Mount Everest: The pinnacle of human feat, an awe-inspiring and merciless juggernaut, seated high up in the sky along the China-Tibetan border, tempting all who gaze at to her greatness to seek out its perilous zenith.
It is the single geological feature one can stand upon, high up in the troposphere, and be nearest outer space with their feet still planted on Earth. Many mountaineers test themselves to the most extreme – training, preparing, acclimatizing, and ascending. And many return with deep-seeded scars of failure; very few return victorious.
In any event, at 29,029 feet above sea level – and with an average temperature of minus 33 degrees Fahrenheit – when suitable for climbing, Everest remains the most formidable, relentless and deadly peak in the world.
And a peak that one particular world-class mountaineer, Adrian Ballinger, has overcome time and time again, more recently without the use of supplemental oxygen – joining an elite group of less than 200 people who have successfully attempted such a thing.
To say it more plainly, the body count on Everest’s crevasses, ridges and valleys is substantially higher than the population of this small assemblage of purists, like Ballinger, who have risked their lives on this frozen devil’s playground for little more reward than personal glory.
Ballinger has led numerous successful expeditions to the summit. His company, Alpenglow Expeditions, a company that leads mountaineering, skiing and rock climbing expeditions globally, was founded in 2004 to assist like-minded adventure-seekers to achieve similar personal successes. “Climbing Everest is a powerful and life-changing experience that I love sharing with others,” Ballinger tells ASN.
Today, Ballinger is on a mission to complete his twelfth consecutive year assisting teams on their quest for Everest’s summit. But this isn’t the only incredible mission Ballinger has queued up for this summer – he also intends to summit K2, the second highest peak in the world, without the use of supplemental oxygen. As he explains it, the critical area of concern on both missions will be in what is known as the “Death Zone.”
“‘The Death Zone’ is the altitude above 26,000 feet where the human body absolutely cannot exist for any extended period of time without supplemental oxygen,” says Ballinger. “Even with bottled oxygen, you have a very limited amount of time that your body can survive up there. You can’t eat, you can’t digest food, you can’t sleep, and physical movement and thought processes are staggeringly slowed down. There are a lot of unknowns that come along with that.”
Extremely high death rate. Unbreathable altitudes. Precipitous icefalls and rockfalls. Death Zones. Why would anyone consider climbing Everest?
ASN sat down with Ballinger to find out what kind of mental fortitude it takes for someone to summit world-class peaks without supplemental oxygen, to hear about the dietary and physical regiments required in order to prepare for a summit like Everest, and to find out how much it costs to attempt summiting the highest peak in the world.
First off, you’ve climbed Mount Everest numerous times and led many expeditions to the summit – a journey that typically requires supplemental oxygen to make it to the summit. Why did you recently decide to attempt a summit without bottled oxygen?
I’ve been a mountain guide on Everest for a long time, but I’m also always trying to push my personal limits. I think what drove me to climbing Everest in the first place was that extreme driving force on my mental, emotional, and physical state, when the outcome is completely unknown. And because of genetics or my experience or whatever it is, it turns out that with supplemental oxygen, I know I can get on top and summit every single time and get back down. So I no longer had that unknown experience that I feel is the whole point of going to Everest.
So eventually, I developed a desire to really test myself on that mountain in a pure way and in 2016 I finally got the opportunity to try to summit without bottled oxygen and I failed, turning around about an hour and a half below the summit after a 2.5-month-long expedition. I had gotten so cold, I truly believed I was going to die up there if I didn’t get back down. And then in 2017 I tried again and was successful.
I think it’s important to acknowledge that the use of supplemental oxygen on Everest is essentially doping. The climber is using the single most effective thing to change their body’s performance at high altitude. It effectively reduces the height of Everest. Oxygen works better than dexamethasone, adrenaline, nifedipine, or EPO (erythropoietin); all these things that people try to use in order to increase their performance on Everest; things that have been used in other sports legally or illegally.
Oxygen is more powerful than any of them and so, yes, there is a greater respect within the professional climbing community for doing it without that assistance. Nearly 5,000 people have summited Everest with supplemental oxygen and less than 200 have attempted without it.
But that’s not intended to take away from people’s achievements who have summited with supplemental oxygen, because I think people experience the same challenges when they are at different levels of physical and mental conditioning as well as different levels of experience on the mountain.
What adjustments did you make after your failed attempt in 2016 that helped you successfully summit Everest in 2017 without supplemental oxygen?
