The Everest Lightning Ascent: Two Weeks to the Top and Back with Alpenglow Expeditions – words by Roxanne Vogel
When I nervously called Adrian Ballinger in the autumn of 2017, I had no idea I’d eventually be working with his company, Alpenglow Expeditions, on the first ever 14-day summit of Mount Everest. Long before the whirlwind trip that occurred in May of this year, I had reached out to him about a different rapid ascent, a climb of the world’s highest volcano— Ojos del Salado—a peak just under 23,000 feet (7,000 m) in Chile. I was organizing an expedition down there to achieve in 5 days door-to-door what normally took 15 days or more. It was my first rapid ascent, and I wanted his advice on using Hypoxico tents to pre-acclimate. I was anxious and giddy when I talked to him. I knew he had perfected the rapid ascent technique over several years and was recently successful in getting clients to the top of Everest in 35 days this way. I also knew if I wanted to climb big peaks and hold down my full-time job at GU Energy Labs, I had to figure out a way to cut my expedition times down. Hell, I had spent the better part of three weeks climbing Denali in 2016, a lucky break I had between finishing my master’s degree and getting the job at GU. But the rest of my planned climbs couldn’t take that long. Who has that kind of PTO anyway?
After consulting with Adrian on the Ojos project, I made that climb successfully following a 6-week acclimation schedule using a Hypoxico altitude tent at home and a custom chamber we had installed in our gym at work (I know, lucky me!). I felt great, better than I ever had felt above 20,000 feet. My optimism grew. Next up, I’d attempt Ecuador’s 3 highest volcanos– Cayambe, Cotopaxi, and Chimborazo – in a similar rapid ascent style, tackling all three peaks in five days’ time over Thanksgiving (most itineraries take a couple weeks door-to-door). Again, I used the tent and chamber to pre-acclimate, spending 4 weeks preparing for the climb. I got there and felt awesome, climbed well, and shocked my Ecuadorian climbing partner, who had serious doubts about my ambitious plans before I’d arrived. I knew I was on to something.
Lighting Ascent Changes Everything
In October 2018, I called Adrian again, this time asking about his Everest Rapid Ascent program on the north side of the mountain. I had never really considered climbing from the north, I had originally planned to attempt the south side like most climbers, but I knew there was no way I’d spend two months languishing on the mountain. I couldn’t. Not only was it two months away from work, family and friends, it was that much more exposure to the negatives of living on the mountain. Muscle wasting, weight loss, germs, illness, sub-optimal nutrition, increased exposure to the elements and objective hazards, and more time just hanging around camp being, well, bored out of your gourd.
We chatted candidly and he gave me the rundown of the rapid ascent’s 35-day itinerary. It sounded great. Then he paused and uttered the words that changed everything: Lightning Ascent. He told me he was looking for the right candidate to try a 14-day door-to-door summit attempt of the mountain – the first time it’d ever been done. I was stunned into silence. Was that even possible? Was it safe? Someone could get seriously sick with AMS, acute mountain sickness, or worse…
I told him it sounded crazy, and good luck. We hung up and I thought that was that. But as the hours and days ticked by, I started buzzing with excitement. Why couldn’t I do it? I had all the resources and previous experience with the pre-acclimation protocols. I had been successful up to nearly 23,000 feet doing rapid ascents and had performed well. I wanted to do high-altitude research for my PhD program, and this would provide the ultimate case study of extreme environmental physiology—testing the limits of the human body and performance in a way never before seen. The data could potentially change the way climbers prepare for high altitude expeditions. Climbing could be safer, less risky. The more I The Everest Lightning Ascent: Two Weeks to the Top and Back with Alpenglow Expeditions thought about it, the more drawn to the Lightning Ascent option I became. I called Adrian back. “Let’s do this thing!” I said.
Time to Climb Mt Everest
Flash forward to May 2019 as I was the nearing the end of my 3-month stint of altitude pre-acclimation. We didn’t know the exact date I’d fly to Tibet, and I hadn’t purchased a plane ticket yet. Adrian had told me sometime between May 1st and 15th I’d need to be ready to hop on a plane, bags packed, all systems go. May 1 rolled around and the weather on the mountain was bad. AB told me to be patient. My guide, Lydia Bradey, whom I had requested accompany me for the climb (she’s long been a heroine of mine), was already on the mountain, along with Adrian and the team of Rapid Ascent climbers. Everyone had been there for a few weeks; I was losing my mind with anticipation. It was the worst case of FOMO you can imagine. Finally, on May 10th I got the green light to fly and I bought my one-way ticket to China. I landed in a tiny regional airport in Shigatse after 30 hours of travel and drove straight to basecamp at 17,000 feet. If the pre-acclimation plan hadn’t worked, I would have known immediately. I was relieved when I settled into my tent (complete with a bed, heater, and electricity) and felt just fine. Tired from travel, but otherwise great.
Fresh snow at interim camp
Shortly after I got to BC, I learned that the weather pattern had shifted, and it didn’t look like good news for my Lightning Ascent bid. Disappointed but not disheartened, I figured as long as I got to climb the mountain it was a win. Lydia and I started moving, first to Interim Camp at 19,000 feet, then to Advanced Base Camp at just over 21,000 feet. We rested there a couple nights and kept an eye on the weather. The whole time, Alpenglow ran the equivalent of a small military operation with precision and efficiency.
