Within the next couple hours, Emily Harrington and Adrian Ballinger, two American mountaineers, are planning to hit the summit of Tibet’s Cho Oyu, the world’s sixth highest mountain. If they succeed, they’ll be on course to celebrate their “lightening ascent”—to finish the entire expedition in two weeks or less, a time-frame measured door-to-door from their Tahoe, California house.
Scaling back a high-altitude expedition to a scant two weeks is new to the mountaineering industry. Since I first tuned into Harrington and Ballinger’s various Facebook Live updates and read blogs and articles detailing their planning process, the ordeal has left me with pause. Why are you rushing your mountain ascent?
Ballinger is the founder of Alpenglow Expeditions, an international mountaineering guide company that has pioneered rapid-ascent-style expeditions since 2004. Alpenglow uses “the relatively new application of hypoxic training”—using masks while training at lower elevations (e.g. at home) to simulate the stresses that high altitude places on the body—“to greatly increase the chances of success while reducing the overall time spent away from home on an international expedition,” according to their website.
Harrington, a pro-climber and five-time US sport-climbing champion, met Ballinger during her first expedition to Everest. Now, after joining forces as a romantic power couple and expedition partners, the duo are teaming up as industry trailblazers. They’ve taken Alpenglow’s hypoxic training to a new level: in the weeks leading up to go time, they trained their bodies in the comfort of their home to prepare for the 26,864-foot peak.
High-altitude mountaineering comes with inevitable dangers that fall outside technical and logistical scopes. Exposing the human body to high altitudes, where minimal oxygen and core-penetrating cold temperatures create an inhabitable environment, can result in serious brain damage, lung’s filling with fluid and overall acute bodily distress. It’s not uncommon for even the most experienced mountaineers to die from these expedition “side effects.”
A traditional high-altitude mountain expedition, which can last two to three months, includes time to acclimate, or prepare the body for exposure to this harsh alpine environment. Typically, the first weeks after arriving at base camp are dedicated to carefully planned excursions leading the team up and back down the mountain, allowing time for the body to safely adjust to the drastically different alpine atmosphere.
By using Alpenglow’s hypoxic training system, Harrington and Ballinger have been able to simulate the oxygen deprived environment in their home, essentially acclimating their bodies while staying around Tahoe’s 6,000 feet. According to Outside Magazine, they wore masks during aerobic activities like cycling, and slept together in a hypoxic chamber set up in their bedroom.
Ballinger has been pushing this new rapid-ascent method through Alpenglow in effort to make high-peaks more accessible to those that can’t afford to take so much time off. Ballinger sees his and Harrington’s two-week ascent of Cho Oyu as a trial run. No one has ever climbed an 8,000-meter peak in less than a month, according to Ballinger. Their goal is to climb big mountains “as safely as possible, but also as quickly as possible,” he said in a Facebook Live session with Outside.
So hearing this, I pause. On the outset—very cool, and totally badass. But on second thought, what is the rapid-ascent really contributing to the industry other than more privileged people tagging summits?
Via Ballinger and Harrington’s method, only those who can (1) afford a hypoxic chamber and equipment, (2) have enough money set aside to buy a plane ticket across the globe with only two to three weeks’ notice, (3) substantial job security and flexibility to dip out on a whim, and (4) the time, space and support system to dedicate hours to the vital hypoxic training in the weeks leading up to the expedition go time.
Isn’t this hyper-selectivity already the case within those wishing to pursue high peaks? This seems to only propagate the privileged person’s mission. Sure, it could be “more accessible” in the sense that it’s easier to take off two weeks from work rather than two months. But considering the time and financial investment still required to preparing for the expedition, that point almost seems null. So, is it even possible use this innovative technology and technique to help others access the spectacular, life-changing wilderness experience? Perhaps their mission is ground-breaking and wildly impressive, but it is changing little within the larger scope mountaineering’s potential.
What really fires me up, however, is the underlying assumption that speeding through an expedition is desirable. Why are you rushing your mountain ascent? It’s been inspiring and awesome to understand how technology and gear innovations have shaped and improved mountaineering pursuits over the past several decades, but this one doesn’t make sense to me. I’m not convinced that pushing the time-consuming, stressful acclimatization process into the home rather than leaving it at base camp makes for a better experience on the mountain, or contributes to a better, more balanced life.
While I’ve long looked up to Harrington as an inspiring force, both as a climber and a mountaineer, I can’t say that beyond my stoke over her badass-ness as a woman pushing her limits and my amazement at the human body’s capacity to accomplish their pursuit, I am impressed with their venture. Mostly, I’m sad. We don’t always have to make things faster, smaller, more efficient, less cumbersome. Sometimes we can happily appreciate the journey just as much as the destination, right?