words :: Ned Morgan.
In the world of big-mountain climbing, decision-making is king. Every footfall counts. Every handhold. Every piece of weather demands action. Do you keep climbing up, or turn around? Do you dig in and stay put? Either way, on the world’s highest peaks, there’s no time to ponder. You have to hit it or quit it. One of the world’s leading alpine climbers and guides, Adrian Ballinger, knows more than most about how decisions, good or bad, affect outcomes on the world’s highest mountains.
Ballinger is the only American who has skied two 8,000-metre peaks, was the first person to ski Manaslu, the eighth-tallest mountain in the world, and in 2011 became the first person to summit three 8,000m peaks in only three weeks (Everest twice and Lhotse once).
He says that women are better decision-makers at high altitudes. This climbing season, Ballinger’s guiding company, Alpenglow Expeditions, is supporting an all-female team.
In the midst of a challenging climbing season on Everest, we caught up with Ballinger recently to ask him about ego, gender, and decision-making in the high mountains.
Mountain Life: Why in your opinion are women better-composed and stronger when it comes to high alpine?
Adrian Ballinger: Over many years in the big mountains, one of the things I’ve observed is that many of my male clients are oftentimes a lot more tied up in ego. They’re not as good perhaps at listening to their bodies. And at altitude what that means is they might go a little bit faster than they should and they might not take a rest day when they should. They might not drop back down lower on the mountain when they should. Instead they try to keep up with the group or be in front. And in the big mountains you can’t really recover when you go into a deficit. So if you push too hard one day, if you red-line yourself, it can have effects days or weeks later. Over more than two decades of full-time climbing and guiding and in the high mountains around the world, what I see is that women have a tendency to listen to their bodies and to be a little more respectful of what their bodies are telling them. And that leads, at the end of the day, to being stronger and more capable on those final summit pushes.
ML: Could you give examples of times when you observed women climbers displaying better decision-making and being more in touch with their bodies?
AB: This is something I’ve seen over and over in my climbing in the big mountains and that I’ve personally experienced with my partner Emily Harrington as well. Emily’s a professional climber like me, she specializes in rock climbing and I specialize in the high mountains. But at this point we’ve also done climbs together, whether big walls in Yosemite or 8,000m peaks in Nepal. I consistently watch Emily: with very little ego, she knows when she needs to slow down or take a day off. And that’s worked out for her and given her the strength to be successful on summit day or on the final push on the big ski descent.
ML: Would you agree that an excess of ego frequently gets people killed on Everest and elsewhere?
AB: I think ego is one of those really important things to recognize and acknowledge in the big mountains. I think to be truly successful in the mountains there is often some ego there and it’s probably reinforced—if you don’t get yourself killed, then that starts to tell you that your decision making was “right”, which it often might not be. You might have just gotten lucky. So it might take some ego to be able to push through the unknowns and the risk, and continue pushing for these big goals. But at the same time, ego—for the wrong reasons, whether it’s fame or money—can definitely get you killed in the big mountains.
ML: Have you ever perceived ego as a factor in any of your own decisions at altitude? Or in the decisions of climbers you know?
AB: I would certainly say that some of the death we see on Everest has to do with ego, not listening to our bodies, and not listening to people with more experience who recommend turning around. And just not being willing or able to turn around because our egos might not be able to handle failure. I don’t think it’s about getting rid of ego, it’s about acknowledging it and recognizing it when it might be causing us to make dangerous decisions. I think it’s that recognition and acknowledgement that’s important. And there are men and women who I think have wrestled control of their ego and are able to make these hard decisions.
I see it not so much in my guiding, since we as mountain guides do have the last word with our clients about safety. But in my personal climbing with friends, that’s where I sometimes question people’s decisions. And for myself as well. Looking back at 2016, when I failed on Everest without supplemental oxygen, had a lot to do with my ego: wanting to keep up with my partner, Cory Richards, and ultimately making some poor decisions based on that because he was faster than me above 8,000m. And I had a really hard time with that. And ultimately I ran out of energy and put myself in a really dangerous situation trying to keep up with him instead of listening to my own body.
And that was really the biggest change coming back was getting control of that and realizing that even after all these years of climbing and maybe being the fastest one, I needed to be okay with not being the fastest above 8,000m in and finding my pace and ways to keep my body warm so I could actually stand on top without supplemental oxygen. So certainly I’ve perceived ego as a factor in my own decisions. Ego isn’t all bad. But recognizing and acknowledging it I think is absolutely essential to safety in the mountains. And I often think my female partners, guides and peers often come to that more comfortably than a lot of my male partners or peers.
We also spoke to Alpenglow Expeditions mountain guide Carla Perez—the first South American woman to summit Everest without supplemental oxygen. (Only seven women worldwide have ever accomplished this feat.)
ML: Could you talk about how the experience of training and climbing with an all-female team? Do you notice a difference in group dynamics as compared to mixed teams?
CP: Yes, I feel different dynamics on an all-female team, I feel less pressure to have to show “something” to be valued, which is a very common situation on a team of men where normally they all compete for who is the best or the strongest. On a female team it’s easier to be yourself, sensitive, sweet, etc. But at the same time having the determination and the strength to accomplish your goals. I could not say that an all-female team is better than a mixed team. I like both and I daresay that climbing in mixed teams is the best, because I feel that if all the members can handle their roles with the right emotional intelligence, we can achieve the perfect balance of the feminine and masculine and that is optimal to achieve any great goal.
ML: Do you think women are more mindful and intelligent on the mountain? Why?
CP: I could say that in general women are more mindful and sensitive. The attributes you named in your question are independent of the genre; I feel that these attributes come more for the degree of “awakening” of every human being. In the mountains and in life I have known both men and women with or without these attributes.