This year they were managing four teams of climbers, my team (Lightning Ascent), the main Rapid Ascent team, Cory Richards and Topo Mena attempting a new route, and a film crew team on a separate mission. All of us were on different itineraries and moved through camps at various times and sometimes in opposite directions like ships passing in the night. It was amazing how dialed Adrian and his staff were. They knew everything that was happening at each camp and kept tabs on all of us. We checked in daily with the expedition doctor, Monica Piris, who monitored our health status and was available for consult if anyone felt ill. They kept a watchful eye on me in particular, making sure my oxygen saturation levels didn’t dip too low and that I didn’t present any symptoms of AMS during my single push up the mountain. I continued to feel good as we pressed on, first to camp 1 at 23,000 feet (my first time above 7,000 meters), put on oxygen and climbed the fixed lines to camp 2 at 25,000 feet. We were finally in position to launch our summit attempt.
Lightning Ascent Summit Day on Mt Everest
I won’t bore you with the minutia, but suffice it to say that going for the summit the day we did, opting to depart at 2 am on May 22nd, before the fixed lines were finished to the summit, was somewhat unorthodox. We took a gamble, assumed the risk of having a longer summit day by skipping camp 3 entirely, and accepted the fact that we might have to turn back if the rope-fixing Sherpas didn’t complete the route that day. No one else on the north side took that risk and we ended up being not only the first climbing members to reach the summit that season, but the only ones that day. Just before noon, Lydia, our two climbing Sherpas, Mingma and Pasang, and I reached the summit—late in the day, by Everest standards. We arrived just after the rope-fixers had finished their work and descended, hugging and high-fiving us as we made our way up the final 250-foot snow slope to stand upon the summit, completely alone.
Summit morning on the north side of Mt Everest
Little did I know that May 22nd was the same day the now-infamous bottleneck photo from the south side of the mountain was taken. I remember looking down the south side, searching along the route for The Everest Lightning Ascent: Two Weeks to the Top and Back with Alpenglow Expeditions climbers, and seeing no one. Apparently, because we summited later in the day, the crowds had already come and gone from the Nepal side. I thought at the time we summited that maybe we had made a wrong turn somewhere and marveled at how strange it seemed that we were alone on the summit of Mount Everest. Who gets so lucky? It felt like a dream. For the 20 minutes we stood at the top of the world, sunlight streaming down, viewing the vastness of the high Himalayan peaks all around, everything else fell away. It was a perfect moment in time.
After 15 hours of moving, we got back to camp 2 in time to get ready for bed, doze a few restless hours, and wake up before dawn to high tail it down 8,000 feet of mountain to Base Camp. Exhausted, dirty, and hungry, we arrived 12 hours later, shoveled some food into our mouths and packed our giant duffels to head off to the airport. Lydia and I said goodbye and parted ways in Chengdu airport, and I continued my journey on to San Francisco, getting there at 11 pm on Friday, May 24th—one hour shy of the 2-week cutoff. I couldn’t believe it; we had pulled off the first-ever Lightning Ascent.
That was three months ago, today. Things have settled down for me since then, but for a while it was chaos. The bottleneck and overcrowding on the Nepal side created a media buzz that sent journalists my way asking about what needed to be done to stop the deaths and change the way Everest was climbed. I had a hard time answering, because my experience had been quite the opposite. I summited alone with my guide and two Sherpas, nobody else even climbed that day from the north. We saw no one except the rope-fixing team hired by the China-Tibet Mountaineering Association. No crowds, no waiting, the summit entirely to ourselves.
I’d like to think that one of the biggest keys to success in this plan was preparation. I worked my butt off training, lived in a hypoxic bubble for three months, and gave up any semblance of a social life to be as regimented and focused as possible. But it also took impeccable planning and logistics, which is where Adrian and the team at Alpenglow came in. They had camps in place as Lydia and I made our single push up the mountain. Food was prepared by a fantastic staff of cooks at the lower camps and hygiene was never in question. They had access to incredibly precise weather forecasting, and communication between camps on the mountain was seamless. The other Alpenglow guides, Chad Peele and Carla Perez, the entire staff, and camp manager Emily were not only fantastic humans to be around, they were also professional, capable, and organized. I couldn’t have asked for a better support system.
Now that I’m home and have had time to reflect, I can honestly say I have zero regrets about climbing Everest the way I did. It’s a huge commitment and a lot of it depends on weather, which is beyond anyone’s control. But, with a shorter itinerary and climbing from the north, you face less crowding, less exposure to objective hazards, less time to get sick, lose strength, and get bored. Plus, the Alpenglow camps are top-notch. It felt like being on a luxury safari when I showed up at Base Camp. Soda streams, whiskey, clean latrines, a volleyball court, you name it!
I am grateful beyond words to Adrian, his staff at the home office in Squaw Valley (Sean and Sam especially), and everyone on the mountain with Alpenglow this season. They truly live up to their motto: Adventure Done Right.
For more information about climbing Mt Everest or any of our international expeditions, check out our website. For any questions call our office at 877-873-5376 or send us an email firstname.lastname@example.org. We hope to climb with you soon!