Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Himalaya Fall 2016: Climbers Make Controversial Speed Ascent of Cho Oyu

Amidst all of the other summits of the big mountains in Nepal this past week, there is one interesting story that has captured the attention of the mountaineering community and created a bit of a rift at the same time. This controversial expedition has caused some to reconsider how to train for their high altitude endeavors, while others find it to be unconventional enough to label it as "unfair means." Either way, it could be part of the future of climbing as others pick up on the approach.

Last Sunday, Adrian Ballinger – of Alpenglow Expeditions – and his partner Emily Harrington completed a successful summit of Cho Oyu, the sixth highest mountain on the planet at 8188 meters (26,884 ft). That in and of itself wasn't too unusual, as a number of teams topped out during a great summit window last weekend. But, Adrian and Emily did it just ten days after leaving their home in California, something that has been unheard of until now.

Typically on a big Himalayan peak it takes weeks to acclimatize to the altitude. Most climbers arrive in Kathmandu two months prior to their projected summit date. They then travel to their respective base camps, follow a set process for acclimatization by going up and down the mountain several times, and wait for good weather to make a summit bid after their bodies have acclimated to the thin air. That can sometimes take 4-6 weeks, depending on conditions and the climbing schedule.

But Adrian and Emily trained back home using altitude tents to simulate the conditions they would find on the mountain. These tents were able to create an environment that closely approximates the thin air of a big Himalayan peak, but it allows them to stay home, sleep in their own beds, and have the comforts that they are typically accustomed too. Meanwhile, a support team established a Base Camp for them on Cho Oyu, making it ready for their arrival.


Two weeks ago, Ballinger and Harrington left the U.S. to fly to Nepal and then traveled to Tibet to reach the mountain. By the time they reached BC, they were fit, acclimated, and pretty much ready to go. Once the weather window opened last week, they were able to safely climb to the top, taking two clients who had prepared in a similar fashion along with them.

This approach to acclimatizing at home and shortening the length of an expedition isn't new. In fact, it is something that Ballinger and Alpenglow have been working on for some time. The company's Everest expeditions are just a month in length thanks to this novel program, and now he has proven that he can shorten the time considerably on shorter peaks too. This allows clients to spend less time on a potentially dangerous mountain, while having to be away from home for fewer days too. That makes it vacation friendly as well. The downside? An Alpenglow expedition is considerably more expensive than the competition.

This new approach has rankled some in the mountaineering community in the past, but this new Cho Oyu speed ascent has many talking once again. For some, it is an innovative new way to climb in the Himalaya, while others feel like it is still a bit unproven and could be potentially risky. There are those who see it as a bit of "cheating" – for lack of a better word – as well. Those detractors tend to be old school climbers who often consider the use of bottled oxygen as a performance enhancing drug too.

Either way, this could be the future of mountaineering. Alpenglow will of course continue to pursue this novel training technique with the idea of attracting more clients who want to climb on the big peaks, but don't necessarily have two months to dedicate to that proposition. As Ballinger and his team continue to refine their methods, I'm sure more than a few other climbers and guides will be looking to employ similar techniques to aid their expeditions as well.

6 comments:

Federico Bernardi said...

"Those detractors tend to be old school climbers who often consider the use of bottled oxygen as a performance enhancing drug too."

Old school climbers ? Are you kidding ?
Is widely recognized by the entire community of (REAL) alpinists that using O2 on high mountains is doping.
It is a FACT, not a "old school climbers" opinion...

Kraig Becker said...

Not everyone agrees with this, but it is a good example of the opinions I talk about in the article. There are plenty of "real" climbers who don't see the use of oxygen as doping. Guys like Conrad Anker of instance. For many, it is another tool to use on the way to the summit.

I do respect that there is segment of the mountaineering community that feels this way however, and understand where the sentiment is coming from. But calling it a "fact" is being a bit disingenuous.

Kraig Becker said...

While I wouldn't call it "doping," I will agree with you that supplemental oxygen does alter the playing field. Without it, there would be far fewer people on Everest and some of the other big Himalayan peaks. Not that that would necessarily be a bad thing either.

I appreciate you sharing your views.

Federico Bernardi said...

thank you Kraig , btw I appreciate the article and I was following with interest this "experimental" approach of Adrian and Emily.
As an italian friend said when I was posting a FB comment on this, he told me: "that's great ! no more trouble with asking long holidays at work " :-)

Kraig Becker said...

Indeed! One of the more interesting things to come out of this is that climbers won't have to be away from home for so long, or miss too much work. Looking forward to seeing where this goes!

Damien Gildea said...

I also found that 'old school' line to be both inaccurate and snarky, Kraig. I don't know what 'real' climbers are, I suspect there's no such thing, but guessing what you mean, I highly doubt 'plenty' of them feel as you say. Do you have quotes from them? Of course there are defenders of Sherpa-carried-bottled-O2, though they are usually guides, company owners, clients and others defending their O2 climbs out of self-interest. Of course they would say that...

As for Conrad, if he feels as you say, why did he go and risk it by going without O2 for his 3rd summit? Clearly it meant something significant.

There's more to it than style points with the alpine cool kids, too. There are ethical concerns, particularly with Everest south side as all that extra O2 means extra loads carried by more Sherpa through the icefall, greatly increasing the risk, all so richer, less-able 'climbers' can have it easier. I don't find that admirable at all, nor do many non-climbing regular people when they learn what's really involved.

You mention controversy but provide few examples and no sources. I didn't read much criticism at all, though I will paste here what I wrote elsewhere in response to the AB/EH ascent being a 'record'. I see Mens Journal, that arbiter of all things alpinism, is also proclaiming it a 'summit speed record' when in climbing terms it is no such thing.

***
It's not really a climbing record, it's an amalgamation of various things. Marcel Ruedi summited Makalu just over two weeks after leaving Zurich but died on the descent. There have been a number of 8000m summits in under a month. However many of them walked in and made the route themselves, particularly years ago. What AB has here is modern hyperbaric home-tech, internet weather forecasts, cheap internet flights, jeeps to BC, Sherpas fixing the route and a commercial structure on the mountain to use. How does this compare to anything historically against which he is claiming a 'record'? When you change the parameters so much, comparisons and records become meaningless. And who the hell wants to sit on a bloody stationary bike in a plastic tent at home when you could be travelling in an interesting mountain country like Nepal or Tibet?

***

As for the 2-week 8000ers or 3-week Everest? I wish AB luck, honestly. I do wonder though if the affluent, time-pressed Type A people who are attracted to such products can, and actually will, spend the dedicated time to prepare as well as Adrian and Emily did. Knowing commercial clients, I doubt it. Such pre-acclimatisation does not work if done half-heartedly, as it's too easy to lose the physiological gains at home and in transit, especially with delays/weather etc. I admire that these guys made it work, but feel the effort will be too much for most.

DG