Can Two Climbers Improve Everest’s Bad Reputation?

The reputation of the world’s highest mountain has never been lower.

Like today’s most heated political debates, there seems to be no middle ground when it comes to discussions about Everest. People are divided at polar extremes over whether Everest and all its aspirants represent everything great about humanity—or all that is wrong with it.

Now, an expedition documented on Snapchat is bringing Everest to a new audience, unfiltered. The hashtag #everestnofilter has people talking—and it’s more inspiring than what’s come off the mountain in what have been deadly years.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Into Thin Air disaster, when eight climbers died and several others were stranded above 8,000 meters on Mount Everest in a brutal storm. The 1996 tragedy, famously documented in Jon Krakauer’s bestselling book, painted an unflattering portrait of commercialism, vanity, and ego that has become synonymous with Everest. In some ways nothing has changed over the past few decades; in other ways, it’s only gotten worse.

The busiest season to date, 2012, saw veritable hordes of climbers ascending fixed ropes as if in ant-line. An estimated 547 people summited that year, a 57 percent success rate. It was also a deadly season, with 11 climbers dying under clear, blue skies as they waited for hours to bypass traffic jams high on the mountain.

The next year, things got ugly. In 2013, professional mountain climbers Simone Moro, Ueli Steck, and Jonathan Griffith demonstrated some bad etiquette by climbing above a rope-fixing team of Nepali mountain workers on Mount Everest. This led to a heated dialogue, which then devolved into a full-on brawl as a group of Sherpas threw stones at the climbers, bruising and bloodying Steck.

On this day in 2014, 16 Nepali mountain workers were killed, and nine more were injured, in an avalanche in the Khumbu Icefall, making for Everest’s then deadliest day. The circumstances of these deaths highlighted the outsize risks taken by the Sherpas, who do most of the work to make the mountain much easier and far less risky for guided Westerners looking to stand on top of the world. It also highlighted the fact that the Sherpas receive a pittance in terms of their salaries and life insurance, all for doing a job with an estimated mortality rate of 1.2 percent.

In 2015, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck Nepal, and sent a massive (even by Himalayan standards) avalanche tearing through the Khumbu Icefall and Everest Base Camp. Eighteen people were killed in the blast of snow and debris, which hurled people inside of tents over a quarter of a mile through the air. Of course, the casualty count in Nepal was far worse, with over 8,500 deaths, easily the worst disaster ever to hit the country. Meanwhile, as entire villages were literally buried and various rescuers and medics at Doctors Without Borders repeatedly pleaded for help and resources, particularly helicopters, the 160 climbers who were reportedly “stranded” at Camp 1—despite its being intact and stocked with food and water—immediately called in their own helicopter rescue, diverting about 25 percent of all the available helicopters in Nepal away from important rescue work elsewhere, all because they lacked the skills needed to rescue themselves.

In the aftermath of the deadly earthquake, Nepal closed Everest down, and 2015 became the first year since 1974 that no one climbed the mountain. In total, Everest has seen over 7,000 ascents by more than 4,000 people. Fewer than 200 of those people, however, have managed to climb Everest without the use of supplemental oxygen.

One thing is clear: After more than two decades of over-commercialization and crowding, not to mention the disastrous past three years, “The Big E” could really use a good PR team.

Enter Adrian Ballinger and Cory Richards, two accomplished climbers who still hold Everest in the highest regard and are putting their own reputations on the line to help others out there see what makes Everest remain a worthwhile climbing objective that is, dare we say, pretty freakin’ cool.

Though I am a climber of many years, I’ve never climbed Everest—and, in fact, I have no interest in doing so. I place myself firmly in the admittedly ironic camp of Everest cynics who have never stepped foot on the mountain and probably never will. To me, what Ballinger and Richard are hoping to do—change my opinion about Everest—is going to be harder than actually climbing the damn mountain, even without supplemental oxygen.

Yet having just checked out their Snapchats at their accounts—EverestNoFilter, adrianballinger, and crichardsphoto—I have to admit that their sanguine enthusiasm, humility, and humor about climbing Everest is not only entertaining, but also, dare I say, inspiring.

