Adrian Ballinger’s brunch conversations aren’t like yours or mine. Instead of talking about the dumb thing he might’ve said last night at a bar, or how many reruns of The Office he recently plowed through, he’s more likely to chat about slightly less casual topics, like climbing the world’s tallest mountains without oxygen. It was during such an affair on a deck in Mendoza, Argentina that Ballinger, after previously dismissing the idea, decided he wanted to give K2 a try.
At 28,251 feet tall, K2 is the world’s second-tallest mountain. Its nickname is “the Savage Mountain,” and it’s both more technical and less predictable than Mt. Everest. It also has less infrastructure than Everest, making it harder to get to (Ballinger’s eventual journey involved planes, a Jeep ride through Pakistan and a 10-day trek). Roughly one of every four climbers who attempt K2 perishes, compared to approximately one in 15 for Everest.
Climbing the mountain without supplemental oxygen increases the risk dramatically, so while Ballinger seemingly decided to tackle K2 in the same way one might set a plan to attend a matinee, he didn’t do so lightly. Ballinger had previously topped Everest without oxygen in 2017, a feat he says “pushed me so far.”
“There’s no way anyone can climb this mountain this year.”
The K2 endeavor began, even as mountaineering standards go, with uncertainty. Amongst Pakistani high altitude workers, Sherpa and foreigners, there were roughly 200 climbers on the mountain in 2019, a record high that doubled the previous figure. Snow depths were also at a 30-year high and, because of warming temperatures, it “was just falling off the mountains everywhere,” Ballinger says. Not to mention that he had contracted a stomach parasite on the 10-day trek to Base Camp.
The conditions spurred Ballinger and his team — including Carla Perez, a mountain guide and the first South American woman to summit Everest without oxygen, and another Ecuadorian climber named Esteban “Topo” Mena — to get to work. They began to test routes and make acclimatization rotations (“the goal is basically to go as high as you can to where your body’s really suffering, and that stimulates a chemical response to build new red blood cells,” Ballinger explains.)
As the window for climbing the mountain narrowed, teams working with oxygen began their ultimate push and didn’t return with good news. “Teams were coming back from going up and saying, ‘There’s no way anyone can climb this mountain this year,'” Ballinger recalls. The snow was too deep. Ballinger and Perez and Mena watched through binoculars as one team after another made 50 inconsequential feet of progress before retreating. The next day those teams declared the season over and left.
But Ballinger stayed. And someone new showed up: a Nepali climber and former Gurkha in the British Army named Nirmal “Nims” Purja (you’ve probably seen the viral photo he snapped of the lineup at the top of Everest). Purja’s goal was to tick off K2 as part of a marathon mission to climb every mountain over 8,000 meters (roughly 26,247 feet, there are 14 of them) in under seven months.
“He was like a fresh injection of energy,” Ballinger says. The teams joined forces, with Purja’s oxygen-using crew placing ropes and Ballinger’s group carrying gear and providing support.
And then the wind picked up. “It was blowing probably 80 miles an hour plus above 8,000 meters,” Ballinger says. “Wind is often bad in the mountains, but in this case, it turned out to be good.” The gusts had the effect of removing every flake of the high snow barrier that forced back every other climber on the mountain. Ballinger describes it as a “dream scenario.”
On July 24, both teams (“and one random Iranian, no-oxygen climber, just a crusher”) summited. What took Purja’s team, with oxygen, four and a half hours, required more than 11 for Ballinger, Perez and Mena. They spent a chunk of that time in a zone called The Bottleneck, beneath a 400-foot tall ice wall that Ballinger says is “constantly dropping blocks that are anywhere between like, microwave-sized and cabin-sized.”
It might not be possible to empathize with climbers like Ballinger fully. They exist on a separate plane, if only for a relatively short time. He describes the moment of clearing the ice wall as when “I knew I wasn’t going to die,” and the emotional release of attaining K2’s summit as a clash between “Wow, I’m really happy, and wow, I probably need to get the fuck out of here.”
But we can comprehend the expedition’s facts. Arrival at Base Camp on July 1. Summit on July 24. Twenty-five hours of climbing on summit day. Twelve-thousand vertical feet of climbing between Base Camp and summit. Weight at start: 148 pounds. Weight at finish: 127 pounds. “I got the shit kicked out of me, for sure.” We believe it.
Adrian Ballinger’s Packing List
Handpresso Pump Espresso Machine
“I’m a total coffee geek and rely on coffee throughout these climbs. It’s really effective at high altitude in that it keeps our heart rate a little higher than normal. For trained athletes at altitudes, a lot of times, our heart rates are too low, especially when we’re hanging in camp. When our heart rates drop, we get more headaches, nausea and difficulty sleeping. Up until the highest days on the mountain, I carry a Handpresso, which makes a really high-end espresso from either pods or loose grounds. It only weighs a few ounces.”
Alpine Start Instant Coffee
“Alpine Start makes high-quality instant coffee in single pouches and jars. Every climber I know uses it above Camp Three, where it just isn’t tactical to carry a Handpresso anymore. It’s instant, and now it comes in different flavors.”
La Sportiva G2 SM Boot
“It’s not their warmest boot, that’s called the Olympus Mons. I still wore that on summit day on K2. But the G2 SM is almost as warm but way lighter, and it climbs so much better than any other big mountain boot I’ve ever had. It looks more like a technical climbing shoe than a huge moon boot, which is what a lot of the other high altitude boots are. You can actually rock climb well in it. I brought it thinking I’d only wear it to 6,000 or 7,000 meters, but I ended up wearing it until 8,000 meters.”
Eddie Bauer Katabatic 3 Tent
“Eddie Bauer built this tent and went through so many rounds of product development with their athletes. The best way I can describe it is like, no matter how scary and dangerous it feels outside — huge drops, big winds, big snowstorms — I could get into this tent on the tiniest ledges on K2 and feel safe and let down my guard and actually relax. That’s invaluable on a big mountain.”
Eddie Bauer IgniteLite Stretch Reversible Jacket
“It’s a synthetic ultralight puffy. The reason I love it is because it functioned on every level of the trip for me, starting with 40 hours of flying to Pakistan when it was my pillow in economy class. And then once I was trekking in it, it became my main cool-weather outer layer. And then once I got high on the mountain, because it’s synthetic and can handle sweat and moisture, it became an underlayer beneath my down suit. I used it every day on a two-month expedition.”
Garmin InReach Mini
“I used to just carry a satellite phone, but the Mini changed the game. It links to my phone, it’s tiny and I never think about it in my pack. The battery lasts forever, and I can text like normal with all my friends and family. It’s the only thing I brought on all of my acclimatization rotations above Base Camp and on my summit push. It’s how we received our weather forecasts from our Swiss meteorologist, it’s how I stayed in touch with Emily [Harrington, Ballinger’s girlfriend, a five-time sport climbing national champ], and I did a lot more communication this year than I did on past trips.”
Favre-Leuba Bivouac 9000
“It’s called the Bivouac 9000 because it’s super burly, weather-proof, waterproof; all the things you would expect. It’s really different than any other piece of gear that I’ve carried in the past because it’s a fully mechanical Swiss watch. No battery. On these big trips when every other device that tells time and has an altimeter dies — like a GPS watch or my iPhone — having one thing that still tells me time and helps me manage how many hours I’ve been out climbing and whether I’m hydrating and eating food, when dark is coming, how many hours I’ve been in extreme conditions without oxygen… I found it invaluable.”
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