- Associated Press - Friday, November 6, 2015

RENO, Nev. (AP) - When Adrian Ballinger of Squaw Valley, California and crew reached high camp at Makalu the weather was more like a pleasant, bluebird day in the Sierra Nevada than what he expected to find on the fifth-highest peak on the planet.

Ballinger, 39, was leader of a crew of five ski mountaineers from the Lake Tahoe area, Colorado and Wyoming who were seeking to make the first-ever ski descent off the Himalayan peak.

Also at camp were Emily Harrington, 29, of Squaw Valley, a professional climber since her teenage years who made her name in the sport as the first female on numerous difficult routes; Hilaree O’Neill, 42, of Telluride, Colorado, the first female climber to climb two 8,000 meter, or 26,000-foot, peaks within 24 hours; Jim Morrison, 40, of Truckee, California, an accomplished adventurer and professional skier who was making his first attempt on an 8,000-meter peak, and four Sherpa guides, a cook and his assistant. Kit DesLauriers, a professional ski mountaineer from Wyoming and the first person to have skied from the highest peak on each continent, the so-called “Seven Summits,” started with the crew but bowed out at base camp due to severe altitude sickness.

“This was really a dream team for me,” said Ballinger, who is dating Harrington, is a close friend and adventure partner with Morrison and, like Harrington, a friend and admirer of O’Neill.

On Makalu the team was enjoying conditions that are nearly unheard of late in the fall climbing season at that altitude. The ideal weather and good health of the climbers made for an almost perfect setup to their pending summit attempt.

“It was the best day I had ever seen for climbing a mountain,” said Ballinger, who was making his second attempt to ski from the Makalu peak. In 2012 Ballinger and a client abandoned an attempt due to bad weather. “With those factors in mind certainly I felt a strong desire this had to be the year. We had to go for it.”

High stakes for everyone

Ballinger wasn’t the only member of the crew aching to reach the summit that day.

O’Neill, Harrington, Morrison and even members of the Sherpa crew had their own personal reasons for making the trip, which even before the alpine climbing started included a 45-mile trek through tropical heat and humidity to the base of the mountain.

For O’Neill the trip was more than just another high altitude summit. As one of the most accomplished ski mountaineers in the world she has plenty of those.

She was at Makalu in large part to rediscover her passion for mountaineering following a 2014 attempt to climb Hkakbo Razi, the highest peak in Myanmar, which ended with crushing disappointment.

The Myanmar trip, which O’Neill was leading, included a grueling, month-long trip through Southeast Asia just to reach the base of the mountain. Then there was a bureaucratic mixup over permits that at one point had authorities stopping and detaining the group, logistical problems as severe as running low on food, insufficient gear and clothing for the extreme conditions and, near the end, dissension on the team.

“After Myanmar it was devastating, I don’t really know how else to say it,” O’Neill said. “I felt like I failed in a lot of different aspects on that trip.”

O’Neill returned to the United States physically exhausted, emotionally drained and filled with doubt about her future doing major expeditions.

“I was ready to quit,” she said.

The opportunity to climb Makalu with Harrington, who climbed with O’Neill on Everest in 2012 and was part of the Myanmar trip, was a chance to recapture what she loved about mountaineering.

“I’d pretty much go to the ends of the Earth with Emily,” O’Neill said. “I needed some laughter and some faith in the fact that expeditions like this can be good for you and not just crush you.”

Harrington was also looking to Makalu as a redemption following the Myanmar experience.

A skier in her youth, she had gotten away from the sport to focus on becoming a professional climber. And even though she has excelled at the latter, becoming one of the top female climbers in the world, Harrington still saw Makalu as a chance to expand her mountaineering repertoire.

If she completed the mission it would be her second 8,000 meter peak and she’d be further establishing herself as an elite mountaineer by being part of a major Himalayan first ski descent.

Harrington and O’Neill also planned to climb to the summit without supplemental oxygen.

“I’m a professional athlete and it is considered a very pure form of mountaineering and a very huge challenge and achievement if you succeed,” said Harrington, who wasn’t planning to ski off the summit but did intend to ski down from camp four.

Harrington, who considers O’Neill a mentor, also hoped Makalu would help put Myanmar behind them for good.

“Leading up to this trip to Makalu that was definitely on both of our minds,” Harrington said. “Are we going to be ok or was it just going to be a repeat of Myanmar?”

