Interview Adrian Ballinger On Climbing Everest Without Oxygen, his Favre-Leuba Bivouac 9000 On The Wrist

An extreme alpinist, the world's highest mountain and a watch that can read the altitude, even on top of the Everest.

calendar | ic_dehaze_black_24px By Xavier Markl | ic_query_builder_black_24px 7 minute read |

Favre Leuba is known for its rugged functional watches. The brand’s unique mountaineering credentials owe much to the Bivouac collection. Back in the 1960s, the watch was one of the first to be fitted with a mechanical altimeter. In 1975, Japanese alpinist Junko Tabel, the first women to summit Everest, did so with a Bivouac strapped to her wrist.

Fast forward to 2017, the brand launched the Bivouac 9000, a modern take on this model capable of measuring altitude up to 9000m – watch our in-depth video to understand how this watch works. Empirical evidence of this capability was brought by mountaineer Adrian Ballinger, as he summited Everest while wearing this modern Bivouac 9000 on his wrist.

We caught up with Adrian Ballinger in Zurich, just a few weeks after he came back from his no-oxygen ascent of K2, the second tallest mountain in the world. Doing so, he became one of the few climbers to have summited both Everest and K2 without oxygen.

Adrian Ballinger On Climbing Everest Without Oxygen, his Favre-Leuba Bivouac 9000 On The Wrist

Xavier Markl, MONOCHROME – Why climbing?

Adrian Ballinger – I was not very good at anything else (laughing) … When I was young I just love sports so much, trying to play tennis, soccer very competitively. When I was 12 years old I was introduced to rock climbing. I just feel in love right away, I was not technically good but the challenges of it, the individual nature of it yet still relying on a team, I really loved. I climbed my first 6.000m peak when I was 17 years old in Ecuador. It was the first experience that completely pushed me to pass my limits physically but also mentally. There were people who I thought were less strong than me they did much better than me. That really fascinated me, what that mental is and what it allows us to achieve. I pretty much tried to get higher and higher and higher since I was 17.

Adrian Ballinger On Climbing Everest Without Oxygen, his Favre-Leuba Bivouac 9000 On The Wrist

How was it to climb the Everest without oxygen?

I have been on Everest 12 years in a row. Mostly as a mountain guide and mostly with oxygen.  By 2016 I had summited Everest 6 times. I got to the point where I know that I could summit on oxygen. To me, that takes away the whole reason to go there in the first place which is the unknown. The true mystery of whether you are going to succeed or fail with very real risk attached to the outcome. I wanted to feel the mountain in that kind of pure original way. And for me, it was trying without oxygen.

What was your first horological memory?

My first watch memory is that I had a classic G-Shock Casio. It seemed to be made for exactly what I did. It was rugged, it could handle water, dirt, knocks and scratches. I remember getting one when I was probably 13. I don’t still have it.

What was your experience summiting the Everest with the Favre Leuba Bivouac?

Last two years, I had a Favre Leuba Bivouac 9000 with me on Everest. The watch has become like a real tool I use in the mountain and I enjoy wearing. The only change to the watch is that I switch bands so I can wear it over my layer, I don’t want to metal touching my skin because it conducts cold.

We are so dependent on these different devices we bring in the mountains now. I have GPS devices, iPhone, cameras… and everything has a battery. And every single device you are guaranteed will die at some point. It’s just too many hours and too intense cold in -25 degrees temperature. When everything else is gone, the Favre-Leuba being mechanical, it still works. I know I have time. It is incredibly crucial to know how many hours I have been without oxygen, how many hours I have used my oxygen.

And then having a sense of the altitude is everything on these big mountains. Last, I find it very useful to sort of confirm weather, barometric pressure reading what is going in weather while I am stable on a camp. That’s a key piece of information. That’s real-time and with me, versus meteorologist telling me that a storm might come.

These are the three things that I use the watch for…

How was the connection made with Favre Leuba?

I really enjoy watches. I have always worn watches. They found me because they could tell I like watches. It was something I gave each of my guides when they summited Everest for the first time (a Tissot watch). It was a great opportunity to start working together.

You offered one of the watches you wore on top of the Everest at an auction?

It was the original grey Bivouac 9000 I summited in 2018 with. What we did, we chose a non-profit that is very dear to me the KCC. What the Khumbu Climbing Center does is educate Sherpas who run the climbs in the high mountains. We are all dependent on high altitude Sherpas in order to be successful and safe in the high mountains. They do a lot of the really hard work up there. Setting camps, carrying loads, fixing ropes… Traditionally they had no technical education. The avalanche danger, how to set ropes… they just figured it out as they went. There was an increasing number of accidents happening with the local Sherpas as climbing became more prevalent.

The KCC trains Sherpas. For years my company has been requiring KCC certification for Sherpas but the school was only able to take some 15 or 20 sherpas per year, bringing instructors from outside the country. What we did we auctioned the watch to raise additional funds for the school. All of the proceeds went to the school and it’s helping them to start growing, to start offering more Sherpas the opportunity to get this training.

We have seen pictures of the Everest overrun by visitors this summer… What can be done to regulate this?

Everest desperately needs government regulation. I am obviously part of the problem. I am a guide and take people to the mountains. What we have seen over the past decade is an increasing number of people, with a lack of experience. There is a real profit mode driving the business now. So many new companies are coming into the market offering the cheapest services with worse communication, worse medical, equipment, experience. Taking climbers that have not even climbed Mont Blanc going straight to the Everest.

We require people to have climbed five 6,000m peaks, one 7,000m peak and one 8,000m peak before you go to the Everest.

The business will not regulate itself. The Nepali government has shown no interest in regulating as long as they sell permits. It is a real problem. I have switched to the Nepali side of the mountain to the Chinese side in 2014. The Chinese are regulating. They kicked out 30% of the companies that used to work there without meeting standards. They have set a limit of how many climbers can climb the mountain each season, they have systems in place to remove all the trash. I want the experience to remain sacred.

What are your plans for 2020?

This summer I climbed K2 without supplemental oxygen. It was a big trip for me, a lot went wrong but we ended up summiting. I am trying to take some time being content with that accomplishment. Also trying to get strong again. I have lost 13kg through the climb. Most of that weight loss is muscle.

With that said, I am trying to set up an expedition to Makalu which is the fifth tallest mountain in the world. And it’s one of the two 8.000 meter peaks that have not been skied from the summit. And skiing is a big part of my passion for these big mountains. I have been to Makalu twice before and failed twice. That’s a big goal for next autumn.

More details at favre-leuba.com.

1 response

  1. Probably the ultimate “tool” watch. A great idea to do some actual good via the auction. A bit of a niche market for the manufacturers, I would guess there are fewer people going climbing wearing one of these than diving with a dive watch.

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