Photos by Adrian Ballinger and Cory Richards
Cory Richards and Adrian Ballinger set out to climb Mt. Everest without supplemental oxygen knowing they faced daunting odds. Less than 200 people have ever reached the summit of Everest without O’s.
“Climbing at altitude without supplemental oxygen is like having the worst hangover you can imagine and then still having to get up and function. Whether it’s three hours to melt snow or getting out of the tent to go climbing, you have to push through these moments of feeling really hungover. When we set out to do this, I knew we would likely fail. There was a less than one in 10 chance we would make it,” says Ballinger. And at the end of the day, you still have to remember to upload your activity.
Ballinger had previously summited Everest six times with oxygen while Richards, an accomplished mountaineer and National Geographic photographer, had needed a helicopter rescue during a failed Everest bid with oxygen in 2012. As the expedition got underway, there was more to get used to than just the thin air. “Cory and I have never done a major expedition together. We’ve been friends for years, we’ve been talking about this trip for four years, since 2012, but we’ve only done day-climbing, going and climbing pitches or going for a run, together. There was an interesting ‘figuring each other out’ period in this first week or so. Getting to know each other’s rhythms, how we sleep, how our energy levels are, how we hike. The lucky thing about this trip was that Cory and I clicked so well as partners. It was an amazing fit. Our weaknesses were different, our strengths balanced each other out and our personalities worked well together in ultimately what is a pretty stressful and long experience for just two people. It can really break people apart.”
Cory and Adrian slept in Hypoxico tents and trained at altitude for months in advance of the expedition. Once they hit the ground, they immediately jumped into higher-level acclimatization trips on the Nepal side before the expedition moved to the North side in China.
“Island Peak is a 20,000-foot-high peak that sits next to Everest and that’s the main place we spent time. We spent five days on Island Peak on our own without sherpas or any support. We set up camp right at the edge of the glacier, would go climbing up the ice and come back down to sleep. During this phase of the trip, I had a faster pace than Cory during those first couple of days. That’s stressful for a professional athlete. We’re not competing but we are competitive.”
The more rested an athlete is heading into an Everest attempt, the better the chances he or she has of succeeding. That’s part of why the North side holds appeal. The Chinese government replaced a dirt road that used to take six days of travel to traverse with an immaculate highway that turns the drive to base camp into a smooth drive from Lhasa, home of the historic Potala palace.
“Strava needs to plan a road bike race here. It would be the coolest thing on the planet. They’ve built this unbelievably perfect blacktop road that goes over 18,000 foot passes, has views of five of the 14 tallest peaks in the world and drops you into Everest Base Camp.”
From Base Camp, they could see the jet stream blasting the top of Everest with winds in excess of 100 mph. “You can see the huge cloud billowing off the side of the mountain. There’s a very small window of time during May each year when the jet stream drops off, and that’s the summit window.”
Everyone has run into battery life issues with a phone or device. But you can imagine how complicated things get on the wold’s highest mountain. It took an involved system to relay the story of Cory and Adrian’s expedition to the world.
“On the North Side of Everest, there’s now 3G cell service at Base Camp (at 17,000 feet). But above Base Camp, at ABC (Advanced Base Camp), and all the other mountain camps, there’s nothing, despite what a lot of articles have written. At higher camps, we had a small satellite dish powered by an external battery and a solar panel. The system weighed about 14 pounds. And that went with us everywhere on the mountain. Stuff was not sent instantly while climbing. We’d set that up after climbing and we’d upload our Snaps, Strava data, Instagrams and everything else.”
The majority of the time Adrian and Cory spent on Everest was pushing to camps at higher altitudes and spending the night, then coming back down the mountain. “You go as high as the body can handle to where it’s really painful. That triggers the body to tell it to build more red blood cells. On the North side you can climb to 21,000 feet without technical equipment… just sneakers. We’d go high on hikes, drop down and sleep.”
Telling their story on Strava helped Adrian and Cory to show the intense effort behind this laborious process like it had never been seen before. “People suddenly realized the process of climbing. The ups and downs, the ups and downs again, and how many times you actually climb the mountain before you climb the mountain. I saw lots of comments about how short the distances are, and yet how much work based on our heart rates and the number of hours it took. I think people could finally see that. The fact it could take ¾ of a mile could take four hours from an elite athlete who’s heart rate is 140 (beats per minute). Actually understanding that with GPS really helps out a lot.”
Adrian and Cory had a team helping them shuttle the thousands of pounds of gear it takes to support an expedition up and down the mountain. Expert sherpa climbers played an extremely critical role in ensuring everything ran smoothly. But no one would be able to climb Everest or support climbers without the help of the magnificent yak.
