Can Two Climbers Improve Everest’s Bad Reputation?

Alpinist Conrad Anker climbing through a crevasse between Camp 1 and Camp 2 in the Western Cwm with Nuptse, Lhotse, and Everest in the background on April 14, 2012; Photograph by Cory Richards
Alpinist Conrad Anker climbing through a crevasse between Camp 1 and Camp 2 in the Western Cwm with Nuptse, Lhotse, and Everest in the background on April 14, 2012; Photograph by Cory Richards

The reputation of the world’s highest mountain has never been lower.

Like today’s most heated political debates, there seems to be no middle ground when it comes to discussions about Everest. People are divided at polar extremes over whether Everest and all its aspirants represent everything great about humanity—or all that is wrong with it.

Now, an expedition documented on Snapchat is bringing Everest to a new audience, unfiltered. The hashtag #everestnofilter has people talking—and it’s more inspiring than what’s come off the mountain in what have been deadly years.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Into Thin Air disaster, when eight climbers died and several others were stranded above 8,000 meters on Mount Everest in a brutal storm. The 1996 tragedy, famously documented in Jon Krakauer’s bestselling book, painted an unflattering portrait of commercialism, vanity, and ego that has become synonymous with Everest. In some ways nothing has changed over the past few decades; in other ways, it’s only gotten worse.

The busiest season to date, 2012, saw veritable hordes of climbers ascending fixed ropes as if in ant-line. An estimated 547 people summited that year, a 57 percent success rate. It was also a deadly season, with 11 climbers dying under clear, blue skies as they waited for hours to bypass traffic jams high on the mountain.

The next year, things got ugly. In 2013, professional mountain climbers Simone Moro, Ueli Steck, and Jonathan Griffith demonstrated some bad etiquette by climbing above a rope-fixing team of Nepali mountain workers on Mount Everest. This led to a heated dialogue, which then devolved into a full-on brawl as a group of Sherpas threw stones at the climbers, bruising and bloodying Steck.

Sherpas and climbers negotiating the ladders and creavsses in the Khumbu Icefall on Everest on the Nepal side. Two years ago today, on April 18, 2014, an avalanche killed 16 Nepali mountain workers in the Khumbu Icefall; Photograph by Jonathan Griffith/Aurora
Sherpas and climbers negotiate the ladders and crevasses in the Khumbu Icefall on Everest on the Nepal side in 2013. Two years ago today, on April 18, 2014, an avalanche killed 16 Nepali mountain workers in the Khumbu Icefall; Photograph by Jonathan Griffith/Aurora

On this day in 2014, 16 Nepali mountain workers were killed, and nine more were injured, in an avalanche in the Khumbu Icefall, making for Everest’s then deadliest day. The circumstances of these deaths highlighted the outsize risks taken by the Sherpas, who do most of the work to make the mountain much easier and far less risky for guided Westerners looking to stand on top of the world. It also highlighted the fact that the Sherpas receive a pittance in terms of their salaries and life insurance, all for doing a job with an estimated mortality rate of 1.2 percent.

In 2015, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck Nepal, and sent a massive (even by Himalayan standards) avalanche tearing through the Khumbu Icefall and Everest Base Camp. Eighteen people were killed in the blast of snow and debris, which hurled people inside of tents over a quarter of a mile through the air. Of course, the casualty count in Nepal was far worse, with over 8,500 deaths, easily the worst disaster ever to hit the country. Meanwhile, as entire villages were literally buried and various rescuers and medics at Doctors Without Borders repeatedly pleaded for help and resources, particularly helicopters, the 160 climbers who were reportedly “stranded” at Camp 1—despite its being intact and stocked with food and water—immediately called in their own helicopter rescue, diverting about 25 percent of all the available helicopters in Nepal away from important rescue work elsewhere, all because they lacked the skills needed to rescue themselves.

In the aftermath of the deadly earthquake, Nepal closed Everest down, and 2015 became the first year since 1974 that no one climbed the mountain. In total, Everest has seen over 7,000 ascents by more than 4,000 people. Fewer than 200 of those people, however, have managed to climb Everest without the use of supplemental oxygen.

One thing is clear: After more than two decades of over-commercialization and crowding, not to mention the disastrous past three years, “The Big E” could really use a good PR team.

Enter Adrian Ballinger and Cory Richards, two accomplished climbers who still hold Everest in the highest regard and are putting their own reputations on the line to help others out there see what makes Everest remain a worthwhile climbing objective that is, dare we say, pretty freakin’ cool.

