Climbing to the top of Everest is a bucket list item not for the faint of heart. Climbing to the top of Everest without oxygen is, well, kind of a crazy concept. Enter Eddie Bauer athletes Cory Richards and Adrian Ballinger. The pair attempted the feet just two weeks ago—and though Adrian made the courageous decision to turn back just 1200 feet away from the summit, Cory made it to the peak. What makes their journey all the more interesting is the fact that they used Snapchat to document the entire thing. Using the handle @EverestNoFilter, the two together posted around 40 snaps a day—having to wait to arrive at camp to get access to Wifi that makes your dial-up modem from 1999 look fancy. We sat down with the two the day after their 15-hour flight from Nepal to talk about what they ate, wore, and their eight-hour/day workouts leading up to it. We were particularly inspired by how their friendship helped them get through the seemingly endless hours of bored—and to hear their advice to “regular” guys who want to climb Everest themselves. Check out their Snapchat “documentary” below and then check out our Q&A with them.
MF: How do you feel physically being suddenly at sea level?
Adrian: We probably have 50% more blood cells than we need right now because of the altitude. Our body needs to shed all that to become more efficient. It takes time to feel normal, energy wise.
Cory: It can be dangerous. People get blood clots flying home because their blood is so thin.
MF: What was your training like?
Adrian: I do this full-time—I own a guide company, Alpen Glow Expeditions, so I mix guiding and doing my own things as an athlete. I split my time between France and California this winter and did four to 8,000 feet of vertical skiing.
MF: Do you guys do any gym-based work at all? Or are you looking to be as lean as possible?
Cory: Lean doesn’t really matter. You want a lot of intramuscular fat. That’s where your main source of energy comes from. My training was totally different than Adrian’s. I worked with two coaches, former climber Steve Haus and Scott Johnson. Steve developed a training system and I worked with him every day for months before hand. Six days a week, two to eight hours a day. Some was gym-based, some was movement based, but 60% of it is based in zone 2—a low-intensity threshold. Basically, you’re training slow to be able to go fast and hard. It is an interesting and effective way of training. He uses Training Peaks to monitor my heart rate and all of my numbers and every day he was looking at that and tailoring my individual workouts to match the numbers from the day before. If my numbers started getting messed up, then I’d take two days off instead of just one. At the beginning, we did a base physiology test to look at how I burn fat and sugar, where my heart rate zone is. One thing that Strava (a social training app) really showed us is that Adrian’s heart rate is way lower than mine at rest. Like 20-30 beats lower. That lower heart rate is good, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re fitter—it could just be how you were built. As athletes we want to compare ourselves, early on in the trip I couldn’t keep up. And Adrian just does so much better.
MF: So, what did you do during those six to eight-hour workouts?
Cory: Because we were on a consolidated timeline, the long days would be 23 miles in a zone 2 heart rate. If I was in the gym, sometimes I’d be doing two hours of box step ups with an 80-pound pack.
MF: Were you watching TV or something?!
Cory: It was too hard to watch TV and do it, so I’d listen to podcasts like WTF with Marc Maron. Some days I’d do five to six hours on the treadmill on the steepest incline, but not at a huge speed. But that’s an effective way to gain altitude, taking you 10-12 thousand feet just walking at three miles per hour. We would do squats and things like that. Targeted muscle-building. When I train again with Steve and Scott we’ll be doing a much more holistic training process, because we have so much more time.
MF: So, you’re already gearing up for next year, huh?
Adrian: We’re talking about doing an expedition this September in Tibet, to one of the other mountains. We want to do one that’s 26,000 Feet. That gives us three months to recover. I go to Kilimanjaro next week—so there’s not a lot of downtime. I’ll go and climb, and hopefully by the end of June I’ll be feeling back to normal weight-wise. We lost probably 10% of our body weight from the expedition. Enough where I feel it. I think that’s one of my big challenges—staying warm on the mountain. When you’re losing weight like that it makes it even harder.
MF: Speaking of staying warm, what were you wearing?
Adrian: Eddie Bauer was our sponsor so we were lucky to get outfitted in their gear. When we start out, we’re wearing lighter clothing like the Eddie Bauer Sandstone Jacket. As we get going, we begin to add more layers until eventually we have on big down suits which were basically like big sleeping bags but with arms and legs. I had four layers on under my suit. The cool thing is that Eddie Bauer has been outfitting these expeditions for a while—since the 20’s. They did the first American Expedition to Everest. They have a lot of products that are designed by guides themselves.
MF: What is the number one essential piece of gear?
Cory: The down suit. You could not do a hike without it.
