Having summited Mt. Everest eight times, maintained a spotless reputation as a mountain guide, and even pioneered the use of pre-acclimatization tents in preparation for mountain summits, Adrian Ballinger is a world-renowned mountain climber. As many of our readers know, we eagerly follow the adventures of Adrian and his girlfriend, pro-rock climber Emily Harrington, on their YouTube channel called DangerStikTV.
Moja Gear met up with Adrian to talk about his life as a mountaineer, his experience as a business owner, and how you can join him on one of these expeditions as either a client or a guide with Alpenglow Expeditions.
- Age 43, born in the United Kingdom, but now calls Squaw Valley home
- Summited Mt. Everest 8 times, including once without supplemental oxygen
- Has led over 100 expeditions, including guides on Kilimanjaro, Denali, Cotopaxi, Alpamayo, and many in North America
- Met his girlfriend, pro rock climber Emily Harrington at Camp 2, elevation of 21,000 feet on Mount Everest
- Can you imagine summiting Mount Everest and having the summit be the 2nd best experience of the trip!?
- Sponsors: Eddie Bauer, La Sportiva, Favre-Leuba Swiss Watches, Life by Spot Insurance, Blizzard Ski Boots, Technica Ski Boots
- Owner of the international guiding company, Alpenglow Expeditions
Many people dream of conquering the mountains, but very few find themselves standing at the summit. What is your origin story? How did you manage to get to where you are today as a world-class mountaineer and guide?
As a boy, I found some mountaineering books and just couldn’t get enough of reading about what the original explorers like Reinhold Messner did in the mountains. I fell in love with the idea of Everest and big mountains. Then, as a 12-year-old, I was introduced to climbing by a family friend.
As a young kid, I learned quickly that I’m an average athlete. But I also discovered that I’m willing to work harder than most other people and suffer harder than most other people for things that I love. In the mountains, if you can work hard and suffer, you can do more.
I started going to the White Mountains of New Hampshire during the winter when the mountain ascents create really uncomfortable and harsh conditions. At the time, I didn’t know much about mountaineering, but I was able to suffer through and learn.
The last, and really important part of my formation story is the incredible series of mentors I had in my life. The only way to learn how to how to survive and succeed in high elevation skiing and big mountain climbing is through a mentor-apprentice relationship. In my college years, I worked with Chris Warner who, at the time, owned the Earth Trek Climbing Gyms.
When I was 17 years old, I began assisting Chris, as his intern, on guiding trips he was leading on 20,000 foot peaks in South America. I had just this incredible mentor teaching me while I was quite young.
That experience ultimately led to Everest trips with Russell Brice. Russell is a legend who modernized Himalayan guiding. He started in the late 90s. Being able to learn from him was a huge part of my path.
You have been guiding with your company Alpenglow Expeditions for several years, and the company has grown tremendously. Now, rather than being introduced as a mountaineer, you are introduced as a successful businessman and entrepreneur. Tell us about the history of growth at Alpenglow Expeditions. What has made you successful?
I started the company in 2004 as an international guide company focusing on high altitude peaks around the world. And that’s how we worked for the first ten years of Alpenglow’s history. Just five years ago we were only eight guides. Eight guides running everything, and I was still on three-quarters of the trips myself. Then we broke a moratorium on permits in Lake Tahoe.
Since 1976 there’s been only one guide company in Lake Tahoe, and no new permits had been issued. It took ten years, but we finally persuaded the Forest Service to give us another permit. Four years ago, we started guiding locally in Tahoe with rock climbing tours and transitioned into backcountry skiing tours, avalanche education courses, ice climbing, and most recently, we built a via ferrata. A via ferrata is a protected climbing route that allows people to safely climb big mountain or big rock faces with the use of permanent steel anchors and cables that keep climbers on a designated path at all times. One of Alpenglow’s most successful via ferratas is on the tram face in Squaw Valley.
