In the world of 8,000-meter peak mountaineering, Adrian Ballinger just set what’s possibly the most insane speed record ever. Ballinger, 40, left his home in Lake Tahoe, California, on September 21 with girlfriend and climbing partner Emily Harrington. The couple flew to Tibet, drove nine hours to base camp, climbed Cho Oyu, the world’s sixth-tallest peak at 26,864 feet, skied down it, and were back sleeping in their own bed on October 5. Total expedition time = two weeks.
We spoke with Ballinger, the founder and CEO of Alpenglow Expeditions and an Eddie Bauer Athlete, about his lightening ascent, why it wasn’t so insane after all, and what it means for commercial mountaineering in the Himalayas.
What was the catalyst for this project?
For the past 15 years, I’ve spent pretty much every spring and every fall climbing big mountains in the Himalaya. And it’s been great, but the average Everest expedition, Cho Oyu expedition, 8,000-meter peak expedition, is somewhere between 1.5 and 2.5 months long — and that’s a lot of downtime, and a lot of time spent sitting inside a yellow tent. Over the past few years, I’ve been looking at ways, both for myself and my clients through Alpenglow Expeditions, to shorten the natural length of these trips. And one of the things that I’ve seen is that technology has really changed over the years that I’ve been in this sport, and yet, people, most people anyway, still seem to climb these mountains in exactly the same way they always have — this 1950s sort of the classic style of acclimatization where you’re going up and down and up and down the mountain and then taking lots of time at base camp to recover from each trip higher on the mountain. Meanwhile, there are things, both in people’s athleticism today as compared to back in the day, and also with technology and weather forecasting, that would allow us to shorten trips — not to take away from the climb itself, or the suffering, or the hard work, but to do an expedition in a more compressed time format.
Why two weeks?
We settled on two weeks for two reasons. One, Emily and I spent months planning this, and when we really looked at it, when we cut out every possible day of bullshit that normally happens on a big trip — so you know, if there were no logistical mistakes, if there was no bad weather, if no one got sick — the shortest time we could possibly do it in was two weeks. And then, I’d love to ultimately be able to offer this as an Alpenglow program, as a properly qualified climb, and you know, the two-week time frame in the American mindset just makes sense to people. People can easily imagine taking two weeks of vacation from work. People can imagine persuading their spouses or their families to let them go play for two weeks. But what I’ve heard over 20 years of guiding is that anything longer than two weeks become a stopping point for some people.
Did anything go wrong?
The logistics went smoother than I ever expected. China is getting better and better about travel to Tibet, and allowing for mountaineering and climbing, and unusual projects, and they were nothing but helpful to us throughout. When we got to the mountain, there was a lot of uncertainty about the weather. We worked with a very well-respected team of high-altitude meteorologists out of Switzerland called Meteotest, and our window was the September 29 to October 1. But it didn’t quite go that way. We watched the 29th go by knowing we wouldn’t be able to summit that day, then the 30th went by that way too, and then on the very last day, on the 1st, we were able to make our push. So it was close. We summited on the last possible day to be able to get home in our two-week time frame.
Give us your exact schedule.
It took us three days of travel to leave Tahoe, go to Reno, fly to San Francisco and onto China, fly to Lhasa, and drive across the Tibetan Plateau. So we arrived in base camp on the 24th and spent one night there. The next day we moved up to advanced base camp — that’s sort of people’s main hangout camp; it’s at about 18,500 feet. We ended up spending three nights there waiting for the weather window, and that was our only holdup, the only unplanned piece of the system. So theoretically, it could be done two days faster, if we’d only spent one night there. We moved up from advanced base camp to camp 1, and spent two nights there, at 21,000 feet, which was always our plan, just to make sure 21,000 felt safe, that the pre-acclimatization work we’d home at home felt like it had worked for that altitude. Then we moved up to camp 2, at 23,5000 feet. We skipped camp 3 — so we went from camp 2 straight to the summit, and then all the way back down to advanced base camp.
Why skip camp 3?
We felt like there was no reason to sleep even higher on the mountain, at 24,500 feet, that we’d be safer just to skip that camp and go up, and then all the way down, in a single push. We both know our bodies, and how big a day we could handle, and felt confident we could push through a day that big. It ended up being an 18-hour round-trip summit day, and it felt great, relatively speaking.
Did you have any physical challenges?
We’d pre-acclimatized at home to about 20,000 feet using hypoxic tents and mask-based training systems, but that still left 7,000 feet of the mountain that we essentially weren’t acclimatized to. That’s where the physical piece came in. We knew we needed to push our bodies as far as we possibly could, to accept the pain of it at that altitude, and just get up and then get down quickly before any altitude sickness set in. So yeah, there was a physical-mental struggle that was pretty full-on. But there were no scary show-stopper moments. I think both of us realized that because it was such a new approach to climbing that if either of us had felt one of those, we would have turned around immediately. It ended up being a hard, but quote, normal, unquote, climb. I always felt well within my safety tolerance.