Although Morrison was already an accomplished skier and mountaineer before the trip, Makalu was to be his first 8,000 meter summit.

The fact that his first climb to such a high altitude would also include a first ski descent made it even more special. And so did the method by which the crew planned to approach the mountain.

Instead of flying in to base camp at the foot of the peak, they were going to hike to mountain from the jungle. To Morrison it was the type of expedition he’d been dreaming about his entire life.

“When I was a kid I read about climbing in the Himalayas and I’d see these photographs of these long trains of porters and a few climbers,” he said. “It was exciting just to think about that.”

And even Ballinger, the group leader who failed on an attempt to summit and ski Makalu three years earlier, was carrying baggage of his own on the trip.

Although he has summited Everest six times and climbed high altitude peaks around the world, he was acting as a professional guide on most of those expeditions.

This time he was leading a group of incredibly close, personal friends.

“The most important thing for me on these trips is sort of the human experience and how we deal with each other in difficult situations,” Ballinger said. “I’ve seen so many trips when the pressure is high and the tension and the stress is there when people come back not friends. It was so important to me that didn’t happen on this trip.”

The climb was also important to the Sherpa, a crew that included Panuru, 47, the sirdar or leader, his younger brother, Mingma, 44, Palden, 41, and Tenzing, 25.

Between them the Sherpa crew has 30 Everest summits and many other climbs. But Makalu was special because the crew was the only group on the mountain as a result of the April 25 earthquake that devastated Nepal and, in addition to killing thousands and causing untold property damage, decimated the tourism and climbing sectors of the economy.

“These guys climb not only for money but for passion,” Ballinger said. “They wanted to summit this mountain and be the first people in Nepal to summit this season and they were pushing really hard because of that.”

Glorious climbing

Although Makalu is less widely known to the general public than Everest, its slightly taller neighbor, it’s one of the most enticing peaks in the world for mountaineers.

That’s because anyone who has climbed Everest has stared at Makalu’s dark and foreboding peak.

It’s also considered one of the most difficult mountains in the world to climb because of the steep terrain and narrow ridges. According to SummitPost.org, there have been 206 successful ascents to the peak and 22 fatalities.

More importantly, it is one of the few major Himalayan peaks that hasn’t been skied from the top.

One reason it’s never been skied, in addition to the difficulty of getting to the top, is the short time window each year when snow and weather conditions allow for climbing and skiing.

“It is this huge black, rock pyramid with small strips of snow going through it,” Ballinger said.

In the spring, which is the peak climbing season because the weather tends to be best, there’s not enough snow to ski down. And in the autumn, when there is snow, the weather tends to be inhospitable.

“When you look at it, especially when you look at it in the spring which is the normal climbing season, you don’t see a ski line,” Ballinger said. “In the autumn after the monsoon it has a got a lot more snow on it and you can start to imagine and piece together a ski line.”

The plan was to time the seven-week expedition so the summit-and-ski attempt would coincide with the end of the autumn climbing season for the 8,000-meter peaks.

After leaving the United States on August 18 and arriving in Nepal on August 21, the crew began walking on August 24 near the Arun River, which is at about 450 meters, or 1,500 feet, in elevation.

They hiked 45 miles from the hot, humid lowlands to base camp in five days, arriving Aug. 29.

The early part of the trip was relaxed and fun. For the first time in her career O’Neill brought her husband and two young children along for the journey to base camp.

“It was this really funny dynamic that whole first bit going into the mountain,” O’Neill said. “(Harrington) had never seen me as mom before. We had been through so much stuff together but she had never seen that side of me.”

From base camp the group, minus O’Neill’s family and DesLauriers, moved up to an advanced base camp and started working on climbing the mountain.

From Sept. 4 through Sept. 29, the day of their full group summit attempt, each member made no fewer than six climbs between advanced base camp at about 18,700 feet to camp four at nearly 26,000 feet.

The purpose of the climbs was to acclimate to the elevation and haul gear to camp four for the summit attempt.

It was hard work but fun for the whole group.

“We had this amazing, thousands of feet of skiing as a whole team,” Morrison said recalling skiing near camp two. “Hooting and hollering, skiing, taking photographs of each other and skiing hard. I almost forgot we were at 22,000 feet.”

Heartbreaking decisions

By the time the crew was acclimated and the gear was in place they started watching for a summit window. It happened on Sept. 29-30.

