Q-and-A: Tahoe alpinists Emily Harrington and Adrian Ballinger, fresh off of historic Himalayan expedition
OLYMPIC VALLEY, Calif. — Nestling into patio chairs on a cloudless morning in Olympic Valley, Adrian Ballinger and Emily Harrington are visibly tired.
Not that I, or anyone, can blame them.
After all, the Tahoe mountaineers are fresh off of scaling Cho Oyu, the sixth tallest mountain in the world at 26,906 feet (8,201 meters), in a staggering four days of climbing. Previously, no one had ever climbed an 8,000-meter peak in less than a month.
What’s more, after summiting the Himalayan peak, Ballinger (an Eddie Bauer alpinist) and Harrington (a North Face athlete) didn’t climb back down. Nope, the Tahoe couple strapped on skis and carved down the sixth-tallest peak on the planet, a feat that required more than six hours of strenuous skiing.
Last Friday, I sat down with Ballinger and Harrington on the deck of Alpenglow Expeditions, Ballinger’s guiding company, to talk about their rapid ascension of Cho Oyu, the dynamic of climbing together, the evolution of mountaineering, and what their next challenge will be.
Sierra Sun-Bonanza: I know you two were shooting for a two-week expedition — traveling to the Himalayas, summiting Cho Oyu, and coming back to Tahoe. Did you make it?
Ballinger: We did. With like eight hours to spare; we got back at like 3 p.m. here (in Tahoe) and we feel like we had until midnight (to complete it in two weeks).
Sun-Bonanza: What did that feel like to pull it off?
Ballinger: I guess, surprising. For me, the fact that all of the logistics worked as smoothly as they did was shocking. The climbing itself, I really believed we could do, but the logistics was such an unknown. And it the smoothest trip I’ve run in the Himalayas in 20 years. Everything went perfectly. It seemed like the TMA (Tibetan Mountain Area Association) wanted to help. Everything went exactly like it was meant to. But that was really surprising. Coming home, every few hours I’d be like, ‘Holy s–t, we’re going to make it home in time, we’re going to make it home in time.’ That was definitely surprising.
Sun-Bonanza: what was that like when you got to the summit together?
Harrington: It was amazing. It was super warm; we had an unusually warm day with no wind. I took the top of my down-suit off and didn’t have a hat on, didn’t have gloves … we were just kind of hanging out up there. It was too hot for the most part; I was shedding layers it was so hot.
Ballinger: We wore no gloves on the summit for 25 minutes at 27,000 feet. That’s unheard of.
Harrington: But at the same time, we wanted to ski down, so that was kind of stressful. So when you’re at the top you’re not really celebrating because you’re as far away as possible from safety. So we took some photos and enjoyed it but then it was time to ski down.
Sun-Bonanza: How challenging was it to ski down from the summit?
Ballinger: Conditions were horrible, like they always are at 8,000-meter peaks … they weren’t horrible — that’s an exaggeration — but we had a lot of breakable crust off the top. And so you’re having to do jump-turns just to get your skis out of the breakable crust and back in, so it was super exhaustive off the top. And then as it got steeper, the crust got harder, so it ended up becoming supportive, which was good for making turns. But then it definitely felt like no-fall terrain — if you went, you were going to go a long, long way. So we were skiing with ice axes as well as ski poles and pretty focused on not falling.
Harrington: And we hadn’t skied since April. So I was just like ‘Oh man.’ And after climbing for seven hours or whatever, getting up at 11 p.m., it’s not like the most ideal time to ski in really hard conditions. It’s really easy to get hurt that way.
Ballinger: So the skiing wasn’t amazing, but getting to ski was amazing, if that makes sense? It was so much fun to get down that way. We put on our skis on the top (of Cho Oyu) and we never took them off until the end of the snow. A lot of times you have to do repels or down-climbs through small rock or ice sections. This year there had been a lot of snow on Cho Oyu, so we were able to actually find a good ski line the whole way down.
Sun-Bonanza: How long did it take you guys to ski down?
Harrington: A long time. From the summit to Camp 2 was like two and a half hours. And then we spent like an hour or so there because you have to pack up. And then you keep skiing, and that took us probably another three hours to get to Camp 1, pack up again. So I’d say it was like six hours of skiing until snow ended.
Ballinger: The whole day was like an 18 and a half hour summit day — when we left Camp 2 to summit, went back down to advanced base camp. So it was full day.
