Adrian Ballinger and Cory Richards have been documenting their attempt to climb Everest without oxygen on Strava and Snapchat as part of #EverestNoFilter, a pioneering social storytelling approach to climbing the world’s biggest mountain. On May 24th, the team went for the summit. Ballinger had to stop about 1,200 feet from the top when his body temperature became dangerously low while Richards went on to successfully reach the summit.
Most importantly, both athletes made it back from the summit safe. They spoke to Strava from Everest the day following the summit attempt.
Listen to the 28:27min Exclusive Audio Interview
Andrew Vontz: Thanks for calling, I know you’ve had a busy 24 hours. So, how are you doing?
We’re good! We’re just suffering it out a little bit.
Everything is gone in camp. The infrastructure is gone. The yak drivers are here and it’s cold. We’re all snuggling as a team.
Adrian Ballinger: Twenty one thousand feet all of a sudden feels high again in terms of how it’s just crushing our bodies.
AV: Yeah, I bet. First of all congrats to both of you. I and everyone at Strava were all really glad you both made it down safely and have had a safe climb. Wanted to convey that. We’ve all been following along closely with the Snaps. Wanted to get your blow-by-blow about the day of the climb and since then. Can you walk me through your emotions and physically what happened on the day?
AB: Sure. We’ll start with Adrian, that sad story and finish with Cory’s…on a high note (laughs). So, you know we picked our summit window based on the best information we had and also the fact that we thought there wouldn’t be any crowds on the mountain…most of the climbers would be done which was pretty important to us to keep moving. We had a good three days getting from Advanced Base Camp up to 8300 meters, the highest camp on the mountain.
Even during that time we had some hard nights, especially me. The first night at 7,000 meters was the night that Alpenglow Expeditions summit team was going for the mountain. Cory and I stayed up all night basically radio dispatch and dealing with some problems. The guides did a great job but it wasn’t an easy night…it was a stressful, full night. And the next two nights at 7,800 and 8,300 I just really struggled with my warmth.
I just couldn’t get warm in the tent. Everything from having cold feet, not being able to rewarm them after a day in the boots. It was just my overall body not feeling quite right, I guess. I didn’t really put much thought into it at the time, but then it was PM on the 23rd when Cory and I left for the summit, I think that cold became a prevalent issue for me right away. It was a cold night, the forecast was right, but they did predict winds at six or eight in the morning, but really the winds started at 11 PM or midnight. They started right away and real cold conditions and my body just progressively deteriorated. I started moving a little slower than Cory, which hadn’t really been our pacing through the season.
I started having issues with my hands and then both Cory and our expedition doctor monitoring started noticing number one that I wasn’t on the radio normally as much as I would be…I love to talk on the radio…and then number two when I was on the radio, I was slurring my words and not being very clear and not talking about me…I went four hours without a single radio call which is unheard of with any of my friends or anyone that I work with.
CR: We try to get him to shut up, but he never does…he just stays on the radio it’s weird (laughs).
AB: I was just progressing and starting to get to the point where basic climbing stuff..working with carabiners, belay devices and stuff like that, things I’ve been doing for 30 or 25 years…I started having issues with basic functions like that. Monica, our expedition doctor, would have turned me around an hour or two earlier if she had the choice.
I kept pushing, but I got to the point where I knew if I didn’t turn around, things would go bad.
I didn’t know if that meant frostbite on my hands and feet. Or if it meant sitting down to die or if it meant turning Cory around to rescue me…but I pushed…I think I told you in our last interview that I wanted to find my physical and emotional limit, and I didn’t really expect it to come this way; in the forms of cold and hypothermia with high winds there. That was me…I got back to 8,300 meters, to camp and immediately fell asleep in my tent at camp. A sherpa called who was supporting us, mostly who was going to be filming, he found me uncontrollably shivering from climbing all the way back and was unable to warm me. Really started taking care of me, giving me hot water bottles and stuff like that, trying to bring my body temperature up. Meanwhile Cory was kicking a**…
CR: I don’t know if I was kicking a**, but you know I think it’s something that’s highly misunderstood about high altitude mountaineering or alpinism in general…you do these very long pushes. It occurred to me yesterday after going to the summit and coming down to ABC (Advanced Base Camp), that I’d been up for over forty hours without sleep. Both Adrian and I had really done that, he had about a five minute nap when we got back to 8,300 (meters).
