Q&A: Emily Harrington and Adrian Ballinger on Skiing Cho Oyu

Climbing an 8,000-meter peak isn't easy, climbing an 8.000-meter peak with skis on your back sounds even harder.
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Climbing an 8,000-meter peak isn't easy, climbing an 8.000-meter peak with skis on your back sounds even harder.

If you follow the outdoor industry at all I'm sure you have heard the names Adrian Ballinger and Emily Harrington. You may recognize Emily for sending Golden Gate in Yosemite or Adrian from broadcasting his attempt of Everest without supplemental oxygen via snapchat account #EverestNoFilter. This time the power couple is at it together and they brought their skis.

emily harrington_chooyu

Their mission was to summit and ski Cho Oyu, the world's sixth highest peak at 8,188 meters (that's 29,906 feet). Not only did the two care to accomplish simply that, they planned to do it in less than two weeks time, door-to-door from their Tahoe home.

Emily and Adrian summited Cho Oyu on October 1st, ten days after they had left their house in Tahoe and returned home within the two week mark. We had a chance to catch up with them to talk about the skiing on Cho Oyu and of course a few other things.

MP: You have both climbed Everest before, what made you decide you wanted to climb and ski Cho Oyu?

EMILY: I grew up skiing in Colorado. I raced as a kid and skiing was my number one passion in life. When I started climbing at age 10, I essentially lost interest in skiing because excelling at both didn’t seem realistic. I was mainly an indoor competition climber and later transitioned to outdoor climbing, so in my head skiing was just inconvenient and got in the way of climbing. I didn’t ski for fifteen years until I met Adrian. He told me he was a skier first and a climber second. He basically told me we couldn’t date if I couldn’t ski. Over the last 4 years I’ve rediscovered my love for skiing, and really put energy into becoming a good competent mountain athlete in all regards. Now that I’m not only a competition climber, skiing seems to complement my climbing, especially when it comes to big mountains. After Everest I realized that I loved exploring big mountains, but that it might be more fulfilling and fun with skis. The idea to ski Cho came after our failed attempt to climb and ski Makalu (the fifth tallest peak in the world) last fall. I had most fun on that trip while we were skiing, even if the skiing was terrible. It’s just amazing to be on such a massive peak making turns - in my mind it’s the most adventurous way to explore these mountains.

ADRIAN: Attempting to ski 8000-meter peaks is where my passion for skiing combines with my experience and ability at high altitude. There is nothing I do that adds as much challenge, both physically and mentally. The decision-making necessary to mitigate risk is really difficult and I thrive on that. And physically, making turns after climbing something so big is crushing. It’s the best.

Skiing Cho Oyu this year was all about doing a big high-altitude ski trip with Em, and trying to do it fast. I successfully climbed and skied Cho Oyu in 2013, so this was my second time. This time we wanted to try to ski a different line, and also try to do the entire trip in less than two weeks, door-to-door from Tahoe (this was the first time an 8,000-meter peak has been climbed that quickly).

MP: How were the conditions and how does it compares to the backcountry skiing you do in your hometown of Tahoe?

EMILY: 8,000-metwe peak skiing isn’t super glamourous. There’s no charging going on. Most of the time the snow is incredibly variable and the skiing is hard and dangerous. It’s far more physical than just walking back down. You do a lot of jump turns—but only a few in a row—and then have to stop to catch your breathe. Linking six turns makes you feel like a total champion. It’s really quite funny when you think about it, but the most fun I had was when we were skiing.

ADRIAN: Skiing Cho Oyu is the polar opposite of skiing in Tahoe. Snow conditions at high altitude tend to be really challenging (lots of breakable crust and windboard this season) and every turn is exhausting. As Em said, it tends not to be dreamy skiing, but the challenge is part of what makes it so special. You definitely earn every turn.

The risk also keeps you really focused. In Tahoe, we often ski perfect powder with low avalanche hazard in moderately-angled bowls and glades. The risk is low and that’s part of why I make Tahoe my home—we can ski most every day and manage the risk. Skiing 8,000-meter peaks demands an acceptance of some risk, from avy hazard to fall potential to high altitude. That risk demands focus, and makes every turn memorable.

MP: What percentage of the descent were you actually able to ski?

EMILY: We put our skis on on the summit [about 27,000 feet] and didn’t take them off until the snow ended at camp one [21,300 feet]. We did use the fixed lines at times, due to really bad visibility and hard snow conditions. But we skied a nice line away from the ropes from just below the summit all the way down to camp two [23,500 feet].

ADRIAN: Yep, from the very top all the way until the end of the snow!

MP: Did you prepare or train specifically for the downhill?

EMILY: Not really. I hadn’t skied since April. We only trained for altitude by trail running and rockclimbing. I was super nervous at first because we had a really long day of climbing the previous day, woke up at 11 p.m. that night to head to the summit, and I was expected to make turns on breakable crust in steep no-fall terrain? Seemed like a recipe for disaster, but I kept it together and I’m pretty proud of that.

ADRIAN: Yeah, I would say we focused our training for both the up and down. Big summer days in the mountains [Sierra] here at home demand a lot of uphill and downhill travel, mostly trail-running and rock climbing. I feel that kind of training transfers really well to both the climbing and skiing on big peaks. Neither of us had made a single turn since April, so those first turns off the top were pretty real.

MP: What did your ski kit look like? - Super light? Skinny randonee skis? Pow skis?

EMILY: I had a light touring set up. La Sportiva Sveltes with Dynafit Speed Radicals and La Sportiva Sparkle four buckle boots.

ADRIAN: We definitely don’t go super-light. We needed confidence on the down in serious terrain with consequences, so no two-buckle boots or super skinny skis. We trained to be able to handle the extra weight. I skied on Blizzard ZeroG 95’s and Tecnica ZeroG Guide Pro boots. The skis are 95 underfoot and have some carbon for stiffness light weight, and the boots are four-buckle and charge, while still having a good walk mode and light weight.

MP: All said and done, are you glad you decided to ski the descent?

EMILY: Indeed. It’s one of my proudest achievements. Being able to ski competently under such tough conditions and an exhausting summit day takes real stamina and focus. My goal as an athlete is to be as well-rounded as possible, and this accomplishment was something I never would have imagined I could do five years ago. It feels really nice to be able to say I’m a skier again.

ADRIAN: Totally! It pushed us both so far. Our summit day was more than eighteen hours long, and demanded huge focus and effort. The ski descent was an instrumental piece of the overall goal and expedition. And even though the turns weren’t sexy, I loved every one.

MP: What’s next?

EMILY: Rockclimbing in Kentucky, then home this winter for ski season and hopefully Tahoe has a good year.

ADRIAN: Yep, rock climbing for November. Then diving into ski season. My guide company, Alpenglow Expeditions, guides backcountry skiing, avalanche courses, and lift-assisted backcountry skiing in Tahoe. So we are dreaming of a big season!

MP: And for the curve ball... for lots of couples participating in high-risk, high-stress activities it is strenuous on their relationship. Do you two ever have “exercise fights?” (Don't know what an exercise fight is? Watch this and this.)

EMILY: Those were awesome. I think some of that probably happens. Except I’m definitely the one who never brings enough gear on big climbs.

ADRIAN: Haha, of course our climbing and skiing, especially big expeditions, at times adds stress to our relationship. But it’s also those experiences, and how we communicate and work through disagreements and strong emotions, that I think make us so strong together in our daily lives. Em is by far my best play partner, and we get to live our lives together.

Follow along on more Adrian and Emily adventures via their snapchat accounts: adrianjb & emilyaharringto