A case could be made that a pair of professional climbers suffered from a lack of oxygen to their brains even before their recent ascent up Mount Everest.
Mountain climber Adrian Ballinger and professional photographer Cory Richards are slowly returning to Everest base camp in Tibet. The two not only climbed the world’s tallest mountain, but did it without extra oxygen. They continue to share that incredible experience through their individual Strava accounts and the EverestNoFilter account on Snapchat.
Richards hit the summit of Mount Everest early Tuesday without using any extra oxygen. Ballinger was forced to stop just 1,200 feet shy of the summit. Ballinger told CBS, “I wasn’t hydrating that well, I wasn’t eating that well … I knew I was already getting up where I wouldn’t be able to get myself down alone if I went any further.”
So Richards forged ahead, tearing up the last push to the summit. “I got to the top in just about eight hours after leaving High Camp …,” Richards said before Ballinger cut in, adding, “Which is, like, insanely fast for a no-oxygen attempt. He was actually passing people on oxygen.”
“I got on top and spent about three minutes there … was it. My body felt horrible, like I had the worst hangover of my life,” Richards said.
Ballinger was a little bummed not to have made it all the way, but he’s alive to tell the tale. “It kinda sucks, but I was just happy to get down alive and for Cory to succeed,” he said. Ballinger runs Alpenglow Expeditions and has already reached the summit of Everest six times, though this would have been his first without supplemental oxygen.
In Richards’ summit post on Instagram, he quoted Aristotle: “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts,’ ” He continued: “I think that’s absolutely true in this partnership. … His decision to turn around early allowed me to summit.”
They survived some rough patches during their journey — as if Everest on its calmest day wasn’t rough enough.
“It’s not easy, the air gets very thin about 25,000 feet,” Ballinger said. Everest’s summit sits at 29,000 feet.
To reach it without oxygen, the two men had to acclimate to the altitude, which meant returning to base camp to recover between trips up the mountain. Richards explained, “We go up on the mountain for two to four, maybe five days at a time to let our bodies adapt to that altitude.”
Ballinger and Richards weathered a brutal storm on Everest’s northeast face, withstanding winds of nearly 50 miles an hour. But the weather cleared. The day after the storm, they hit the death zone: 26,000 feet.
“As you go higher, your body just simply can’t regenerate,” Richards said. “The margin for error drops to zero. If you screw up, you die.”
They checked in regularly via radio with the doctor stationed at base camp to make sure there were no serious signs of oxygen deprivation — no slurred words or rambling incoherence.
As to why they wanted to do it without oxygen, Ballinger said it’s been a dream for him his entire life. Fewer than 3 percent of climbers even make the attempt without oxygen. This was Richards’ first Everest summit, but he has been documenting climbs via social media for years, including his close brush with death in an avalanche in Pakistan.
According to Strava, the trip was really grueling. Strava shows Richards’ and Ballinger’s heart rate, distance traveled, altitude, speed, and route, among other variables. Their heart rate zone analysis showed 159 beats per minute — an extreme suffer score. Their profiles are flooded with encouragement and congratulations.
On Instagram and Snapchat, their #HairbyEverest hashtag is a funny example of the raw, unedited footage of their journey.
“The whole point of EverestNoFilter is to give you sort of an unfiltered picture of the whole thing.” Richards said. “We can’t make the pictures pretty, we can’t, you know, edit the video, it’s just instantaneous.”
They used their cell phones to document the trip.
“We’ve got a heater and a satellite internet terminal. Set it up, get it connected to the satellite, then sit here and press retry, retry, retry, on Snapchat until it finally goes,” Ballinger said.
Ballinger and Richards are on their way back down with all their fingers and toes. Unfortunately, other climbers have not been so successful recently. Six climbers attempting to summit died in less than a week: A 25-year-old Nepalese guide fell to his death, while three other climbers — from Australia, the Netherlands , and India — are believed to have died from altitude sickness, which happens when water collects in the lungs and brain, causing people to drown 29,000 feet above sea level. On Monday, two other Indian climbers’ bodies were discovered.
More than 260 people have died attempting to reach the summit of the world’s tallest mountain.