Two days earlier they climbed from advanced base camp through 40 mile-per-hour winds and single-digit temperatures to get to camp four so they could start the summit push in good weather.

When they got to camp four everyone was in good condition, the weather was practically perfect and Mingma and Palden were already breaking trail toward the summit, which is at about 27,800 feet.

“I was ecstatic,” Morrison said. “All four of us were doing great. I thought we were in great shape. The weather was spectacular.”

Then the radio sparked to life. It was an urgent report from Mingma and Palden.

The two men had triggered a small avalanche on their way to the summit. They tried a second route and triggered another, this one large enough to carry Mingma a few hundred vertical feet, leaving him shaken and bruised but not seriously injured.

A week earlier a storm from the Bay of Bengal had brushed the Himalayas, dumping four feet of snow on the Makalu route. The subsequent winds weren’t strong enough to scour the snow surface.

It meant the mountain, at least for several hundred feet above camp four, was dangerously primed for avalanches.

“As soon as you added a human weight it triggered and we started having avalanches,” Ballinger said. “The slope above us was 3,000 feet, 35 to 40 degree slope, just the classic avalanche zone that had all been loaded.”

The bad news touched off an intense discussion among the entire team that went deep into the night and resumed again the following morning.

The first part of the debate centered on whether to continue forward immediately.

“We all felt good, we had all our gear in place, the weather was absolutely incredible,” O’Neill recalled. “It was just this one, 600-foot hump we had to get over.”

They decided it was too dangerous to proceed at the moment. But the debate wasn’t over. They had to decide whether to go back to advanced base camp to wait for another weather window.

“That was a little bit of a harder discussion,” O’Neill said. “I think the majority of us wanted to do that but the Sherpa again were completely finished.”

Although opinions were divided, the entire crew of Sherpa and westerners were determined to resolve the issue respectfully.

“We still stayed a team, even though the discussion was heated,” Harrington said.

Ballinger said they eventually came to the conclusion there was no certainty they would have another weather window after the snow stabilized and that the Sherpa were adamant it was time to head home.

“Even if we could have done the summit push without them there is still the matter of respect of teammates and whether that is appropriate when they felt so strongly,” Ballinger said. “Someone was pushed around by the mountain but not killed and they don’t get second chances, that is sort of part of their culture.”

It was time to pack up and head down.

“I was in the tent at camp four just crying,” said O’Neill. “I was so sad we weren’t trying for the summit.”

The disappointment didn’t last long.

With great weather and snow conditions below them the crew, with their packs loaded, would ski through the Makalu La at 24,500 feet and down a beautiful couloir to camp two.

They made turns, took more photos and took in views of Everest and Lhotse.

“The best part of the trip and the worst part of the trip for me were two hours apart,” Morrison said. “When we ultimately decided . we weren’t going to come back, there were tears and it was terrible. An hour or so later . we had this amazing ski down. It was really special.”

The aftermath of a successful failure

Less than three weeks after that emotional day the four mountaineers who made camp four gathered in the apartment of Ballinger and Harrington which also serves as the headquarters for Alpenglow Expeditions, Ballinger’s guiding service.

O’Neill was visiting from Colorado and the group laughed and chatted, instinctively playing off each other’s lines and making good-natured jokes.

Although they acknowledged they failed to accomplish the original goal of skiing from the top of Makalu, they were happy to have shared in several successes on the trip.

They skied from a higher point on Makalu than anyone previous. They also packed out all the gear, supplies and garbage they brought to the mountain.

“We laughed and we cried and we drank tequila and we started planning the next trip,” Ballinger said.

Ballinger was especially happy with the way they were able to share the trip as it was happening on social media and that the group, men and women, Sherpa and westerner, made decisions as respectful equals.

“We attempted to respect the mountain by cleaning it . we attempted to respect each other as equal,” Ballinger said. “If we can tell the story and share it with more people and it inspires . I think there is something that adds that is beyond us.”

O’Neill and Harrington got to put a joyous trip and memories between them and the difficult Myanmar trip.

“I came home healthy and mentally intact so I think that is a success,” O’Neill said.

Added Harrington: “I think that success in the mountains is not at all about reaching the summit or doing something super badass.

“Success is defined by lots of laughs, good snacks and good decisions.”

___

Information from: Reno Gazette-Journal, https://www.rgj.com


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