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Interview: Cory Richards and Adrian Ballinger on Everest Without Supplemental Oxygen

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Cory Richards Adrian Ballinger Mount Everest Interview
Cory Richards (left) and Adrian Ballinger (right) at Mount Sanitas in Boulder, Colorado. Photo: Karissa Frye

Next week, Cory Richards and Adrian Ballinger are pushing themselves to the limit by attempting to climb 29,035 ft. Mount Everest without the assistance of supplemental oxygen. Richards is the first American to summit Gasherbrum II in the winter and made the documentary Cold about his journey. He is now a professional climber, as well as a photographer and filmmaker for National Geographic. Ballinger is a certified IFMGA/AMGA mountain guide, founder of Alpenglow Expeditions, and has led over 100 international climbing expeditions on five continents. The two hope this grueling experience will give climbers a raw, accurate look at the challenging path to the world’s highest peak. We spoke to the pair about their plan.

What kind of person are you? Explain yourself in a few words.
Adrian: I would say that I am extremely motivated and passionate when I have a goal in hand, and I like to stay super busy.

Cory: I’d say the word that probably describes me best is “thoughtful.” I don’t necessarily mean that in terms of how I approach people, even though I like to be thoughtful in that too. I’m a thinker and I carry that into mountains, I carry that into passion, and I carry that into art. I like to think of myself above all else as creative, passionate, and thoughtful.

How long have you been climbing?
Cory: I’ve been climbing for almost 30 years. I started with my dad and my brother. I’ve had a sort of up and down relationship with it. It took more of a hold in my early 20s when I started climbing more professionally and for photography. That sort of grew into sponsorships, but even with that relationship it waxes and it wanes. Since Gasherbrum II, I’ve had a pretty significant diagnosis of PTSD from the avalanche. I’ve had a very interesting relationship with climbing since then. This is very much a way to go back in a healthier headspace. I’m really excited about it. That being said, I’ve probably trained harder for this trip than anything else.

Adrian: I’ve been climbing since I was 12 through a family friend, who’s remained one of my best friends. That puts me at almost 30 years too. It was very much a hobby, and then after college it became a passion and life force. Most of my decisions were around how I could keep climbing bigger and better things.

Tell us about your Everest project.
Cory: Everest this year is huge for me on a personal level. It’s the second time I’ve tried it without oxygen. The first time ended sort of—it was a shit show. I ended up getting evacuated, so this has been on my mind for a very long time. Life has taken some interesting twists and turns to get me back to this place. I’ve shifted my partnerships and my professional climbing sphere. This is my first trip with Eddie Bauer. I’ve sort of found a home with them. They’ve allowed this to happen and that partnership is really important to me. Anybody climbing in the Himalaya without oxygen is, the way I phrase it, holding themselves to the highest standard possible. For me, that’s how it should be done. I think Adrian and I share that.

Adrian: This has been a dream of mine. I’ve been on Everest the last nine seasons as a mountain guide. I know the mountain really well. As a guide, I think I’ve spent two years of my life on Everest now. Yet I’ve never been there truly for myself. This partnership will push me and that’s really exciting. This year feels unique. I was on the mountain the last two seasons, essentially these failed seasons with horrible tragedies. So this season feels like an opportunity to reset to what’s important—to show (I hope) a proud, simple, clean expedition, and to take a look at what is happening on the mountain. Hopefully our expedition is an opportunity to study this.

When did you have the idea to climb Everest without supplemental oxygen?
Adrian: We’ve been talking since 2012, when we just sort of brainstormed like, “We should climb together!” Then we’d see each other at the Ouray Ice festival a year later and be like, “We should do Everest without oxygen together!” Then we’d both be really busy. A year later it’s like, how hasn’t this happened yet? With the special nature of this season, it was finally a time in both our lives where we decided to make it happen.

Cory: This was happening regardless, but now what’s also interesting is that we are very blessed to be able to say that Eddie Bauer ended up sponsoring both of us. It’s a much easier expedition to orchestrate and put forth because we’re both on the same team, sharing the same goal, and we’re supported by the same entity. I think that makes the whole thing a lot easier.