I think it’s something the fitness crowd and in general, the larger audience in general doesn’t understand.
You go through these long periods of being awake. It’s really incredible what your body can put up with. For me the summit day was obviously bittersweet because Adrian and I have spent so much time together. Not only the past few months, but the past few years. And then to have that call be made and listen to the conversation between Monica and Adrian and know that at that point I was going up alone was hard and scary. Not necessarily what I was hoping for. We made the decision, and it was a good decision. Monica’s decision with Adrian was really the choice that allowed me to keep going. It was really the conversation I was having with Monica at the time that allowed me to maintain any semblance of calm in the middle of the night and continue to climb. Again it was a bittersweet summit. I was there for about three minutes, Monica gave me five and I was out of there before that five minutes had expired.
AV: Were you able to successfully record data during your summit bid?
CR: I had it recording on my watch, on my watch and from my HR monitor to Strava on my phone and as per some sort of cosmic joke with all the social media we’ve built on this trip, I pulled my phone out on the summit to do my summit snap and it shit the bed. So it was too cold on the peak. I think my watch died 2.5 hours into the summit day and it was an eleven hour round trip from high camp, so there’s very little data. And my iPhone, I don’t know how long it was recording, but it died on the summit, but it could have also died in my pocket before than and come back on. I don’t know, they’re pretty funny things up high, so we’ll see what glory uploads close to the summit.
AB: We just had real challenges today, which is why they didn’t go up today with a lack of power. It definitely shows where I turned around and came back to camp. And will show my descent from camp down to basecamp. So we’ll have my slightly less impressive data.
CR: I think something interesting that will probably show up in the data, just going higher, is that Adrian and I saw how drastically different we are down low but we saw that we got much much closer in data as we got higher on the mountain. I think that’s something that’s very interesting. I’m excited to see how that data pans out.
AV: We’ve all run out of batteries before at some point. That’s how it goes. The main thing is that you got up and down safely. Can you describe for a sea level, armchair mountaineer how cold it gets up on Everest and how scary it can be?
AB: Yeah, absolutely. The inside tip is true, so I’ve had frostbite on two toes climbing in Peru on a hard alpine route. They blackened and I spend some time at Johns Hopkins hospital, but I didn’t lose anything, which is great. They don’t cut (amputate) as quickly as they used to anymore. But so, you know that’s my history. I’m 6’2” and on a good day I weigh 145 pounds. And so probably at this point in the expedition, despite the Soylent sponsorship, I’m down in the low 130’s. I go on vacation to Baja and I’m cold hanging out in Mexico. It’s my greatest struggle. Monica, our expedition doctor, we’ve been climbing together for a decade now, she’s seen me struggle with the cold even with supplemental oxygen. And you know, her comment was if you tried Everest without oxygen only one out of those ten times only one time would I get the right day where I could actually stay warm and make it to the top.
So, I struggle and with supplemental oxygen, when I put it on my face, it feels like warmth going through my vessels to my extremities and as soon as I get cold, my body pulls blood away from things like my hands and feet and keeps them in the essential organs, in the core, which is what it should do. We were climbing on a day that was probably negative 25 degrees and the wind very quickly was gusting about 40 miles per hour and that combined with already hanging out in camp at 27,000 feet, shivery and cold before we even started. It all kind of comes together and I just couldn’t keep my core temp warm. The interesting thing was, I didn’t notice, I hadn’t picked up the radio in three or four hours. I had no idea I wasn’t making sense on the radio anymore and that’s kind of the nature of hypothermia.
The nature of altitude and why people sit down and give up on Everest. It kind of just creeps up on you.
AV: You spent most of the night before on the radio with the Alpenglow commercial summit team, which you didn’t highlight much in the snap story. But that has to be very mentally draining having those people’s lives in your hands. Was that an intense night?
AB: You’re insight is exactly right. All these great guides up on the mountain with the commercial teams, Zeb Blais and Chad Peele did an amazing job. Our Sherpa team is top notch. They were in touch with Monica at basecamp as well. Two things happened. One, Comm’s down at basecamp are difficult, so a lot of times Cory and I took the lead because we had good radio Comm’s. And then second of all, these guys had a very significant gear failure, where two out of the seven oxygen regulators failed. Our team actually had two backup regulators and masks, which the guides probably thought was overkill, but it was the right thing to have.