This summer we had 38 seasonal guides on the Alpenglow roster, a winter crew covering skiing tours and a summer crew tasked for rock climbing, plus additional full-time employees.
It’s been a lot of fun having the opportunity to bring younger guides in to mentor and to provide opportunities within an industry that’s traditionally very hard to break into. Since it’s difficult to become a mountain guide, the activities provided by Alpenglow, such as the via ferrata and local rock climbing tours, gives aspiring guides an opportunity to try guiding and see if they want to grow with us.
Life with Emily Harrington
You and (professional rock climber) Emily Harrington have been a couple since you met at Camp 2 on Mount Everest in 2012. Have you heard of anyone else meeting their partner on Everest?
Yes, actually! A doctor that was working at the HRA, the Himalayan Rescue Association, the main medical clinic on the mountain connected with a co-guide, Bruce, from one of my trips and they now have a life together, including a child or two. So, we’re not the only couple to meet on Everest, however as they met at base camp, Emily and I met at camp two at 21,000 feet!
Both you and Emily spend a lot of the year traveling. What does that do to your relationship?
This is a very real challenge. Being apart five months a year and being worried about of one of us having an accident puts a real stress on our relationship. We think about and discuss that risk when we are apart and when we are together. But the strength this relationship has given us, both as individuals and as a couple–I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Your new YouTube channel DangerStikTV has been documenting the adventures of both you and Emily. Tell us, where did you come up with the name DangerStikTV?
It’s from our nicknames that we gave each other. When I first met Emily on Everest, we were in this really stressful environment. She was so small, quiet and shy, yet so strong and a little bit mischievous. So, I came up with that name Danger Mouse for her. When I started calling her Danger Mouse, she figured I think that I also needed a slightly insulting nickname. Since I’m super skinny and really tall, (6’2” and 140 pounds), she started calling me Stick Bug.
For the past seven years, those have been our nicknames for each other: Danger Mouse and Stick Bug. So, when we started our YouTube channel together, we wanted to integrate those names. Thus, we came up with DangerStikTV.
Your company Alpenglow has been credited with pioneering the use of pre-acclimatization tents to improve client success on big mountain summits. How did you come up with that idea?
Pre-acclimatization tents were already being used by endurance racers. Especially by racers that live in low elevation cities like New York City, Seattle, or San Francisco who were training for races like the Leadville 100 (ultra-marathon, Leadville, CO). The first person I actually heard of using a tent for mountaineering was a British guide named Kenton Cool. Kenton was doing a project with Samsung to make the first phone call from the summit of Mount Everest. They had only 30 days to prepare, so he used a pre-acclimatization tent to prepare for the elevation. In 2011, I was guiding a 70 day trip on the mountain, and Kenton came in and did it in 30 days.
I immediately thought ‘this is the most obvious thing I’ve ever seen!’ I’m spending eight months a year in a yellow tent on the side of a mountain acclimatizing to the elevation. Most of that time I’m festering away while my body acclimatizes. I thought, if there’s a way I could shorten that acclimatization time for myself and my clients, it would be a complete game-changer. We started playing with pre-acclimatization tents in 2012, first to support our 8,000 meter peak trips, then our 7,000 meter peak trips like Aconcagua. Now we use them for 6,000 meter peaks like Cotopaxi in Ecuador. Based on the success of using the pre-acclimatization tents, Alpenglow now offers Thursday to Sunday long weekend trips allowing our customers to pre-acclimatize at home, slide out, and be ready to climb a 20,000 foot peak in a weekend.
Over the eight years we’ve been using pre-acclimatization tents, not only have we seen shorter trip times, but Alpenglow’s success rates with clients actually increased compared to traditional length trips. Our customers are staying healthier and stronger because they lose less muscle mass due to not being at altitude for as long, which helps to increase performance and aids in a shorter yet safer journey.
So how does an aspiring guide start working for Alpenglow?
We require AMGA (American Mountain Guide Association) certification of some type at every level of guiding, starting as a via ferrata guide and progressing all the way up to being an Everest guide.
