Makalu Current: Interview with Adrian Ballinger

We caught up with Adrian and his skiing team.
(Tina Sjogren) Formerly lead guide for Russell Brice’s Himex, Adrian Ballinger broke out in the spring of 2012 with his own guiding outfit, Alpenglow Expeditions. The decision came, “after seeing the outcome of a team that had grown far too big to work within the mountain’s parameters,” he told Pythom/Explorersweb.

His current expedition just back down to ABC on Makalu after sleeping at C3 (7450m), two days ago we caught up with Adrian for an email chat as deep snow and “some avy conditions” persuaded the team to postpone a summit bid, “despite great potential ski conditions and no wind.”

“So it goes,” Adrian says, “we’ll be patient.”

Alpenglow offer a different Himalayan experience: smaller teams and unusual projects such as ski descents. Adrian confirms the skiers are currently the only ones on the peak and his guide company is providing all the logistics and Sherpa team.

Yet his team this season on Makalu is not made up of clients in the traditional sense. “We are a team of friends and professional skiers/climbers attempting a personal project,” the expedition leader told us.

#Pythom/Explorersweb: What’s the difference in terms of guiding with Alpenglow?

+Adrian: Since leaving HimEx in 2012, I have focused on small teams of competent experienced climbers surrounded by the best in logistics, mountain guides and Sherpa. It’s been a lot of fun, and we’ve had some good success despite the major accidents on Everest’s South Side.

Our goal is that each climber is a competent team member. That doesn’t mean they want to climb without guides or Sherpa. But it does mean that they have climbed a progression of peaks prior to Everest, and that they have experience to fall back on when things get challenging. It also tends to mean they have more fun and suffer less on their expeditions to the Himalaya.

#Pythom/Explorersweb: Isn’t it harder to sustain a business with this approach?

+Adrian: It has been challenging to have to say no to so many potential clients that come our way. Too many people want to circumvent the “building experience” phase and go straight to the big climb that they have dreamt about. I do respect the passion and excitement people have for Everest. But they are going to enjoy it far more if the climb peaks like Chimborazo, Aconcagua, Denali and Cho Oyu first. To join our main climbing group on Everest, climbers must first attempt another 8000-meter peak.

We do offer one “fast track” option – private 1-on-1 guiding with a fully qualified Alpenglow guide. This is an expensive option ($135,000) but honors the fact that some climbers can’t do two 8000-meter peaks back to back. That is the only step that can be skipped. All the other smaller peaks are still requirements. 

#Pythom/Explorersweb: Manaslu is packed this season. Is Manaslu the new Cho Oyu?

+Adrian: It shouldn’t be. I guided Manaslu four seasons in a row with HimEx, from 2008-2011. I led teams to the summit all four years, and became the first to ski from the true summit (while guiding talented Russian skier Sergey Baranov).

Each year we encountered extremely difficult to manage avalanche conditions, conditions that are not appropriate for guiding in my opinion. I decided in 2011 I would not go back, and in 2012 when Cho Oyu was closed, came to Makalu for the first time.

While Makalu is bigger and harder than Manaslu, it is a far safer mountain to climb and guide. The 2012 avalanche on Manaslu was not a one-off. HimEx lost its entire Camp 3 in previous seasons due to the same avalanche path, and large-scale accidents had occurred previously in the same place. 

Cho Oyu continues to be a fantastic option for a first 8000-meter peak. While the Chinese stayed closed this autumn season, I believe we will see a reopening in Spring 2016 and moving forward. The Chinese handled this spring’s earthquake and closure professionally and fairly, in contrast to the confused Nepali response. I look forward to working in Tibet again.

#Pythom/Explorersweb: You have been active with the rope fixing team to the summit of Everest previously – are you actively setting the route on Makalu as well?

