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Adrian Ballinger on Becoming the Fourth American to Climb K2 and Everest Without Supplemental Oxygen
K2 is a beast of a mountain, hence its nickname the “Savage Mountain.” It may not be as tall as Everest, but it’s a more difficult and technical climb to its 28,251-foot summit. “With or without oxygen, it has such a low success rate and high fatality rate,” says climber Adrian Ballinger, the Tahoe-based founder of AlpenGlow ExpeditionsOpens a New Window.. But on July 24 after a successful K2 summit, Ballinger became the fourth American to climb K2 and Everest without supplemental oxygen. His climbing partner, Ecuadorian Carla Perez, also became the first Latin American woman to achieve the same feat.
This year’s K2 season saw very few summits due to more snowfall than the past three decades, which made for chest-deep snow above 7,800 meters. This sent 90 percent of the teams home. Ballinger and Perez, who were supported by Esteban “Topo” Mena, Palden Namgye, and Pemba Gelje Sherpa—all on oxygen—were hopeful the conditions would improve. And they did.
In addition to a huge wind event clearing the snow up high, their spirits were lifted by the arrival of this season’s Himalayan superstar, Nirmal “Nims” Purja, who opened the route and made the first summit of the season—using supplemental oxygen. It made for an incredible adventure.
We caught up with Ballinger over the phone while he was in Islamabad after a traditional Pakistani dinner with his team to find out what they experienced on this dangerous peak, the differences between climbing with Os and no Os, and if K2 will become the next Everest.
You have just become the fourth American to successfully climb Everest and K2 without supplemental oxygen. What made you want to do K2 without oxygen?
K2 in Pakistan is something I’ve dreamt of since I was a kid. I decided early on in my climbing career that Pakistan wasn’t a place I wanted to guide because of the risks involved. The mountains are steeper. They have a lot more avalanche, rock-fall, and ice-fall hazards, in general. And there’s the political situation, as well. Still, I desperately wanted to go and see these mountains that are meant to be the most beautiful in the world. But there needed to be kind of a goal and a team that felt worth taking the risk.
Which Americans have done it previously?
Ed Viesturs, Steve Swenson, and Scott Fischer, who was quite the 8,000-meter-peak climber before he died on Everest in 1996. I think that’s something that might be very different than when the guys did it back in the ’90s. They probably didn’t have Sherpa with them, but they were also willing to take much higher levels of risk than I am today at this point in my career.
Carla Perez is so impressive. How did you two link up?
We met in 2016, when she was attempting Everest without supplemental oxygen, and I was attempting Everest without supplemental oxygen with Cory Richards. I failed in 2016, and Carla succeeded, so Carla became the first woman from South America to climb Everest without supplemental oxygen. She was planning to try K2 without oxygen in 2019, and I decided to join her and Topo, who is her life partner.
It took two attempts for you to do Everest without oxygen. Why try K2 next?
After doing Everest without oxygen on my second attempt in 2017, a part of me wondered, “Well, was it a fluke?” Everest was a mountain that I knew so intimately and had spent 12 seasons on. I knew every single turn of the route. K2 was an opportunity to try something I was so uncomfortable with.
How uncomfortable were you?
The risk and objective hazards of the mountain were really high—all reasons I thought I would never climb K2—and definitely I had to struggle with them while I was there. I also got some horrible parasite on the trek in. I was so sick and went through three different courses of antibiotics to try to get rid of it. There was so much uncertainty, which is exactly what I was looking for.
What’s the difference between climbing an 8,000-meter peak with oxygen versus without oxygen?
I don’t want to take away from people who climb with oxygen—it’s still really hard. To me, climbing without supplemental oxygen feels many, many times harder. It’s not just the speed you can climb it on summit day, but it’s the day-to-day breakdown that happens to your body without oxygen. Carla and I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t stay warm. All of that is just beating you down, so by the time you finally get to that final summit push, you just feel completely destroyed. Whereas for Topo, Palden, and Pemba on oxygen, summit day was just another day of work for them.
Tell us about the infamous Bottleneck.
