The story of two American mountaineers attempting to climb Everest without oxygen, scrupulously documented on Snapchat, has ended with a summit, a failed push—and no Snapchat from the top of the world.
Cory Richards, a National Geographic photographer from Boulder, Colorado, made his first summit of the world’s tallest mountain, while his climbing partner, Adrian Ballinger, a high-altitude mountain guide from Squaw Valley, California, turned back at 8,600 meters. They launched their ascent from the north, or Tibet, side of Everest.
During a journey that began two months ago, they shared their day-to-day experiences on Snapchat using #EverestNoFilter. Over countless 15-second video blips, Richards and Ballinger arguably captured a less polished but perhaps more truthful portrait of what climbing Everest actually looks like, from countless days sitting around in tents to the garbage, crowds, and inexperienced climbers and the incomparable, sweeping beauty of the Himalaya.
They took turns speaking directly into their respective selfie Snaps (their unwashed hair subsequently spurring the hashtag #HairByEverest), sometimes making jokes, sometimes posturing vainly, but also often speaking with candid vulnerability, such as during the poignant moment when Ballinger addressed his father and promised him that he would return home alive.
During their acclimatization efforts, it often appeared as though the far more experienced Ballinger—who has reached the summit of Everest six prior times using supplemental oxygen—was the stronger of the two. Meanwhile, Richards’ 2012 summit attempt with a National Geographic expedition required a rescue when he had a panic attack.
As it turned out, it would be Richards who rose to the occasion this week, reaching his inaugural Everest summit on the morning of May 24 without supplemental oxygen, a feat that only around 200 people have achieved since Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler first proved it could be done in 1978.
“I don’t want this to sound arrogant in any way, but I had this weird experience where I felt like I almost got stronger above 8,000 meters,” Richards said. Indeed he did. On his summit push from the high camp of 8,300 meters, it took Richards only eight hours to reach the summit at 8,848 meters, a fast time especially for a climber without oxygen.
“Cory nailed it yesterday,” said Ballinger. “He passed other climbers who were using oxygen. Eight hours to the summit is unheard of.”
Meanwhile, the 6’4″ and 140-pound Ballinger, who’s dreamed of climbing Everest without oxygen for decades, started the day chilled to the core and could never quite warm up his internal temperature. He made the difficult decision to turn around when he found himself suddenly lacking the motor skills needed to perform the simplest operation: opening a carabiner. “That’s when I knew I was too far out there,” he said.
This season, at least 20 people have attempted to climb Everest without oxygen and only five of them have made it, including, perhaps most significantly, two women: Carla Perez and Melissa Arnot, who respectively became the seventh and eighth women to climb Everest without oxygen. In contrast, Everest has been summited more than 7,000 times by people breathing out of oxygen canisters, which effectively lowers the perceived deleterious effects of being at altitude by upwards of 3,000 to 6,000 feet and, most importantly, helps climbers stay warm.
Perhaps the ultimate irony of Ballinger and Richards’ Snapchat-Everest adventure is that Richards failed to take a Snapchat from the summit. Though he captured a few blurry selfies, his phone died before he could Snap.
We spoke with Ballinger and Richards, who have safely returned to Advanced Base Camp at 21,000 feet, to hear more.
Yesterday was a big day for both of you. How do you feel today?
AB: I’m super wrecked, physically. After all, I still got to 8,600 meters without oxygen yesterday. But mentally, I’m super disappointed. I’m really glad it worked out the way it did and that Cory succeeded and that I didn’t need to be rescued. But, you know, of course, I’m deeply disappointed right now, going back and playing it all over in my head and trying to figure out what I could’ve done differently.
At what point did you two separate?
CR: We split up fairly early on in the morning because of the pace. We had talked about that earlier, that if one of us was going faster than the other, we would just split up. You’re never going to get too far apart from each other, and we were in radio contact the whole time with each other as well as with our team doctor, Monica, who was back at base camp, monitoring each of us.
What happened to you, Adrian?
I had a couple of tough nights leading up to the summit push, at 7,800 and 8,300 meters, where I never really got warm. It started then, with my body core temperature getting too low. When we started climbing, I knew I wasn’t 100 percent. Then, the winds that weren’t predicted to come for another six hours came and I was in full wind, with a lot of blowing snow. Cory and Monica noticed that I was slurring my words, and I wasn’t very talkative, which, usually, I am. I was shivering uncontrollably for over an hour, and I was losing the fundamental skills that I should have had, and that was it.
It seems as though you were climbing strong, Cory.
CR: I have this weird experience where I feel like I almost get stronger above 8,000 meters. That’s where I almost come into my own body. I felt like I was climbing well, and I had a huge amount of support. But also, I have to say that it was Adrian’s decision to turn around that allowed me to summit. And I know that he made that decision consciously and selflessly. If he had pushed it farther, it might have meant that I would’ve had to turn around to help him, and I might not have reached the top.
AB: I couldn’t be more proud of Cory and what he did. And for whatever reason, he got stronger as he got higher, and he just put together an amazing day. He just nailed it: eight hours up, which is unheard-of fast without oxygen. He came down and was strong enough to get all the way back to advanced base camp, which is also unheard of. And it’s the only reason right now that we’re not stuck in 80-mile-per-hour winds, fighting for our lives at one of the high camps. Cory had it right when he needed it, and he was firing on all cylinders.
There is this one platitude you often hear in climbing, that goes, “It’s not about reaching the summit. It’s all about the journey.” That saying makes for a nice inspirational quote for Instagrams, posters, and memes, but I’m sure the reality isn’t as pleasant or comforting as one might think. Adrian, what are your thoughts on success and failure right now?
AB: Over the past 24 hours, I’ve gotten hundreds if not thousands of messages telling me, “Yours was the harder decision, proud job!” Blah blah blah. Yeah, it’s easy and it’s good to hear these things. It sounds nice on paper. But I woke up this morning just so f—ing bummed. I put so much into this. I had the perfect partner. The mountain was in amazing shape. Everything came together perfectly. Everything should have worked out, but I failed. That doesn’t mean I’m going to go home and be dark and moody for months. But I failed. I feel it deeply, and I think that’s OK. I don’t want to hide from that. The high chance for failure was part of the reason why I originally want to do this. But, yeah. It sucks.
On the flip side of the coin, Cory, how does it feel to be successful?
CR: On the summit, I saw one person, a woman we’ve bumped into around base camp. She was the only person up there with me who I knew, so we hugged, and I kind of collapsed. I cried pretty hard for about 30 seconds. And then she was gone, and Monica reminded me that I only had five minutes up there. So I took some blurry, sh—ty selfies and a 360 panorama.
AB: And he failed to take a Snapchat!!
CR: My phone died. It was the most tragic irony of the whole trip. We built this whole thing around a summit Snapchat, and my phone just f—ing dies. Yeah, I failed, miserably. I put the phone away, and I walked down.
I hate to say it, but, yes, reaching the top is important. Adrian is disappointed. It’s my job to know that disappointment, respect it, and not gloss over it. But at the same time, the summit really was the most inconsequential piece of the whole puzzle. I was there for three minutes, failed at Snapchat, and walked down. And I was happier to get back to 8,300 meters and see Adrian than I was on top. Yes, the summit matters, but also, it really doesn’t.
Adrian, do you have any plans to return to Everest and try again?
AB: Right now, it’s not on the top of my list. I have so many other dream projects I want to work on. But if circumstances fell into place and I got the opportunity to try again, I’d take it in a second.