Adrian: Eddie Bauer makes a light down jacket, the Microtherm, which I feel like I never take off. I’m a coffee addict so coffee is important. We have a handheld espresso machine that uses any type of espresso. We have powdered coffee as well, and our friend has an instant coffee company. Other than that we use caffeine tablets—I love caffeine!
Cory: I don’t do as much caffeine as Adrian but I definitely find it useful. I use it as a tool. I don’t know if it helps with the work—but just maintains your energy. It makes us feel more normal.
MF: How many hours a day were you climbing?
Adrian: Not counting the summit day, which was like 40 hours of being awake and moving, the average day was probably 4 to 6 hours.
Cory: There was a huge amount of downtime because of the recovery your body needs.
MF: What did you do for entertainment?
Cory: Sending Snapchats was a huge part of the day. We would document everything using social media. When this trip came up we wanted to do something different.
MF: Had you been using snapchat?
Adrian. I was starting to play around with it this winter and found it to be a lot more real and authentic. We both have big followings on Instagram but we post one photo, we curate it, we edit it, we’ve written this perfect caption, but it actually tells no one about your day–whether you had a good or bad day or whether that photo was even taken that day. Snapchat is right now and it’s real. People love Everest and everyone has an opinion, but so few people really knows what an exhibition feels like. So, we hoped we could show the length of it, and the boredom of it, and the bullshit of it as well as the incredibly beautiful views and hopefully the summit. So we tried Snapchat and it just worked. We got hundreds of thousands of comments every day.
MF: So that was probably entertaining
Cory: Super entertaining. Super inappropriate at times. And the actual process of it was challenging. What we would do was we would shoot snaps on our phone while we were climbing. But we don’t have cell service, so they don’t send right away. Once we got to the camp, we would set up our whole satellite internet system–solar panels, batteries, satellite internet dish–and then we would send the snaps. But it was slow enough that every 10-second snap would take 5 to 15 minutes, so there was a lot of “recent fail, recent fail…” So that was really frustrating.
I think had we had a film crew (we both have worked with film crews on Everest and on mountains) it’s just so different. It’s so invasive and it’s so different. It’s hard for those camera crews to capture us. And this was like real time: natural.
Cory: Snapchat is so personal and so raw that it doesn’t really leave room to fake too much. Eventually you’re going to come through and that’s always true. I love the platform now. I think it’s a really interesting way to tell stories.
MF: Other than Snapchatting, what were you guys doing during that down time?
Cory: You try to sleep a lot, nap, you try to read–although your brain is pretty challenged to ingest information.
MF: Mentality is so important to the physical part of all of this kind of stuff, right? Do you guys meditate or use any sports psychology tactics?
Cory: I have meditated in the past. This trip no, but I do think just from a standpoint of positive psychology and neuroscience, the fact that Adrian and I have the rapport that we do and the ability to both engage and disengage with each other, but it’s all quite jovial and fun, really allowed a certain sense of relaxation. We were never focused on, “Oh shit I have to spend time with this guy.”
It was kind of a perfect partnership. There was just no distraction to the partnership because it worked so well. When you’re with a friend—an old, old friend—you don’t have to try. And that’s very, very important on Everest.
I think Adrian deals with my sort of—I’m a pretty emotional person and I’m always in my head. And I talk about that. And Adrian has the ability to a) tune it out, which I think is very good and b) engage when he feels like it’s very important.
MF: When you talk about the low-grade suffering, what would you say is the most challenging—is it your legs hurt or is it breathing?
Adrian: It’s nausea, headache… I was cold a lot of the time. We, as Americans, are so used to being comfortable—being in the perfect temperature all the time. Everest is not that. You’re just a little uncomfortable a lot of the time. I’d be cold most nights. I’d go to bed with a hot water bottle and but it cools off in a couple of hours and then I’d be a little cold all night long. Then, you wake up and you get out of bed and you’re really cold.
MF: That’s got to build a lot of tenacity. It’s got to build you up to withstand other things in life. Do you think it translates to real life, like outside of physical things? Do you think that it builds tenacity in your relationships, family and friends?
Cory: Absolutely. I think it does, but I don’t think it’s a conscious tenacity. I never think, “I’ve done Everest without oxygen so I can get through this.” I think it’s more internalizing the struggle–not even thinking about it. But you are sort of like, “I got this.”
MF: I’m sure there’s also a lot of rose colored glasses afterwards. When you do something, you don’t quite remember how painful it was, which is probably what makes you say, “Oh, let’s do it again in September!” Then you get back there in September and you’re like, “Dammit, this is really hard!”
Adrian: It’s like training or running a marathon. You forget the pain and you remember the joy.