+Adrian: Being the only non-Sherpa to fix to the summit of Everest in 2010 and 2011 is one of my proudest achievements and favorite memories from the Himalaya. Watching their passion and power, and contributing at the level I could, was amazing. Seeing Everest’s summit ridge without footsteps or ropes or summit paraphernalia was unparalleled. 

Whenever I have the opportunity or there is a need for my strengths I rope-fix. This included fixing to the summit of Cho in a challenging avalanche year in 2013, to the true summit of Manaslu in 2009 (a heavily corniced year), and to the summit of Ama Dablam in numerous years (where the climbing is often more technical than the Sherpa are used to). I love it.

Makalu is a bit different in that we are the only team on the mountain. We are just 4 Sherpa and 4 climbers, all highly experienced in the big mountains. We are not fixing much of the mountain, and all of us are working together to break trail and fix where needed. It’s a lot of fun!

#Pythom/Explorersweb: You skied down Manaslu in 2011, the first from true summit. Guiding Baranov, you skied all the technical sections (summit pyramid, C4-C3 and C2-C1) but a slab-avalanche at 6,100 meters invalidated the “complete” tag, forcing you to step off your skis until 5,800 meters. Will you and your clients try a complete descent on Makalu? What’s a “complete” descent to you?

+Adrian: I’m happy with our ski of Manaslu. Of course I would have loved to ski it all in one push. Fortunately we had skied the hourglass section of the peak while acclimatizing, so we did ski the entire route in the same season. I considered this a “complete” ski descent. And it was a no brainer to descend the ropes verses try to ski the Hourglass on our descent from the summit. I kicked off a huge slide that endangered me, and clients and Sherpa below. Continuing to ski would have been crazy.

I think all of us on 8k peaks need a little asterisk next to the record of our ascent or descent. The asterisk explains the help we had or the things that made our ascent/descent less than “pure”. Then the next generation can strive to do it better.

For instance, our Makalu ski, if successful, should have an asterisk that says we used: *fixed ropes, Sherpa support, oxygen, lots of caffeine*. We each just need to be honest about what we did and what help we had. If we use a rope in places on the descent, or have to take our skis off to navigate the summit rock climbing traverse, then so be it. That will leave a “purer” descent for the next skiers. I like that.

#Pythom/Explorersweb: In 2014 Alpenglow kicked-off a 30-day rapid ascent Everest Expedition program based on pre-acclimatization in Hypoxico tents. How did it go?

Adrian: Rapid Ascent with pre-acclimatization has become a staple of our 8000-meter peak climbs, and now our expeditions to 6000 and 7000 meter peaks. We have seen awesome success on peaks from Cho Oyu to Ama Dablam to Aconcagua, with higher rates of summits combined with fewer climbers experiencing sickness, all in less time.

Arriving in-country pre-acclimatized means your body has greater reserves to fight off the ailments common to the trekking and expedition experience (upper respiratory infections, GI issues, etc.). 

Specific to 2014 Everest, at that time we were still on the South Side of the mountain. We cancelled our expedition after the icefall tragedy, and committed to no longer guiding in the icefall. So we did not actually get to enjoy success from our Rapid Ascent program.

#Pythom/Explorersweb: You were on Everest this spring – where were you and how was it?

+Adrian: I was on the North Side. The earthquake on our side was intense, but it also provided an example of the safety of the North Side route. There were hundreds of climbers on the North Side, with Sherpa as high as 8300 meters rope-fixing. The route was almost in to the summit already! Not a single climber or worker was injured or killed anywhere on the North Side during the earthquake. The route is far less exposed to avalanches, icefall or rockfall, even in the worst possible circumstance.

We moved to the North Side of Everest in 2015. We are finished with the South Side mess. Ethically as a business owner (or in my opinion anyone who hires workers to assist their climb) the South Side no longer works.

Since 2000, 41 workers (Sherpa or other Nepali ethnic groups) have been killed on the South Side. 35 of the 41 deaths were mountain related (avalanche, icefall, rockfall, crevasse fall). In the same 15 years only 2 workers have died on the North Side, and neither of those deaths were mountain related (both were health issues).

