I wrote a speculative letter to Racal Radio Ltd. a large communications company selling radios to both civilian and military customers around the world. This was on the advice of my old Scout Leader who works for them at their Seaton plant. I wrote asking whether they would be prepared to loan or sell equipment, and was delighted when they replied offering their support. I later learnt how lucky we were: they receive about seven letters of this kind every day!
Both Steve and I had limited experience with Racal Clansman 349 sets, from The BSES Svalbard 1990 expedition. However this was several years earlier; we needed a refresher course, and most of the rest of the expedition needed some basic training. This was excellently provided by The Royal Marines on our training weekend with them. They gave us a course in radio familiarisation and voice procedure which brought us up to scratch; it included a training exercise around the camp. We used handheld Racal Clansmen 349 sets (VHF) which were quite similar to the VHF sets we were loaned.
I visited Racal Radio in Reading about six weeks before we were due to leave. This was an excellent opportunity for me to see the radios we were going to use, and a chance to ask questions about them. By the time I left I was confident that I could both use them and teach the rest of the expedition to do the same.
The official distress and calling frequency in Svalbard is Marine channel 16 - 2182kHz. Marine traffic and Radio Svalbard* should respond to transmissions on this frequency. Our plan was to contact Radio Svalbard at the beginning of the expedition to establish that radio contact could be made and then only call in the event of an emergency. This however proved fruitless, we could not hear any signal or get a response, even after calling repeatedly.
We eventually got through to a scientific group, The Norsk Polarinstitutt. They had a large number of field based groups operating in the summer season, all of which reported to a central base in Longyearbyen twice daily (9am and 9pm) on 3174kHz. The first period of the transmission was used to establish contact with each group, however after this "free" conversation was permitted. We listened on this frequency and passed messages when necessary, in fact due to the superior power of our set we passed several messages for groups such as BSES (operating an expedition in the area) who could not get through!
In order to ship telecommunication equipment to Svalbard several formalities must be completed.
We were loaned the following:
2 HF sets (PRM 4031)
4 rechargable batteries
2 whip and 2 dipole antennas
6 VHF sets (PRM 4720A)
6 handsets and whip antennas
12 rechargable batteries
2 Solar panel rechargers
1 hand generator
This represented quite a considerable investment on Racal's part. The reasoning behind the inventory was that apart from the essential emergency requirement of an HF set, shorter range VHF hand held sets could be used on a daily basis between groups. They would give greater safety to the expedition as a whole as well as helping it to run more smoothly and efficiently. Solar rechargers would provide most of the recharging capability (24 hour sunlight) using the hand held recharger in emergencies. As the equipment was designed for military use it was very robust and water resistant, perfect for our use.
The HF Sets: PRM 4031
This long range radio was for our emergency use and for communication with the outside world. For this purpose we used a sky-wave dipole antenna supplied (see below). Once we had established contact on the Norsk Polarinstitutt network we were able to receive and transmit a strong clear signal even on low power (2.5W). We did not suffer from any transmission problems except once at adventure base camp when we didn't connect the aerial properly! Although the top panel looked confusing at first sight we found it straight-forward and easy to use: the instruction manual was written very clearly here. We were supplied two batteries with each radio, although they were rather heavy they were very long lasting: although we liked to keep them topped up using the solar panel we probably wouldn't have used more than two. The coldest temperatures experienced were at the Adventure base camp: down to about -10oC at night/in the shade. However there weren't any problems associated with this. To protect the radio when we were travelling we carried it in rucksacks. Had we pulled it along in a sled it would have been quite badly bashed around on the bumpy ice surface of Formidablebreen. The only drawback we found with the radio then was its weight, which made it hard to carry. However this was paid off by its power and robustness.
The dipole aerial
The instruction manual showed this strung between trees and buildings, however we found rocks made quite satisfactory stands: during the Science Phase the aerial was erected in a scree field on the mountain just behind camp. As glaciers are transparent to radio waves we were able to simply lay the aerial on the snow at our Adventure base camp. This was very convenient as it meant we could operate the radio from inside our tents.
The VHF Sets
We used these on a daily basis to communicate between fieldwork or mountaineering parties and base camp. Although we knew they would be useful we were surprised just how invaluable they were - by simply being able to talk to the other groups we were able to make decisions and pass on messages, saving us a lot of time and allowing us to be much more flexible. Potentially complicated situations were easily resolved. As you can imagine we used them frequently - the solar recharger was running almost non stop! They were light and compact: this made them convenient to carry even on the smallest trips. In fact we hardly used the radio harnesses: as we were always carrying rucksacks it was much more convenient to either strap the radios to the side (using the rucksack compression straps) or slip them inside the main compartment. We didn't usually have specific call-up times, instead we left the sets on continually whilst out in the field. With the handsets strapped to the outside of the sacks we could hear any messages if the volume was turned up quite high. In this respect we think it would have been much better to have had a call mode (to save on batteries) where sets could be "bleeped" if a message needed to be passed. The sets certainly proved their durability: at the start of the Adventure phase (when we were walking in) we had some nasty weather, during which the radios got wet: they remained in this (cold and wet) state for several days but seemed completely unharmed by it. We used the radios most during the Science phase as we tended to split up less during the Adventure Phase, however they worked well during both. The Arctic landscape being pretty barren meant we often had line of sight communication, our chances improving the further up a mountain we were. We were aware of this line of sight limitation of VHF radios so we weren't surprised if we had no reception whilst gully climbing. However we were surprised at the good reception and range of the radios once we had reached the mountain summit. This meant a summit call from a climbing party could normally be relied on to prove they were safe. One of the main justifications for these radios was to report polar bear sightings - fortunately we never had to use them for this.
Like the HF sets we were very pleased with them. They worked well, were easy to use, and stood up to Arctic conditions well.
The Solar Panels
We were loaned two of these: one larger than the other. The idea of Solar power is tailor-made for an Arctic summer expedition - owing to the 24 hour sunlight. However as a consequence of this the sun takes a circular path above the skyline, making constant adjustment of the panel necessary. The recharging worked especially well on the glacier at our adventure phase base camp. This was because the reflected light off the glacier gave a much higher light intensity. The panels were very durable: withstanding the cold and wet they were subjected to.
For a remote expedition a radio is essential for safety. We were very pleased with the ones we were loaned owing to their usefulness and excellent performance. We would like to thank Racal not only for their great generosity in lending us such a comprehensive supply of radios, but also for backing this up with a considerable amount of time and effort. We are indebted to them for their support.