On May 27, Adrian Ballinger stood on the summit of Mount Everest — 29,029 feet — for the first time with just the air in his own lungs. He used no supplemental oxygen to help get him there. It’s a feat that less than 200 people in the world have ever achieved.
“Supplemental oxygen is a massive advantage, physically — it changes the game,” says mountaineering coach Steve House, co-founder of the training company Uphill Athlete. “Climbing Everest without oxygen is an elite achievement. Climbing with it is what most fit people can do.”
Though Ballinger is a seasoned climber who’s summited Everest six times already, this was the first time he hadn’t relied on cans of O2 to get him there. The moment has been years in the making, with a painful failure last May. The 41-year-old was tantalizingly close to the summit without relying on supplemental oxygen, but was forced to turn back at he last second. To ensure this year went well, he underwent a complete nutrition and training overhaul. Compare this year’s “no O” success to last season’s letdown, and you get something unique: an alpine science experiment. What did it take to turn a veteran alpinist into an even fitter climbing machine?
The answer is, well, quite a lot.
To understand why Ballinger, who’s spent 25 years in the high peaks, would decide to drastically change the nutrition and training that had already helped him become the first American to summit three 8,000-foot peaks within three weeks, it helps to rewind to last May 24, 2016.
Ballinger had passed Camp IV, the final way station before the summit, and was hours from topping out. “I was feeling really strong, confident, fast, doing exactly what I’ve always done,” he says. But he was also cold. First it was just shivers, but then his hands went white, and he couldn’t seem to re-warm. “Soon I was shivering uncontrollably, and lost feeling in my hand up to my wrist,” Ballinger says. “I couldn’t work the carabiners on the fixed ropes anymore, and I was soloing; two hours from the summit I decided I was going to get myself killed, and turned around.” Meanwhile, Adrian’s climbing partner and fellow Eddie Bauer athlete, Cory Richards, went on to the top. That year, and again this year, the duo documented the season through their Snapchat #everestnofilter.
Ballinger initially attributed the sudden cold spell to his body fat and gear — if only he had more muscle or protective fat, or better-insulated gloves and jacket, he would have made it. But he was also impressed with how Richards had managed to handily make the summit. That was in part due to the coaching work Richards had done with Uphill Athlete, run by House and Scott Johnston, both veteran climbers. “Uphill Athlete took what fitness and base that I had," says Richards, "and turned it into something special, which is ultimately what helped put me on top.” This past December, Ballinger signed on to do the same for his 2017 Everest attempt.
Becoming A Fat Burner
The Uphill team had a theory for why Ballinger suddenly got cold during the 2016 summit push: He was a carb burner. As Scott Johnston, Adrian’s primary coach, explained in a blog about Ballinger’s training, “Adrian was heavily reliant on eating some kind of high-energy bar, gel, or similar product at once-an-hour intervals. What that immediately told me was that his metabolic preference was heavily shifted toward carbohydrate use.” Basically Ballinger constantly fed his body carbs, so that's the fuel it preferred. And like a lot of elite climbers, he didn’t see anything wrong with that.
“I’ve been completely dependent on carbohydrate for all of my climbing,” he says. “I was always hungry, morning to night, but I also had this line I would tell everyone, you know, ‘I never gain weight, my metabolism must be so high, I can eat a loaf of bread a day.'”
When you’re a carb-burner, you have about 45 minutes of fuel storage in your body — glycogen — at any one time, and after that your body runs out; you have to feed yourself constantly to keep it up. But while that system works fine on most peaks, in the punishing altitudes of Everest — above 25,000 feet is dubbed “the death zone” because of the lack of oxygen — suddenly your digestive system shuts down, you feel nauseous, and you can’t put food in your mouth, Ballinger says. When his hands went icy, it’s because he was depleted of glycogen; his body went into protective mode, and sent more blood flow to his gut and away from his extremities. “All of a sudden I didn’t have those carbs stored — I needed my body to burn fat for fuel.” But his body wasn’t primed to do it, Johnston guessed.
Science confirmed that when Uphill Athlete sent Ballinger to the sports performance lab at UC Davis, where he found out that his body shifted from burning fat for fuel to burning carbs when his heart rate hit 115 beats per minute. “So, pretty much if I’m doing anything above a walk, I’m burning carbohydrates,” Ballinger says. In comparison, his climbing partner Cory Richards shifts from burning fat to carbs at 163 bpm. It’s pretty easy to see the problem here: If you’re a carb-burner who has to have constant food to sustain even light exercise but you’re trekking up a 29,000-foot mountain and suddenly unable to eat, you’re done.
The solution, Uphill decided, was to [help Ballinger] become a fat-burner. In practice, that means Ballinger has embraced a ketogenic diet, limiting the calories he eats from carbs to just 10 percent of his daily intake, and getting 60 percent from fats and 30 percent from protein. A typical day includes an incredible 4,000 calories of seeds, nuts, meat, cheese, and “loads of avocado and butter." Which might sound pretty great on paper. “It takes getting used to,” Ballinger says. “I used to be the guy who would eat a whole pizza every day, and I loved pasta, baked goods, and my carbohydrate gels while I was working out. Removing all of that has taken a major shift.”