Photograph by @coryrichards // “They say you are what you eat…but I don’t remember eating a f—— legend…” These are not @adrianballinger words…but I’d go ahead and apply them. He has spent 25 seasons (conservatively) in the greater Himalaya as a guide. His bio includes 12 8000m summits on 4 separate peaks, including 6 Everest summits and 2 successful ski descents, one of which, Manaslu, was a first descent. So yeah, he’s spent a little time breathing thin air…and a great partner to have for a no Os attempt on Everest this spring. He is a measured voice amongst a sea of opinions regarding commercial Himalayan guiding, the state of mountain politics there in, and the future of guiding on the worlds highest peaks. His nick names include ‘stick-bug’, ‘the lung’, and other names that I can’t put here. Follow our trip on snapchat at EverestNoFilter adrianjb and crichardsphoto #EverestNoFilter

A photo posted by National Geographic Adventure (@natgeoadventure) on


Though I am a climber of many years, I’ve never climbed Everest—and, in fact, I have no interest in doing so. I place myself firmly in the admittedly ironic camp of Everest cynics who have never stepped foot on the mountain and probably never will. To me, what Ballinger and Richard are hoping to do—change my opinion about Everest—is going to be harder than actually climbing the damn mountain, even without supplemental oxygen.

Yet having just checked out their Snapchats at their accounts—EverestNoFilter, adrianballinger, and crichardsphoto—I have to admit that their sanguine enthusiasm, humility, and humor about climbing Everest is not only entertaining, but also, dare I say, inspiring.

Ballinger is a veteran Everest guide at Alpenglow Expeditions, and he has six Everest summits under his belt. Richards tried to climb the demanding West Ridge in 2012 without oxygen, but an Everest summit eluded him. He achieved the first winter ascent of Gaserbrum II (8,035 meters, or 26,362 feet) in 2011 and remains the only American to have climbed an 8,000-meter peak in winter.

I spoke with Ballinger and Richards, who are just beginning the real work of acclimatizing their bodies in the Khumbu region of Nepal. Soon, they will cross the border into Tibet, and head toward the Everest north-side base camp.

How do you feel?

CR: Adrian has been crushing me a little bit so far. I didn’t get enough time in the Hypoxico tent [a brand of tent that fits over your bed and simulates the effects of sleeping at altitude] back at home due to my schedule.

Basically, you crammed for a test instead of studying all semester like you were supposed to. Meanwhile, Adrian was the perfect student who slept in his hypoxic tent every night, and now he’s getting straight As.

CR: (Laughs) Yeah, he’s get the job done, and I’m getting by.

AB: I do blood work every time I use the tent, and I raised my red-blood-cell count by about 15 percent before I ever left home, so certainly I think that does have an advantage. Cory, however, is being modest as always. We’re both moving great up here, and we’re totally on track.



Where are you?

CR: We’re in Chakung. On our first day we flew from Kathmandu to Lukla, then walked from Lukla to Namche Bazaar. The next day, I walked from Namche to Pengboche, and Adrian went from Namche all the way up to Zong La, which is like 19 miles and 8,500 vertical feet. So that was a huge day for him.

AB: Chakung is at 15,500 feet, so it’s a pretty sweet altitude. We know our bodies still have work to do, but it’s comfortable enough. We’re staying in a sweet teahouse, pounding French press coffee. And for the four or five days, we’ll do little missions out of this town and hopefully spend some time sleeping above 20,000 feet, then come back here to recover.

What is #EverestNoFilter all about?

CR: Adrian and I started talking about climbing Everest without oxygen back in 2012, when I was there on the National Geographic expedition. This year, we changed sponsors and both became part of the Eddie Bauer team, and it made perfect sense to partner up. Basically, the Everest No Filter project is Adrian’s brainchild, and we want to use Snapchat as a way to tell a more raw story of what an Everest expedition looks like, bringing to light everything about what it means to acclimatize, to socioeconomic or sociopolitical issues, to what we’re seeing on the mountain in terms of commercialism. The good and bad aspects. We’re trying to use Snapchat as a holistic view into an Everest expedition and tell something that isn’t as polished as what you’d find on Instagram or Twitter, hopefully getting a different kind of engagement, with a much younger demographic. And reignite the conversation around Everest, and hopefully shed some light on it. Does that answer your question?

Yeah, you’re trying to climb Everest without oxygen and you’re going to Snapchat the whole time.

