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Author thumbnail By M. Scott Smith, DCSki Editor

Review: Touching the Void

Perhaps some of the most dramatic footage of mountains ever filmed can be seen in the new movie “Touching the Void.” If you share a passion for the power, majesty, solitude and yes, the dangers of the mountains, this is an important movie to see, especially after a full day on the slopes. It is also a powerful story of the will to survive. But, since I am not a climber, I don’t really understand why anyone would put themselves to such a test. However, standing on the top of a mountain is one of the most awakening sensations in the world - whether we get there by climbing, helicopter, or chairlift.

There is an excellent article about the film in the January 18th Washington Post. It tells the story of Joe Simpson after a horrendous climbing accident when his partner, Simon Yates, was forced to cut the rope. Simpson already had a badly shattered leg from a fall. When the rope was cut, he fell about 100 feet onto a glacier, then crashed through the ice and fell an estimated 80 feet further into a dark, narrow, icy crevasse. Although in incredible pain and terror, he managed to get out by descending to the bottom of the crevasse. It took four days for him to make it down the mountain, where Simon was preparing to break camp and leave. Simon found Joe nearly shattered, raving, hallucinating, and in terrible pain - but alive!

The movie is filmed in both the French Alps (Chaminox) and the Peruvian Andes. The dangerous face of the mountain the men conquered in 1985 - the 21,000 foot Siula Grande - is not known to have been climbed by anyone else; at least, not anyone who has lived to tell about it.

“Touching the Void” has been a major best-seller, but the docudrama is not playing in many theaters in the Washington area. It may be much too intense for the average viewer. But, it would be a shame to miss it on the big screen. It might be interesting to see the reaction and reflection of others who decide to see this powerful film.

Submitted by Connie Lawn.

The Quiet Zone

Travelers passing through the town of Green Bank on the way to West Virginia’s Snowshoe Mountain Resort are often startled to see an enormous, otherworldly metallic structure rising above the ground. The structure looks distinctly out of place among the farms and valleys of the area, but serves a valuable purpose: listening to radio signals from outer space. Astronmers can answer questions about the Universe by studying the signals emitted by distant galaxies.

The large radio telescope is one of several located at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Green Bank. These telescopes can focus in on signals that are weaker than 0.00000000000000000000000001 watts -; incomprehensibly weaker than the signal emitted from your cell phone or a walkie talkie. The NRAO was located in the valley of Green Bank due to the natural shielding from electronic interference provided by the surrounding mountains. Visitors to NRAO must ride in diesel-powered trucks built in 1969 and 1970; newer vehicles, with all of their electronic gadgetry, would cause too much interference to the sensitive telescopes. But, as an article in the February issue of Wired Magazine points out, the growing ubiquity of wireless devices -; from cell phones to pagers to WiFi laptops -; is beginning to cause problems for the scientists at Green Bank.

Snowshoe Mountain Resort is located just over the hill from Green Bank, and Wired describes the unique challenges Snowshoe faces to minimize the possibility of interference with the nearby radio telescopes. Most large ski resorts place radio repeaters across the mountain, allowing ski patrol and mountain operations personnel to stay in touch with each other. But these repeaters would cause large headaches to the researchers at the NRAO, so Snowshoe installed a more expensive hardwired communications systems.

Snowshoe faced a more recent challenge when it constructed the Sunrise Backcountry Hut, profiled here last season on DCSki. Accessible by snowshoe or snowmobile, the Hut allows visitors to enjoy a homecooked meal, or to stay overnight in one of the resort’s more adventurous lodging options. The Backcountry Hut offers a great view of Green Bank below -; it’s located just 7.5 miles from the NRAO’s primary telescope, with no mountains in the way.

Wired magazine reports that Snowshoe wanted to install a radio transmitter in the Hut, so a fire alarm could instantly be relayed to Snowshoe’s fire response personnel. But a conventional transmitter would wreak havoc on the telescope. To solve the problem, Snowshoe worked with NRAO personnel to develop a highly directional antenna that would beam its signal at a 90-degree angle away from the telescope and towards a Verizon wireless base station 40 miles south, using just 3 watts of power versus a traditional 48. The Verizon base station then redirects the signal back to Snowshoe in a split second.

Although the directional antenna solved the problem, visitors to Snowshoe can unknowingly interfere with the NRAO’s operations. A skier whipping out a Motorola Talk About 2-way radio on Widowmaker can potentially disrupt the work of scientists at the Observatory.

Submitted by M. Scott Smith.
About M. Scott Smith

M. Scott Smith is the founder and Editor of DCSki. Scott loves outdoor activities such as camping, hiking, kayaking, skiing, and mountain biking. He is an avid photographer and writer.

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