On 09 March, the news was official. We had lost Tom Ballard on Nanga Parbat. In the days that followed, the world seemed just a little smaller. Worldwide, we had to come to terms with the idea that the growth, of what we expected to be, one of the greatest mountaineers was permanently stunted.
“Thirty years ago, a boy was born with a soul destined to live in the mountains. Below blonde tufts of hair were the brightest blue eyes, with a gaze forever set to the summit of the Alps. Henceforth, the world was given a son guided forward by the glory of his mother and the unconditional support of his father.” -C.J. Leger
We can say that Tom Ballard’s climbing career began when he was just ten; when he knew it was all he ever wanted to do. But he always liked to say it began before he was even born.
His mom, Alison Hargreaves, was an exceptional climber. In her short life, she achieved great feats that included being the first woman to summit Mount Everest without the use of supplemental oxygen in 1995. Before her ascent, only one other person had ever achieved it, and he was the legendary Reinhold Messner.
Tom’s relationship with mountains began seven years earlier, in 1988. That year, Hargreaves found herself staring at the notorious North Face of the Eiger. She would scale it alone successfully, but what many often overlook is that Alison Hargreaves was not alone that year.
Unshaken, Alison scaled the North Face of the Eiger while six months pregnant with Tom. This ascent was one Tom always referenced as the true start of his passion for climbing saying, “Even before I was born, I climbed the North Face of the Eiger.”
Losing Alison Hargreaves
Given his roots, it wasn’t long before Tom set his eyes on the Alps like his mother. Five years after she climbed the Eiger North Face, she also became the first person to climb all six Great North Faces of the Alps in one season. She did it in the summer of 1993.
Twenty-two years later, Tom repeated his mother’s tracks and became the first person to summit The Matterhorn, Cima Grande di Lavaredo, Petit Dru, Piz Badile, the Eiger, and Grandes Jorasses, but in a single winter season. Tom did it in the winter of 2015. But both cemented themselves in the annals of mountaineering history in parallel achievements.
It is partly because of this that losing Tom Ballard so young on Nanga Parbat became such worldwide grief. Both were destined to walk alongside each other throughout life, just on different sides of the track and at different times.
After Alison Hargreaves’ solo ascent of Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen or the help of Sherpas, she set her sights on the real King of Mountains, K2. She made a short stop in the United Kingdom to visit her husband, James; daughter, Kate and young Tom Ballard. And then, she left for K2 in June of 1995 on what would be her last expedition.
During this expedition, Hargreaves succeeded in making it to the summit along with five other climbers. On the descent, the weather ravaged and swept over the mountain, taking the life of Alison Hargreaves with it. She was just 33 years old. All five climbers who summited after her also perished.
Tom’s Life in his Mother’s Shadow
In the years to come, Tom Ballard’s life would be set against a backdrop of his mother’s greatest achievements including the one that resulted in his greatest loss, her ascent of K2. At every turn, people asked him, “why?” Why was he climbing, why would he risk his life like his mother; why, why, why?
I think as humans, we are predisposed to think that our lives should take the road that is most logical. But what is really logical about mountaineering? It’s made up of a relatively small community compared to other outdoor endeavors. Some climbers climb just to break records. Then, there are those who climb because it’s built into their blood to do so. Tom was the latter. Losing his mom at age six wasn’t going to stop him from finding what it was that made him feel most alive. And that was climbing.
But if you asked Tom, which many did, he’d always say that climbing was his way of escaping. His way of being alone with his thoughts. As he mentioned before, he was not a very social person. Tom recalled in an interview with Joe Shute that:
“Mostly I climb solo because I’m not a very social person. I’m not very good at interacting with people. I find it easier to climb on my own. I’ve pretty much always been like that – always quite liked my own company.” – Tom Ballard
Later, he’d say that he and his mother were cut from the same cloth in more than just climbing. He recalled times he spent with his mother. The little he was able to retain in his memory of her was almost indistinguishable from what he learned about her in films and pictures. He did remember, clearly, that they were both the silent type, two climbers who sought refuge in the mountains.
