Starlight and Storm: Alison Hargreaves and Tom Ballard

In this full screen Digital Feature, Jack Geldard and Nick Brown explore the life and tragic death of Alison Hargreaves and how her achievements have influenced her son, Tom Ballard. With stunning historical images and exclusive video, this feature captures the experiences of Alison and Tom in an absorbing and aesthetic style and delves in to the extraordinary lives of both mother and son.

Twenty years after her death on K2, Alison Hargreaves' story continues with her son, Tom Ballard.
Jack Geldard and Nick Brown - 30th March 2015
Alison Hargreaves, one of the world's finest mountaineers, reaching the top of the North Face of Les Droites, close to Chamonix in France.

Photo © Steve Aisthorpe
Alison Hargreaves was born in 1962 in Derbyshire and after a childhood of hiking in the British mountains with her family, a passion for climbing was sparked in her by an outdoor pursuits teacher at school. From these humble beginnings Alison's drive and ambition took her to the top of the world and Alison went on to become one of the world's greatest female mountaineers.
"Alison Hargreaves was undoubtedly the finest woman mountaineer we've ever produced." - Sir Chris Bonington
Progressing from the short outcrops of the Peak District, where she was instantly capable, but not overtly gifted, Alison made a real name for herself in the 1980's male-dominated world of Alpinism, on the long and committing peaks of the Alps, making several first British female ascents of classic north face routes and going on to complete her summer project of soloing all of the six classic north faces in the Alps in a single season.

But it was perhaps in the Greater Ranges where Alison truly excelled. On her second attempt to climb Everest, Alison summited on the world's highest peak - unsupported and without oxygen - in what is still one of the world's most impressive female mountaineering achievements of all time.

In 1995, at the age of 33, Alison was killed in a violent storm on her descent from the summit of K2 just three months after her Everest success. Here we look at her extraordinary life, and how her now adult son Tom Ballard, having grown into an exceptional climber, is following in her footsteps.

Alison learning her Alpine craft on the popular Chere Couloir, Mont Blanc du Tacul, in October 1985.

Photo © Ian Parsons
The first climbing exploit that shot Alison to wider fame was her project of soloing the six great north faces of the Alps in a single season, an adventure on which Alison pinned her first and only book; A hard day's summer.

Whilst this was undeniably a stunning achievement, Alison had her detractors both in the climbing world and the wider media. The climbing hardcore lambasted her for shying away from the harder routes on the Eiger and the Grandes Jorasses. On the Eiger, Alison opted to solo the long but technically easier Lauper Route instead of the classic and famous 1938 route, and on the Grandes Jorasses she sped up The Shroud in a remarkably fast time of just 2 hours and 30 minutes, but the route is a relatively straight-forward snow climb when found in good conditions.

Some also took umbrage to the style in which she pushed her sponsors. This was a time when overt commercialism was heavily frowned upon in the UK climbing scene and Alison's clumsy plugs in her book were jarring and awkward to read. However Alison had a family to feed, and a goal of being a fully sponsored professional climber, and she pursued this goal with ambition and vigour. If that meant a few oddly chosen phrases in a book about her summer of inspirational climbs, then so be it.
A young Alison on an early foray into Alpine climbing with an ascent of the north face of the Matterhorn in June of 1984. Alison would go on to solo this mountain 9 years later.

Photo © Ian Parsons
Alison on the summit of the Grandes Jorasses after climbing the long and difficult Croz Spur in 1985. Again Alison would go on to solo this climb.

Photo © Ian Parsons
The classic climbing progression for those born and raised in the United Kingdom is from lowland outcrops to high mountain crags, on to Scottish winter climbs and then to the Alpine regions. For many this is where the pinnacle of climbing achievements is found, but for Alison, this is where her climbing really began.

Alison Hargreaves nearing the summit of Kangtega (6779m) in Nepal after the first ascent of the northwest face. April, 1986.

Photo © Mark Twight
Finding that she was more suited to longer, colder, harsher climbs than the gymnastic moves of the hardest sport routes, Alison aimed high and, relatively early in her climbing career, she found herself in the Himalaya alongside American climbing legends Mark Twight, Jeff Lowe and Tom Frost.

