This Mountain Climbing Method Cuts Summit Times in Half


 Bloomberg

(Bloomberg) -- When Brooks Entwistle, a partner at Everstone Group in Singapore, took three weeks off last September to climb the sixth-tallest mountain in the world, the 26,8000-foot-tall Cho Oyu, he didn’t take the typical seven weeks. He sandwiched the 17-day ascent between a board meeting and a parent-teacher conference.

That timeframe was unheard of in guided high-altitude mountaineering until recently, when Tahoe-based Alpenglow Expeditions began offering its first “rapid ascent” climbs up some of the tallest peaks in the world. In April, the outfitter will guide a group to summit the 29,000-foot Mount Everest in 42 days, nearly half the time of most expeditions. Later this year, Alpenglow will take another group up Argentina’s Aconcagua, the tallest mountain in the western hemisphere, in 14 days instead of the usual 20-plus.  

For decades, climbing the world’s highest peaks has been an opportunity reserved for those long on money and athletic ability. But for those who have both, the biggest factor is time. For about 3o percent more than the normal price, Alpenglow streamlines the process in various ways: expedited permits, aggressive scheduling, and, sometimes, flying directly to base camp in a helicopter instead of multiple days of trekking in on foot. 

Acclimatizing to the altitude, though, is the longest part of the process. It can take a normal human body one month to adapt to climbing in the thin air on these peaks. But Alpenglow’s founder, the professional guide Adrian Ballinger, believes it is possible to acclimatize ahead of time by sleeping in a hypoxic tent, one that simulates high altitudes by reducing the oxygen inside. He says it forces the body to adapt and produce more red blood cells, which saves time on the mountain. But that is far from proven scientifically. “Outfitters have been running the same trips since the 1970s,” says Ballinger. “Everything around us is being modernized. We should modernize too.”

It’s a process that appeals to natural athletes who see it a training regimen. Sign up for an Alpenglow trip and you are mailed a rental tent that expands to a clear box that covers the top half of your body while you sleep. Entwistle estimates that he spent six to eight hours a day either using the hypoxic tent to sleep in at night or wearing the accompanying mask while working at his desk and exercising at a local gym. 

Graham Cooper, a runner who won one of the country’s most competitive ultramarathons, the Western States100, joined Ballinger in December 2015 and climbed both Aconcagua and Mount Vinson, the tallest peak in Antarctica, in 14 days. Before he went, Cooper installed his tent over his teenage daughter’s queen-size bed. He tried to get his wife to join him. “She spent one night, woke up gasping for air, and that was the last time I saw her in there,” he said.

Even though they can overheat in hot weather, are noisy, and generally give off the feeling of being quarantined, New York-based tentmaker Hypoxico has clients across the athletic world, including players on Tottenham Hotspur, the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the U.S. Olympic Committee. Michael Phelps and LeBron James are clients, according to Brian Oestrike, the company’s CEO and himself an Everest summitter. “You have to acclimatize, either at true altitude or in some simulated way, and we help with that,” Oestrike said. “Just because the science isn’t there yet, doesn’t mean it doesn’t work.”

The Moneyball Effect

“Complete bloody hogwash,” says Simon Lowe, managing director of Jagged Globe , the British mountaineering company founded in 1987, and one of rapid-ascent climbing’s most vocal critics. “It’s snake oil.” Russell Brice, the 64-year-old New Zealander who runs Himalaya Expeditions , agrees, flatly discounting the tents’ safety. Guy Cotter, who runs Adventure Consultants , warned that the tents, which mimic the oxygen concentration at altitude instead of the change in air pressure, can interfere with sleep in the final weeks of training, when it’s most important.

Lowe pointed to a classic motto in mountaineering—“Climb High, Sleep Low”—which instructs those at high altitude to acclimatize by pushing their body to heights during the day, then rest and recover at a lower altitude. “The oxygen tent does that the complete wrong way,” he said. “You sleep artificially high, and you spend your days low when you’re not in the tent.”

At its core, this philosophical rift in guided mountaineering is a familiar story of a younger generation of tech-savvy thinkers disrupting the traditionalists—think of it as Moneyball on the Matterhorn. Ballinger and those who agree with him are part of a younger group of lead guides; Lowe and his camp tend to be a generation older.

This ideological split is happening at a critical time for the mountaineering industry. The two deadliest days in Everest history were in 2014 and 2015, and reports about trash buildup, disastrous traffic jams at 22,000 feet, and poor compensation for sherpa have cast a shadow over the world’s most famous peak. 

