Adrian Ballinger is one of the most accomplished climbers in the world. He has spent 10 seasons on Everest, most recently claimed the speed record of Cho Oyo, and is still going strong. After his #EverestNoFilter project last season, he plans to head back this year and attempt to summit the world’s tallest peak without supplemental oxygen. Of course, he didn’t always have his head in the clouds. In fact, he was supposed to be a doctor — and was enrolled in med school before completing his undergrad at Georgetown. Here, in his own words, is how one of the great mountaineers of our time ditched academia, found his purpose, and aimed for the sky. –Lauren Steele
I never expected this to be my life. My dad and mom used to take me hiking and backpacking after we moved to New England from the U.K. They weren’t passionate, knowledgeable outdoors people, but we had a really good family friend who happened to be a well-known climber and had a son my age. So I started tagging along when they would go out to rock climb. I lived within walking distance of a little ski hill and I would try skiing every day after school.
But it was all just fun because school was always the huge thing for my family. From the time I was 12 years old, I was meant to be a doctor. That was the plan. That’s what my parents had decided I was going to do.
By the time I started lead climbing when I was 15 years old, my focus was shifting. A natural progression was happening — we would go out to New Hampshire to climb and scare ourselves. When I was 17 I went to college at Georgetown University in D.C. They have an outdoor leadership program that every freshman goes through before you start school, and at the time it was taught by a famous mountaineer named Chris Warner, who also founded Earth Treks Climbing. I went on this three-day program and met him and was awestruck. Turns out that he noticed I could lead climb. He casually said, “You should be my intern.” I started doing that and completely fell in love. He was my first real mentor in climbing and was the first person I met who was just all-in personally and professionally.
At Christmas my freshman year, Chris had a trip planned to climb all the 20,000-foot peaks in Ecuador — Chimborazo, Cotopaxi, these amazing glaciated peaks. He had a cancellation four days before the trip and called me and told me to come to Ecuador. Everything was paid for. I remember fighting with my parents and trying to tell them that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I asked for a plane ticket for Christmas. The day before Christmas, they agreed.
My parents were super strict, but they always believed in going your own path. They had immigrated from the U.K. to America, and they always taught my sister and I to find what we love and pursue it.
So I went to Ecuador and got completely crushed by Cotopaxi. It was one of the worst experiences of my life. I got high-altitude cerebral edema and had to be rescued down after reaching the summit. It was a full-on experience where I was like, “I never want to do this again.” But Chris told me, “Don’t waste your time here in Ecuador. Go spend the next four days in town and do some cultural stuff and then you can go home and never climb another mountain.” During those four days, everything completely shifted in my head. Physically and mentally I had never been broken like that. And all I could think is that I couldn’t wait to do it again. I ended up staying and summited two more peaks (that went much better) before coming home.
The next year I took a semester off and went to NOLS [National Outdoor Leadership School]. Somehow I persuaded the Jesuits of Georgetown to give me full credit for the semester so I could still graduate on time. I came back from that, graduated, stayed on the medical school track, and got accepted into Georgetown med school. After all, that was the plan. Then I convinced everyone it was a good idea for me to take a gap year — and go climbing. I deferred my med school acceptance for a year to get climbing out of my system.
I went climbing all over the world. I went and guided in South America and Europe — I even did a month-long solo trek across Nepal. I saw the Himalaya for the first time and it affected me so much.
After a year I asked for another year of deferral, and Georgetown said no. I had 10 days to decide whether or not I was going to become a doctor. So what did I do to go clear my head? I went on a five-day solo backpacking trip, and I realized that if I want it badly enough, someday I’ll find a way to get back into med school. So I left Georgetown for good and moved out west to Telluride for seven years and guided full time for Chris on international trips. That was my education — through Chris and his team.
I didn’t start guiding school until 2004 [then 28-years-old]. I had reached a point where I wanted my own company; I wanted to take this next step within guiding. And so I left Earth Treks and started doing my certification through IFMGA . At that point this cert was really a big deal — there were less than 100 Americans in the world that reached this status as a mountaineering expert. It was kind of like grad school. This is the way to become the highest possible certified professional in my field. I completed the IFMGA certification in 3.5 years. I wanted it so badly. Once I went in I was like, ‘This is what I’m doing.’ “