Related post: How to Become a Certified Climbing Guide
There’s a certification called the SPI (Single Pitch Instructor) certification, and that’s the most basic certification we will accept to start working in Tahoe. Once someone has their SPI and they also have personal rock climbing or ski experience, we get introduced. Then we spend some time getting to know the guide, typically going skiing or climbing with myself or one of my partners, Logan or Aaron. This gives everyone a fair chance to connect and provides the guide with a sense of what we think makes Alpenglow special and how we differentiate from most other guide companies.
If that goes well, then they would start shadowing and interning with some of our lead guides and start working into actual paid work. Our goal is for them to continue along their AMGA certification path to eventually become a rock climbing guide, then a ski guide, then an Alpine guide, and one day a fully certified IFMGA (International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations) guide. The IFMGA guides are the only guides that we allow to run our international expeditions.
I believe in guiding as a career, not as a summer job after college before you go into a real job. And that’s very different from what mountain guiding has been considered for a long time in the US. For many years, common perceptions of mountain guiding have been akin to raft guiding or ski instructing. But we’re trying to follow the European model, which follows a five to ten-year path of becoming fully certified, and thereby, creating a career.
The other way to get adventuring with Alpenglow Expeditions is as a client. But I imagine you don’t just take anyone up a peak. What’s the process to become eligible to go on one of these epic adventures as a client with Alpenglow?
This is another major point of differentiation for Alpenglow. We’re real partners with our climbers and our guides, rather than the traditional guide-client relationship, which is typically transactional-based without a trusted relationship. So, that doesn’t mean we’re expecting everyone to be able to go climb Denali without a guide. Of course, that would just put us out of business.
We’re looking for clients to gain the skills they need to be a confident partner in the mountains. The most common call we get at Alpenglow is “I want to climb Mount Everest. I saw on TV that it’s not that hard.” And they have no climbing experience. Maybe they’ve done some hiking or they’re climbing at the gym, and they think they can go to Everest. There’s nothing wrong with that ambition, but we just try to educate them that we expect them to have a resume of experience so that if and when things go wrong, they’re going to be a confident part of the team helping each other to survive. Because the mountains are dangerous.
For example, to climb Everest, we require someone to climb five 6,000 meter peaks, one 7,000 meter peak, and one 8,000 meter peak before they can go to Everest. We have lots of trips that don’t have that requirement. Sixty percent of our trips are introductory trips, like climbing volcanoes in Mexico or the high peaks of Ecuador. Those are introductory trips that don’t require anything other than fitness and an excitement to learn. However, the courses that do have an experience requirement are meant to ensure the climber has near-professional knowledge with knots, belaying, anchors, safety strategies, and advanced climbing systems.
Speaking of Everest, it has become a controversial topic in the mountaineering world with stories of business people and other wealthy individuals getting to the top with dubious levels of preparation. What has been your experience with this trend on Everest?
This is the biggest issue I see on Mount Everest. I’ve been on Mount Everest every year for the past 12 years and seeing the change is concerning. It’s not that too many people are there. The issue is the lessening of experience of the people, for both the clients and the leaders. The experience levels of both are going down. This is leading to issues in poor and risky decision making. Alpenglow offers an alternative to that reality.
Special thanks to Adrian Ballinger for sharing his origin story and his experience as a mountain guide and business owner. We are thankful for ambassadors like Adrian who are developing paths for others to experience rock climbing and mountaineering through mentoring and coaching. With the rapid expansion of our sport, we need more people like Adrian working to develop skills and decision making of those out on the rocks.
Follow Adrian’s story to create success in your life and the lives of those around you.
- Develop and encourage the will to push yourself.
- Seek opportunities to exercise and train this will into skill.
- Serve mentors that can develop this will and skill into expertise.
Interested in seeing the world with Adrian through Alpenglow Expeditions? Learn more about how to climb with Alpenglow as a client or guide at AlpenglowExpeditions.com.