Ballinger is shifting his focus from the mountains to the crag this month; photo credit: Alex Kurt

One Man’s Method: High-Altitude Mountaineering to 5.13 Rock

Adrian Ballinger is one of the most accomplished big-mountain alpinists, ever. Now he’s shifting his focus to try and climb 5.13.

First, know Ballinger has been rock climbing for 25 years, so he’s no slouch. But the switch from rock climbing as a side dish to entrée and his goal of climbing 5.13 will be fun to watch.

Look out, climbing world: a limit-pusher in one discipline turns his focus to another.

“I started when I was 12, living in central Massachusetts,” said Ballinger, 40, now based in Olympic Valley, California. “I’ve been leading since I was 15, and through college, I was a rock guide.”

But since age 17, when he summited his first 20,000-foot-plus peak in Ecuador, Ballinger’s focus has been on the mountains.

Rock Climbing As Training

Over ten 8,000-meter peaks later – including six summits of Everest – the Eddie Bauer-sponsored alpinist, who runs the guiding outfit Alpenglow Expeditions, still incorporates rock climbing into his training, but it’s not his focus.

Ballinger in his natural habitat. Photo by Mark Stone
Ballinger in his natural habitat. Photo by Mark Stone

“I’m on rock every summer because it’s a passion, but also because those movement skills – the balance, movement, and center of gravity – translate into the mountains, where I spend a lot of time on rock in crampons,” he said. “But it’s always something I’m squeezing in between big mountain training.”

Summit of Cho Oyu

In other words, the bulk of his time is spent building a massive cardio engine: trail running and backcountry skiing, depending on the season.

He adds he has never projected, or spent repeated focus and effort, on a single route. But climbing straight up remains a passion.

“Plus,” he added, “I date [pro rock climber] Emily Harrington, and she gets me to the crag.”

Aiming to Climb 5.13

For about 20 years, he estimates, Ballinger’s climbing skills have plateaued at the ability to climb 5.12.

That grade – part of the Yosemite Decimal System, which ranges from 5.5 to 5.15 with sub-grades for 5.10 up – is very advanced climbing, to be sure. Watching Ballinger lead an overhanging granite route at Donner Summit earlier this month, it was clear his parameters for suboptimal climbing were very different than mine, or almost anyone’s at the Minneapolis gym I frequent.

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Ballinger training near Donner Summit, his home crag. Photo by Alex Kurt

Still, he said, he wants to climb his first 5.13 when he and Harrington visit Kentucky’s Red River Gorge for the length of November.

“Grades aren’t that important to me, but there’s something about 5.13, that it’s the beginning of the elite grades,” he said. “You can’t climb it being off-the-couch or by being a solid recreational climber. It takes focused training and effort.”

After an informal survey of climbing acquaintances, Ballinger set his sights on a sustained, crimpy, steep 13a called Snooker.

“It’s unbelievably aesthetic, and it’s hard for the grade,” he said. “In other words, no one will say ‘oh, that’s soft, that’s not really 13a’.”

New Training Regimen

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For his first real bout of dedicated rock training, Harrington is coaching Ballinger through a routine of core strength (“that’s important for steep rock,” he said), hangboard drills (two times per week; he uses elastic bands to take weight off, for now), pullups (two times per week; “when I got back from Everest [in May], I couldn’t do one”), and endurance reps on the treadwall in the couple’s garage.

They also go bouldering in Reno three to four times a week.

“That’s important for building power, rather than endurance, which is what my whole life has been about,” he said.

A Balanced Climber

Ballinger also said the new routine feels strange.

“We got snow here last week, so part of me thinks I need to be training for ski season, doing leg strengthening and building loads of endurance,” he said. “But I’m excited at the same time. I’ve been rock climbing forever, but have never really pushed myself in this.”

'Lightning Ascent' Of Himalayan Peak Is 8,000-Meter Record
'Lightning Ascent' Of Himalayan Peak Is 8,000-Meter Record

In unprecedented speed, Adrian Ballinger and Emily Harrington summited the world’s sixth-highest peak today (Saturday, Oct. 1), just ten days after leaving their home in California. Read more…

He said so many climbers – including guides – focus specifically on one discipline, whether bouldering, sport climbing, or high-altitude mountaineering.

“My goal is to have a life as a climber, and that includes all of those for me,” he said. “I want to be really good in the high mountains, but I want to be a strong technical climber as well. I want to get better at rock climbing, and enjoy all I can out of that.”

Alex Kurt
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Alex Kurt is a Minnesota native, an avid runner, a novice climber, a begrudging cyclist, and an enthusiastic skier. A graduate of St. John's University and the University of Minnesota, he is most proud of his 6:48 PR in the beer mile.

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