Sun-Bonanza: And probably running on not much sleep?
Harrington: We slept for like two hours maybe. By the end, we were stumbling.
Ballinger: The whole compressed experience definitely had that feel specifically to it; there was no rest and no downtime. So pretty much when we were on the mountain, we rested at advance base camp, but once we left ABC it was like non-stop, pushing, pushing, pushing, riding the edge of our acclimatization the whole way. So it was only three to four days, but those four days felt like not a lot of sleep, not a lot of food, just pushing our bodies. I think we’re feeling it now. We slept like 10 and a half hours last night and I still feel completely destroyed.
Harrington: It was just a really intense two weeks physically.
Sun-Bonanza: Were there any points in the climb where you thought, we might not pull this two-week timeframe off?
Ballinger: The biggest time like that was the weather. We picked this weather window; we knew our forecasters felt confident the weather was going to be good. So we bought tickets on Sept. 21, flew over, got to base camp on the 24th after all the travel. And basically we walked into a base camp where there were 400 other climbers — this is a popular mountain this time of year; it’s the most popular 8,000-meter peak. And we rolled into base camp and everyone was depressed and down and convinced it was a bad season and the weather window wasn’t going to come. Because they’ve just been dealing with a really wet monsoon this year that didn’t end. So every day it had been snowing on the mountain and they had just been getting the s–t kicked out of them. So we walked in kind of expecting everyone to be firing on all cylinders getting ready to go to the summit. Instead we walked in and everyone was like, that weather forecast is bulls–t, it’s not going to happen, no one’s moving, it’s probably dangerous up there. So that’s when I started having second thoughts. And we’re all stoked, we just arrived, we got this great weather forecast, we’re not beaten down from weeks on the mountain already. So we had to sort of balance our stoke with not pissing everyone off around us, and also trying to be encouraging to people — like, ‘it’s going to come, we got to get ready, we got to get the gear up on the mountain, we got to be ready to go for the summit.’
It was definitely a challenging time. So we ended up waiting three days at advance base camp because there was just no progress on the hill. And we couldn’t be in front of everyone else based on our acclimatization. So we spent three days hanging out, waiting, encouraging, talking to people. And then it looked like people were going to start moving. So then we moved up to the hill shooting for a (Sept.) 30th summit day. We headed up on the mountain planning on to summit on the 30th and we got up to Camp 1 and same thing, no one had moved again. So we had to wait at Camp 1 again. Finally, everyone went to the summit on the 30th, which was great. But we didn’t want to be mixed into a crowd of 200 people, and the rope fixers doing their work, so we waited one more day, which is how we ended up on the summit on the 1st. The 1st was our last possible summit day to get home within two weeks. So there was stress there. I was like, ‘Oh my god, we’re going to blow it because everyone is just sitting and waiting, and it’s out of our control.’ But it worked out.
Sun-Bonanza: That’s got to be a pretty anxious time — you’re on the mountain, and you’re just sitting there, not moving.
Ballinger: For me, that’s the hardest thing. That’s why I like this short two-week experience, because it’s less sitting and waiting and you’re just getting to climb for the most part.
Sun-Bonanza: How much do you guys rely on each other to push each other — what’s that dynamic like?
Harrington: We have opposing strengths. My strength is in hard rock climbing, technical rock climbing, and Adrian’s more experienced in high-altitude climbing and skiing. So we definitely learn from each other in that respect. It’s never been a competitive thing, because we each have our own thing that we do.
Ballinger: I’d say definitely we push each other. My rock climbing’s gotten so much better even though I’ve been rock climbing since I was 12 years old. Having Em there, it’s definitely pushed me and giving me confidence and skills to do more and more and more.
Harrington: And same for me with skiing and big mountain climbing … just gaining that confidence. It’s been nice having someone who has all that experience and helps make big decisions.
Sun-Bonanza: When did you two savor this crazy feat you’ve accomplished?
Harrington: We haven’t really. We got down and we were so wrecked. And then the next day we packed and then we left. We haven’t really had time to celebrate, I guess.
Ballinger: With a longer trip, normally there’s days of packing up and leaving the mountain and then a slow exit across the Tibetan plateau, and that’s time to sort of process the experience within your team before you rejoin real life. And this time we sort of dove straight back into real life and there literally has been no celebration or processing what we did yet. I don’t know when we’ll find time for it, but we will.
