Tahoe locals look to summit, ski down world’s 6th-tallest mountain — in less than 7 days
Longtime high altitude climber Adrian Ballinger breaks into a smile and laughs.
“There are a lot of people in the industry, people I really respect,” said Ballinger, his smile widening, “who are like, ‘what the (expletive) are you thinking?’”
Ballinger, 40, an Eddie Bauer-sponsored alpinist and CEO of Alpenglow Expeditions in Lake Tahoe, is talking about breaking the mountaineering mold.
The Squaw Valley resident and his girlfriend, Emily Harrington, 30, a North Face athlete, are striving to climb Asia’s Cho Oyu, the sixth tallest mountain in the world at 26,906 feet (8,201 meters). But, that’s not the daunting part — after all, they’ve both already climbed Cho Oyu’s neighboring peak, Mt. Everest, the earth’s tallest summit at 29,029 feet.
The head-scratching skepticism from some fellow climbers lies here: Ballinger and Harrington are planning to summit and then ski down the mountain in less than seven days, and complete the overall expedition — including their travels to the Himalayas and back — in under two weeks.
This, Ballinger said, has never been done.
“As far as we know,” Ballinger said, “an 8,000-meter peak has never been climbed in less than a month.”
Truth is, traditional Himalayan expeditions usually span at least two months, Ballinger said.
leaps and bounds
“That’s how they’ve been climbed since the 1950s,” he continued. “But what I’ve seen over time is a really big change in technology that enables us to make the trips shorter and shorter.”
For instance, leading up to their venture to Tibet, Ballinger and Harrington slept in a pre-acclimatization tent that simulates the oxygen levels they’ll experience at 21,000 feet above sea level. The oxygen is reduced through introducing an increase of nitrogen into the tent.
In addition, as part of their training, the duo routinely rode a masked-based stationary bike with oxygen levels set as high as 21,000 feet and climbed on a treadwall — a rotating climbing wall — calibrated to 6,000 feet.
All the while, Ballinger and Harrington were regularly monitored by their expedition doctor, who tests their blood levels to make sure they’re acclimatizing. Acclimatization takes place when additional red blood cells are produced to carry more oxygen, and the lungs increase in size to facilitate the osmosis of oxygen and carbon dioxide, according to Princeton University’s Outdoor Action Program.
What’s more, Ballinger and Harrington utilized a team of high-altitude meteorologists — who traditionally forecast weather for jet airliners that fly above 30,000 feet — in order to find the “perfect weather window” for the expedition.
“A big part of my company’s focus has been trying to see if we can do big mountain trips faster,” said Ballinger, who founded Alpenglow Expeditions, an internationally acclaimed guide company, in 2004.
a seasoned climber
Ballinger, who’s summited Everest six times, is no stranger to hurtling up and down big mountains in staggeringly short spans. In 2011, the Tahoe resident became the first person to summit three 8,000-meter peaks in only three weeks, conquering Everest twice and Lhotse once.
Moreover, last spring, Ballinger attempted to summit Everest without the use of supplemental oxygen, a rare feat that has been accomplished in less than three percent of the 7,001 Everest ascents to date, according to the Himalayan Database.
Ballinger fell just short of reaching that rarefied air, as he was forced to stop a mere 1,200 feet shy of Everest’s peak.
“I turned around probably two hours below the summit after two and a half months on the mountain,” Ballinger said. “When I turned around I absolutely needed to turn around or I was going to die up there.”
“So I feel very good about my decision,” he added, laughing. “But of course, I want to get back and test my body again and feel it and see it again after having that experience.”
Taking on Cho Oyu
Aside from leaning on their climbing experience and high-altitude acumen, how do Ballinger and Harrington plan to pull off this historic summit of Cho Oyu?
Little sleep and lots of coffee.
“From what I’ve seen through years and years of climbing at high altitudes is,” Ballinger said, “if you push through that (final) 6,000 feet really quickly and climb it essentially as a single push up and down, we should be able to get back down before high-altitude sickness — cerebral edema or pulmonary edema — set in.”
In other words, “you’re almost like racing the clock to get back down,” he continued. “And the key is not sleeping at those higher altitudes. That’s when a lot of these high-altitude sicknesses set in, when you’re sleeping and your heart rate, respiratory rate drop back down.”
The last time Ballinger climbed Cho Oyu, which is nestled roughly 12 miles west of Everest, was in 2013, when he completed the expedition in 31 days.
This time around, Ballinger’s hoping to chop his previous Cho Oyu-time in half.
“When we were coming up with this project we were like, two weeks, that would be amazing,” said Ballinger, who’s using the trip as a measuring stick of sorts for his expedition company, which annually runs 30 trips on five continents with six lead guides. “Assuming it goes well, which we think it will, Alpenglow Expeditions will start to sell faster trips to really well-qualified clients.”
Simply put, Ballinger wants to cater to climbers who have the capabilities to summit the tallest peaks in the world, but not the time.
“Two weeks in the American psyche, I think people are like, ‘Oh, I can take two weeks,’” Ballinger said. “But when they hear a month or two months, they’re like, ‘No way.’ So with a lot of these clients, they have the ability to climb 8,000-meter peaks, but they’ve never been able to take the time to do it. That’s a huge part of why we’re trying to develop this.”
Still, Ballinger would be lying if he said he wasn’t anxious about tackling perhaps his his biggest challenge to date.
“There’s a huge amount of excitement, but then of course there’s anxiety,” said Ballinger. “What if I’m wrong? There’s a reason these mountains have been climbed in the same style since the 1950s on the same traditional acclimatization path — it’s because it works and there’s a high degree of safety in it.
“But, I truly believe we can do these trips much, much faster than they have been done. There’s a lot of eyes watching us and I certainly feel a lot of pressure, so we’ll see how it goes.”