Everyone knows K2 is quite a bit steeper than Everest. A lot of the climbing feels quite technical. You’re on your front points on crampons. You’re on rock steps, doing real rock climbing. Easy rock climbing, but real rock climbing, for a lot of the route.
That brings you all the way up to Camp Four, the highest camp, which sits at 7,800 meters, or 25,500 feet. Then, you have the summit day above that, from 7,800 meters to 8,600 meters, almost 1,000 meters of climbing. Basically, right out of Camp Four, you get into this Bottleneck zone.
It’s called the Bottleneck because essentially there’s a couloir running between rock cliffs, with a huge serac, or ice cliff, sitting above you. The serac is constantly dropping chunks, just like any other serac, whether it’s in the Khumbu Icefall or on Mont Blanc. The problem with this one is it’s at above 8,000 meters. The actual ice cliff is at about 8,200 meters, or almost 27,000 feet.
Any time you’re moving under it, you’re really slow, whereas at least in the Khumbu Icefall, you’re only at 5,000 meters, and if you’re strong, you can move through it really fast. Up there on K2, there’s just no moving fast, and every single chunk that falls off of that serac, which is probably 400 feet tall and 1,000 feet wide, funnels through the Bottleneck, which is the only logical way to climb up.
Even on oxygen, you’re probably going to spend two hours underneath that serac. And off oxygen, I spent close to six hours under it.
That’s a long time. Were you nervous and worried?
The whole fucking time! Yep. The first couple of hours it was dark, so you kind of can forget about it. In Pakistan, it’s mid-summer. It starts getting light at 4 a.m. I just couldn’t stop looking at the serac. In my personal experience, these are the things I don’t want to do.
I really struggled. I fought so hard to get to Camp Four, and the fact that I thought conditions were good on the summit day, I was going to go. I made a decision I was going to accept the risk. The whole time I was under it, I was thinking, “Oh, my god. If I die right now, and I end up sitting on a cloud, looking down at Emily [Harrington], our dog, and our new house, I’m just going to be so pissed off at myself!”
The feeling of getting around the Bottleneck, and onto the final summit slopes, where you’re totally safe, there’s no avalanche risk, was this complete catharsis for me.
I have this funny video where I’m just crying, knowing number one, that I’m going to summit. But number two, that I got away with getting through the Bottleneck.
Was there any icefall while you were going through?
There was none, no. There was a lot of debris around, so you’re sort of walking through chunks between kind of microwave size and Volkswagen Beetle size.
That is incredibly lucky.
You probably heard that most teams actually went home this year. The reason they went home is above Camp Four, due to massive amounts of snow and high avalanche danger. Everyone was so excited about all the snow, until you got above 7,800 meters. About 90 percent of teams tried to go to the summit between the 18th and the 20th of July, on K2. They said they found chest to head-deep snow, so they went home.
But you decided to stick around?
The reason we were successful four days later is not because we were so much stronger. It’s because there was a big, big wind event. Basically, on July 22, there were strong, strong winds from the Southwest. They blew away majority of that deep snow above 8,000 meters. We never broke trail deeper than boot-top snow. It was really remarkably good.
You met up with Nirmal “Nims” Purja, the Nepali climber who is trying to summit all the 8,000-meter peaks in seven months. What did that add to your experience?
It was a really fun addition. Obviously, all this spring, while we were on Everest, we were hearing about Nims. Ninety percent of the teams had just left when he arrived on K2. It was pretty intimidating to be one of the only teams saying “No, we’re staying. We’re hopeful for better conditions.” A lot of people who have spent a lot more time on K2 than I have were kind of like “You guys are idiots. Go home. You’re going to die.” So, to have Nims show up and say, “Hell yes, we’re going to try this thing! We deserve a good try! It doesn’t matter what anyone else did.” It was great motivation. He was like, “Me and my Sherpa want to open the route and be the first on top of K2 this season.”
That’s incredible. What did you think of his offer?
Carla and I were like, “Well, the last thing we want to do is break trail, when we’re not on oxygen.” So, it just worked. We traded radios. We were in constant communication the whole time. He climbed on the Abruzzi route and we climbed on the Cesen route, and they meet at Camp Four.