Why do you believe it is important to climb without oxygen?
Cory: There’s a gold standard of all things. The gold standard of climbing Everest is to do it without oxygen and be as unsupported as you can be. When you look back at the history, stemming from Messner to Loretan—their ascent was insane, incredible—all the way up to Ueli, we know that this can be done. I think that in some point of your climbing career you reach a place where you want to hold yourself to that standard. If somebody else can do it, there is at least a possibility that you can. I think it’s important to try to elevate yourself. And in doing so, its not just about coming up to the curve, it’s about moving the whole curve up. The more people that try this and succeed, the more that people will go and try and succeed. You raise the bar. I think that we can evolve, and where we can evolve, we should try to.

Adrian: For me, it’s just this huge question mark in my personal world. I’ve been at 8,000 meters without supplemental oxygen on Everest. I’ve existed at that height, but there’s still 3,000 feet to go from there. It’s so interesting to me whether I can or can’t do it. I’m really proud of my attempts with oxygen and what I’ve accomplished in those seasons, but as an individual climber, I really want to attempt it in this cleaner way.

What is your biggest fear on the trip?
Cory: Running out of movies.

Cory’s more serious answer: My biggest fear, personally, is finding that something has fundamentally shifted in my approach to the high mountains. I don’t think it has, but PTSD is a real thing. It does affect how we experience and operate in the mountains, or any other circumstance. I do have some fear around that. But mostly my fears are gone because Adrian and I have put in the time and done what we need to do. There is an underlying sense of calm. I really don’t have any fear, aside from little logistical stuff. There’s nothing that’s really horrifying.

Adrian: I have so much excitement around this trip, but of course I have anxieties as well. When the earthquake occurred last year, we had to leave base camp really quickly. We had to leave all of our equipment there, so I have no idea what state my equipment is in. I have this immediate anxiety of what everything is gonna look like next week when we get there. Beyond that, my anxieties are for the season as a whole. I believe so much in Everest, what it has taught me, and how much I’ve learned on that mountain. I want other people to have that experience and to want that experience. The risks around the mountain are getting it wrong ethically or morally. That’s not just our team, but other teams as well. I’m afraid of another negative season on the mountain. I also battle with the cold. I’m 6’2″ and 140 lbs., so I battle with the cold when I am on oxygen. I’m really interested to see where that line is for me, and whether I can manage it through technology, fitness, and nutrition.

What is your partner’s best expedition trait?
Adrian: An interesting thing about Cory and I is that we actually haven’t done an expedition together before. We’ve had days out and whatnot, but part of me thinks I’m still going to find out what that trait is. What I do know is that Cory’s positive attitude and sense of humor are gonna be super key on this very long expedition.

Cory: Just from a base level, Adrian’s experience is trumped by almost nobody in this industry. His ability to make decisions, specifically on this mountain, is so far beyond mine. Just from a climbing perspective, it is invaluable and certainly one of the best traits you can have on a team. And it’s his humor and the ability to roll with punches and just be relaxed.

Where will this expedition take future climbers and what are you hoping to accomplish in this ascent?
Adrian: The past three years have spun Everest into an enigmatic state. Not only is it the highest mountain in the world, it’s the biggest question mark in terms of what the future holds for Himalayan guiding. For commercial enterprises there, even though we are not a commercial team, I think we want to set an example of how to go there simply. That’s what I hope it is. You can go enjoy this place, even though there are people there. You can enjoy it in a very simple, personal way. I think that this climb is going to take me to really important places. It’s really key to me to accomplish this, or fail at it and then figure out why I failed at it.

We’ve been calling this expedition “Everest No Filter.” That has to do with how we want to tell the story. So many people know about Everest through the media, or a slideshow, or even our Instagram feeds, but it’s so curated. No one posts instantly anymore, like the name suggests. Our goal of this trip is to show the good and the bad of Everest. Everyone knows it’s bad over there, but it’s not really understood. Then they see these beautiful photos that make it look amazing. We want to post something every day. You know, even when Cory is projectile vomiting out of the tent. That’s part of it. So I kind of hope that takes away the mystique about Everest, but also shows how much goes into it, which people never see. I hear at the bar all the time, “anyone can climb everest,” and I’m here to say that’s bullshit. It is hard physically, mentally, and emotionally. We want to show that.

Cory: That’s a sensational answer. Adrian nailed it.

Follow Cory and Adrian’s journey on Instagram and Snapchat: EverestNoFilter