Everest No Filter: The Second Ascent

There are few athletic feats as audacious and inspiring as climbing Mt. Everest without supplemental oxygen. In 2016, climbers Adrian Ballinger and Cory Richards used Strava to tell the story of their attempt. Cory made it to the top. Adrian had to stop just before the summit due to hypothermia. In 2017, the friends returned to Everest with the goal of putting Adrian on the summit.

The plan for this year’s expedition was hatched almost as soon as they got off the mountain last year. Adrian knew he made the right choice turning back and that to continue might have cost him his life. But that didn’t temper feelings of failure. “I think the way that it manifested itself was during my training,” Adrian said, “especially my muscular endurance workouts where I was carrying 65 pounds of water going up hills as steeply and fast as I could, and just being humble day after day after day. That was the physical manifestation of that process I needed to go through with my ego.”

Acclimatization

There is only so much you can do to train for Mount Everest, though.

“The truth is that no workout compares to [attempting to summit Mount Everest without oxygen] because no workout puts you in danger of actually physically dying if you don't complete it.” - Cory

So once the expedition team was on Everest, they spent six weeks acclimatizing and training on the mountain. They would climb up to higher and higher camps, always returning to recover at the relatively low altitude of base camp. This is the only way to brace your body to function at the cruising altitude of a 747 with no supplemental oxygen.

The acclimatization went beyond physical adaptation. “I struggled with a minor bout of depression early on the trip,” Cory said, “which also manifests as anxiety, and I really noticed that in terms of my performance, how I was able to keep up, and the levels of energy that I had. I did not feel good once I got here, but that shifted and changed with a little bit of time and that course righted itself. Early on, it didn't feel great for me.”

There was one test the team knew would be proof they were ready for a summit push. “Sleeping at 7,700 meters,” Cory said, “And the next day touching 8,000 meters. And then returning all the way to Advance Base Camp. That's a key day. That's so much confidence, because you basically summited three or four of the world's highest peaks on that day.”

For Adrian, that final test didn’t go as smoothly as he might have hoped. “I actually got a stomach flu at Advanced Base Camp at 6,400 meters,” he said. “It only lasted about 36 hours, but it flattened me. It was difficult to get to the bathroom from my tent and I was lying around all day long, shivery, feverish. It felt so unfair even though, again, I've been doing this for 20 years. I've watched people get sick. It's part of expedition life. Part of what makes expedition life challenging is that it's not just about your peak fitness and whether you're ready for race day, because stupid shit like this happens all the time and yet it definitely rocked me. The good news is I got to 8,000 meters three days after that stomach bug and that gave me confidence that I had the strength to deal with this.”

After that important ascent, the team dropped below base camp and gave their bodies a full week to recover. But sitting and waiting is hard for hungry climbers.

“We were ready for our summit push,” Adrian said. “We were waiting for our weather window, and it was like, ‘Well, you know what? I feel great. It's been the perfect season. Everything's gone just right, but that's how I felt last year, too. What if the exact same thing happens: I get up above 8,300, get too cold, and blow up?’

“But talking through it with Cory, he said, ‘Well, the exact same thing can happen, and there's absolutely nothing you can do now except take each day as a day.’ That's the whole point. If the uncertainty wasn't there on summit push, it wouldn't be Everest without oxygen. I just put it away. It was like there was nothing more I could do.”

Humbled by the Mountain

Finally, on May 24th, the team started their final climb towards the pinnacle of terra firma. On May 25th, they moved up to Camp 2, reaching 7,620 meters. Then on May 26th, they started a 41 hour push for the summit.

Adrian’s body began to break down after the team entered Everest’s upper reaches, known as The Death Zone. “All I remember is I was trying so hard to persuade my quad to take another step,” Adrian recalled, “and it just was telling me to go fuck myself. I have never felt such rebellion from my body against my brain as I felt on that summit ridge.

It was so, so humbling, and it's now so clear to me how people choose to just sit down and fall asleep and die on these big mountains. It felt like the most logical thing in the world to do the whole time I was above 8,500 meters. I'm a little shivery just thinking about it.”