“The yaks can’t go below 13,000 feet. They’re built for altitude in terms of their coats, how they breathe and oxygenate. They only live up high. On the Tibet side, everything is high. They’re carrying about 60 kilos, 125 pounds, and they’re walking on a whole section of glacier. They’re on ice and they’re so sure footed. They go up to 21,000 feet, carry their load, drop it, go back down the next day. They probably do the rotation between Base Camp and Advanced Base Camp every five days. It’s 11 miles and 4,000 vertical feet. It’s what allows us to be so comfortable up at camp.”
“In terms of what we were doing with the data and Strava, the biggest thing was the social component. For me and Cory it was interesting to see how we were improving on segments. We did the climb from Advanced Base Camp to Camp One probably five or six times through the season. It was great to see our progress improving in terms of time and to see our heart rates improving and dropping. Especially Cory’s, from his first time to third time doing it. And also picking up things, like when we’re being stupid and letting our heart rates spike to 165 for 10 minutes instead of at 140 where we should be. Certainly that data is interesting for us to see.”
Cory and Adrian used an incredibly sophisticated Swiss meteorological service for the weather reports that determined their movements up and down the mountain and ultimately determined their summit day. The lower the wind and the warmer the weather, the better the chance the pair would have at achieving their goal.
“We’re at Advanced Base Camp, where we spend one day of rest because of that big eleven mile move. Which doesn’t sound very big to us as runners at home, but eleven miles at 6,000 meters still is tough, even when acclimatized. So we had a rest day. Then the day after that we moved up. We were going to use three camps on the mountain and then go for the summit. Essentially a four day push from Advanced Base Camp.”
“It was not a no-oxygen summit day. I think there were about eight or 10 climbers climbing with oxygen that day. More than one climber got bad frostbite that day (like loss of digits) and that was with oxygen.”
Adrian has had problems with frostbite before and at 6’2” and 145 pounds, he became dangerously cold during the final summit push. Facing hypothermia, he stopped his attempt and got on supplemental oxygen while Cory continued to the summit. Unfortunately, the batteries on both Cory’s phone and watch ran out of juice during his climb.
Battery death, it seems, happens to even the greatest among us.
Adrian fought for his goal with all of his might, but stopping was the only course of action because there was no way to continue on safely. “The thing that has brought me back to Everest the previous eight seasons, with oxygen and with clients, is the human struggle that I have encountered on the mountain. People being physically, mentally, and emotionally broken down and still fighting to achieve this goal that’s so important to them. I just love watching and being a part of that. I felt that line where you’re right at the edge of total failure and in the case of high altitude mountaineering, that means death. I’ve encountered that on other mountains, but not yet on Everest, because oxygen made it easier on me.
“The fact that Cory could push through that and stay warm was Herculean. Our summit push was a 40-hour, non-stop, no sleeping push, including that rest at 27,000 feet.”
The experience that Cory and Adrian shared brought them together in a way that can only happen through sport and striving.
“We just clicked on this really intense deep level as climbing partners. And I saw my ability and willingness to push and suffer and be pretty open about my suffering, change. With a lot of my guiding you’re sort of hiding how you’re feeling yourself because of the clients or others around us. And this trip just felt a lot more honest.”
After the climb, Cory and Adrian still had to help break down all of their camps and pack out everything they carried in with their team. Cory and Adrian were set up for success because of the efforts of a much larger team. Only one climber, Cory, stood on top of the mountain. But a massive team helped him get there. “There is no such thing as an unsupported climb on Everest. We have cooks, yak drivers, yaks, sherpa support. Had we not had that sherpa support I truly believe Cory would not have summited.”
The team came back from the expedition both triumphant and disappointed. Adrian made the life-or-death decision to not push for the summit when cold overcame him, which helped enable Cory to reach the top of the mountain. While they didn’t share the satisfaction of standing on top of Everest together, they will forever value what they accomplished as a team and the camaraderie and friendship they forged along the journey. The photos, data and stories they shared gave a look at Everest and the effort it takes to climb it in a way that has never been seen before. Adrian’s expedition didn’t take him to the top of Everest, but it took him to the place he wanted to go.
“Having some distance from the summit day is helping me realize I got exactly what I wanted. Of course I wanted to summit and I’m still a little disappointed and heartbroken that I didn’t, but what I felt at 8,500 meters, the fight I was going through, the cold, shivering uncontrollably, the starting to get confused in my thought process, the complete numbness of my hands to my wrists, was making it almost impossible to work with ropes to get back down off the mountain. That’s the line I wanted to experience and fight for. In many ways, it feels good even though I failed.”