iPods At Altitude

apple ipod classic
Over the past seven years the iPod has become the most iconic gadget around. Nearly everyone has one (or one of it’s knockoffs) and it’s been quite a revolution to music lovers, who can now carry their entire music collection in such a small package. The ubiquitous little device can now be seen with runners, cyclists, hikers, and yes, even climbers.

Which leads to an interesting post over at Stewart’s Climbing Blog about the use of iPod’s at altitude. The operating instructions for the Apples little music player says that the iPod isn’t rated for use above 10,000 feet, and that taking one above that point could mean irreparable damage. The logic behind this is that the mechanical elements of the iPod’s hard drive begins to have issues above that height.

Of course, I’ve personally spoken to a number of climbers who have told me that their iPods (and personal computers for that matter) have worked perfectly fine as high as base camp on Everest, which is situated at about 17,700 feet or so. But then again, I’ve heard from others who say they had issues with either device at that altitude as well. I guess your mileage varies, but just know that any hard drive based device can have issues when you’re at higher altitudes.

In recent years, the use of solid state drives has become much more prevalent. In non-geek terms, that’s a new type of drive that uses flash memory for storage and doesn’t have any moving parts. The iPod Nanos and Shuffles both use this type of storage, and should therefore not be as prone to having issues. Even better yet, newer computers, such as the MacBook Air, offer the ability to use an SSD as well, which should make them much more resistant to altitude as well.

Personally, I think the 10,000 foot limit is a CYA (cover your ass) comment from Apple, just to be on the safe side, so they can tell you they warned you before you take your music up the mountain. Which brings up another point. Should you be listening to music while climbing? I guess it depends on where you are at on the mountain. Personally, I like to have my iPod for use in the tent, or maybe while doing some trekking, but not when there is a need to pay more strict attention.

So? When do you use your iPod? And better yet, what’s your favorite songs and playlists? I have some great workout playlists for running, but don’t wear it on my bike. (It’s a no-no in traffic in my opinion) I’ve also used it when hiking, and stuffed it into my dry sack when kayaking too, and I have to admit, it can make for a nice experience.

Kraig Becker

13 thoughts on “iPods At Altitude”

  1. I would strongly encourage you to stick with an iPod Nano, iPod Touch or even an iPhone if you are taking your iPod at higher altitudes.

    I can say from experience that the hard drive based iPods such as the iPod Classic and the older standard iPods do in fact have problems at higher altitudes.

    I had a 4th gen iPod Video that couldn’t even handle the pressure in an airplane at cruising altitude. It would lock up and not work. I literally heard the hard drive grind to a halt. A few hours on the ground and it would start working again.

    I thought it was a fluke but I was able to reproduce it everytime I traveled and tried to use it on an airplane.

    HOWEVER I haven’t had any problems with my iPhone at altitude. I can’t vouch for extreme heights, but it spent a good amount of time at 11,000-12,500 feet while I was in Colorado earlier this year.

  2. To add to my comment, airplanes typically have the interior pressurized to the equivalent of about 8,000 feet when they are at cruising altitude. My 4th gen iPod couldn’t even handle those conditions.

    That certainly isn’t the norm for iPod’s and I obviously had a bad one, but it shows what can happen with the hard drive based mp3 players.

  3. It’s probably a recommendation from the hard drive manufacturer. I seem to recall reading similar limitations for desktop hard drives.

  4. Wow Carl! That sucks. My Classic works great on an airplane any time I’ve used it. But yeah, the flash based Nanos are better.

    Good point Keith. I’m sure the HDD manufacturer is doing a CYA too. I think it’s a pretty safe bet that SSD’s will be the norm in laptops on the bigger mountains in the next few years.

  5. I live at 7500 ft and the parents live at just under 10k ft and we all have several iPods and other Apple products and have never experienced any weirdness.

  6. I have seen hard discs fail over and over at Everest BC ~17,500. As you already know it is a pressure issue of the head flying so close to the surface of the drive. In other words, the lower the pressure the less clearance,etc. so crashes occur with PCs, laptops, iPods and anything else with a drive in it.

    That said, I had great success with a vintage 2000 HP notebook for 8 expeditions at that altitude until the display died!

    Kraig, as you rightly pint out – mileage varies. My creed is to always have a backup!

  7. Hard drives do come in different levels of quality, and some are obviously more fault resistant than others. I’ve seen two computers of the same model, that worked differently at altitude. Sometimes you just never know.

    And Alan, of course that HP is going to work perfectly. Would you expect anything else? 😉

  8. Actually I have seen HP fail as often as Apple, Dell, etc. I was lucky with mine.

    Also the so-called ‘ruggeddized’ Panasonic sees to have problems like all the others with hard drives. So I really have no idea how to select a computer for high altitude based on disc drives.

    Manufactures often use multiple sources so even staying with the same brand will not guarantee the same HDD manufacturer.

    The only way to avoid it is to buy a solid-state hard drive – SSD – and the prices are coming down.

    All this said, I am about to buy an Apple!

  9. Agreed on the SSD’s. They’re the way to go at altitude to avoid these issues.

    And I’ll be joining you soon with a new MacBook as well. I’ll probably bite the bullet in the next few weeks and pick one up. I’d like to hear your impressions when you have put it through it’s paces.

  10. Yes, it appears that it's really the pressure. Otherwise we wouldn't be able to use an iPod in the air. So you could listen to your iPod on a mountain if you had a pack with the right amount of air pressure.

  11. I summited Everest (via the north side) last spring. I took two iPods with me (7th gen nano and a new shuffle). Both performed admirably though were finicky at times (not turning on and needing the be restarted, headphone cord very sensitive etc). the nano I had playing on summit night and it played for almost 10 hours straight (including on the summit of Everest) and was certainly a nice boast of energy when the weather turned sour. It was super sensitive to the touch though (every time the headphone cord got slightly touched the song would stop playing) so i simply wrapped the headphone cord into a pocket of my down suit where it froze solid and was no longer an issue. So to answer the original question, yes new iPods work but they will be finicky and die a lot faster if you don't keep them warm.

  12. Thanks for the update Elyse. Good to know these newer generation models are performing better than the older ones. The solid state storage on the newer models helps a lot, even if you did still experience a few issues.

    Congrats on the summit!

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