Tom Ballard the Solo Climber
With that, Tom became a solo climber in his career. His wingman? Well, dad of course. James Ballard picked up the pieces after Alison died and set out to allow their two children to lead adventurous lives if they, so, pleased. It was what they had agreed upon before Tom was even a thought in their minds.
Fourteen years after Hargreaves’ death, James Ballard packed up his family home and headed toward the Alps with kids in tow. Their life in the UK was, for lack of a better word, over. From here on out, he and Tom set out to conquer the Alps together, Tom climbing them, and James driving him from mountain to mountain in their old van.
Living out of a tent, this is where Tom Ballard spent the majority of his adult life, overlooked by the great mountains of Europe. Constantly with him, was a dream to one day be as good of a climber as his mother.
I think, aside from speaking to him, the best portrayal you could ever hope to get of the true Tom Ballard can be seen in the film, Tom. Produced by Kottom Films, these filmmakers followed Tom during his mission to conquer the Great North Faces of the Alps in the winter of 2015. It was during this film that Tom the climber and Tom the person began to make sense as one being.
It’s an exceptional view of a boy, who through the journey of a lifetime and tenacity, became a man. Before being sponsored by Scarpa and Montane, two of the worlds most trusted outdoor brands, we see Tom as a simple person. Between him and his dad, there wasn’t much to go around. Just their old van, their tent and a dream that literally drove them from country-to-country were all that they had to their name.
Tom began his climbing career using very old ice axes and equipment his dad handmade. Many of these were custom pieces created before Tom was even born. His gear was stored in the same blue barrels his mother kept her gear in between climbs. His home was a tent, his family was his dad. Even so, he never claimed to want anything else. Once, when asked if he ever pined for a flat, a stable place to live, Tom Said:
“If you’re kept somewhere, you have to be there. You know. You have to pay for it. It’s a whole other set of things to do. With a van, it’s just, right, pack up. Then move on”. -Tom Ballard
Aside from his girlfriend, Stephania, there weren’t many people around Tom. Reserved and completely void of any other commitments, Tom grew into his own style of climbing. He mastered dry-tooling and overhang ice-climbing. He mastered mixed climbing as well. He preferred the oldest routes and carving out new ones along the way. His favorite routes were those trailblazed in the 1930s by the original climbers. His style was minimalistic, an alpinist at his best.
But what the film, Tom, taught most about him was that he could be grumpy at times, usually after climbs. But more often than not, he found himself disappointed after reaching a summit if the climb proved to be easy for him.
On the Road to Greatness
The reality was that Tom was a master of his trade. He had been at this since he was a kid. Being an avid dry-tooler, and having extensive experience in ice climbing and quick alpine ascents, built a super climber. Above anything else, though, there was a twenty-six-year-old man, who took on challenges without knowing they were mere footsteps in the leaps he had carved out for himself.
Tom just didn’t know how good he was. Now, in retrospect, I often find myself wondering if his determination to chase the Mummery Spur on Nanga Parbat was brought on by an insatiable will to challenge himself. Up until then, everything Tom tried, he succeeded in. All climbs were consumed with minimal effort compared to other climbers. If there was a climb that required multiple attempts, somehow, he managed to master it while simultaneously learning it, if that makes any sense.
I’ll never know what he was really thinking. I can only assume Mummery was his way of overextending himself in a search for something that could make him say, “there’s the limit. Now, here’s something I can really try to overcome and achieve.”
I don’t want this to be misinterpreted as me saying everything in Tom’s life came easy. Because it didn’t. But Tom was born to be the best, he just hadn’t had enough time here to discover and prove this.
The Longest Night
That season in 2015, in what the filmmakers called “the longest night,” Tom went head to head with nature and won. It was Monday, 21 December and the Winter Solstice was in full gear. Tom had set out to climb Cima Grande di Lavaredo via the Comici route. As usual, he packed light, planned a full one-day ascent and descent, and made it to the summit. But on his way down, the weather was raw, cold and the wind was unforgiving.
