The Guide Putting Everest Expeditions on a Fast Track
California guide Adrian Ballinger makes his play to become Everest's top dog with a climbing model that's fast, light—and very expensive.
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“Everyone’s still climbing Everest in exactly the same way as in the early nineties—in two and a half months,” says Alpenglow Expeditions founder Adrian Ballinger. A wiry, British expat who lives in Olympic Valley, California, Ballinger has some big ideas about how best to ascend the world’s tallest mountain. More specifically, he thinks it can be done in half the time that most expeditions take.
40 daysThe time Ballinger’s clients need to summit—a month less than most outfits.
Starting this spring, the 38-year-old veteran guide will begin screening small groups of experienced clients, charging them top dollar, and requiring them to use hypoxic tents to begin acclimatizing at home, so they can fly by helicopter directly into the 14,180-foot town of Dingboche, a day’s walk from Base Camp. (Climbers more typically spend ten days trekking from the town of Lukla.) There he will outfit them with battery-powered boot heaters and the latest high-flow oxygen masks. The idea is to make it from the U.S. to the top of the world and back in just 40 days, paying $89,000 each, roughly twice the average cost of a guided Everest summit. Last year, in a trial run, Ballinger successfully led his first client in that ambitious time frame.
Ballinger’s strategy allows his clients to bypass the crowds that clog the most popular route up Everest, the South Col, where a glut of budget guided trips have caused recent traffic jams, contributing to several deaths. The crowds also take some of the allure out of an Everest summit: who wants to brag about standing in a high-altitude conga line? Ballinger’s clients, who have more experience than most paying climbers, have the freedom to unclip from the fixed lines when crowds bottleneck and bypass the mayhem. It’s a bold plan that promises to change what’s possible for commercial expeditions on Everest—and to place Ballinger among the mountain’s handful of power brokers.
“It seems more sporting than what some other people might offer,” says Conrad Anker, perhaps the most influential alpinist alive. “If someone called up and said, ‘Who should I go up Everest with?’ I’d say, ‘Oh yeah, Adrian for sure.’ ”
Until 2012, Ballinger played second fiddle to the most powerful guide on the mountain: Russell Brice, owner of Himalayan Experience (Himex), a respected outfit based in Chamonix, France. The two split after that season, unable to agree on a deal for Ballinger to take control of the company, and Ballinger took Himex’s head Sherpa, Dorji Sonam, with him. Brice declined to comment, but Ballinger acknowledges some acrimony. “If anything happened where we needed to work together, I have no doubt that we would,” he says. “But we don’t drink beers anymore.”
After leaving Himex, Ballinger immediately began putting together Alpenglow’s speed-oriented model. The strategy borrows from practices used by top Western guides like Dave Hahn, Dan Nash, and Tim Mosedale, all of whom have led boutique Everest trips for individuals and small groups. But no one has combined all the elements Ballinger uses—technology, helicopters, client screening—to such effect. Perhaps equally important, the Alpenglow founder is very good at selling himself. In January, he appeared on the Fox Business channel, and the rollout commercial for Apple’s latest iPad featured Ballinger and his girlfriend, the elite American climber Emily Harrington.
Not everyone thinks accelerated ascents are a good idea, and Ballinger’s approach has irked some of the sport’s purists. “A big mountain like Everest is not something that should be rushed,” says longtime Everest journalist and 2011 summiter Alan Arnette. “Everest is a climb that should be savored.”
But Ballinger maintains that his true motivation is safety—for both his clients and his workforce. He points out that Alpenglow goes beyond required insurance levels for Sherpas ($8,000), maxing out workers’ accidental-death coverage at $23,000. Ballinger also requires his Sherpas to train in rescue and emergency medicine at the nonprofit Khumbu Climbing Center, based in the nearby village of Phortse.
“We believe—we know a better way to guide these mountains, and that’s all we know,” Ballinger says. “We’re all in.”