We had the resources and they were safe, but once two regulators had failed and with a team at 29,000 feet with no more backup, the stress level was super, super high.
On me, on Cory, on the guides, on Monica, we knew we had no more resources. And we were starting to think of backup plans like in SCUBA diving, buddy masking down the mountain and those are horrible things to think about. The night was super draining, just 72 hours before our summit. It’s what I chose. We set this schedule up. It’s my company.
CR: The next day was probably my worst day, I said that on one of my snaps. We moved from the North Col to 7,700 meters, that was the worst day I had on the mountain. It was the second true climbing day of our summit push, which was really discouraging and I don’t think I was nearly as stressed out as Adrian because of course it’s his company, but we’re sitting there listening to this unfold, relaying messages from high on the mountain to Monica and I can tell Adrian is thinking what do we do here if something goes wrong. Not only with something like buddy breathing happening, but there’s nothing we can actually do but physically I’m sure we would have tried to do something anyway. Whether that means getting up in the middle of the night and calling our summit bid off or whatever, but the idea that never would have worked. I mean, it would have been a stupid choice, but as Adrian’s company, with those things happening, obviously I could see Adrian’s brain spinning and he’s not getting any rest whatsoever.
AB: And it’s a reminder for me and Cory, I think, when you take Alpenglow who is one of the best resourced team, in terms of guiding, staffing, doctor, back-up equipment, everything has so many backups on that summit day on Everest, you’re still so out there. It’s so big and things go so wrong so fast and there’s only so many resources you can put in place. So I look at our team and I look at the cut-rate teams that are on this mountain and really it’s amazing we’re not seeing more accidents than we are. And then you take something like Cory, and Cory’s attempt was so proud because he did it. He turned it on in those last two hours totally alone with no backup, and that is just super proud. It was a clean, impeccable summit. Which also I think we’re focusing on, and I hope he has his data.
He made it to the summit from camp [a]three in eight hours, without oxygen, passing people that had oxygen on and that’s unheard of.
And then he came down 2,400 meters after his summit all the way to ABC so that today we woke up when this huge windstorm, which was predicted, hit the mountain this morning, we were hanging out here at 21,000 feet instead of still at mountain camp fighting for our lives. So, people are way out there on the summit of Everest, and that’s not going to change anytime soon.
AV: That completely makes sense. I think, part of what you shared about being up for 40 hours aspect in particular, people don’t necessarily think of that. I think that part of what has been interesting about the snap story and also the reality of what it means to undertake this and to be running a commercial operation at the same time is definitely the stress that you probably experience in conjunction doesn’t necessarily come through as part of your snap persona. Cory, I’m wondering what did you feel like as you made the summit bid and then coming back down after being awake for 40 hours. How did that effort compare to other things you’ve done?
CR: You know, it’s funny. Honestly? I don’t want to sound bad here, I don’t want to sound like an a**hole; I expected it to be a lot more physical. I really did, I’ve seen friends come off Everest without oxygen and they’ve been just totally f***ed. I don’t necessarily feel that way. I am very tired. It’s a very nuanced feeling of tired. It’s noticing that your muscles aren’t engaging when you think they should or you want them to. I twisted my knee coming down because my quad wasn’t engaging because it was just too tired. It was little things like that I really noticed. The overall feeling of exhaustion was not as complete as I anticipated.
I will say, right on the summit, I remember feeling like I was pushing as hard as I had ever.
AB: I hope that it doesn’t sound over the top, but I feel like my body fought for its life yesterday. I came back to 8,300 (meters) and I put on supplemental oxygen because I was so cold and couldn’t rewarm, my sherpa was waking me up and I was uncontrollably shivering. And from that point on, I wore oxygen down. And Cory was still way faster and stronger than me, even though he had been to the summit. I just had this real beaten feeling. And then, we got down to ABC, which I knew was important last night and he fell asleep and I remember Monica, our doctor, waking me up five, six, seven times trying to get me to come eat and every time I would say I’m getting up and fall right back asleep again. And this whole day, I’ve been trying to help pack and my body is just crushed.
Whatever it did up there, it fought really, really hard.
AV: Is that the coldest you ever been, Adrian?