Then, we arrived into Camp Four within 15 minutes of each other. And as we arrived into Camp Four, we could see the slope that had stopped everyone else, and you could see it was wind-hammered and shining blue ice, and the snow was gone. So, we just had this huge hug at 7,800 meters, and we were like “Holy shit! We’re going to do this!”
That was pretty rad. Then, he did exactly what he said he’d do. He asked to leave two hours before us. He and his four Sherpas stayed ahead of us the whole time. They were just powerhouses. They fixed ropes on the whole section that couldn’t have been done a week before. It made life great.
Then, obviously, they summited before us. They were coming down, and one more time, we kind of got that great energy. Just when Carla and I were kind of hitting 8,500 meters, and we were destroyed and we were miserable. It was hard to imagine ever finishing. Then, here comes Nims, just like “You’re so close! Go for it! It’s a perfect day! There’s no wind!”
He then went all the way down to base camp on K2 that day, and the very next day, left for Broad Peak.
He really is super impressive. My focus is without oxygen, but what he’s doing with oxygen, the luck it’s taking, but also the mental fortitude to wake up again, and be so sore and so broken, and still go for the next peak. It’s really impressive.
We heard so much about the crowds on Everest this year. How does K2 compare to Everest in terms of crowding?
Clearly, guided climbing interest on K2 is growing. There are now commercial operators that are offering cheap full oxygen, full Sherpa trips, and that is changing the mountain. I think the number of permits given this year were actually double any previous year. There were 164 foreign climbers—that’s Nepalis and all other foreigners. Then, also another 30 or so Pakistani high-altitude workers.
All the same issues Nepal is dealing with on Everest, Pakistan is absolutely starting to deal with on K2. Yes, we saw a potential issue with crowding and with inexperienced people on the mountain. There were a number of my former clients on the mountain. But there were also clients that I’ve seen try Everest three times and be unsuccessful, and yet now they’re on K2, and companies are taking them. Those are issues.
This year sounded a bit atypical.
The beauty of K2, or at least this year, there was no rock fall hazard down low, so no one was getting killed by rock fall. By the time two weeks of the trip had gone by, countless clients had been taken out by helicopter. This was not because they were injured, but because they realized it was too much mountain. So, I almost feel like K2 takes care of itself in that way, because the climbing is so hard, right out of base camp.
You walk across a flat glacier for an hour, and then you’re climbing like 60 to 70 degree rock and ice. So, I think a lot of the companies are choosing to take people, and burning them up really early on. I don’t agree with that. But by the time we got to the summit push, the mountain was in no way overcrowded. Everybody had gone home. On my summit day, 11 people summited. Five were Nims and his four Sherpa. Five were me, Carla, Topo, Palden, and Pemba. And one was an Iranian climber climbing unsupported, and super strong.
How was the view from there?
The view is insane. The closest thing I can approximate it to is like Chamonix in the French Alps. The peaks look like that: jagged, young, and rocky. But instead of being 12,000 feet tall, they’re 25,000 feet tall, for as far as the eye can see. It is unbelievable.
If K2 is going to become this big commercial guiding spot, do you think there’s any leadership stepping up to help prevent it developing the problems that plague Everest?
Unfortunately, I don’t. No. I see the same kind of players, the same low-cost operators. And thus far, Pakistan, in my opinion, is behind Nepal, which is far behind China, in managing their mountains. The permit fees are almost nothing, and the management of trash and human waste is much worse than Everest. For instance, at base camp in Pakistan, people don’t even poop in blue barrels. It all just goes right on the glacier. Pakistan is really excited to expand their tourism, but I don’t think they’ve yet started considering how to manage their resources.
It seems like China is kind of getting their act together, with the north side of Everest.
Totally. Yes, they are. But the big difference I see, like if I look at it, Nepal and Pakistan are two countries where really the permit fees and the tourism revenue are the most important thing, hands down. China is in a position where they don’t really have to care about the revenue that comes from mountaineering, so they can think about these larger issues. I do understand why it’s not as easy for Nepal or Pakistan to think about those things, but I really think they need to. I was so blown away by the beauty of the Karakorum. I actually think the trek to K2 base camp might be the most beautiful trek I’ve ever done anywhere, including Patagonia and Peru and all over the world. They have something so special there.