Audio Posts

What it’s like to climb up and ski down Makalu, the world’s 5th-highest mountain

adrian ballinger wearing a red ski jacket and skis on the side of MakaluAdrian Ballinger in May became the first person to ski from the summit of Makalu.

Alpenglow Expeditions

  • Adrian Ballinger is a high-altitude-mountain guide who has led climbers to the top of Mount Everest.
  • In May, he became the first person to ski from the top of Makalu, the world’s fifth-highest peak.
  • Ballinger talked to Insider about what his climb to the top and nine-hour ski down were like.

In May, after 10 years of planning, as well as trying and failing twice, the American high-altitude-mountain guide Adrian Ballinger found himself at the summit of one of the world’s tallest mountains.

Almost 28,000 feet, Makalu is just 12 miles away from Mount Everest — a mountain Ballinger has climbed several times, along with K2, the world’s second-tallest mountain. He is the fourth American to summit both mountains without using supplemental oxygen.

But at Makalu, Ballinger wasn’t there only to climb — he was making his third attempt to be the first person to ski down from the summit of the world’s fifth-tallest mountain.

The first time he tried to ski down Makalu in 2012, he couldn’t because it was too dangerous. Three years later, Ballinger returned but had to turn around just below 26,000 feet on the mountain because of a risk of avalanches.

Finally, in May, he made it to the top along with his two Sherpa guides, Dorji Sonam Sherpa and Pasang Sherpa.

He spent less than 10 minutes at the summit. He’d made it to the top — but he couldn’t celebrate just yet.

Ballinger talked to Insider about his nine-hour ski down, which made him the first person on record to descend Makalu’s summit on skis.

Ballinger spent a year preparing to ski Makalu

“Once I decided I wanted to try, I spent a year at home of focus, dedicated training, working towards being ready to try to ski Makalu,” Ballinger said.

That meant cardiovascular training to prepare his body to climb and ski at extreme altitudes, as well as six months of skiing at Lake Tahoe, where he lives, and in Europe.

In addition to training — and his two decades of experience — Ballinger had to raise money from sponsors to be able to afford the trip. 

Ballinger flew to Nepal with a team from his expedition-guiding company, Alpenglow Expeditions, which included mountain guides from the US and professional athletes who were doing projects on the mountain. On the mountain, Alpenglow Expeditions works with local Nepali Sherpas. 

The team spent a few days in Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital, organizing equipment, food, and permits, before taking helicopters to base camp, which sits at about 15,000 feet.

It took a month for the team to acclimate to the higher altitude

At base camp, Ballinger and the team began the process of acclimating to the higher altitudes and preparing for the climb.

The group hired local porters from the village below the mountain to help them carry their equipment up to Advanced Base Camp, at 19,000 feet. For the next month, Ballinger and his Sherpa partners would go back and forth between that camp and three others they would set up toward the summit.

Ballinger sits with his Sherpa teammates in Makalu Advanced Base Camp discussing final plans for the summit attempt over cups of hot coffee and tea. From left to right is Dorji Sonam Sherpa, Adrian's Sherpa Sirdar (lead sherpa) and long-time climbing partner and friend. To Ballinger's right is Phu Rita Sherpa and Ngima Tenzing Sherpa.Ballinger with his Sherpa teammates in Makalu Advanced Base Camp. From left, Dorji Sonam Sherpa, Sherpa Sirdar (lead sherpa), Ballinger, Phu Rita Sherpa. and Ngima Tenzing Sherpa.

Alpenglow Expeditions

On days moving from one base to another, Ballinger said his backpack could weigh between 40 and 45 pounds, with tents, food, technical equipment like rope and ice axes, and his ski equipment.

adrian ballinger wearing his skis on his back as he puts rope along the summit ridge of MakaluBallinger setting up the rope along the summit ridge as he and his Sherpa teammates ascend Makalu.

Alpenglow Expeditions

“By going through this process, our bodies build more red blood cells, which are essentially like the trucks that carry oxygen right to our brain and organs and muscles,” Ballinger said.

Along with his Sherpa teammates, Ballinger fixed rope along the summit ridge as they went from camp to camp so they could eventually find their way back down. 

“Up at these really extreme altitudes, I was doing 1,000 feet in three hours,” Ballinger said, adding that he was using supplemental oxygen.