Ballinger admits to once being part of the problem. He says this is part of the solution. He’s moved Alpenglow’s Everest trips to the less-congested North side of the mountain, and says he pays porters $12,000 a season, ten times what many local outfitters do.

The best advocate for Ballinger the guide has been Ballinger the athlete. He’s climbed Everest six times, and in 2011 became the first person to ski down the 26,800-foot Manaslu in Nepal. He is endorsed by Eddie Bauer, La Sportiva, and sunglass maker Kaenon, and at the same time that Entwistle was climbing Cho Oyu, Ballinger and his girlfriend Emily Harrington—also a fellow professional climber, also pre-acclimatized—completed it in just nine days, an ascent many consider to be the mountain’s fastest ever. 

U.K. born, but raised in Massachusetts, Ballinger started high-altitude climbing as a freshman at Georgetown University by traveling to Ecuador on winter break. Three years later, when he was accepted into medical school, he deferred a year to get climbing out of his system. “That was 20 years ago, and I’ve never looked back,” he says.

He started Alpenglow in 2004, parking cars in Aspen and working catering jobs on the side. Things grew gradually until 2007, when he partnered with Brice, a widely respected guide who has led in the Himalayas since 1974, for trips up peaks such as Mount Everest and its sister mountain Lhotse. For six years the pair worked together, with Brice running expeditions from Base Camp, and Ballinger the head guide on the slopes.

It was during this time that Ballinger first heard about hypoxic tents. He says he wanted to incorporate them in their trips, Brice didn’t. (Brice declined to comment on the split.) The partnership was lucrative financially, but over time the philosophical differences widened. In 2012, Ballinger took their lead sherpa and expedition doctor back to Alpenglow and began focusing on rapid ascents.

Operating on his own, Ballinger built trips his way. Whereas he and Brice would escort trips of 29 climbers up Everest, Ballinger will limit the number to nine. Most importantly, by having clients sleep in hypoxic tents prior to the trip, his teams would need a lot less of the traditional acclimatization. Turns out the clients who most wanted to save time were the ones who could most afford to pay for the luxury. Alpenglow’s rapid ascent up Everest costs $85,000, while other Western outfitters charge around $60,000. The trip to Aconcagua costs $12,450, about double the traditional trek, largely due to a trip in a helicopter that delivers you to base camp in one day, instead of a four-day hike.

A Question of Ability

Entwistle, the former chairman of Goldman Sachs South East Asia who now runs an investment firm in Singapore, says he had a rare gap in his schedule after leaving Goldman in 2013, so he signed on to climb Everest in the classic two-month model. 

Before his group had a summit attempt, an avalanche killed 16 sherpa and the mountain closed for the season. Doing another trip of that scale wasn’t realistic, which drew him to Alpenglow. “I’ve got a family, I’ve got work, it’s hard to be away for that long,” he said.

That can be true for guides as well. From 2007 to 2014, Ballinger estimates he spent eight months a year living out of yellow tents on expeditions. Questions began to pile up: Are there ways to be on the mountain less? Can I have a home? Can I see my family more? “I had the same personal challenges that many of my clients were experiencing,” he said.

Ballinger remains convinced that the tent works based on a trove of evidence that he has gathered on himself. He does his own blood work during training, and he has seen a spike in red blood cells for all 15 expeditions that he’s used Hypoxico. 

Doctors tend to agree, but only up to a point. The tents should help you physiologically, says Robert B. Schoene, a pulmonary and high altitude specialist in San Francisco. “Question is, how much of a benefit? And given individual variability, should everyone be doing it?”

Susan Hopkins, an exercise physiologist and professor at the University of California San Diego, co-authored a 2000 study showing that short periods of time spent exposed to hypoxia, such as in the tents, could improve one’s breathing at altitude--essentially conditioning the body to breathe more. The study also suggested that the exposure led to a higher red blood cell count. But left unsaid was whether that improved the body’s oxygen delivery system, which varies widely by person. 

“Will it help? Yes,” Hopkins said. “Do I think it’s a good idea? I don’t think it the greatest idea in the world. You’re probably increasing your element of risk.”

Risk may not matter, in the end. Other guides are already imitating Ballinger. Mega-outfitter International Mountain Guides allows clients to use the hypoxic tent and join its Everest trips mid-way through; Garrett Madison’s Madison Mountaineering, a boutique service based in Seattle, does the same. “We keep a closer eye on them,” Madison said. “But we know it works.”

To contact the author of this story: Eben Novy-Williams in New York at enovywilliam@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Gaddy at jgaddy@bloomberg.net.

©2017 Bloomberg L.P.

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