Makalu: Interview with Adrian Ballinger

On Makalu, climbers have settled into Advance Base Camp at 5,700m and have started preparing for their first rotation.

Alpenglow Expeditions has one of the more interesting teams. Leader Adrian Ballinger will ski down, aspiring guide Carla Perez is trying to summit the five highest peaks on Earth without supplementary oxygen, and Nico Miranda and Karl Egloff plan a speed climb. Yesterday, Miranda and Egloff ran almost as far as Camp 2 (they touched 6,311m) before returning to ABC.

A few days of bad weather had delayed the team’s helicopter flight to Base Camp, but they are now in ABC. We had a chance to speak with Adrian Ballinger about the atmosphere there during an unusually popular year on Makalu.

Makalu ABC on a windy night. Photo: Karl Egloff

At least four teams

“There are at least four teams on the mountain this year,” Ballinger said. “We see Pioneer Adventures, Seven Summit Treks, and Satori expeditions. However, there are not so many members yet. We’ve heard that some climbers have already spent a night in Camp 2, so that’s great news.”

Alpenglow’s no-O2 members are already there. Among the others, Topo Mena arrives on April 27 with his client and with team photographer Griffin Mims.

Alpenglow Expeditions’ Advanced Base Camp at the foot of Makalu. Photo: Adrian Ballinger

Third time lucky?

There were high winds when Ballinger arrived but the weather is now fantastic. Cold with blue, sunny mornings and snow flurries in the afternoon.

Ballinger’s dream of skiing down Makalu is an old one. “I first tried in fall 2012, when I got to the Makalu La and had some great skiing from that point. Then I tried again in fall 2015 with a team of athletes (Emily Harrington, Hilaree Nelson, and Jim Morrison) and five Sherpa,” Ballinger explained.

On that second occasion, just months after the terrible earthquake that hit Nepal, the team was completely alone on the mountain.

“That was an amazing experience. We reached a little above Camp 4, in risky wind-slab avalanche conditions,” he said.

A small avalanche then caught two of their Sherpas. Luckily, they were unharmed but it ended their attempt at 8,000m.

“The ski from Camp 4 was fantastic!” Ballinger said.

His experience shows that Makalu can have terrific ski mountaineering, at least in autumn. “Above 8,000m, I have a potential line in mind but it remains to be seen whether spring conditions allow it. The mountain has much more snow in fall. Right now, it is quite dry.”

Ballinger intends to do the same rotations as Carla Perez, while Miranda and Egloff will keep their options open. Because they plan an FKT (fastest known time), they are likely to follow a different schedule.

Left to right: No-O2 Makalu climbers Karl Egloff, Carla Perez, and Nicolas Miranda. Photo: Karl Egloff

 

Perez is determined to use no oxygen and to climb carrying her gear, including tent, stove, sleeping bag, etc. Miranda and Egloff have worked with Alpenglow in South America, but this is their first 8,000m experience. Previous speed ascents on Makalu include those by Anatoli Boukreev and Marc Batard.

A no-O2 ski?

Ballinger says that although his dream is to summit Makalu and ski down without oxygen, all his climb-and-ski combinations on 8,000ers have used supplemental air: Cho Oyu twice, Manaslu, an attempt on Lhotse, and the two tries on Makalu. Historically, everyone who skied the big five 8,000’ers used oxygen, until Andrzej Bargiel’s feat on K2 in 2018. Ballinger has climbed both Everest and K2 without oxygen but he did not ski down them.

Ballinger does not expect any issues with crowding. “There have been [only] 39 permits granted for Makalu so far…I expect people will stretch their summit bids throughout the season. Some have plans to climb more than one 8,000’er, which seems to be the trend.”

Miranda and Egloff first checked the terrain above ABC on a foray up to 6,000m earlier this week. Photo: Karl Egloff

 

The usual rotations include a first trip to Camp 2, then a night at the Makalu La, then Camp 3. At that point, already in May, the team could be ready to seize a good weather window for a summit bid.

Everyone in Ballinger’s group is ready to help with the rope-fixing work. Sherpas from Seven Summit Treks will lead the way. The fixing is about to begin.

“Of course, it’s too early to say how things will go, but so far, the vibes are good,” Ballinger said.

Angela Benavides is a journalist specialised on high-altitude mountaineer and expedition news working with ExplorersWeb.com.

Angela Benavides has been writing about climbing and mountaineering, adventure and outdoor sports for 20+ years.

Prior to that, Angela Benavides spent time at/worked at a number of national and international media. She is also experienced in outdoor-sport consultancy for sponsoring corporates, press manager and communication executive, radio reporter and anchorwoman, etc. Experience in Education: Researcher at Spain’s National University for Distance Learning on the European Commission-funded ECO Learning Project; experience in teaching ELE (Spanish as a Second Language) and transcultural training for expats living in Spain.

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