The North Side is far safer for workers, and for climbers who join reputable teams with knowledgeable leadership. This is the future of Everest if we want to continue to be proud of our industry. Mountains change, guiding changes. The popularity of Everest, combined with the experience of climbers, combined with climate change and the increased activity of icefalls and glaciers means that the South Side no longer makes sense.

#Pythom/Explorersweb: You planned a Lhotse couloir ski descent in 2013, how did that go?

+Adrian: No snow! The Lhotse Couloir may be the proudest potential ski line I’ve ever seen. I climbed it in Spring 2011, the one spring in recent memory when it was in ski condition. So in 2013 I was guiding Sergey Baranov on Everest and Lhotse and we brought our skis. We carried them to 8000 meters but the Lhotse Face was all ice, and the couloir was super-dry. 

I would love to attempt an autumn ski of the Lhotse Couloir. Despite the challenges of autumn seasons, they are the time to ski. If I was to attempt the Lhotse Couloir in autumn I would either attempt to pass through the Khumbu Icefall without support (from Sherpa or Icefall Doctors), or fly to Camp 1 with all my teammates and supplies. I no longer believe we should be hiring workers to put a route through the icefall. 

#Pythom/Explorersweb: Did you use Hypoxico before this (Makalu) expedition?

+u2028Adrian: 6 weeks sleeping in the tent, at altitudes progressively between 12,000 feet and about 19,000 feet. I increased my red blood cell count by almost 10% while at home. This helped me and my teammates to stay healthy on the trek into Advanced Base Camp (at 18,700 feet), and to move quickly (we did the traditional 2 week move from sea level to ABC in about 8 days).

#Pythom/Explorersweb: You used 02 from C4 on Manaslu and went without from 7500 meters on Makalu. What’s the plan this time in terms of oz?

+Adrian: Hilaree and Emily are attempting without oxygen, and with a bit less focus on the ski side of things. Jim and I are wholly focused on the ski, so will use oxygen, most likely from Camp 4 and back. I believe it would be very difficult to make smart decisions on the ski line, and to make jump turns in technical terrain, and finally to keep my toes, without supplemental oxygen. So, with the goal of skiing paramount in my mind, I plan on using O’s.

#Pythom/Explorersweb: Any cool tech you’re using? I attended an Intel conference in San Francisco last week and one of the inventions featured a sensor system for alpine skiing (coaching moves on the fly and measuring snow conditions underfoot). Would something like that be helpful on 8000ers?

+Adrian: Aspect Solar batteries and panels. We’ve been really impressed with their charging speed and battery life. Thuraya IP+ for affordable unlimited satellite internet. Strava – the best app I’ve seen for tracking and sharing our movements on the trek and mountain. We use Suunto Ambit 3 watches paired with Strava for gathering the data each day.

Can a method of caffeine transport count as tech? We all love Voke, a natural chewable tablet with green tea, guarana berry, and acerola cherry.  Jaybird X2 Headphones – finally having bluetooth headphones without wires that provide great sound and long battery life even in the cold. I love it. I live with at least one ear in keeping me motivated. 

#Pythom/Explorersweb: Your are veteran skiers. Still, it’s an 8000er. What are your main fears?

+Adrian: Not getting the weather window we need. In 2012 the jet stream approached the Himalaya around September 28 and never left. We waited for weeks and never got a summit window. It’s why we arrived early this year and have been pushing hard. It’s only September 22 and we have all slept at 24,500 feet (7450 meters) and we are ready. 

#Pythom/Explorersweb: “Perfect, barely wind-kissed, boot-top to knee-deep powder!” Makalu, was it? Still your best ride yet?

+Adrian: Yep. And we got it again last week, from 22,000 feet. The snow has been awesome this year. We’re expecting more wind this week and hoping it doesn’t hammer the snow too much up high.