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Portable Solar Charger for Mountaineering School

men hiking mount rainier

The summit of Mount Rainier (14,411 feet; 4393 meters) is the highest peak in the Pacific Northwest and offers more heavily-glaciated and technical terrain than any other mountain in the lower United States. On clear days, those on the peak can enjoy unobstructed views of the North Cascades, the Olympic Mountains, Mount Baker, Mount Adams, Mount Hood, and Mount Saint Helens. Named Rainier by George Vancouver in 1792, the first recorded ascent was completed by Hazard Stevens and P.B. Von Trump in 1870. Today, Rainier is one of North America’s famous alpine proving grounds, has more than 30 distinct summit routes, and offers adventure and challenge for mountaineers of all skill levels. Some 13,000 climbers attempt Mount Rainier every year, and about half of them succeed. Climbers who hire professional guides enjoy a considerably higher success rates. High-altitude mountaineering requires skills that can only be acquired on the unforgiving face of a glaciated mountain. To learn the skills necessary to cross gaping crevasses and climb to the summit Rainier, many student climbers attend one of the mountaineering schools in the region.

Mount Baker, another heavily-glaciated stratovolcano, peaks at 10,781 feet, is the tallest peak in the North Cascades, and is the third tallest in Washington. This massive snow and ice covered mountain offers one of the best alpine training grounds to learn snow and ice climbing, glacier travel skills, and to gain the knowledge and preparation to ascend higher peaks around the world. Offering the unique opportunity to climb on two aspects of the mountain, one of the more popular routes begins on the north facing slopes of the Coleman Glacier, then wraps onto the west-facing aspect of the Deming Glacier and a view of the opposite side of the mountain. As with most high-altitude climbing of this sort, the key to success on this route is good weather, good training, and good endurance. While the climbing is not ultra-technical, it does require over 7,000 feet of climbing from the trailhead, and a long summit day with close to 5,000 vertical feet of elevation gain. Depending on goals and weather, this can be climbed in two or three days.

A common denominator of safe and successful climbing is good schooling in mountaineering. Part of a comprehensive training curriculum includes education on the proper use of several important devices. WFR from one of the mountaineering schools just south of the Cascades requested an audience with Powerenz regarding an ultra-lightweight, durable, portable solar charger that could be carried and used during climbing school experiences on both of the mountains described above. Specifications included a maximum weight of 3.5 pounds for the entire backpacking solar charger, the ability to recharge batteries for a satellite phone, an iPhone, a digital camera, a GPS, a flashlight, and a night vision system. The vast majority of the time would be spent mountaineering, and a very small amount of time would be spent using the electronic devices. While the instructor and students were in the snow and on the glaciers mastering their new skills, the backpacking solar chargers would be left deployed at base camp with solar panels unfolded in the sun and recharging the batteries. At night, or during the day depending on weather conditions, the charged batteries would be used to recharge the group’s electronic devices as needed. The most important requirement from WFR was that the system work first time, every time. No place for useless dead weight.

Based on the given weight and power requirements, Powerenz provided WFR with three good options for a portable solar charger with a 20 or 30-watt solar panel instead of the standard 5-watt panel. WFR chose the FireFly Ultralight with a 20-watt lightweight foldable solar panel over the other two backpacking solar chargers for two main reasons: 1) the FireFly battery could be recharged more quickly than that of the Solar Wind battery, and 2) the FireFly enclosure (Maxpedition pouch) is more resistant to ice and snow and water than the Solar Wind system components. Powerenz had five of the UltraLight systems in stock, one of which was tested outdoors, then dispatched to WFR a few days later in the Pacific Northwest.

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