Expert Climbers Use Expert Judgement

For Cory, it all proved to be too much. “I thought about turning around all morning because I was feeling so shitty,” he said. “When I finally did turn around, it felt horrible. There was a wounded pride. There was arrogance. There was frustration. There was all of the negativity that surrounds failure, but there was also relief and all of that wrapped up into one ball of emotion. I think it was pretty hard to define at the time, pretty nebulous, but it was the right decision for me that day.“

But Cory’s climb wasn’t over yet. “There was absolutely no intention of getting oxygen when I decided to turn around,” he recalled. “That's wasn't an option. What ended up happening was the Alpenglow Expeditions guided team was on their way down, and we sort of crossed paths. They gave me two bottles of oxygen, a backup mask and a regulator. I put them on, and I started climbing my way back up.

"The decision to change my mind is somewhat of a blur. I didn't think about it. It was just the right thing to do.”

For Adrian, everything came together as he made his way towards his goal. “Day one, moving from Base Camp to Advanced Base Camp – that's a 20 kilometer day with over 1,500 meters of vertical – and it's just brutal, because you're going to above 6,400 meters, you're going higher than any place in North America, including Denali. I think I kept my heart rate below 120, it just felt like really easy. That gave me a lot of confidence. And then two days later, the move from Advanced Base Camp up to North Col, I think I cut another half hour off my time, or something like that, while still keeping my heart rate below 125. My coach got the data through Strava and was just like, ‘Oh, it's on.’”

From the Flyby, we can see that Cory and Adrian’s paths came together four and a half hours before the duo reached the summit. And then on May 27th at 10:53 a.m. Adrian summited Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen.

The Most Dangerous Part

They didn’t stay on top of the world for very long though. “We all talk about how in climbing, the descent is the much more dangerous part,” Adrian said. “Coming down after that level of effort was incredibly difficult to where if I had to wait for a rope to descend on or a ladder to climb down, I would just immediately fall asleep ... I just had so much confidence that I could push my body so, so far out on the spectrum and that these guys [Cory and the team’s Sherpa, Paul and Topo] were going to help me to make good decisions and help me to know if I was going beyond that limit where I couldn't get back down.”

Together, they made it to Advanced Base Camp from the summit ending 41 hours of non-stop effort. There, they were able to rest for a couple days before a quick final descent.

Transcendental

We spoke with Cory and Adrian after they returned to Everest Base Camp and the fatigue was evident in their voices. When we asked Cory to recap their summit push, his answer was blunt, “I think asking what we felt over the course of 40 hours is like asking what somebody feels like over the course of their lifetime. That's what these days are like. The one thing that I know I felt was just absolute awe for the amount of effort that Adrian was able to put forth to accomplish what he did. It was moving. It was transcendental. It was one of the most emotional things that I've ever witnessed, to see somebody put that much out.”

And they were appreciative of all of the support they’ve received. “I've been pretty stoked on the Strava community for a number of years now and find myself inspired by it,” Adrian said.

“The kudos and comments absolutely are a huge thing and they feel different than say Facebook or Instagram because they're from athletes. It's just an awesome community to be a part of.”

“It's super special, and the Strava community has been amazing in their support of us, and continuing to push us,” Cory added. “Their comparison of us I think is also - as much as we don't compare ourselves - I think it's really interesting. I think their comments are at once fascinating and very motivating and I can't thank the community enough for following us and being involved.”

Kudos Adrian, for coming back to Everest and finishing what you’d started decades ago. And Kudos, Cory, for putting it all on the line to help a friend achieve his dream.

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  • Steve Wierengo

    Killian Jornet, just did it twice, first time was in 26 hours I believe,2nd time was a something like a day later

    • WeGoRTW

      Hans Kammerlander did it in 16 hours…. but the point being what Jornet did is amazing as is what Cory and Adrian have accomplished; one does not take away from the others accomplishments as they all have accomplished a rare feat.

    • “It was a great Feat”.?