Ballinger is a veteran Everest guide at Alpenglow Expeditions, and he has six Everest summits under his belt. Richards tried to climb the demanding West Ridge in 2012 without oxygen, but an Everest summit eluded him. He achieved the first winter ascent of Gaserbrum II (8,035 meters, or 26,362 feet) in 2011 and remains the only American to have climbed an 8,000-meter peak in winter.

I spoke with Ballinger and Richards, who are just beginning the real work of acclimatizing their bodies in the Khumbu region of Nepal. Soon, they will cross the border into Tibet, and head toward the Everest north-side base camp.

How do you feel?

CR: Adrian has been crushing me a little bit so far. I didn’t get enough time in the Hypoxico tent [a brand of tent that fits over your bed and simulates the effects of sleeping at altitude] back at home due to my schedule.

Basically, you crammed for a test instead of studying all semester like you were supposed to. Meanwhile, Adrian was the perfect student who slept in his hypoxic tent every night, and now he’s getting straight As.

CR: (Laughs) Yeah, he’s get the job done, and I’m getting by.

AB: I do blood work every time I use the tent, and I raised my red-blood-cell count by about 15 percent before I ever left home, so certainly I think that does have an advantage. Cory, however, is being modest as always. We’re both moving great up here, and we’re totally on track.

Where are you?

CR: We’re in Chakung. On our first day we flew from Kathmandu to Lukla, then walked from Lukla to Namche Bazaar. The next day, I walked from Namche to Pengboche, and Adrian went from Namche all the way up to Zong La, which is like 19 miles and 8,500 vertical feet. So that was a huge day for him.

AB: Chakung is at 15,500 feet, so it’s a pretty sweet altitude. We know our bodies still have work to do, but it’s comfortable enough. We’re staying in a sweet teahouse, pounding French press coffee. And for the four or five days, we’ll do little missions out of this town and hopefully spend some time sleeping above 20,000 feet, then come back here to recover.

What is #EverestNoFilter all about?

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CR: Adrian and I started talking about climbing Everest without oxygen back in 2012, when I was there on the National Geographic expedition. This year, we changed sponsors and both became part of the Eddie Bauer team, and it made perfect sense to partner up. Basically, the Everest No Filter project is Adrian’s brainchild, and we want to use Snapchat as a way to tell a more raw story of what an Everest expedition looks like, bringing to light everything about what it means to acclimatize, to socioeconomic or sociopolitical issues, to what we’re seeing on the mountain in terms of commercialism. The good and bad aspects. We’re trying to use Snapchat as a holistic view into an Everest expedition and tell something that isn’t as polished as what you’d find on Instagram or Twitter, hopefully getting a different kind of engagement, with a much younger demographic. And reignite the conversation around Everest, and hopefully shed some light on it. Does that answer your question?

Yeah, you’re trying to climb Everest without oxygen and you’re going to Snapchat the whole time.

AB: (Laughs) Andrew just distilled that into a single sentence! That was perfect!

CR: (Laughs) Yeah, I guess you could say it like that too.

AB: There are so many shades of gray to climbing Everest, and Corey and I see that and we both feel pretty passionate about trying to share that side of this mountain because so often so much of that story gets lost when people fall back to those usual criticisms that “Everest is easy,” or “Everest is done.”

Why should anyone care that you are climbing Everest?

CR: They shouldn’t! That’s the bottom line. But it goes back to the whole thing of why does anyone care about any sport? I’m not going to say that people should care, but I will say that they might be interested to get a glimpse into a different realm, a different worldview. Traveling through Nepal and Tibet are very eye-opening experiences. The culture, the hardships these areas have faced in the last year. Above all, though, there’s only one highest mountain in the world. There’s just one. And because of that Everest will always garner more attention than others.

AB: Climbing Everest without oxygen is not new. It’s been done. And we’re very aware of that. At the same time, it remains an incredible life challenge for any climber who aspires to climb at altitude. Why should people care? It’s a sport that inspires. There are real consequences up here. People think they know so much about Everest from media, and yet I think the issues are so much more complex than people realize. I hope this year is a good time to dive deeper.

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