On a mountain full of record-setting feats and firsts, expedition photographer and climber Cory Richards and mountaineering guide Adrian Ballinger did something no climbers had accomplished on Mount Everest before: They documented the climb on Strava and Snapchat.
The duo, who are on the Eddie Bauer Guide and Athlete team, chronicled their 2016 climb — from base camp to the summit bid — through Strava data and Snapchat, launching the #EverestNoFilter project to cover one of the world’s deadliest ventures in real-time. Now a year after the eight-week expedition that resulted in Richards’s successful summit without supplemental oxygen, and Ballinger’s gutting turn-around just shy of the peak — and plenty of jokes about what #hairbyeverest looks like — they’re taking their phones back to the world’s tallest mountain for round two. And this time, it’s going to be different.
“We’re peeling back a few more layers and getting real about it,” Richards says. “We’re still going to be having a lot of fun but there are some components that we missed last year, like talking about consequence. There are ways to show that are a little more profound that we didn’t show last year. We hear about dead bodies on the mountain all the time and with all the respect in the world I want to show what it’s actually like to walk by that in the middle of the night. I think it’s important for people to see because it’s proof that the ‘game’ you’re playing is for keeps.”
Along with the reality of death that is eternally present on the mountain, Ballinger says that this is also an opportunity to educate the #EverestNoFilter audience about the current issues Everest is facing, such as waste management and the exploitation of Sherpas. “This year, we know we can be a little more journalistic and look at some of the issues on Everest,” Ballinger says. “We can talk about the trash issues and human waste issues and issues of hiring employees on the mountain and talk to other teams and other people on the mountain. I still want the funny, silly side of it, but I think there’s more to talk about.”
Another conversation that Ballinger wants to have with this year’s audience? Training. After his failed summit attempt last year, he went back to the drawing board and completely changed his game plan for the 2017 season — enlisting Richards’s coaches at Uphill Athletes to train the duo together for this year’s no-oxygen summit attempt. “I wanted to look at why I failed and how I could do things differently,” Ballinger says. “I went to the UC-Davis Sports Lab and got a bunch of testing done and finally got in touch with Cory’s coaches at Uphill Athletes. Their mission is figuring out how to train an athlete for climbing, which is a really new thing. Most of us just go out and suffer as much as we can. So between Uphill Athlete and UC-Davis what started to make sense was that I am very metabolically inefficient in how I burn and utilize energy during endurance events.”
As it turns out, Ballinger wasn’t hypothermic when he turned around from the summit in 2016, but just suffering from a massive bonk. So the team at Uphill Athlete changed his diet to consist of 60 percent fats, 30 percent protein, and 10 percent carbs and have tracked his endurance levels since. “I’m blown away by how different I feel,” he says. “I used to wake up in the morning and eat because I was so fucking hungry but that was just my complete dependence on carbs. More than half of my workouts are six hours on no food, and I feel totally different. There are no spikes and drops.”
Richards on the other hand is a metabolic freak of nature. “My body burns intramuscular fat naturally, which means that I basically have a limitless energy source thanks to genetics,” he says. “My biggest concern is that I won’t have enough training volume when we get to the mountain.”
But that’s where Strava and the Uphill Athlete coaches come in: Every day, the Uphill Athlete team will be following Ballinger and Richards’s Strava feeds while they’re on the mountain and analyze their data in real time to continue training them all the way up the mountain. “Our coaches will see our heart rate data, our GPS data, how we’re moving, and they’ll be helping us to decide if we need more rest or if we are ready to move and when our energy is peaking,” says Ballinger. “We’re treating climbing like an athletic pursuit, and I think that’s going to not only have huge benefits for us this season but to climbers in general.”
The duo is departing for the mountain on April 8, but for them, the climb doesn’t start until the summit bid. “The next month and a half is still just training and the event starts on the five-day summit push,” Ballinger explains. “Having coaches and having the tools like Strava to utilize data that help us get to that point is going to be invaluable.”
Shifting the method of big mountain climbing from an utter sufferfest to an athletic endeavor that requires training is new territory for anybody. “It’s allowing our coaches to continue to train us from the base at 17,000 feet all the way to 25,500 feet,” Richards says. “We’re all learning from each other and that’s really cool. We don’t even really know what this data means yet, because we don’t have a big enough base but this is allowing us to collaborate and gather real data that will give answers to questions about actually training to climb.”
So this year, Richards and Ballinger head back to Everest with a mission: to see how athletic training translates to big mountain feats. “It’s fun to be a guinea pig,” Ballinger says. “I’m not afraid to put it out there and have everybody see it because I feel really different this year and now we’re going to find out if training actually translates into success or not.”