Standing 1,000 feet from the top of the tallest mountain on Earth on May 24, 2016, 40-year-old Adrian Ballinger turned back, unable to feel his hands in the extreme cold and slurring his words from lack of oxygen. By this time, the mountain had already claimed six other climbers. His climbing partner, Cory Richards, continued to the summit, without supplemental oxygen, alone.
“Climbing Everest without oxygen has been a dream of mine since I was a kid,” says Ballinger, who started climbing when he was 12. In 2008, he made his first journey to the mountain as a guide. He has since summited Everest six times, often twice in a season, while guiding for his own company, Alpenglow Expeditions, always using supplemental oxygen.
The idea to climb Everest clean with Richards was hatched in 2012 after Richards was airlifted off the mountain with a life threatening pulmonary embolism. The dream of a serious comeback was born. Even before they started training, the year leading up to departure was tough on Ballinger. His mother passed away in January after a long illness and his family wondered why he would take the risk of returning to Everest during such a hard time. “I don’t know if I justified it for her, but I thought a lot about it in my head. Why was I taking the risk?” In the end, he says, “it was so worth it.”
The Red Bulletin spoke to Ballinger to find out why turning back was the best decision he ever made.
THE RED BULLETIN: How soon was it after you left your high camp (27,000 feet) at 22.00 when you first started to think you weren’t going to make it to the summit?
ADRIAN BALLINGER: It was really quick. I started struggling with that within the first hour. I knew I didn’t feel like I should. I was scared from the very beginning of the Col [North pass]. I had the fear right away.
You didn’t turn back for another 4 hours. Were you wrestling with your decision the whole time?
It would come into my mind and I would be thinking about it, but then I would just be suffering and in the moment of trying to go up. It would disappear and I would just focus. Then the next gust of wind would hit and I would feel how brutally cold I was. Or I would reach the next transition point. You have to unclip from one rope and reattach yourself to the next rope. Each time I’d do that, my hands wouldn’t work the way they should. That would bring it back to me every time. It’s crazy. These are skills I’ve been doing for 25 years.
When you started your summit climb, what tough decisions did you have to make along the way?
Right from the beginning I was in this struggle: “Was I too cold to keep going up? Was I jeopardizing my safety, Cory’s safety, [Sherpa] Palden’s safety?”
I was on the radio with Cory, and with our expedition doctor, Monica. Those guys started to notice, about 4 hours in, that I was slurring my words and didn’t sound like myself. They were catching on to how hard I was fighting.
I felt like I could keep going. I felt like I was still managing myself, until a little more than five hours in, around three in the morning, when the wind really started to howl. I probably knew long before three that it wasn’t my night, but I pushed to the point where I felt like I was at that line.
At best I was going to need to get rescued by Cory and Palden. At worst, things were going to go really wrong. I couldn’t feel my hands all the way to above my wrists, so I was no longer able to work with the ropes. I was uncontrollably shivering for at least two hours.
So really, at the final decision, there was no decision. There was no question. I have always known this life means more to me than standing on top of Everest. I had to come down. I wasn’t thinking about Cory, I wasn’t thinking about success and failure, or my future career. It was just, “I don’t want to die up here.”
What did you do immediately after you made the decision?
For me, unfortunately, there was no emotional relief, no crying at that moment. There was definitely no enjoyment. When I finally turned around, I was scared. I felt like I had pushed really hard and put myself really far out there and I was scared about how I was going to get back. It wasn’t worth it. The turn around was instant.
Knowing you had the option of going forward, what was the most important factor in your decision to turn around?
First and foremost I wanted to come home. There have been six deaths on the mountain this year. The vast majority of deaths that happen on Everest are totally preventable. They are the result of poor decision-making and prioritising standing at the top over common sense. I felt how easy it would be to do that, to cross that line.
The reason I go back to Everest, the reason I guide Everest, is because I love the human struggle that happens up there. The combination of physical hardship and pain, combined with emotional suffering. I’m very proud that I felt the struggle so viscerally.
Common sense sounds so easy, but up there, it’s really hard. To turn around less than two hours from the summit is heartbreaking. I can see how people get it wrong.
Once you committed to turning back, what thoughts went through your mind?
As I waited for Cory to come down, that’s when the questioning of the decision started for me. It was only two more hours to the summit, could I have somehow persuaded my body to go that little bit faster that would have warmed me up?
And then, the funny thing was, it sort of flipped again for me as soon as Cory got back [from the summit]. As soon as I got out of the tent and started to do things again, the fight I had put my body through became clear. A lot of those questions I had went away. Had I gone to 29,000 feet, I think the outcome would have been different.
Will you go back and try it again?
The decision to go back just came in the last few days. I did a lot of media recently and when I was asked if I would go back, I would say I don’t know. Now all I want is to go back next year.
What have you learned from making the decision to turn your back on Everest?
Not to shy away from failure. I thought the chances of me succeeding were really slim before I even tried, but I still tried. I still went for it.
Trying new projects, the likelihood of failure is really high. What have I learned from turning around just below the summit? It’s okay. It doesn’t seem like it’s going to ruin my career and all my sponsors are going to drop me. My girlfriend still loves me. I still love climbing. The expedition really was one of the highlights of my life, even though it’s a failure. I don’t want to shy away from that or hide that.