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Interview: The Pre-Acclimatized Ballinger, Baranov Lhotse Couloir Ski Attempt

Posted: May 10, 2013 07:28 pm EDT

(By Nick Boudreau) ExplorersWeb caught up with Alpenglow Expeditions’ founder and head guide, Adrian Ballinger, at Everest Base Camp to get the latest scoop on his Lhotse plans.

Adrian is guiding Sergey Baranov of Russia up Lhotse with hopes to complete a first ski descent of the Lhotse Couloir – in addition to a possible Everest summit tag.

Both are coming off a week acclimatization rotation high up at Camp 2, including a day visit at Camp 3. The team used Hypoxico tents back home to pre-acclimatize and this strategy appears to be paying dividends.

ExplorersWeb: What are you seeing so far regarding conditions on The Face and will ice be a factor?

Adrian: We spent a week at Camp 2 and Camp 3. The Lhotse Face, as you've probably heard from the drama up here of the past week, is quite icy. The fixed rope route is at least 70% blue ice. We have been looking at a small band of snow to climber's left of the lines. I climbed around on it a bit, and at this point, we are not comfortable skiing this small band of snow. It is not deep enough or consistent enough to keep us off the ice.

So, we are hopeful that some upcoming convective weather will put a bit more snow, with warmer temperatures and less wind and that this will stick to the glacial ice!

The good news is that above the Yellow Band, the snow of 3 weeks ago has consolidated and stuck to the ice. We are very hopeful the upper face, and perhaps the Lhotse Couloir, will be skiable! It has nowhere near the coverage of 2011 (when I first summited Lhotse, and when Davenport, Erickson, and others skied the lower Lhotse Face), but at least it is not all blue ice like the lower face.

ExplorersWeb: Aside from icy conditions, any other factors of concern particularly for this year (or any year) for a successful ski run?

Adrian: Even more so after the drama of last week, we want to be very aware of other climbers, and our potential disruption of their climb. Steep skiing can certainly knock off snow and ice from the face. We want to make sure not to put other climbers at risk. So we will be trying to find a Lhotse summit day with few or no other climbers. And we will not attempt to ski the icy lower Lhotse Face unless we are confident of the conditions, and our ability to avoid knocking anything off onto other climbers.

And of course we want a good acclimatization prior to attempting to ski. In 2011 we skied from Manaslu's true summit. Even with supplemental oxygen, linking good turns above 8000 meters was really challenging. The same was true while skiing last fall from 7500 meters on Makalu without supplemental oxygen.

So, this season, we are taking our time before skiing up high. In fact, right now, we are considering using a summit of Everest first as part of our continued acclimatization! Summiting Everest would also give us a great opportunity to scope the Lhotse Couloir in detail. And, waiting later in the season for Lhotse increases our chances of some warmer monsoonal snow bringing the lower Lhotse Face into condition.

ExplorersWeb: Do you and Sergey feel that pre-acclimatizing has done its job?

Absolutely. This is the second Himalayan season we have pre-acclimatized using Hypoxico tents. Both last fall and this spring we went immediately to above 5,000 meters with no issues, and were able to quickly begin climbing to above 6000 meters. Pre-acclimatization at home prior to our climbs is allowing us to shorten our expeditions and to stay healthier and stronger during the initial weeks of our climbs.

In 2014 Alpenglow Expeditions will be commercially offering a 30-day Everest Expedition to qualified climbers. We are excited to begin exposing others to this rapid ascent program!

ExplorersWeb: Anything cool or unique to this climb that is different from previous ski attempts?

Adrian: Of course the Lhotse Couloir is one of the dream un-skied lines in the Himalaya. When I climbed and guided it in 2011, I couldn't believe it hadn't been skied yet. Of course that was an unusual year, with unbelievable ski conditions. I just hope we get a chance with skiable snow!

Sergey and I have been skiing and climbing together a lot over the past two years, and both of us have been working a lot on our steep skiing, and strength at altitude. We know we are ready if the mountains deem to give us a chance!