Sun-Bonanza: It’s got to feel cool knowing no one has ever climbed an 8,000-meter peak in this timeline except you two?
Ballinger: It feels awesome. It’s so cool that it sort of worked out exactly what we had dreamt of doing. And I feel like people get it. We’ve been doing loads of media in the past 48 hours, which is cool. It actually has captured something where people are like, ‘Oh, that’s different.’ People have heard of going to Everest, it takes two and a half months. This was so different than that. Ultimately, I want Alpenglow (Expeditions) to be able to start offering trips like this. The two-week vacation in the American psyche is so important. Imagine being able to do a mountain this big in two weeks? For the right level of athlete — I was also surprised at how hard it was physically. And so I think we would definitely be pre-qualifying people really carefully before taking them on something like this.
Sun-Bonanza: When we first talked, Adrian, you said there were some people who you respected in the industry that said, ‘what are you thinking?’ regarding the Cho Oyu expedition. Have some of those people reached out to you since you’ve returned?
Ballinger: We’ve gotten great feedback from people we really respect in the industry.
Harrington: There’s still the old guard of people who are older and have been climbing mountains forever. And it’s just like with anything, those people don’t really like to see change. So they’re kind of like, ‘Oh, they’re missing the point, it’s all about the experience.’
Ballinger: We walked into one of the old guide’s camps (on Cho Oyu) — someone I really like, one of my true mentors, we get along great — but he just saw me walking in and was like, ‘Don’t try to sell me any snake oil! I don’t want any of that snake oil!’ He knows it works, but he still doesn’t want to hear about it and he certainly doesn’t want to change what he’s doing.
Harrington: That dude’s in his ‘70s. Clearly nothing is changing with him.
Ballinger: I got the same type of s–t when I started bringing Wi-Fi Internet to the mountains fives years ago. People were like, ‘What! You’re meant to be bonding with your teammates.’ And it’s like, sure, that’s true, but having a little bit of Wi-Fi to stay in touch with your family isn’t going to ruin team bonding.
Sun-Bonanza: Do you two see yourselves as pioneers in a way in terms of rapid mountain climbing?
Ballinger: Pioneers is a strong word for me. We’re totally standing on the shoulders of everyone who came before us. That’s such a cliché, but people started climbing 8,000-meter peaks in the ‘50s, that’s when all the summits happened for the first time. And then people figured out commercial guiding in the 90s. And it’s been a period of refinement since then. And I think we’re just a part of that spectrum. We’re definitely refining how things are done and making it faster and cleaner. I believe in 5-10 years time, I don’t think there will be anyone doing two-month-long Everest trips anymore. They’ll all be 30-day trips or less. And I do believe I’m part of pushing that ball forward. But there are incremental changes.
Harrington (to Ballinger): But I think you’re one of the first people who’s really embraced the technology side of things and was willing to take that next step, to try to pre-acclimatize in the tents — no one else did that before you.
Ballinger: And when I started doing it in 2012, everyone across the board was like, ‘That won’t work; that will not work.’
Harrington: And you were the first one to do it. And now certain companies with a little bit younger energy are starting to experiment with it more. I think mountaineering is still old and crusty in a lot of ways and you’re sort of injecting this younger vibe into it and that’s why it’s attracting a different clientele and a different audience then before. Like Vogue magazine would have never written about mountaineering before we went and did this, because we made it slightly more glamorous than toiling away in the mountains.
Sun-Bonanza: So what’s the next challenge for you guys?
Harrington: We’re switching gears. We’re going to go Kentucky in November to a place called the Red River Gorge to go sport climbing, which is the style of climbing I originally started out doing as a kid. It’s more focused on the physical gymnastic aspect of pure hard rock climbing, and it’s relatively safe style of climbing. For me, since I don’t do it as much, it’s just really fun. It’s not easy at all, but the logistics of it are really easy.
Ballinger: For me, like I said, I’ve been rock climbing since I was 12, but I’ve never climbed this elite level of rock climbing called 5.13 — 5.13 is when you enter this elite level of climbing. And I’ve sort of been an advanced level climber and guide forever, so I’ve climbed 5.12 forever, but not 5.13. So I sort of set that as one of my big goals this year. So we’ll have a full month to work on projects and gain strength and work on specific climbs.