AB: I think in terms of whole body cold, like actually slipping into hyperthermia, that’s the coldest I’ve ever been. I remember having colder fingers and toes and being conscious of those, but never this full body shutting down feeling that I had.
AV: Right. So the wind looked severe, from the Snaps. I know you said the storm, the 60 mile per hour winds, came in earlier than you’d anticipated. Is that pretty typical at the summit to have that blow in like that? How extreme was that?
AB: It’s the highest point in the world, so it will always catch more winds than mountains around it. We were working like this day was the last possible day (the 24th) before the jet stream came on the mountain today. It looked like a really good day, but at the same time, normally, Monica and I for our commercial Alpenglow team, we would never choose to send them on the last day of no wind, because you always know things can switch over 12 hours. The forecasters are good but they’re not that good. So if Cory and I could have taken the 22nd or the 23rd, we would have in a minute, but our schedule and our acclimatization and our need for rest didn’t allow that.
We knew we were taking a day on the edge. And as we were climbing through those days to 7,000 meters, to 7,800 meters to 8,300 meters, we were getting updates from the forecasters warning us that those winds were coming earlier and earlier. Originally, Cory and I talked about leaving for the summit at one or two in the morning to minimize the cold hours in the dark, which I knew would be struggle for me. And then go later in the day in order to climb all day. The updated wind forecast made it clear that the wind was going to come by dawn, by morning and we had no choice, so we had to leave at 10 PM which put me in more hours in the dark and cold, and then the wind started kicking up even earlier.
It’s funny, the wind actually picked up lower before above, so Cory was actually above some of the wind on the ridge when I started getting my a** handed to me in the wind. You know, silly stuff like your eyelids freeze shut, it felt like that when the wind slung fresh snow. It was really tough conditions for me specifically, but Cory was able to climb through them.
AV: What has to happen now that you’re back down to where you are. What do you have to do before you can leave the mountain?
CR: You know, really, that’s the funny thing, people see a summit at the end of an expedition and that’s like weeks away from the end of an expedition. You come down from the summit and you have your entire base camp and Advanced Base Camp and camp infrastructures all along the mountain that have to be taken care of. Our sherpa team yesterday, singlehandedly, between four of them, took care of all three camps on the mountain. Today, Adrian and I really sat around and did nothing because we’re pieces of shit and wasted, while Monica spearheaded the entire deconstruction of our Advanced Base Camp with Zeb Blais. Meanwhile, Monica is caring for a very sick friend of ours. She’s the absolute hero behind the scenes. She’s crushing it and we’re like ‘should I put my socks in this bag or this bag?’
AB: She’ll pack like twelve 70 pound duffles and we’ll put like eight used batteries in a ziplock and be like, “Man, we’re really kicking a** this morning.”
CR: But it’s funny, that’s the s**t that has to happen. Just taking down the basecamp. Meanwhile, our Sherpa, Panuru, arranged weeks ago all the yak drivers and yaks to come up. They’re here now, ready to take down all our gear tomorrow. Our breakfast is at 6:30, we’ll start walking the 11 miles out at about eight and then we’ll pack another camp down at basecamp and then we’ll drive two days across the Tibetan plateau and then we’ll get on an airplane to Kathmandu, where we’ll unpack everything and dry in out in a backyard and then we’ll get on another two flights home and hopefully by then, Adrian’s cough will have abated and everything will be back to normal.
You know even when people know that you stayed up 40 hours for the summit, they don’t know that you have 400 more hours before you get home.
AV: With sleep and recovery, have you been using HRV measurement or any data-based approach? Or have you just been getting sleep and seeing how you feel?
CR: I have not done any sleep measurements. The only recovery tests I’ve done have been very rudimentary things with Steve House where he ends up looking at, he has me doing box jumps for 5 minutes and he looks at how fast my heart rate comes to.
AB: And I haven’t been doing anything.
AV: What are you guys most looking forward to when getting off the mountain?
CR: I’m looking forward to my coffee shop, The Laughing Goat, my morning routine, my cortado and my eight ounce latte and I’m looking forward to my bed.
AB: I’m so looking forward to a summer of sunny rock climbing with my girlfriend Emily Harrington in California. It sounds so warm and comfortable.
AV: Thanks for taking the time to talk with me today and again really glad both of you are back safely. Good luck with the rest of your journey.
AB: Awesome, Andrew.