Raise your game, skip the lineups and scale the world’s highest peak in 42 days: that is British guide Adrian Ballinger’s ambitious pitch to climbers preparing to summit Mount Everest.
Ballinger’s “Rapid Ascent” program, which at about US$79,000 is roughly double the cost of other Everest expeditions, aims to overturn the conventional wisdom that it takes 10 weeks to reach the top of the 8,848m peak.
“The best way to climb Everest is to do it fast — spend less time hanging around at base camp and avoid the queues as you approach the summit,” Ballinger said from his home in Squaw Valley, California.
The 38-year-old plans to slash the time spent acclimatizing to high altitude by requiring clients to sleep in special hypoxic, or low-oxygen, tents for eight weeks before they go.
Nitrogen is pumped into the sealed tent to recreate a high-altitude environment by reducing oxygen levels so the body adapts to thinner air.
He also asks clients to exercise at home while wearing a high-altitude training mask, which reduces air flow and forces users to take deeper breaths.
A doctor will monitor each client’s condition, checking blood test results and heart rates.
“People are going to be in stronger shape for the summit push, since they won’t have spent two months going up and down the mountain to acclimatize, losing weight and muscle in the process,” Ballinger said.
Although hypoxic tents have been used by runners to build up lung capacity as part of their training, only a few climbers have tried to acclimatize with them, and none with Ballinger’s reputation.
The elite mountaineer is one of a handful of Western climbers to have assisted local sherpa guides in fixing ropes to the Everest summit.
Researchers say the physiological benefits of using tents to help the body adapt to high altitude remain unclear.
Gregoire Millet, director of the Institute of Sport Sciences at the University of Lausanne, said that the benefits were “limited.”
“There hasn’t been any research on the impact of sleeping in a tent over a period as long as eight weeks, but it is always better to acclimatize at real altitude,” Millet said.
The risks involved do not faze Ballinger, who says that it was “the uncertainty of mountaineering” that compelled him to scrap plans to attend medical school and pursue a career in climbing instead.
He earned US$12,000 during his first year, climbing peaks in Nepal, Ecuador and Tanzania. By the time he founded Alpenglow Expeditions, he was 28 years old and working extra hours as a car valet to support his passion.
As the company grew, he struck a deal with Russell Brice, owner of top expedition outfit Himex. He became Brice’s lead guide and successfully climbed Everest for the first time in 2009.
By 2012, he was convinced of the need to attempt a faster ascent and, crucially, cut down on the number of trips through the treacherous Khumbu Icefall, where an avalanche last April killed 16 sherpas in the deadliest day on Everest.
“My fear of the icefall was the biggest motivation in creating the Rapid Ascent program,” he said, noting that on average, clients went through the dangerous patch six times each way, and sherpas two dozen times each way.
After a successful trial run last year with a Russian businessman, Ballinger planned a Everest summit push this year that would slash sherpas’ trips to 10 each way, with clients making only a single ascent through the icefall.