Tom found himself making a life or death decision – to go down or stay. Despite his girlfriend’s relentless encouragement to come down, Tom bivyed. Below him, everyone waited restlessly for a sign of life in the morning.
When morning came, Tom nonchalantly trekked down the mount, his bag in tow. He was alive; but more than alive, he was unphased. He suffered minor frostbite and continued on his plan to conquer the Alps. And he succeeded. But, on that day, under freezing temperatures, Tom later recalled that he slept better than those who worried below him. On that day, not even the weather could touch him.
Tom eventually landed sponsors, and his living conditions improved from what his father’s small pension could afford. Through it all, his mother always remained a part of his reason for climbing, but only a part. The time of being carried along by the media as Alison Hargreaves’ son was also over. Here, in the Alps, Tom made a new name for himself. In the winter of 2015, he became the King of the Alps. And he did it on the 20th anniversary of his mother’s death on K2, to the year.
Next came the Himalaya.
Tom Ballard: A Light Extinguished
Like a moth to a flame and a destiny that cannot be escaped, Ballard set off for a winter expedition to Nanga Parbat with Daniele Nardi, 24 years after his mother’s death. Both were attempting to be the first to successfully climb Nanga Parbat in a winter season via the Mummery Spur route. Since it’s creation, in 1895 by Frederick Mummery, the route had remained unclimbed. It was treacherous, and according to Reinhold Messner himself, it was a line that was impossible and suicidal.
Digging their tents out during their expedition, losing their gear to avalanches, and relentlessly trying to nail the route, Tom spent the last months of his life challenging himself like never before. Here, he found resistance. His will was challenged, his ability as a climber was scaled against a mountain of unrivaled brutality. He fought and he persisted. But it was here, on Nanga Parbat, where the bright light that was Tom Ballard was extinguished.
On 24 February, he and Nardi lost contact with their Base Camp team. It would be two weeks before they were found by Alex Txikon. Txikon and other climbers, including Ali Sadpara, searched for the pair selflessly. And on 09 March, Txikon shared what would be the last image of both climbers ever taken.
Just a few yards from each other, both Nardi and Ballard exited this life and entered into eternal life on Nanga Parbat, forever becoming the newest additions to the Guardians of the Mountian. Tom was just 30-years-old, just three years younger than his mother when she died at 33.
I think in all of this, my biggest regret was not being able to ask Tom if, in all of these years, there was a part of him subconsciously searching for his mother in the stillness of the mountains. But, I think if there is some solace to be had, it’s that today, they both lay a mere 117 miles (188km) from each other. Hargreaves forever on K2, and Tom Ballard just across the ridge on Nanga Parbat. Their paths finally converging.
A special thanks to:
Base Camp Magazine sends a special thanks to these exceptional people who made the completion of this article that much more special. We end this article with quotes of remembrance of Tom Ballard, which they have provided to us.
“In these days we cannot find the words to describe our feelings, we had the privilege to discover alpinism through his eyes and we will never forget him.” -Elena & Angel, Directors.
“Tom was an extraordinary climber with an infectious passion for the mountains; we are privileged to have known and to have worked with him. Our deepest sympathies are with his and Daniele Nardi’s family and friends, and we hope his amazing achievements will be remembered and will have inspired a new generation of alpinists to continue in his footsteps. RIP Tom and Daniele.” -Montane
View Montane’s own tribute to Tom.
“He would surprise us, we would be caught by his feelings and eventually we’d remain speechless. That was Tom. He was a poet and a dreamer, and from the heavenly paths he still invites us not to look at mountains like a structure to climb, but to look for their soul instead. We will never forget this.” -Forwarded to us from CAMP from FB post.
Other Tributes to Tom Ballard
Stirling, Sarah. “Mountain Tiger: a Tribute to Tom Ballard.” The BMC, The British Mountaineering Council, 13 Mar. 2019.
- Camp Staff. “Ciao Tom.” Concezione Articoli Montagna Premana, 13 Mar. 2019
- Routen, Ash “Gone but Not Forgotten: Daniele Nardi and Tom Ballard” Explorer’s Web, 13 Mar. 2019