As a professional mountain guide, Adrian Ballinger, 41, has made prudent decision-making a benchmark of his climbing and skiing career. Getting to the top is always optional; leaving enough juice in the tank to get down is mandatory.
Yet for Ballinger to achieve his childhood dream of climbing to Mount Everest’s 29,029-foot (8,848-meter) summit without using supplemental oxygen, he needed to push himself harder and suffer more than he ever thought possible.
“About an hour from the summit, I was punching myself in the leg, yelling at myself, trying to figure out a way to keep moving,” says Ballinger. “Anything to keep walking. I wasn’t fast.”
On May 27, 2017, Ballinger pushed through and ultimately reached the highest point on Earth without “Os,” or supplemental oxygen—a feat matched by roughly just 200 of the over 4,500 people who have climbed Everest.
“I suffered so hard,” says Ballinger, who is now safely back in base camp and preparing for his return home to Squaw Valley, California. “We were out there for about 41 straight hours. There wasn’t much emotion on top, but when I realized I was going to do it, that was super intense and special. Right now, I’m just really happy and really excited to go eat a hamburger.”
Ballinger was climbing with his partner, Cory Richards, a National Geographic photographer and 2012 Adventurer of the Year. Over the past two spring climbing seasons on Everest, the duo has garnered media attention for their use of Snapchat to provide an “unfiltered” look at the complete Everest experience, while simultaneously trying to achieve their own personal objectives of climbing Everest without Os.
In 2016 the team experienced mixed success. Richards made it to the top without supplemental oxygen—impressive considering it was also his first time ever reaching the infamous summit. Ballinger, however, became too cold and sluggish to safely continue, despite having already summited Everest six times with supplemental oxygen as a climber or guide. He stopped 1,312 feet (400 meters) shy of the top—a near miss that had him pining, not to mention training hard, for round two this year.
This season, the stories reversed: Ballinger succeeded, while Richards threw in the towel around 28,500 feet—an altitude that, for reference, is higher than the summit of K2.
Richards says that though he felt physically capable of continuing to climb without Os, he was full of doubt. However, instead of going down, he made the decision to use oxygen to continue climbing alongside Ballinger.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
“It was like going from Clark Kent to Superman,” says Richards of the experience of putting on the gas mask at 28,500 feet and beginning to breathe supplemental oxygen out of the tank. “Oxygen is a performance-enhancing drug. There’s no way around it.”
The lack of oxygen at altitude is what makes Everest such a physically and mentally tough challenge. On a personal level, for Ballinger, his achievement was the culmination of a lot of hard work and the realization of a childhood dream.
“I truly have dreamt of climbing Everest without oxygen since I was 14,” he says. “I was lucky. I had a good day. I woke up feeling good. I wasn’t cold. I was able to eat and drink. I didn’t experience a lot of doubt. I did experience a lot of suffering. Bottom line: I couldn’t have done it without support of my friends and our Sherpas.”
Andrew Bisharat is a writer, editor and climber based in New Castle, CO. You can follow him on Twitter at @eveningsends.