Adrian Ballinger Makes First Ski Descent of Makalu

As the 2022 spring Himalayan climbing season begins to wind down, there continue to be some unique and interesting stories to share. Last week we told you about Kami Rita Sherpa setting a new record for most summits of Everest, then followed that up with a story about an all-Black climbing team that reached the top of that mountain too. Now, we have word of another epic accomplishment on a different 8000-meter peak, as Adrian Ballinger of Alpenglow Expeditions makes the first ski descent of the world’s 5th highest peak.

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Photo Credit: Ben Tubby via WikiMedia

Summiting Makalu

In addition to founding Alpenglow, Ballinger has been one of the top alpinists over the past few years. He and his team have led the way in using oxygen tents as part of their training and pre-acclimatization, allowing clients to spend less time on the mountain and still achieve their summit goals. This approach has been so successful in fact that other outfitters have begun to adopt it as well, with more climbers now arriving on the big 8000-meter peaks more prepared for the challenges.

As for Adrian himself, he has made 18 ascents of 8000-meter peaks, including climbing Everest on eight separate occasions. On one occasion he summited that mountain without the use of bottled oxygen and he has a no-Os ascent of K2 on his resume as well. Unsurprisingly, he also loves the challenge of skiing on these big mountains, becoming the first person to make a ski descent of Manaslu, the 8th highest peak on the planet.

On Monday, May 9, 2022 Ballinger, along with Dorji Sonam Sherpa and Pasang Sherpa, reached the summit of Makalu at about 9:00 AM local Nepali time. Reaching the top of the 8463-meter (27,768 ft.) mountain±located along the border of Nepal and Tibet to the southeast of Everest—wasn’t easy, however. The trio topped out in near whiteout conditions. But reaching the summit was just one of their goals, and the American mountain guide still had a lot of work to do.

Adrian Ballenger Makalu
Photo Credit: Dorje Sonam Sherpa

Skiing Makalu

After reaching the summit, Adrian Ballinger took a few minutes to rest, catch his breath, and prepare for the next stage of the expedition. With the conditions a little dicey up high, and a few other climbers just below the summit on their way up, he made the decision to descend about 15 meters before putting on his skis. Once he reached that point, however, he stepped into his bindings and pointed the tips downhill, beginning the ride of his life.

Ballinger’s descent required a mix of his skiing and mountaineering skills. In addition to gliding down fresh snow where he could, Adrian also stopped to rappel down several tricky sections that were potentially dangerous to go over on skis. He also says that there were times when he slowed down and used fixed ropes to help guide his descent in an effort to give his brain and heart a bit of a rest. Both were dealing with a lot of adrenaline for a very long period of time.

When he reached Camp 3 on his way down, Ballinger stopped for a hot coffee and to warm up a bit before continuing. The next phase of the journey would take him down the notorious Makalu La face, which is the most dangerous section of the mountain. He was able to successfully navigate that section, however, arriving in Camp 2 in reasonably good condition. From there, he completed the descent all the way to the bottom of Makalu’s glacier, which he described as “It wasn’t good skiing, but it was great skiing.”

Another 8000-Meter Ski Descent

The successful descent of Makalu brings an end to a quest that has been on Ballinger’s bucket list for more than a decade. Two previous attempts—in 2012 and 2015—ended in failure, but the mountain guide never gave up. He now has three ski descents of 8000-meter peaks to his name, having previously gone down Cho Oyu in addition to Manaslu. Adrian has also attempted to ski both Everest and Lhotse, but has yet to accomplish those goals.

Ballinger does have some advice for anyone who wants to attempt a similar descent of Makalu in the future. He left the door open for a “full descent” from the true summit and he mentions that he took his skis off for a 60-meter rappel down the French Couloir, a particularly dangerous section of the mountain located at 8077 meters (26,500 ft). This would allow someone to potentially surpass his efforts although it would take some supreme skills to do so.

Outside Online is quick to point out, with Adrian’s success on Makalu, just one 8000-meter peak remains to be skied. That would be Kangchenjunga, the 3rd highest mountain in the world at 8586 meters (28,169 ft.). Who will step up to claim that “first” remains to be seen, but for now Ballinger is content.

Follow Adrian Ballenger on Instagram to get updates and images from his adventures.

Kraig Becker