Guiding presents a dichotomy that has always nagged me. The core of any long trip into the mountains is the experience of leaving our normal lives behind, and stepping into a new life ruled by the time the sun rises and sets, controlled by weather and shaped by the attitude and ability of our teammates. Simultaneously, guides are expected to know the weather forecast and have the ability to communicate in an emergency. Most guided groups carry either a satellite or cell phone on extended expeditions and both need to be recharged from time to time. Having the capability to charge batteries brings people knocking on my tent hoping to charge iPods and cameras. With increased power capabilities comes the rise of the expedition blog. I can’t deny it’s great for marketing, and it does give people at home a way to keep up with friends and family in the mountains. But all this available technology detracts from original reason we came to the mountains–to live simply.
When I first started guiding, cell phones were bulky and expensive, cell coverage was limited and only the most well-connected could procure a satellite phone, which was still the size of a small briefcase. At best, our communications were achieved by a CB radio, powered by AA batteries that were squirreled away in a ziplock and kept warm in the bottom of a sleeping bag each night.
Portable solar panels improved some of this cumbersome communication system, though it was some time before they became useful and efficient–and they are still not perfect. I have owned and eventually broken six different solar-powered systems. Early setups were basically just a panel with a cord that attached to the device that needed charging. Over time they incorporated a central battery that would store power for charging after the sun had set. Every system had some drawback:
Many systems lacked a voltage regulator. This meant I could charge almost anything, but also made it possible to fry certain devices if they were left charging too long in direct sun. Some companies installed a fuse in the system to regulate this power overflow, but this fuse was not always something you could replace in the field.
Some systems came with pre-set tolerances that would work with one device, but not with another.
Most systems required separate adapters for different devices. These adapters were a nuisance to keep track of, and were easily damaged by the mountain environment.
Almost every system lasted a few trips, and then a wire would break, or something would fail, rendering the entire system useless.
Last summer I started testing my seventh solar charger after I came across a company called Goal0. They claimed to have a battery that could charge any cell phone, iPod, sat phone or even laptop computer. I didn’t hesitate to test their claim, and found that the battery was compatible with any and every device I plugged into it. Making final preparations for a trekking expedition to India, I asked to test the beefy Sherpa 50 Adventure Kit, knowing my trip would be filled with power-hungry clients and their electronics. Over the next year I took the system to India, Aconcagua, Mexico and on road trips through the desert southwest.
[Photo] John Race
The complete kit includes a Nomad 13.5 solar panel, a Sherpa 50 Power Pack, an AC wall charger and a 12V female cigarette adapter.
The solar panel generates a maximum of 13.5 watts of power, and can charge the Sherpa 50 Power Pack in about eight hours, assuming you have strong, direct sunlight. The panels use mono-crystalline technology, which provides the most efficient solar power collection currently commercially available in terms of weight and space. The panel measures 11 x 7 x 1 inches when folded up, and weighs 1.5 lbs. It comes with a nine-foot cord that is permanently attached to the panel, allowing me to keep the battery out of the weather while the panel is mounted atop my tent. The panel has four stainless steel grommets that I clip to the roof of the tent so it doesn’t slide off in the wind.
The Sherpa 50 Power Pack stores fifty watts of power, weighs 2.2 lbs, and measures 8.5 x 6 x 1.5 inches. It has one main input port, that can take in up to 120 watts (12V:10A) via DC, and 45 watts (15.3V:3A) via the AC inverter that comes with the Power Pack. The battery can be used with different sized solar panels. For output, it has a USB port that puts out 2.5 watts (5V:0.5A) as well as a DC output that produces 120 watts (12V:10A). To use this port, attach a female DC cord, which is included with the battery. An LED screen indicates how charged the battery is, and shows whether the battery is charging or not. A very critical feature is a 20A fuse, which can be replaced (in the field!) if it is blown, and protects everything if there is a power overflow. Type 20A fuses are available at any car parts store.
Northwest Mountain School co-owner Olivia Cussen makes a call on her satellite phone in Ladakh, India. Cussen and John Race were leading a commercial trekking expedition in the area when a massive storm hit the area, leaving their group of fifteen with only their Goal0 charger for power. [Photo] John Race
In India we were trekking in Ladakh, when a massive and unusual storm hit our group, destroying a portion of Leh, where we were staying, and taking out all phone and Internet. During this storm, more than 300 people were killed in Leh. Panic spread as people rushed to buy food, water and antibiotics. Our Goal0 system became the only power source for our group of fifteen, and people flocked to our sat phone to call home and tell friends and relatives that they were OK. On Aconcagua our group of twelve used the system daily to charge a wide variety of devices including three iPhones, six iPods, an iPad, a sat phone, a Kindle and even AA batteries for headlamps and GPS units. I don’t recall ever seeing the battery more than forty percent drained, despite the heavy use.
After testing this solar charger during trips on three continents and in variable conditions, I like most things about this battery. I can charge things off the Power Pack while it is charging off the solar panel. I can also charge multiple devices simultaneously, via the USB and DC outputs. On any expedition there are times when everyone wants to charge phones at the same time. This feature allows me to put a splitter (available at any good electronics store) on the DC output, and charge up to three devices. It is possible to chain several solar batteries together, and even batteries of different sizes, allowing me to collect a lot of power during sunny days. The battery is very tough and rugged. I made a small case out of an old, foam sleeping pad for transporting the battery, but I have no evidence that additional padding is necessary. The battery pack is shaped in a way that it can be stacked with other batteries, and there are two very strong metal loops at opposite ends of the battery that allow me to anchor it in place if need be.
One gripe I have with the design is that the four grommets on the panel board are not at the edge of each corner, so the pouch at the end flaps around in the wind. Also, the power cord is permanently attached, and would require a bit of soldering to replace if it were damaged. The soldered attachment adds to the strength of the attachment, but makes field repair more complicated.
There are a few quirks with the battery that potential buyers should be aware of. It contains a sophisticated chip that detects the power needs of the device attached. This is what allows the Power Pack to work with such a wide variety of electronics. This same chip also puts the battery to sleep if it is not used for more than thirty hours. Eventually, it goes into “hibernate mode.” This evidently protects the battery, but causes problems for me since the battery can only be reawakened by plugging it into an AC wall outlet, which is impossible in the mountains. Goal0 has since replaced this chip in all the old batteries, and it now takes one hundred hours before it enters this mode. This means that I need to access the battery and turn it on once every four days or so. This will be an issue for small groups on big climbs away from base camp, or for forgetful users like me. Also, be aware that replacing the fuse requires a two-millimeter Allen wrench–something I think Goal0 could fix by making the fuse housing openable with a coin.
Overall the Sherpa 50 Adventure Pack is the most effective solar-powered system I have owned. No piece of the system ever failed to function in a year of frequent use. The Sherpa 50’s excellent design and craftsmanship make it simple to use, dependable and easy to repair if something does go awry. With this sort of reliability, Goal0 has set a high bar for the competition.
Pros: charges iPods, sat phones, AA batteries and laptops; very durable; has a replaceable fuse; stores a huge amount of power; solar batteries can be chained and charged simultaneously.
Cons: the battery needs to be turned on every one hundred hours to prevent it from going into hibernation.