What's it like to literally be on top of the world?
Only around 7,000 people know. That's how many have summited Mount Everest, the tallest mountain on the planet (29,029 feet).
This past spring, over the course of April and May, Cory Richards and Adrian Ballinger attempted to summit without the help of supplemental oxygen. Prior to their expedition, only 193 people had accomplished this.
It's hard to breathe efficiently at such high altitudes, which is why most people choose to use extra oxygen. But Richards and Ballinger really wanted to challenge themselves.
The fact that there's risk in climbing Everest is absolutely essential to the experience.
On top of trying to pull off this incredible feat, the two alpinists, who are part of the Eddie Bauer Guide and Athlete Team, decided they would Snapchat the entire adventure for the whole world to see.
What they didn't anticipate was how captivated people across the globe would become with their journey, which they documented under the handle EverestNoFilter.
This was the first time people were ever given a truly first-hand, real-time perspective of what it's like to climb Everest, and it was nothing short of epic.
Richards ended up summiting Everest on May 24.
Unfortunately, Ballinger began experiencing signs of hypothermia and had to turn back roughly 1,000 feet from his goal.
This was obviously incredibly disappointing for Ballinger, personally, but didn't diminish from what he and Richards already accomplished on their trek. Ballinger has, quite admirably, taken what happened as a learning experience, which can be difficult for anyone with a competitive spirit like his.
Richards and Ballinger recently sat down with Elite Daily at Ace Hotel in New York City to discuss their incredible adventure. They'd only been back in the US around a day and were clearly (and understandably) a little overwhelmed with the transition.
When asked what it was like to be off the mountain after eight weeks, Richards said,
I honestly … don't think we've really started to be back yet. But it's always an interesting transition to go from expedition life to normal life. For me it's really hard, it can be a little emotional, and you feel a little withdrawn. On expedition, everything is so predictable. You know what you're doing, you know the hours you're doing it. [Returning] can feel very frenetic, fragmenting and exhausting. It's great to see friends and family, but for me it's such an emotional time just because I feel so blown out. You walk into this lobby at 11:00 the other night and you're just like holy shit, what is happening?
It's difficult to imagine going from the summit of Everest to chatting with someone about the journey in the lobby/bar of a Manhattan hotel.
Richards and Ballinger are both seasoned mountaineers, so this was hardly their first big expedition.
Richards, who is well known for his incredible photography, was named National Geographic Adventurer of the Year in 2012.
Ballinger, who runs the guide company Alpenglow, had already summited Everest six times when he and Richards began their journey this spring. But he'd always done so with supplemental oxygen, so this was new territory in certain respects.
What these two men attempted could have killed them. Six people died on Everest during this year's climbing season — the same period Richards and Ballinger were on the mountain.
But in Ballinger's view, it's all still completely worth it,
The fact that there's risk in climbing Everest is absolutely essential to the experience. If you take out the risk then it's just a triathlon or another sporting event, and this is something so much deeper than that and so much more emotional because of that risk. So the risk is important. At the same time, we are absolutely not adrenaline junkies. Our job is to use our brains and our bodies and all the information we have in this team around us to make it as safe as possible, and that's part of the challenge ... [Climbing] is not just physical, it's not just running a race, it's physical, it's mental, it's emotional.
Richards expressed similar sentiments,
We go knowing we can die. But you certainly don't go with that intention, or even that idea that it's a likelihood. It's an acceptable level of risk for us, maybe not for everyone, but we feel comfortable with that … Yes, I know the consequences, and I accept those, but the experience is worth it.
The two actually started mapping out this climb four years ago, and not using supplemental oxygen was always part of the plan.
Ballinger said they weren't trying to knock people who do use oxygen, as he's summited in the past using it, but, in his words,
We wanted to try something purer.
But, thankfully for all of us, even though these two wanted to be as natural as possible on this climb, they were still willing to bring along the necessary technology to share their trek on social media.
As Richards explained, beyond the technological limitations, the hardest aspect of Snapchatting and sharing about the trek was trying to keep the story interesting,
We used a satellite internet modem from a company called Thuraya. And Goal Zero solar panels and external batteries, and that was the system. It was roughly 15 pounds ... It was a pain in the ass. It's not necessarily the fastest technology out there. It was very frustrating at night sometimes, it would take five to 20 minutes to load a single snap. At the same time, what else are you gonna do? The technical challenges weren't that bad. For me, the bigger challenge was trying to be holistic with the story. Sometimes I'd be like, "Ah, people don't want to see this right now," but what I learned was how much people actually did want to see. It would be things I found very mundane, but everybody was like, "Oh my god, I never thought of that."
