California climbers use groundbreaking techniques to climb Mount Everest

Graham Cooper rejoices after reaching the summit of Mount Everest.

(Alpenglow Expeditions)

Sleeping with your head in a bag works.

Graham Cooper and Adrian BallingerCalifornian mountain climbers whose acclimatization for Mount Everest included sleeping at home with their heads in hypoxic tents meant to mimic the pain of extreme altitude reached the world's highest peak on Wednesday.

Thanks to the groundbreaking acclimatization technique, the duration of the expedition was approximately halved, from about two months to less than one. They also climbed the much less traveled northern route, starting in Tibet rather than Nepal, to avoid the treacherous crowds and chaos of the more popular southern route.

A week ago, a harrowing human traffic jam on the southern route left dozens of climbers stranded shuffling in one file along a narrow ridge just below the summit – a pile-up that turned deadly when a snow cornice collapsed beneath their feet.

Six climbers crashed toward a nearly vertical rock face 10,000 feet below. Four survived because they were properly tied to a fixed rope. Two others, who apparently were not, slid helplessly into the abyss as the crowd watched in horror.

Growing crowds, filth and danger on the southern route, asked Ballinger, founder of the Olympic Valley-based guiding service Alpenglow Expeditionsto take his clients to the north side of the mountain instead.

“It's colder, the route is more difficult, and the bureaucracy of dealing with China and getting the permits is a complete nightmare,” Ballinger told The Times in an interview before the trip. “But despite these things, the Chinese are trying to regulate so that once you get on the mountain it's safer, cleaner and much less crowded.”

Ballinger, who has been climbing and guiding Mount Everest since 2009, stuck to his principles and put his Everest treks on hold after the Chinese government closed the side of the mountain in 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The May expedition was his first time since then.

On Wednesday he stood at the summit, under a perfect blue sky with snow-capped peaks stretching to the horizon in every direction: “It was incredible!”

A total of 23 climbers, guides and Sherpas from the Alpenglow team reached the summit on Tuesday and Wednesday.

But there were plenty of obstacles along the way.

First, the Chinese government made a last-minute change to their permits, forcing a tense dance with the bureaucracy and delaying entry into the country by a week. The start date was important because there is only a short period each year, usually the end of May, when the weather is good enough to attempt to climb Everest's 29,032-metre peak. Expeditions must be meticulously planned, and any delay can jeopardize the entire enterprise.

The team also faced dangerous winds.

On Monday, as they reached the “death zone” above 26,000 feet — where most human bodies begin to fatally break down without supplemental oxygen — Ballinger posted about the conditions on Instagram. With the wind howling and the bright white peak peeking over his right shoulder in the distance, he pulled down his oxygen mask and said to the camera: 'The wind is a bit more reasonable now.

“But it's close,” he added, “to the edge of not having the [safety] margin that I want.”

Ultimately, the weather cooperated, ending a five-year wait before Ballinger returned to the highest point on Earth. It was his ninth time at the summit.

For Cooper, 54, a biotech executive from Oakland with an impressive resume in endurance sports, it was the physical test of a lifetime. And that's a lot coming from a man who has competed eleven times in the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii won the legendary Western States Endurance Run, a 100-mile ultramarathon in California's Sierra Nevada.

The four-day trek to the summit was like running four Ironmans in a row, Cooper said during a telephone interview from Everest base camp Friday morning.

He coughed during the conversation and his exhaustion was palpable as he described the worst: a sudden case of acute renal failure during the descent.

“I peed a full bottle of what looked like Peet's coffee,” he said. Ballinger was trying to arrange a helicopter rescue when, to everyone's relief, Cooper “started peeing clear again,” he said.

A man reads a book while lying in bed with his head in a plastic tent.

As part of his preparation for the Mount Everest expedition, Graham Cooper slept for months in a hypoxic tent that slowly lowers oxygen levels to simulate conditions at extreme altitudes.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Because of the permit issue, which meant fewer days to acclimatize on the mountain itself, the trip would have been a failure without the weeks of acclimatization by sleeping at home with their heads in those bags, Cooper said.

“Without that I would have been absolutely crushed,” Cooper said.

During the last night in the tent before attempting to summit, Cooper said he had serious doubts they would make it. They had climbed in 30mph winds to reach that point, and the weather forecast predicted more of the same for the next day. If it got any worse, they would have to turn around.

But the weather held out and climbing from the north side the Alpenglow team had the mountain gloriously to themselves.

“It definitely lived up to expectations,” Cooper said. “It was an epic adventure.”

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