AB: (Laughs) Andrew just distilled that into a single sentence! That was perfect!

CR: (Laughs) Yeah, I guess you could say it like that too.

AB: There are so many shades of gray to climbing Everest, and Corey and I see that and we both feel pretty passionate about trying to share that side of this mountain because so often so much of that story gets lost when people fall back to those usual criticisms that “Everest is easy,” or “Everest is done.”

Why should anyone care that you are climbing Everest?

CR: They shouldn’t! That’s the bottom line. But it goes back to the whole thing of why does anyone care about any sport? I’m not going to say that people should care, but I will say that they might be interested to get a glimpse into a different realm, a different worldview. Traveling through Nepal and Tibet are very eye-opening experiences. The culture, the hardships these areas have faced in the last year. Above all, though, there’s only one highest mountain in the world. There’s just one. And because of that Everest will always garner more attention than others.

AB: Climbing Everest without oxygen is not new. It’s been done. And we’re very aware of that. At the same time, it remains an incredible life challenge for any climber who aspires to climb at altitude. Why should people care? It’s a sport that inspires. There are real consequences up here. People think they know so much about Everest from media, and yet I think the issues are so much more complex than people realize. I hope this year is a good time to dive deeper.

Comments

  1. Dariusz
    April 19, 2016, 4:59 am

    Interesting article about a big challenge and attempt to overcome the weaknesses of own body.

  2. Herb F
    United States
    April 23, 2016, 6:45 am

    Not necessarily about these climbers but I find this whole fascination with Everest amazing. When rich white guys want to say “we climbed it,” the native Sherpas make 20 trips up and down the mountain carrying hundreds of pounds of oxygen, food, ropes and other supplies so these dilettantes can climb up and not have to worry about carrying anything and then they think they have accomplished something. If you are going to write an article about climbing Everest, why not make it about the Sherpa, who do it daily as part of their ordinary labor.

  3. […] Can Two Climbers Improve Everest’s Bad… […]

  4. […] Ballinger has summited Everest seven times with clients via the South Col, but has since moved his operation to the North, where he and Cory Richards are attempting to summit without supplemental oxygen this season. […]

  5. pankaj parekh
    Oman
    April 28, 2016, 12:14 pm

    Here’s 3 CHEERS TO HERB F, for
    “STRAIGHT TALKIN” FROM THE SHOULDER.”
    Why is that the poor Sherpas, for whom climbing is a Life Line to a survival existence for themselves and their families, always get placed into a secondary position.
    Mount Everest is called ” Sagar Mata” and various names linked to the Mother, and prayed to before climbing it. Do these Mountaineers, even understand the Religious and Emotional Ethos of this Climb?. For those only interested in Ego Acceleration at the worst, the only word to describe these jerks, is PATHETIC !!!
    And YES, I have trekked to 18,600 ft, with the help of the Sherpas, to whom the only heart felt emotion can be expressed with a bowed head, and joined palms in Namaste, is the Tibetian Word for Gratitude from the Heart, ” THUKUCHEN”

  6. Theresa
    April 28, 2016, 2:16 pm

    I am not a climber or an athlete, but someone who appreciates sport. I’ve been fascinated with Everest and why people climb it for a very long time. I wish some people would stop, think and respect Everest. It really amazes me how some people attempt to summit with limited preparation, yet endanger other peoples’ lives in their quest. I look forward to more articles and hope this season on Everest goes well.

  7. Jennifer
    May 6, 2016, 9:35 am

    I hope that those that have commented before me are also taking the time follow Cory and AB on SnapChat; the concerns that have been expressed about the amazing Sherpa and their continuations have been highlighted many many times throughout their daily snap stories. Good luck to Cory and Adrian I know that I for one look forward to their daily snaps.

  8. David
    Los Angeles
    May 6, 2016, 1:13 pm

    Nepal and adjacent parts of Tibet still have dozens if not hundreds of unclimbed and seldom-climbed peaks for climbers of all ability levels. For exmple the district I taught in — Pyuthan — has a nice 3,500 meter summit with wonderful views of the Dhaulagiris. It seems to me that there are greater opportunities than being the umpteen-thousandth person to attempt Everest or the umpteen hundredth to not come back.

  9. tim andrew
    NH
    May 20, 2016, 9:03 am

    I don’t like the term, “bad reputation” does the volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunami, hurricanes, etc., that mother nature delivers,a bad reputation? It’s the planets way, and if you dare, beware.