refuge for lunch, the team returned to Chamonix
for another night.
On Day 4 (Wednesday, 29 June), Serge and the team took
the Houches-Bellevue cablecar and then the Mont Blanc tramway
to the Mont Lachat station, at an altitude of 2077 metres. From
there, they walked to the Nid d’Aigle and then on to the Tête
Rousse refuge (3167 metres), where they spent the night.
Then came Day 5 (Thursday, 30 June) — the big day. Waking
at 0400 hours, the team was pleased to find that the overnight
rain had cleared and the weather conditions were favourable.
Leaving the Tête Rousse refuge at 0445 hours, the excitement
was tangible. Attila picks up the story: “I came to ITU headquarters
ready to make contact with the team at 0430 hours. Looking
towards Mont Blanc, I saw that it was raining, so I thought that
the attempt would be called off. Then the APRS satellite tracking
image started to move, and I made radio contact with Patrick,
who said that he expected to be at the top of Mont Blanc at
around 1230 hours.”
The team needed to make an early start while the ice still
held the rocks in place. Once the sun began to warm the mountain,
the danger of rock-falls would increase. By 0800 hours, the
team had made the icy and difficult climb to the refuge du Goûter
Leaving the refuge du Goûter at 0830 hours, the climbers
struggled upwards in the thin air, passing the Dôme du Goûter
(4304 metres) and the Vallot refuge (4362 metres). At 1234 hours
they reached the summit of Mont Blanc, and established VHF
radio contact with ITU’s amateur radio station. At ITU headquarters,
the excitement exploded in a series of shrieks and cries
“Wow! Perfect timing!” Attila contacted the climbers whose progress
had been tracked in real time, “Hi Patrick, congratulations!”
Then the team had to make the long and exhausting climb
back down, via the Goûter refuge and the notorious Couloir du
Goûter, to spend the night at the Goûter refuge before heading
back to Geneva on 1 July 2011.
|Planting the ITU flag on the summit of Mont Blanc
Enjoying the ITU team’s success
“Facing the challenge of climbing Mont Blanc created great
team spirit and deep friendship. Not everyone needs to climb a
mountain, but just doing something sporty, like walking or swimming,
is good for the mind as well as the body,” says Bernadette.
“Everybody warned me. Watch out! You will see what the
altitude does to you… they were right. I felt as if I had lost my
full physical capacities, and all I had left was my will power and
the one objective: to reach the summit. At one point I really asked
myself what I was doing up there. Patrick kept encouraging me,
you can do it, I know you can, keep going. We finally made it to
the top, and it was amazing,” recounts Michel. Kim Dong-Sik,
who celebrated his 50th birthday on the first day of the expedition,
also admits that “the climb was very hard, and I was surprised
to be able to reach the summit”.
Although they are all amateur climbers, they approached
the challenge with professionalism, building up their strength
individually and as a team, identifying and mitigating risks,
and relying on the telecommunication expertise of their ITU colleagues
to track their progress and keep in contact.
The modern APRS tracking system used by 4U1ITU radio club
added to the security of the team and allowed the team’s exploits
to be followed throughout the world. On the mountain, news
spread rapidly by word of mouth between the refuges. Other
climbers saw the ITU logo on the jackets and backpacks of the
ITU team, and asked about the Union and its work. News spread
of a blind soldier who was making the climb, and the ITU team
met him during their ascent.
Patrick concludes, “There is an interesting exchange at the
human level, you discover your colleagues in a different way, you
learn skills you did not necessarily think you had the capacity for,
and then there is the effort side: helping each other, surpassing
yourself. My thanks to all concerned for the energy devoted to
this project and for the confidence shown by ITU.”
* APRS was developed by Bob Bruninga, WB4APR