Here’s what it takes to fly a drone on Mount Everest


“What are these giant plates for?” I asked.

“No one here has a clue,” Shaw said. “We can only guess. This bedroom is a cold war baby. All we know is that it was built for a major aerospace company.

Shaw explained that within minutes he could depressurize the interior of this chamber to atmospheric pressure equivalent to 85,000 feet above sea level and cool it down to -100 degrees Fahrenheit. The walls had to be solid steel a foot thick so that the chamber would not implode. In other words, even if it sat on a concrete slab in Southern California, it could effectively mimic the conditions, at least in terms of temperature and atmospheric pressure, that the drone would face on Everest.

“By the way,” Shaw said, “I still don’t know what you’re doing.”

“We want to fly a drone to the top of Mount Everest,” I told him.

“Really? Well you’ve come to the right place.

Shaw motioned for me to follow him to the back of the room. Here, on a concrete slab, were several pieces of heavy machinery. There was a boiler used to pump steam, a refrigeration unit, and two giant vacuum pumps connected to the back of the chamber with rusty four-inch pipes.

As the pumps sucked air out of the chamber, a digital display recording the barometric pressure began to spin down. Renan and I looked through the window over Rudy’s shoulder as he worked the joystick on the controller like a teenager seeking his best score on Grand Theft Auto. The drone, hovering about 18 inches above the chamber floor, swung wildly side to side and snapped against its tethers like an angry dump dog. When the ticker hit 11.61 inHg – the equivalent of 24,000 feet above sea level – the drone entered a deadly wobble and rolled over. The propellers struck the metallic ground and exploded, throwing pieces of black plastic into the air like shrapnel. The Inspire 2 twisted on its back like a wounded animal.

“To close!” Renan yelled.

The test had only lasted three or four minutes, but during that short time Rudy had pushed the drone as hard as he could. “As far as I know there was a lot of pushing which was the main thing that worried me,” Rudy said.

“Why did it crash?” I asked.

“I’m not quite sure,” he replied.

The good news was that the drone had reached 24,000 feet before it crashed. It was Rudy and Renan’s highest flight. The bad news was that the drone had only flew at 24,000 feet – 4,000 feet below the height of the secret GPS coordinates where we hoped to find the long-lost remains of Sandy Irvine. And maybe, just maybe, an antique camera that could rewrite the history of the world’s tallest mountain.


Of The third pole: mystery, obsession and death on Mount Everest by Mark Synnott courtesy of Dutton, a brand of the Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Mark Synnott.


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