Hitting the world’s highest peaks with ski mountaineer Adrian Ballinger

Adrian Ballinger (right) and his climbing partner, Sergei, halfway through another Himalayan mountain expedition; photo courtesy of Adrian Ballinger/Alpenglow Expeditions.

Adrian Ballinger, right, and his climbing partner, Sergei, halfway through another Himalayan mountain expedition. Photo courtesy of Adrian Ballinger/Alpenglow Expeditions

Ski mountaineer Adrian Ballinger makes a living pushing his sport to new heights—literally.

The 34-year-old who spent his childhood skiing small peaks in Massachusetts has become one of the premier ski mountaineers in the world, scaling and skiing down some of the most impressive pitches on Earth. In 2011, Ballinger became the first person to ever ski descend from Manaslu, a 26,759-foot Himalayan mammoth and the eighth-highest peak in the world, and he continues to seek out first descents anywhere he can.

But skiing is only half of the equation, as Ballinger has become an expert climber and guide, leading expeditions for more than 15 years, and even starting his own guiding company, Alpenglow Expeditions. Though residing in Lake Tahoe, California, currently, Ballinger’s guiding leads him around the world, up and down names like Everest and Ecuador’s Cotopaxi on a semi-regular basis.

GrindTV decided to learn a little bit more about one of ski mountaineering’s all-time greats from the source, and maybe figure out a way to get to the top of some peaks ourselves this season in the process.

Adrian Ballinger on the approach, with another of Mother Nature's giants looming in the background; photo courtesy of Adrian Ballinger/Alpenglow Expeditions.

Adrian Ballinger on the approach, with another of Mother Nature’s giants looming in the background. Photo courtesy of Adrian Ballinger/Alpenglow Expeditions

First things first, what is the difference between backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering?

Backcountry skiing is very different than ski mountaineering, but it's all a flow. Resort moves to backcountry moves to ski mountaineering.

When I think of ski mountaineering I think of ropes and technical systems to deal with exposure risks, glaciers, crevasses, and steep, technical terrain. Also, you have to think of summits. Backcountry goes to summits, but it's more about finding the best turns, where mountaineering isn't always about the skiing as much as it is attaining the summit and finding a technical route down.

How did you get into ski mountaineering?

I've been skiing since I was 7 years old, and even when I was a teenager I was kind of trying to do what people today would call backcountry skiing—skiing off peaks in New Hampshire with our skis on our backs and uncomfortable alpine boots. After college I moved to Telluride, Colorado, in 1998, and that's where I saw the potential of backcountry skiing. I really felt like that was what I needed to be doing: skiing fresh powder and finding my own way. That's when I started building a lot of my backcountry education and skills. Then I was guiding a lot of international climbing trips in South America and Asia, but I didn't really bring the two together until 2011, when I ski guided my first 8,000-meter peak. I had skied 20,000 peaks before that, but in 2011 I became the first skier to ski descend Manaslu in the Himalayas.

What have you been up to off season?

I own a guiding company, Alpenglow Expeditions, so that doesn't really have an offseason because somewhere around the world will have great climbing conditions at any time of year. But my focus this summer has been on rock climbing and pushing my skill level, so I've spent a lot of time in the Eastern Sierra doing some granite crag climbing. I enjoy it, but after two or three months on warm rock I feel like getting back on the mountain so I head back to Nepal at the beginning of October.

Adrian Ballinger

Adrian Ballinger has gotten used to feeling small on a regular basis. Photo courtesy of Adrian Ballinger/Alpenglow Expeditions

Do you have any training tips for us ahead of this year's ski season?

I am a strong believer of going into a season fit, so for me that means a combination of strength and power workouts in the gym, doing exercises that mimic real world movements, combined with cardio work. I'm a huge believer in interval and intensity training, but if I had a big tip it would be to spend some time with somebody who can help you get the most out of your workout, whether it be a trainer or what have you.

Backcountry terrain can be dangerous. What safety advice to you have for skiers going beyond the ropes?

There is a huge increase in risk when you go into the backcountry, and I think with this massive growth of people skiing out there it's easy to forget the dangers because you see people skiing out there and you feel like you are just outside the rope boundaries. A level 1 avalanche course is a real time commitment, but I think that the skills from those courses should be required. Also learn from people with more experience than you—take some trips with them into the backcountry.

How does someone move from backcountry skiing to the stuff you are doing in the high alpine?

We would like to offer backcountry skills classes and then give people the opportunity to ski even bigger mountains, so we developed a program that will be launching this [October] that is a progressive course designed to bring people from the backcountry of Tahoe or the Tetons down to a place like Ecuador's Cotopaxi, the tallest active volcano in the world, and bigger peaks like that.

Climbing a big mountains is great, but walking down them always feels a little wrong, as a skier.

Adrian Ballinger A view of the crater at the top of Ecuador's Cotopaxi, the highest active volcano in the world and all in a day's work for Ballinger; photo courtesy of Adam Ballinger/Alpenglow Expeditions.

A view of the crater at the top of Ecuador’s Cotopaxi, the highest active volcano in the world and all in a day’s work for Adrian Ballinger. Photo courtesy of Adrian Ballinger/Alpenglow Expeditions

What are your top five gear essentials?

Well, of course, beacon, probe, and shovel, and knowing how to use them. I'm a big fan of avalanche air bags; they don't replace knowledge or rescue skills but they are the most effective tool we can use in any terrain other than our brains. A partner is real important; the increase in solo travel just adds a lot of risk. A lot of people try to ski in their regular ski gear and just have a miserable time, so it's also worth renting true backcountry gear when starting out—you cut weight and add comfort.

What is the toughest thing you've accomplished on skis?

I've attempted to ski five of 14 8,000-meter peaks, but I've only been successful on two. Personally, Cho Oyuh, the sixth-tallest mountain in the world, was the toughest. It's considered an easier 8,000-meter peak in the scheme of things, but there was an avalanche around Camp 2 that injured two Sherpa, and our team had to get them off the mountain. At that point the Sherpa decided the mountain was too dangerous to continue.

Coming from a ski background, my ski partner, Sergei, and I were able to recognize that the Sherpas triggered a very specific weak point and that we could safely find a route to the summit. We decided to make a push to the summit anyway, even though there was no route to Camp 3, Camp 4, or the summit. Eventually I, Sergei, and two Sherpa put in the entire route from Camp 2 to the summit in a single push, which took us 15 hours. I had broken trail through knee-deep conditions for half the way up. We got to the summit and realized we had to get down from 27,000 feet at 4 p.m., on our skis.

I was exhausted, but we had an incredible continuous ski from the summit to Camp 1, which is about a 10,000-foot ski descent. It was one of the hardest skis I've ever had, but it was also one of my proudest days.

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