Into Quiet Air: iPods at Altitude

Unraveling a high-altitude mystery: why some iPods get sick in the alpine zone.

Like any college kid, Britton Keeshan listens to music like he breathes oxygen–nonstop. So when the 22-year-old arrived at Mt. Everest basecamp last spring-on his way to becoming the youngest mountaineer in history to complete the Seven Summits–his supplies for the 70-day effort included his cherished 40-gig iPod. It was loaded with thousands of tunes, from REM to Hindi pop, and made expedition-ready with a solar panel and a pair of portable mini speakers. Then the unthinkable happened: On the first day above 17,000 feet, Keeshan’s beloved MP3 went as silent as a dorm room on Sunday morning. Efforts to resuscitate it were unsuccessful. “I never thought it would die,” laments the Middlebury College senior.

Like many of us, climbers view midget MP3s as the ultimate in outdoor music equipment: they’re ultralight, hold enough tunes for weeks of stormbound tent days, and serve as a great sleep aid in noisy tents. So despite Apple’s warning that the iPod works only at altitudes below 10,000 feet, low atmospheric pressure disrupts all MP3s with hard drives, sometimes fatally–a bunch of hopefuls showed up at Everest last year with iPod in pocket.

While some, like Keeshan, experienced the high-altitude blues, not all iPods succumbed to the elevation. Pete Athans reported no problems with his player at Everest’s 17,500-foot basecamp, and says, “We used to have two yak loads of music accompany our expeditions. Now it’s down to a deck-of-cards-size package.” Dave Morton, of International Mountain Guides, says one iPod konked out on him, but a spare he packed kept working at altitudes up to 19,000 feet, and another climber reported a working unit at Camp III, above 23,000 feet. It appears there’s no way to predict whether any particular iPod will live or die in the alpine zone.

So will Apple heed the call from up high and roll out a Hillary Edition? No comment, says a spokesperson. Until then, music-loving mountaineers have two choices: Take a gamble your MP3 will be one of the lucky ones, or follow the lead of adventurers like Conrad Anker and Børge Ousland, who pack Sony’s Hi-MD Walkman ($100;, a go-anywhere mini-disc player that holds 45 hours of songs and is encased in tough magnesium. Another hard-drive-free option is Highgear’s TrailAudio MP3 player.