The equipment required for a mountaineering expedition such as this falls into three approximate categories: mountaineering, living/camping and emergencies. As all of us have spent several summers in the European Alps and have walked and climbed extensively within the UK as well, between us we had accumulated a reasonable amount of mountaineering equipment, and were able to gather enough for the expedition with the addition of relatively few extra purchases. The same is true of the basic camping equipment, in that we had access to sufficient tents, stoves, sleeping bags, mats etc. but we did not have the water filters needed for an extended stay in an area with water of unknown quality. There is considerable overlap between emergency equipment and mountaineering/living gear: ropes, karabiners, warm clothes, sleeping bags etc. could all be essential if a rescue from the mountain was required, but more emergency equipment was required which is not needed on a typical walk in more populous areas.
As we planned to carry all of our food and equipment into base camp, weight was a major consideration in the type and quantity of mountaineering equipment we used. Whilst each person required much of their own equipment such as waterproofs and layers, some could be shared. Climbing groups consisted of four people, and we did not want to be limited in what we could climb by the equipment we had brought, so we took a pair of technical axes for each member of the climbing team (eight technical axes in total).
In an emergency, the base camp team would be the first people on the mountain to attempt a rescue, so they would clearly need axes of their own if they were to climb safely to the mountain team. However, they would likely be moving much more slowly and carefully and with more equipment (first aid kits, tent(s), sleeping bags etc.). They would also be unlikely to attempt any excessively difficult terrain, as this would endanger the rescue team and risk complicating the situation significantly. Because of this, the rescue team were provided with one light-weight walking axe each.
A similar decision was made regarding ropes: whilst the mountain team might be expected to pitch sections of the route, and thus could benefit from having two ropes and being able to climb faster, in pairs, the base camp/rescue team would be able to make do with a single rope. Indeed, as they were not expected to attempt any terrain more difficult than a glacier crossing, a single rope would be preferable in any case. We took with us two 50m ropes, intended for the climbing team, and one 60m rope for any rescue. It turned out that the 60m rope (alone) was used by the mountain team on several days, to save weight on routes which were not expected to require much or any pitching.
We wanted to ensure there was always sufficient gear in base camp to mount a rescue, and as we did not know how difficult the routes would be in advance we took three complete racks. This allowed one for each climbing pair, plus one in base camp (with extra tat) for the rescue team. For most of the mountain days, the group climbed as a four with a single rack, and occasionally with a much-reduced rack when a simple snow route was planned. There were a few days which required two racks on the mountain though, leaving one in base camp as planned. If the mountain routes had been much harder, this would have been the case for most of the time.
The aim was to provide a communications chain between the mountain team and base camp, and onwards from base camp to Bishkek or the UK. This meant that base camp could be kept informed of any changes in planned route or timing and also that they could provide assistance in case of a serious problem on the mountain. Depending on what was required by the mountain team, those at base camp could call for advice from a UK doctor (through the BMC, our insurance provider), or arrange for an evacuation by helicopter or by truck from the road-head. They could also climb up to the mountain team with food, shelter, and the more extensive base camp first aid kit, to assist on the mountain with first aid, stretcher making, shelter or whatever else was required.
In addition to these emergency uses, the availability of a satellite phone, radios and charging facilities was helpful in more day-to-day scenarios. For example, the solar panel and battery were used to charge music players and e-books and a smartphone with cached Google Earth data was used to plan routes and examine mountains from new angles. The radios were used to announce when the climbing team had made it to a summit, or turned around, and for the all-important task of requesting tea when returning to base camp. The satellite phone was used to update our website.
On the training weekend in the Lake District, we had experimented with using PMR1 band unlicensed radios, with a transmit power of 0.5 watts. These were found effective over line-of-sight distances of a kilometre or two, but were not good enough for reliable use in mountainous terrain over significant distances. Because of this, we instead took marine VHF radios, with a transmit power of 5 watts. These were more expensive, but also had longer-lasting batteries and were of tougher construction, which proved useful when one of them took an extended tumble down a mountain (and survived, with only cosmetic damage). These are not legal for land-based use in the UK, and it was not possible to discover the legal situation in Kyrgyzstan. Because of the limited transmit power of the radios and the remoteness of the area, we did not expect to conflict with any local users of the radio spectrum. Indeed, during the expedition we did not hear any other transmissions on the frequencies we were using.
It was anticipated that the climbing pairs might go out of sight of each other, so three radios were provided: one for each climbing pair and one for base camp. This also provided some redundancy in case of equipment failure (either of the radios or the chargers). In reality, the mountain teams climbed together almost all of the time and the radios worked throughout, so this was not required, but it was a useful to have such redundancy when out of reach of any means of repairing broken electronics.
The mountain and base camp teams were able to contact each other most of the time, though sometimes this would involve standing up or walking a few metres to a higher point to get through. A few times, when the mountain team were behind several obstacles, it was not possible to make a radio call, but since these were not emergency calls this did not cause any issues. If an emergency had arisen in these circumstances, a member of the mountain team would have to find a point from which a call could be made, but given how rarely this was a problem, it is likely that they would not have to walk far.
We had one satellite phone (Iridium Extreme) at base camp which was kept charged via our solar panel system. The phone was provided with free calls by Cambridge Consultants, with the requirement we turned it on for ten minutes every few days. We were very lucky that Tom works for Cambridge Consultants and therefore had access to this facility. The phone provided the link between base camp and the UK and Bishkek for organisation and emergencies. Our solar panel gave us enough charge that we were also able to call home frequently.
Solar Panel and Battery
We had a large flexible solar panel (PowerTec MMP16) that charged a 12V lead acid battery (bought in Osh Bazaar, after ours was confiscated on the flight out). The battery was then able to charge our radios, satellite phone, cameras and other personal electronic items. It was able to charge many items at once (via a system of adapters), and never struggled. Our solar panel suffered a loose connection late on the expedition. It was possible to make it work by prodding it randomly for around 10 minutes until the connection was made. Luckily this only needed doing once a day.