Ballinger said Snapchat actually became a huge part of what motivated them to keep going,
Really quickly, the Snapchat story gained an energy of its own. Not only followers, but first 10 comments a day, and then hundreds and then thousands on the big days. That two-way communication that Snapchat allows totally gave us energy. There was no way we were going to miss a day of [snapping] because we found out people actually cared and were watching.
It wasn't long before the two were receiving everything from naked photos to messages from teachers telling them they were using their snaps in lessons.
We were getting millions of daily views through all of the snaps … It was pretty cool how it happened, and the breadth of people that were following ... We'd get stuff from ... people saying they were waking up at breakfast with their kids and watching snaps. And we were like, "Whoa, do we have to stop swearing?" But people were like, "No, it's OK!"
Indeed, it seems everyone who followed EverestNoFilter really appreciated how authentic it was, and that's exactly what the two climbers were hoping for.
We need to start thinking of ourselves as a part of the natural world and engage with it.
They were tired of the curated nature of storytelling on Instagram and other platforms, and how photos can be used to deceive people about actual conditions.
When we were talking about telling this story, [Snapchat] just seemed like such a natural fit. Because with Everest, a lot of people have a little information or have seen a summit photo, but there's not a lot of understanding of how a two-month expedition actually works … And I think Snapchat wants to revolutionize. We talked to Snapchat before we went on the trip, about them featuring our story … and they were very clear about how things like the Paris bombing [showed], by a geofencing, how people felt … And it's very raw … And they want more opportunities like that.
Richards was on the same page. He said,
I don't think that we revolutionized [Snapchat], I think there's been motion in that direction, but I do think this is a good example of what it can be used for outside of blackout drunk pictures etc. (laughs.)
Beyond reaching the summit, and telling the story via Snapchat, the two definitely wanted to send a message about the importance of friendship and teamwork.
While Ballinger didn't totally reach his goal, which he described as "heartbreaking," he definitely views the time he spent with Richards as priceless.
But, perhaps even more so, both climbers also agree what happened stands as a very powerful lesson about how to respond to failure.
I think ... so many of us shy away from failure, and we get participation awards in school now, and this was a failure and I want to learn from that, so I have to be OK with that ... Yesterday, when everyone asked me if I was going to try this again, I was like, "I dunno, I need some time, I gotta go to the beach and have sun and gain a bunch of weight." Then today I was sitting in an interview and was like "FUCK YEAH I'M GOING TO TRY AGAIN."
Richards built on this point, highlighting the ways in which our aversion to failure really only serves to our detriment,
If you're okay with failure, and you use it for a foundational tool, moving toward another goal, it's no longer failure … Yes, it hurts to fail. It's not comfortable. You have to sit with it. But once you sit with it, it loses its sting. If you turn into it, it's not so scary, but if you run away from it, it haunts you. I never want to take away from Adrian's failure, it's very important that he acknowledges that for him. But I do believe we used to qualify success on the mountain as if somebody reached the summit. And since our world has become so individualistic, we've lost that sense of accomplishment as a team. And I think, very much for us, certainly for me, we do feel a sense of accomplishment because one of us was able to make it.
On top of all this, the two really hoped to encourage people to reconnect with the natural world, and to stop viewing it as something that exists as a completely separate entity.
Everest, because it is the highest mountain in the world, holds a special place for all of us as a human family ... And I think engaging with that mountain, it sends a special message. It does bring us together ... My point in all of this, as a journalist, as an environmentalist, is to promote the idea that we need to start thinking of ourselves as a part of the natural world and engage with it, versus a part from the natural world. The sooner we get to that, the sooner we're gonna start solving a lot of problems ... We are living in a society that doesn't demand we try very hard to understand what it truly means to be human, and to be vulnerable in the greater context of the natural world. And I think experiences that can bring us closer to that vulnerability, by amplifying and celebrating struggle, they're very valuable, because they teach us that this is a very finite experience. The closer we walk that line, the more we start to understand how precious this all is.
By pushing their minds and bodies to the limits of human potential, these two men were searching for a simple but profound perspective: what it truly means to be alive.