Adrian Ballinger is an explorer, adventurer and mountain guide. The only American who has skied two 8,000-meter peaks, Ballinger was the first person to ski Manaslu, the eighth tallest mountain in the world, and in 2011 became the first person to summit three 8,000-meter peaks in only three weeks (Everest twice and Lhotse once). He is the only American guide to have both AMGA/IFMGA guide certifications and has achieved more than 10 summits of 8,000-meter peaks (including six summits of Mount Everest).
Ballinger has recently become an ambassador for Favre-Leuba, wearing the Bivouac 9000 on his adventures. I caught up with him in his Lake Tahoe, CA, home, where he is training for his next expedition.
How did you get involved with Favre-Leuba?
Having accurate information and time on the big mountains is very important to us. I have used a variety of different watches in the past. I heard about Favre-Leuba when they announced the Bivouac 9000. My agent made the initial contact and we started talking about how we could work together.
How important is wearing an accurate watch on your expeditions?
I can’t overstate the importance of the altimeter. I am always wearing a watch with an altimeter on it. I have a second device, but they are electronic, and we are often in very cold environments (-40 degrees), so electronics don’t function well. We need that altitude data to know where we are on the mountain when we don’t have good visibility. We really need this info to know where to put our camp, when we are looking at maps — altitude is so important to have.
When we are climbing Everest, we use bottled oxygen, and we have to know exactly when to change the bottles. Having accurate time and doing accurate calculations makes sure we never run out of oxygen. It is theoretically possible to climb Everest without supplemental oxygen, and I have done it, but when we are doing these guided climbs, we always use supplemental oxygen. If you run out of oxygen, your brain is starved of the oxygen you need. You start getting really dumb really quickly. You start to act drunk and you will eventually sit down and die if you don’t go back on oxygen. Over 8,000 meters, in 30 minutes you could be in a very dangerous situation. It’s very easy not to realize you have run out of oxygen, and at that point you might not be able to make the bottle change.
The gauge that tells you how much time you have left in the bottle is on your back, so it’s not easily accessible. We use time and the flow rate to do the calculations.
How has the Favre-Leuba Bivouac 9000 performed so far?
The Bivouac handles the rigors of what I do perfectly. I have been wearing one now for eight months and it gets beaten up, and it is constantly getting wet. I do a lot of rock climbing, so it gets bashed, it goes into the mud, and it has handled everything. When we are up on these high mountains, we can’t have exposed skin and we can’t have metal next to our skin, so I changed the band to a large rubber band, so it’s on the outside of all my layers, always exposed to the elements. It has really taken a beating and it has performed fantastically. I am impressed with how it has held up.
One of the things I really like about the Bivouac is how you can adjust for barometric changes with the bezel, because it is so simple. This is a really elegant solution for something I have to do all the time.
Why else is time important on the mountain?
Once we get up to these high altitudes, our cognition goes downhill fast, so having schedules to stick to is very important. We move for two hours at a time, then rest for 15 minutes, and we use the watch to know when to stop and when to move.
I have been on Everest for the past 11 years, and there are certain landmarks we have to reach by a certain time, and if we don’t get there, we turn the team around. We are constantly using our watch for that as well.
Why do you do what you do?
I love being outside in these incredibly beautiful places. The views and the majesty of these places are like my church because it is so special and so powerful. The reason I keep going back year after year and why I enjoy guiding is watching each person on the mountain — everyone is pushed to their limit physically and mentally and emotionally. Seeing people pushed that hard and working through these challenges is fantastic.
How did you get started climbing mountains?
My family was not outdoorsy at all, but I had a family friend who was a well-known rock climber who took me out. I read my first Reinhold Messner book about Mount Everest when I was around 12 and it captured me — the unknown and the risk and the exploration. I started reading every book I could read about Everest, and this set me on my path. I started spending more and more time in the mountains and I didn’t know how I would get to Everest. So, I started mountain guiding after university and I went higher and higher.
I finally got to Everest when I was 31 in 2008, and I have been back every year since. I have spent almost three years of my life in a tent on Everest. I feel so fortunate when I look back on these years. So many of my high points and low points have happened on that mountain, from dealing with fatalities and accidents, and summiting without supplemental oxygen, which is my greatest accomplishment. I even met my girlfriend Emily Harrington on the mountain.
What is the next expedition for you?
Lhotse is the fourth tallest mountain in the world and it sits right next to Everest and it has a perfect gully dropping straight off the mountain, it’s an elevator shaft going straight down. No one has ever skied down it, several have tried but never succeeded. I summited it in 2013, but I couldn’t ski down it then because it was all blue water ice. Emily and I are skiing down Lhotse next.
What do you love about what you do?
I love the sense of exploration and unknown that comes with doing things that haven’t been done before. I have two jobs, as an athlete doing my own projects and as a mountain guide. On the athlete side, trying new things that haven’t been done before is important to me. I love guiding and I get a lot of joy from seeing people find their limits and I know I am impacting people’s lives. Being a professional climber can feel very selfish at times, and by having partners like Favre-Leuba, I can share my stories.
How do you feel about the Bivouac 9000?
The watch has become part of my life. Men don’t have a lot of chance to wear fun things — I have my belt, my sunglasses and my watch. The Bivouac is a watch that people notice and they want to ask questions.
I do a lot of skiing and ski guiding, so having water resistance in my watch is important. My life in the summer here at Lake Tahoe revolves around the lake. I try to swim just about every day and I don’t want to have to think about my watch when I jump in the lake, which is perfect for me.
I consider myself a watch guy. I always wore a watch. when I summited Mount Everest, I bought myself a nice watch to congratulate myself and that started my life in watches. I love this watch, it’s the perfect fit for me, so I haven’t started thinking about my next watch…yet.