Want to be a better boss? Go climb a big mountain, says Adrian Ballinger


Ballinger’s Alpenglow Expeditions has developed a quick-climb program called Rapid Ascent, which gets executives to summits faster and safer while honing their leadership skills with each kick-step.

Ballinger's Rapid Ascent system is drastically cutting the approach and acclimatization times down for large climbs. // Courtesy: Adrian Ballinger

Ballinger's Rapid Ascent system is drastically cutting the approach and acclimatization times down for large climbs. // Courtesy: Adrian Ballinger

FOR AS LONG AS MOUNTAINTOP photos have been synonymous with inspiration, business leaders have equated what they do to climbing or other outdoor adventures.

“I’m so clear on the lessons that we learn in these big mountains and how they apply to teamwork, decision making and leadership in my business,” said climber and founder of Alpenglow Expeditions, Adrian Ballinger, who believes every leader would benefit from climbing a big mountain. “The high mountains are an incredible laboratory for business lessons.”

But most high-level executives can't sacrifice a month of work time to for a Himalayan expedition, regardless of the rewards. 

Now, according to Ballinger, who in 15 years of guiding has led expeditions to Manaslu, Lhotse, Ama Dablam, Cho Oyu, Makalu and Everest, including his 2015 Snapchat-broadcast climb, that may no longer be the case. In the next month, along with professional climber and girlfriend Emily Harrington, Ballinger will head to Nepal to climb the sixth tallest mountain in the world, Cho Oyu. The team plans on being home just two weeks after stepping onto their first flight, even though the trip would normally take over a month. For Ballinger, it's an experiment to test the limits of Alpenglow’s innovative “Rapid Ascent” system, which takes clients up Himalayan and South American summits in times far quicker than traditional expeditions.

Through a combination of sleeping in hypoxic tents before the trip, which simulates spending the night at over 20,000 feet, small teams, precise weather forecasting and innovative training, Ballinger has been overtaking more than 40 years of climbing norms with Rapid Ascent, making big peaks more practical and attainable for busy boardroom adventurers.

“The greatest limitation I’ve seen in 20 years of guiding these mountains is that people hit a wall at two weeks,” Ballinger said. Most people who are not professional climbers have a hard time disappearing into the mountains for a month, which means there are limits to what mountains they can tackle. Ballinger believes that there is value in the physical and emotional impacts that people can only get from tackling the world's biggest mountains, but time is the enemy. 

Graham Cooper, a 20-year executive in the biotech industry and an Alpenglow client, agrees. "We tend to be pretty achievement-oriented people and whether it's achieving something in business or achieving something in personal life, that's what drives us," he said. "And there's no more pure achievement than summiting a mountain."

“People have been following the exact same acclimatization schedules and logistics schedules as they have been since the '70s,” Ballinger said, noting that, while it does work, technology has advanced enough to drastically speed up the process.

Through their Rapid Ascent techniques, Alpenglow can get people up mountains much quicker than ever before, opening climbing up to a greater market. In addition to being faster, Ballinger notes the Rapid Ascent system also leads to healthier climbers and greater success rates. 

Cooper took advantage of Rapid Ascent to climb Mount Vinson in Antarctica and Aconcagua in South America—two of the world's Seven Summits—in a stretch of two weeks, which he said would not have been possible without the training. With 24- and 48-hour weather windows on each climb, Cooper said "if we hadn't been pre-acclimatized, we would not have been able to do that." In addition, he admits there's no way he would have had the time for the traditional 4-week climbing schedule. "I would never do it any other way."

Although the extremely physically-demanding two week trip may never become a product available to most clients, for the last four years Alpenglow has been using Rapid Ascent to take people up Cho Oyu in 30 days, a drastic improvement from the traditional seven to eight weeks. Currently, all Alpenglow's high altitude climbs utilize Rapid Ascent.

Ballinger is excited to see this technique become the norm. “I’m absolutely convinced that in 10 years, you won’t see any Everest expeditions more than 30 days long, except for oxygenless ascents.”

Ryan Wichelns is a mountaineer and journalist from the Northeast with a passion for very slowly hauling heavy loads up snowy peaks in Alaska and elsewhere.Follow him on Twitter: @ryanclimbs.


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