MF: There’s actually a medical term, I don’t know what it’s called, for that. Our brains do that quite intentionally. We’ve had two people bring up the analogy of childbirth. Women who go through this incredibly painful, very hard experience and say, “I’ll never do this again, I’ll never do this again.” And then they do. It’s something that our brains are designed to do. Climbing is unique in that it employs that mechanism of short-term memory and long-term gain from what can be a very masochistic experience.
MF: What is the biggest gain? The biggest benefit? What do you think you got out of it?
Adrian: The reason I think I like mountain climbing and guiding so much is that it’s such a human struggle to go through on a mountain. And this year, it was the first time I went through it. Physically, I felt broken—dangerously broken. Then there’s this mental, emotional piece of realizing failure. And yet, at the same time, I just needed to get down. I just needed to live.
MF: Failure in a very subjective sense because you went through a lot of it…
Adrian: So much of it was success. Our partnership was amazing. I’m so happy. But, I also think it’s important to acknowledge that if your goal was to run a two and a half hour marathon and you didn’t do it, it’s like well, I failed. I think it’s so easy for us as humans to get participation awards–like “You did good”—like I’m alive, but I also failed and that’s okay.
MF: Let it inspire you and motivate you rather than let it break you down.
Cory: I think the whole reason I got into climbing, aside from it being a family thing, is that we live in such an insulated society and we’re not pushed to challenge ourselves very often. I think that climbing is, perhaps the most allegorical sport when it comes to the experience of being human. It’s very hard simply to survive and I think reducing ourselves to that level is an important experience. I try to draw that away from it and remind myself that, yes, it’s a privilege to climb, but that it gives me an insight into so many more things. Hopefully, that allows me to extend myself more compassionately across the world.
MF: What is your best advice for guys that do want to do Everest with oxygen?
Adrian: First and foremost—and this was renewed this year so much—is for people to take their time and build experience before they go to Everest. Everest has so many huge issues that you’ve probably read about or seen in the media. So much of it stems from inexperienced climbers wanting to go straight to Everest because they’ve seen on TV that someone with very little experience can do it. Then, they get up there and get in trouble. So, it’s like, if you like climbing go to smaller mountains. Go to Rainier in Washington, go to Denali, go to South America and then go to Everest. You’ll actually enjoy it more. And you’ll be an asset to teams on the mountain instead of a liability.
Adrian: It’s possible for a lot of people. That’s the beauty of Everest today. Companies have made it possible for non-professional, non-full-time climbers to climb Everest with supplemental oxygen. But, you still have to be able to take care of yourself and people do die. And Sherpa guides can only do so much to insulate you from this really dangerous place.
Cory: My advice is the same. That’s hard for this audience, for men who are into fitness and athletes to hear. Because we want to do things right now. I think Everest has very little to do with being tough; it has much more to do with being smart. Being smart comes from doing, it doesn’t come from forcing. And I think that’s Adrian’s message as well, that time—we just need time spent in the mountains. You can just go to Everest, but you won’t appreciate it for what it is. Honestly, you want to earn it. I’d just say take your time. By all means go.
MF: Ok, when you say take your time—how much time are we talking?
Adrian: If you’ve never climbed before, you can get ready for Everest in as little as a year if you have unlimited vacation time and funds. Or, it’s much more common to take about three years, taking one to two trips a year building through these different mountains. So, you find a guide company that has roads to Everest. You just build your altitude experience. Things just go wrong, so you deal with storms, you deal with gear breaking, your health, your diet, your nutrition, hydration, how your body works.
Cory: You get to geek out on gear, you get to geek out on diet, on weather and that’s how you really learn. That’s the coolest part of climbing. You’re taking on all this information. And, in the bigger picture, you’re engaging with the outdoors. The more we engage in the outdoors, the more we start thinking of ourselves as a part of it. That’s a big takeaway—that climbing really inspires you to care, hopefully, if you’re in it for the right reasons and not for ego, about the natural world.
It’s pretty desolate up there. I think I counted three bodies on the route this year. You’re playing for keeps. You need to remember the game you’re playing. If it didn’t have risk you wouldn’t want to play it. But, that risk, the consequence is very, very high, so rushing into it only increases that potential consequence and decreases your margin for error.
Adrian: The difference between climbing Everest and doing another huge physical challenge like an Ironman is there are no aid stations on Everest. The consequences are so much greater. That’s part of what I love about it—that “realness.” We see so many athletes transition over and bring that race mentality to Everest as climbers and it can be dangerous.
MF: There are so many athletes who push themselves to their absolute limit, and here you can’t really do that.
Cory: My goal is to have 20-30% left in the tank when I get to back down to an absolute safe point.