The biggest thing I changed was my physical training and diet. After my failed attempt in 2016, I went to the UC Davis Sports Medical lab to test all my physical levels. We initially found that my body was shifting from burning fats to carbs at a heart rate of 115 beats per minute (bpm) – a rate that really doesn’t take much physical activity to get to.
But after eight months of proper training and diet, we found that my body wasn’t shifting until 148 bpm; which is great because I can basically stay below 150 bpm the entire climb on Everest. So with extensive metabolic training and testing, I was able to completely retrain my body as to where I was pulling energy from.
I also switched to a full paleo and ultimately a keto diet to train my body to not be so dependent on carbohydrate calories because above 25,000 feet I’ve found that I’m just far too nauseous to eat. So my entire summit push needs to be fueled by calories that I already have stored.
How much does it cost to climb Mount Everest?
Well, my company, Alpenglow Expeditions, is certainly not the cheapest – it costs $85,000 to join our teams. The average guiding company charges between $65,000 and $70,000 and you can now go as cheap as $40,000. But with those cheaper companies we see lowered Sherpa safety standards, like not providing them walkie-talkie and satellite communications, enough bottled oxygen, or adequate clothing.
And as you cut out these critical provisions, we see higher levels of frostbite among the workers on the mountain. It’s also really expensive to bring down all your trash and human waste from Everest. You basically have to hire more Sherpa to haul everything back down. So another way some of these companies are cutting cost is by leaving all their trash on the mountain. The cheap guiding teams are really doing Everest and the entire climbing culture a huge disservice.
What kind of preparation and advance training goes into an Everest summit attempt?
We recommend a year-long training plan. The goal is to have a huge base of low intensity endurance training and that takes a long time to build. You can’t even start on the hard stuff – the muscular endurance and max effort workouts – until you’ve established six to eight months of low intensity training. The training relates back to how people metabolize fat, the body’s requirement for carbohydrates, and all these things that can help optimize and work really well in the high mountains.
To join Alpenglow’s team, people don’t need to be professional climbers or truly independent, but we do require them to be truly competent team members. If things go wrong, we want each team member to be a resource instead of a drag. And so we require our members to have climbed at least five 6,000-meter peaks, one 7,000-meter peak, and one 8,000-meter peak – all before they go to Everest. The biggest reason I see people failing on Everest is due to anxiety and uncertainty that becomes too great. So not even a physical failure, but an emotional overwhelming. The only way to combat that is with experience.
Why is Everest considered the most crowded mountain?
Everest’s climbing season is compressed into one very small window each year in May – between 5 and 15 days – when it’s possible to attempt a summit. Almost 355 days a year, the jet stream is hitting the mountain at 29,000 feet preventing an ascent. But each May, the jet stream gets pushed north by monsoonal storms coming up from the Bay of Bengal, when the wind is basically gone and before the monsoonal storms hit the mountain.
That is the only opportunity for climbers to go to the summit. So if you have multiple teams, like we do this season, they all have to be prepared to attempt the summit at the same time. And that’s really why you hear stories about Everest being crowded.
What’s your next personal goal?
I’m planning to attempt to climb K2 this summer without supplemental oxygen. I’ve actually never been to the Korakorum, or to Pakistan. Climbing K2 has been a dream for a long time and the right team came together to make it happen.
Plus, my desire to take on that level of risk has grown over the last two years, since I did Everest without bottled oxygen. So all my training right now is leading toward this summer on K2, but I’m guiding teams on Everest prior to that attempt.
My goal is just to maintain my physique and not get weaker or lose muscle mass while on Everest; and not get that deep-seeded fatigue that comes with climbing an 8,000-meter peak so that I have the conditioning and capability to summit K2.
What is the greatest reward for you at this point in your career as a climbing guide?
I’d say it’s two-fold: I have a real passion for seeing our clients succeed. I feel a lot of emotion seeing people push past their own perceived limits and ultimately stand on top of a mountain like Everest. It’s powerful and keeps me coming back to the same mountain year after year.
The second part is that I’ve really been able to build a business – we are now three partners, thirty guides worldwide, and more than twenty Sherpa – that work for us every year in Nepal and Tibet. I feel fortunate to contribute to those people’s livelihoods, and help provide for their own families. Especially in Nepal, all of the Sherpa I work with come from one village called Fortay and I’ve been working with many of them since I was in my 20s.
I’ve been able to watch their kids grow up and become Sherpa or go off to college in pursuit of their own dreams – and that’s very powerful.
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