Tell us more about your pre-acclimatization work at home.
We started sleeping in a hypoxic tent six weeks before the beginning of our expedition, so right around the beginning of August. Over those six weeks, we bumped the altitude in the tent up — I think we started at 12,000 feet, and by the end we were sleeping at 19,000 feet. We also used a mask-based version of the system that allowed us to simulate going as high as 21,000 feet while on stationary bikes. Those workouts were really intense, and relatively short, 40 to 90 minutes long, three times a week. We combined that with, you know we live in the Sierra, in Tahoe, and so we combined that very systematic training with big days in the mountains, trail running and climbing. Pretty much every week we were going in and doing high Sierra peaks, up to 14,000 feet tall, running into the peaks, doing some climbing routes, and running back out. And that’s really important — getting in those big days where your body gets used to needing to deal with things like nutrition and hydration, and pushing through long days. We also put in lots of miles running near our home. So going in, we went in really confident that we were both very strong
What kind of support did you have on Cho Oyu?
Alpenglow Expeditions had a team on the mountain — a team of Sherpa and a western guide, so they were already there working long before we arrived. I think it’s very important that people know that [Emily and I] weren’t just free-loading, letting everyone else break the trail, put the ropes in, and then we show up and just prance to the top and run home again. It only worked because we were paying for a team to essentially do a lot of that work.
Do you think lightning ascent trips can work commercially?
Well this was an experiment, and it went really well. When people heard, over the summer, that we were trying it this season, I had at least six clients calling asking if they could join us. With our rapid ascent trips, we are already running 30 to 50-percent faster trips, and we see our highest success rates amongst those teams than we used to with the longer expeditions because on longer expeditions people get sick, they lose weight, something happens at home, in terms of family or work, because they’re gone for so long. People get homesick. All of that goes away with rapid ascent.
With a two-week trip to Cho Oyu, what people will have to understand is that a shorter timeframe in no way makes it easier; it actually makes it harder. So we would only take a very specific, very well pre-qualified client on a lightening ascent trip. The person would need a lot of experience in terms of other mountains they’ve climbed. They’d have to be the kind of athlete that really knows their body. And they’d have to be really smart about efficiency — everything they’d need to do to be successful on the mountain would kind of have to be done perfect.
We’d use the same medical screening that we do for rapid ascent. The hypoxic tent and mask-based system would be part of the cost of the trip, and they’d have to do weekly check-ins with our expedition doctor, who looks at where their sleep levels are and makes recommendations. We’d also do bloodwork for each client before and after their tent time, so we could actually see the changes in hematocrit levels, blood cell counts, things like that. So there would be many checks and balances before someone even comes on the trip.
Does a shorter trip mean a lower cost?
It actually ends up more expensive because the need to support the team that’s there on the mountain ahead of the clients. Our rapid ascent Cho Oyu climb is $31,000. I’d expect a lightening ascent to be in the realm of $50,000. The big thing the cost increase does, besides providing for the initial team on the mountain, is to drop our climbing ratio down from three climbers per one western guide to two climbers per one western guide. We feel like we’d need that sort of very close management of each person, because of the increased risks that come from being less acclimatized on the mountain.
It sounds like a two-week trip to Cho Oyu in the works as a new offering from Alpenglow.
I absolutely see us beginning to offer this as a product. And I think it will lead to a three-week trip on Everest. We’ve been doing rapid ascents in the mountains since 2012 and other companies are starting to follow suite, and clients are starting to specifically ask about it. I predict that in five years, there will be no with-oxygen ascents of Everest that are longer than a month. That’s how much I think it’s changing, or will change, to go from 2.5 months on Everest to one month.
I have my personal reasons for why I like to do it faster, but it’s also the trend in our sport, in our world of climbing and skiing. If you look at what Kilian Jornet is doing, it’s how to go faster on big mountains. If you look at what Alex Honnold is doing, it’s how to link up multiple routes in a single day. It’s about how to fit in more climbing into a shorter space of time. In my life as a high altitude guide, I spent years working with Russell Brice and he ran the longest trips on the planet, and they were really successful — basically they included weeks of downtime hanging out in base camp drinking whiskey — and that’s just not who I am, but it’s also not who a lot of people are anymore, that whole having nothing to do but playing cards, drinking whiskey, and trying to like pass the time in base camp. For me, that’s not what I love about big-mountain climbing, so this has been a natural progression — to have less of that stuff.