The other cool and unique thing for me this year is to go from lead guiding one of the biggest teams on the mountain over the past 5 years, to running a very small team with a unique goal. It's liberating to be able to refocus on what I believe climbing in the mountains is all about. And it has helped me to see the mistakes the big commercial Everest teams are making.

We as an industry need to self-manage ourselves, and begin taking better care of this place. We need to raise our standards of who we accept as clients, and do the same for our guides and Sherpa.

Commercial teams in the Himalaya should be held to the same standards as the Alps. Guides should be fully certified (AMGA/IFMGA) and experienced at 8000 meters. Sherpa should be required to have KCC (Khumbu Climbing Center) training.

And our guide to client ratios should be much lower than they currently are. Only through changes to our client and guide requirements will we be able to manage the increasing numbers of people on the mountain, and the increasingly dangerous conditions.

To follow Adrian and Sergey’s progress check out the Alpenglow blog or their Facebook page for the latest expedition information.

Led by former HiMex lead guide Adrian Ballinger, Alpenglow is an exciting upstart offering more hard-core 8000 meter peak expeditions. The outfit wants to stand out by focusing on small teams and stellar service but also unique projects such as ski descents and ascents without supplementary oxygen.

By 2011, Ballinger had summited Everest 5 times, Manaslu 4 times and Lhotse once, bagging no less than four 8000 meter summits only in that year and skiing down Manaslu. Last year, (2012) Adrian recalled from Makalu:

"...we were 7,300meters/24,000feet, feeling the altitude and our packs, and dreaming of what seemed like blown in powder in the couloir and bowl next to us. We called climbing done for the day, and set up for skiing. A bit of a traverse through the normal high altitude breakable crust led us to a 40+ degree entry into the couloir."

"After some avalanche stability analysis, and a bit of mutual psyching-up, I dropped in...and found...perfect, barely wind-kissed, boot-top to knee-deep powder! We spent the next 20 minutes linking turns in perfect snow on steep terrain, going one at a time from safe zone to safe zone, barely breathing while skiing, and then almost puking while heaving at stops trying to recover our breathing."

"Even better, as we were skiing the lower couloir and bowl, our teammates were still climbing on the rocky nose above us. Their hoots and hollers made our day, and kept us pushing to make one more perfect turn before stopping doubled-over to breathe. It was the best Himalayan skiing I have ever done…"

Previous /Related

The "holy shit grin" a.k.a. skiing down Everest Lhotse face (2011)

Debrief: 2011 Manaslu ski descents, one (first) from Top True

2013 Stitzinger’s Shishapangma account, ski descents

2012 Splitboard in Pakistan: don't miss Laila peak debrief

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2010 K2: Sky-skier Fredrik Ericsson in fatal accident

2013 Mount Everest attack: Denis Urubko sounds off

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2013 Everest South: Ready to Fix to Summit, Rundown of Climbers to Watch

#Mountaineering #topstory #interview

Adrian: "The Lhotse Couloir is one of the dream un-skied lines in the Himalaya. When I climbed and guided it in 2011, I couldn't believe it hadn't been skied yet. Of course that was an unusual year, with unbelievable ski conditions."
courtesy Alpenglow Expeditions, SOURCE
"Sergey and I have been skiing and climbing together a lot over the past two years, and both of us have been working a lot on our steep skiing, and strength at altitude." Image: Sergey Baranov pulling into Camp 3 on the Lhotse Face for an 18 hour acclimatization visit.
Image by Adrian Ballinger courtesy Alpenglow Expeditions, SOURCE
Adrian and Sergey ready to ski down Makalu in 2011.
courtesy Adrian Ballinger/Alpenglow Expeditions, SOURCE
Manaslu was even better Adrian said, recalling "the best Himalayan skiing I have ever done…"
Image by Nacho Orviz courtesy El Comercio Digital
The icy Lhotse face.
Eiger: "Commercial teams in the Himalaya should be held to the same standards as the Alps," Adrian says.