Training Slow to Move Faster
The Uphill team’s goal was to turn Ballinger into the kind of athlete who could sustain a slow-burn hustle for hours on end with little to no food — exactly what the uppermost reaches of Everest requires. As Steve House puts it, “Adrian is already fucking fit, right? But he’d been doing too much high-intensity work.” The charge-up-a-hill, fastest-to-the-top-wins attitude of many alpinists is the wrong way to train, says House, who coaches some 50 athletes at Uphill. “The lab tests supported our theory that his anerobic system was more well developed than his aerobic system.” Anerobic, which literally means “without oxygen,” is the carb-based fuel system the body taps into when the heart rate revs doing lung-burning work like sprints. In other words, the exact opposite of what moving up major peaks requires, particularly at altitudes where the air is already dangerously thin. For that you need a strong aerobic capacity — the energy pathway you use when you’re slowly grinding up a trail, heart rate low and steady, with a loaded pack on your back.
To back Ballinger away from that super-intense, high heart rate training he’d been doing, Scott Johnston had a basic mandate: Slow down. “There is so much misinformation out there about how to train for endurance, what with all the focus on high intensity,” he says. “But lower intensities are all that are available to these climbers because of the reduced oxygen — they can’t sprint and move fast even if they wanted too. So they damned well better have the ability to do a lot of work using this energy pathway.”
Building the aerobic base: Ballinger would load a backpack with 60-some pounds (or about 40 percent of his bodyweight) and trek uphill at a heart rate that he could maintain consistently the entire time.
That meant Ballinger had to keep his heart rate under 135 bpm for some 80 percent of his 20 to 26 hours of weekly cardio. “I felt so slow,” he admits. “I couldn’t keep up with my friends in Tahoe because everyone charges all the time; I’d go for runs where I used to cover 12 miles, and suddenly I could only do seven miles in the same amount of time.” But gradually, he says, he started to see the shift. “While still keeping my heart rate under 135, I could go faster and faster and faster.” Ballinger was strengthening his aerobic capacity, says Johnston, and the slow-twitch muscle fibers it uses. “The more power his slow-twitch muscle fibers can produce — and those are powered almost exclusively by fat, especially during low-intensity work — the faster he can go uphill,” Johnston says.
Fasted Workouts: Forcing the Body to Tap Fat for Fuel
For the majority of his workouts, Ballinger would wake up and do slow, grueling endurance workouts for three and even up to seven hours without any food before or during. A day's worth of exercise without even an energy bar might sound masochistic, but all of us (even 141-pound Ballinger) have close to 100,000 calories in fat stores readily available to burn, versus the mere 2,000 calories of stored calories from carbs, Johnston says. We just have to train ourselves to tap into them. The fasted workouts forced Ballinger’s metabolism to gradually shift to prefer fat for fuel, and things got easier.
“A few weeks into training, I started to feel entirely different — I could go for long workouts and not bonk, wake up in the morning and go for hours without eating,” he says. “I used to be the kind of person who would wake up and couldn’t send a text until I’d eaten some food. I was that short of energy.”
This metabolic shift can happen incredibly quickly. “The doctors I saw said you can shift your metabolism’s efficiency up to 80 percent in just six to eight weeks, because the alternative is you starve,” he says. “Your body’s smart — it makes the cellular changes it needs to when you give it no other choice.” The numbers confirmed it: In mid-April, right before Ballinger flew to Tibet to begin the 2017 Everest season, he received new UC Davis test results for how efficiently his body was working. “I’d shifted my metabolism from starting to burn carbs at a heart rate of 115 all the way up to 141 — a pretty dramatic change for five months of work,” he says. “It really gave me confidence.”
Most important, Ballinger’s fat-burning metabolism and revamped training approach proved that the hunger cravings he’d had on mountains before, the highs and lows based on constantly needing to eat or feeling fatigued, wasn’t the most efficient way to do what he wanted to do: climb 8,000-meter peaks, trail run, and ski. “This past ski season was the best I’ve ever had, and not only because the snow’s been amazing — I directly credit this,” he says. “It’s wild — I’d never thought about nutrition before.”
A Paradigm Shift for Alpine Training?
Powered by his new monster aerobic base and Keto diet, Ballinger had a near perfect final push to the Everest summit. He wore Samsung and Garmin heart rate monitors, which both upload to Strava and the coaching program Training Peaks, the latter of which streamed back to Scott Johnston at Uphill Athlete in real time. “That is probably the most unique aspect — remotely helping them succeed on their climb,” says Johnston. He and House used the uploaded heart rate and GPS data to text Ballinger and Richards daily advice on when to rest and recovery, and when and how to push harder. By coaching the duo minute by minute, Johnston and House were able to game the ascent so that, physically, the pair peaked during the perfect May 27 to 28 summit window, just as you would for a race like a marathon. And the data confirmed that the approach was working: Stats showed that both Ballinger and Richards experienced 20 percent less body stress on the final summit push, even above 25,000 feet, than they had on previous climbs at that altitude.
Strava Intel: On May 25, Ballinger ascended 2,395 feet over a distance of two miles, staying in a low heart rate zone. Adjust for altitude and the grade of Everest, and it was like he was running a 6:08 minute mile.
To hear Ballinger tell it, this may signal a new way forward for big mountain climbs. “I feel like alpinists — and I’ll include myself here too — for the most part have approached climbing the same way forever. It’s just been, 'How hard can you suffer? How hard can you beat your head against the wall?' And whoever bangs their head against the wall the most wins, whoever is the most uncomfortable at base camp, or gets frostbite — like that is some badge of honor,” he says. “It makes so much more sense to approach it scientifically.”