Adrian Ballinger has climbed Mount Everest six times, and on Saturday, he leaves for his seventh trek up the highest peak in the world.
Ballinger's journey will start just days after an avalanche killed at least 12 people in the worst-ever recorded disaster on Mount Everest. But as an experienced climber, it's a reality he's had to accept.
"This is an accident all of us know is a constant possibility," Ballinger says with a sigh. "Everest is an incredibly dangerous place. It's a natural beast."
Especially the Khumbu Ice Fall, where the avalanche hit. "It's a very dangerous, constantly moving river of ice being pushed between two mountains," Ballinger says. "It's the most uncontrollable part of the mountain. The only way to be safer is to move faster and get through it quicker."
Climbers go back and forth over the Khumbu Ice Fall a few times during each journey to the peak — it's how they acclimate to the higher altitude. But for Sherpas setting up camp and helping climbers, they might go across the stretch 20 times, Ballinger says. Crossing the dangerous stretch takes 2½ to three hours for an experienced Sherpa and four to six hours for an average climber.
It's so dangerous that Ballinger's company, Alpenglow Expeditions, which leads trips, is looking for ways to minimize time in the area. After this week's record deaths on the patch his group will soon approach, Ballinger says it's impossible to ignore the risk.
"There are probably some hard conversations going on amongst my climbers' families today, and there should be," he says. "It's a risk. Deciding if it's worth that risk is an important conversation to have."
It's an expensive decision, too. The average Everest climb costs between $65,000 and $100,000 per person, with about $50,000 in training and equipment costs before even getting to the mountain.
The traditional trip takes 2½ months because of how long it takes to acclimate to the high altitude. New technologies have cut that time in half.
Ballinger and his team of climbers sleep in special $6,000 tents every night at home to mimic the altitude changes.
"It allows us to shorten our trip to almost half of what it would be," he says. "People arrive stronger and faster."
The actual climbing from base camp to summit is five days up and two days down. The rest of the time is spent climatizing at the camps in between. For climbers, that means reading, hanging out, playing cards and, now, Internet time.
Relaxing isn't always easy when climbers are surrounded by the possibility of an avalanche or snowstorm, Ballinger acknowledges.
"I hope no one out there is suggesting that Mount Everest doesn't have unbelievable danger to it," he says. "Nature always wins."
Ballinger is heartbroken over the deaths of the Sherpa people, who he has come to think of as family.
"Climbing Mount Everest is completely impossible without the support of the high altitude of the Sherpa people," he says. "They do the heavy lifting that allows us to climb these heavy peaks."
But when Ballinger gets to the top — there is nothing like it.
"You're sitting at 29,000 feet and taking it all in. It's beautiful," he says. "But you can always tell that Everest has fangs. It's a place that never lets you forget where you are. You can never forget what a risky place it is."