Makalu is known for being a more technical mountain to climb than Mount Everest and other mountains, Ballinger said. At some parts, Ballinger and his Sherpa teammates were climbing up open snow slopes that looked like black-diamond ski runs. Other times, they were crossing crevasses in active glaciers. 

“We’re having to wander through these crevices and make sure we don’t fall into them, essentially falling into the earth,” Ballinger said.

Adrian Ballinger climbing up MakaluAt base camp, Ballinger and his fellow climbers are fed by a Nepali chef who prepares fresh meat, vegetables, and fruit. At advanced base camp, almost everything is dehydrated food and simple things like instant ramen and crackers with salami, since it has to be carried up on the climbers’ backs.

Alpenglow Expeditions

They made the first summit of Makalu in 3 years

The final push to the summit took 10 hours. 

Ballinger and his Sherpa teammates left Camp 3 at 10 p.m. to start their climb to the top of the mountain. 

“On these big mountains, you usually climb through the night because you want the most hours of daylight possible to get back down alive,” Ballinger said. “Our goal is to summit as close to sunrise as possible, then get back down off the mountain before it gets dark again.”

As the sun rose around 5 a.m., Ballinger started to get worried, realizing he had a long way to go.

“We’d already been climbing for a long time, and I was trying to conserve energy for skiing,” he said.

The last few hundred feet of the route took about two hours as the team had to pass through a “knife-edge” part of the summit ridge. 

“On one side, it dropped down 3,000 feet, and the other side dropped 5,000 feet down into Tibet,” Ballinger said. “We were just dancing along the top of that ridge.”

When they made it to the top, Ballinger and the Sherpa team were the first people to summit Makalu in three years.

“It was a very magical moment,” he said. “Dorji Sonam Sherpa, who feels like my brother in Nepal, we’ve been climbing together for 20 years. He was the one who finally did the last rope for the summit and got on top first. Then I climbed up behind him, and it was really special.”

‘A lot of my time on that summit day came down to not wanting to end up dead’

Soon after, it was time to start the trip down.

“A lot of people think the summit is this place where you celebrate and have this amazing time,” Ballinger said. “We were kind of scared and in a big storm and spent all of two minutes on top.”

Because the final summit ridge was so thin, Ballinger said if he had put his skis on at the true summit, he would’ve had to wait for a different group of climbers behind him to get to the top before he would have room to ski.

“I was getting too cold staying on top and decided that I couldn’t wait. I went down about 15 meters and out of the way of those other climbers who were using the rope,” he said, adding: “I guess that means the last 40 feet of the mountain still remain to be skied.”

The ski down wasn’t as smooth as skiing at a resort, he said. There were rocky parts he had to avoid, and at times, he had to slide when the terrain was too steep.

At a few places on the mountain, like a 200-foot rock cliff called the French Couloir, Ballinger had to take his skis off to reduce risk, and ended up rappelling down the cliff.

Ballinger entering a steep section of skiing below camp 3, around 24,000'.Ballinger entering a steep section of skiing below Camp 3.

Alpenglow Expeditions

Through really icy sections, Ballinger would clip a lanyard to the fixed rope his team had put up during their ascent and ski down slowly to avoid falling.

On the lower part of the mountain, below Camp 2, he could finally start enjoying skiing.

When he wasn’t worried about falling, slipping on rock, or an avalanche, Ballinger listened to music to relax. 

At the same time, Ballinger thought of his then-pregnant wife, Emily Harrington, also a professional rock climber, who found out she was pregnant right before he left to climb Makalu. 

“In my 25-year career as a climber and skier, this was one of the most risky,” Ballinger said. “A lot of my time on that summit day came down to not wanting to end up dead.”

From where he started on the summit back to where he stopped, Ballinger said he skied 9,500 vertical feet over nine hours. At the bottom, he still had a 40-minute walk through rocky terrain to get back to Advanced Base Camp. He walked with his two Sherpa partners, his videographer Griffin Mims, and the Nepali cooks who had come to meet him at the edge of the snow.

“We all walked back together, and I can see the lights of Advanced Base Camp shining in front of me, and that’s when I got to celebrate and feel joy and feel safe again with my whole team” Ballinger said. “It’s the most magical feeling I can imagine, being safe after doing something like that. It was really fantastic.”

Read the original article on Business Insider