It was 1986 and at the young age of twenty four, this was Alison's first trip to the Greater Ranges. For most climbers, a first trip into the wild mountains of the Himalaya means following a well beaten path and testing yourself at altitude on one of the more popular peaks, but for Alison, ever ambitious, she threw herself into an expedition with a tough objective - a new route on Kantega (6779m) - and she succeeded.
"Alison was a great climber, regardless of gender. She was more talented and capable than most, which is witnessed by her success in the mountains. Perhaps her ambition burned too hot. Some were put off by that, others insist it killed her. However, the possibility exists that it was her desire to provide a good living for her family that drove her to Everest and K2 in such quick succession. We can't know. The ascent of Kantega with her was an important turning point in my climbing career, and my life. I am happy to have shared it with her." - Mark Twight

Alison in the Himalayas in 1986.

Photo © Mark Twight
But what Alison is perhaps best known for came several years later; an unsupported and bottled-oxygen-free ascent of Everest.

In October of 1994 Alison made her first attempt on the world's highest peak. She was climbing alone and reached a point above 8500m, high above the South Col, when - succumbing to the effects of the cold - Alison chose to turn back. Her hands and feet were numb, and she knew the summit was not worth the risk.

She returned as quickly as she could to Everest, and set out on its snow-covered slopes just six months later - this time climbing the Mallory route on the north side of the mountain. Alison was successful on her climb, making her the first - and currently only - British woman to climb Everest without supplementary oxygen.
And after her success on Everest, she immediately started to plan for K2, in fact, Alison's goal was to climb the three highest; Everest, K2 and Kanchenjunga, in a single year.

Just a few weeks after standing on the summit of Everest, Alison found herself once again in that familiar Himalayan basecamp environment: wrapped in down, surrounded by tents, flanked by huge mountains, and missing her children. She wrote to them from Basecamp.
On the 13th of August in 1995 Alison got up, left her tent, and set out for the summit of K2 on what would be her last climb.

Much has been written about Alison's efforts and motivations to climb K2. People have banded around the phrase "summit fever" and described the folly of the seven climbers who pushed too far; into the mouth of a Himalayan storm. Words have been written about her personal life, her financial motivations, and her desire to escape a failing marriage.

Alison makes camp on K2 prior to her ill-fated summit bid. Alison high on K2 in 1995. We believe this to be the last known image of Alison alive. Alison was one of seven climbers who were killed in a violent storm. Six of the climbers, including Alison, had already reached the summit, but none of them made it down alive.

Photo © Rob Slater via David Rasmussen
For those of us who have climbed in the high mountains, we know that risk is intrinsic in climbing. There is no 'safe' time to climb. And we all climb for different reasons, for pleasure or for pain, to be in the moment or to escape from it.

Whatever Alison's motivations for her final climb were - and only Alison will truly know why she climbed - they took her to the top of the world, and then on to the next.
Photo © Rob Slater via David Rasmussen
"Alison had huge ability and determination and if she hadn't been caught in the storm on the summit push for K2, I believe she had a very good chance of completing her objective of climbing Everest, K2 and Kanch that year." - Chris Bonington
Two survivors of the storm, Lorenzo Ortas and Pepe Garces, who stayed at Camp 4 whilst others pushed for the summit, reported seeing Alison's clothing and harness, blown from her by hurricane force winds, as they descended back to Camp 3 in an epic retreat of their own.
Whilst Alison's body has never been recovered, upon reaching the safety of Basecamp Lorenzo Ortas told the world's media that:

"At Camp 3 we could see a body which I think was Alison's, but it was 300m away. It was dark, and I was too exhausted to go and look at it. I feel very sad now and I just want to go home. They are all dead."
Alison Jane Hargreaves. Born February 17th, 1962. Died August 13th, 1995. A climber, a wife, a mother.
"While I was filming at K2 I found a body on the glacier below the mountain. I found a roll of film on the body and after processing I discovered I had found the body of Rob Slater. Rob was climbing with Alison and, taking pictures of her. The pictures I have are the last pictures of Alison and she is on the shoulder of K2." - David Rasmussen
Editor's Note: Rob Slater's historical photographs, found and developed by David, are shown here. The scratches and damage to the images are authentic, and we have chosen not to recolour or manipulate these images in any way. They are likely the last record of Alison's life.
2015: Alison Hargreaves' now adult son Tom Ballard resting on Les Deux Glaciers campsite in Les Bossons, Chamonix, the day after his solo ascent of the Grandes Jorasses and 3 days before his solo ascent of the Petit Dru. The campsite is the same one he and his family stayed on when his mother Alison was also soloing the 6 north faces. It's the first time Tom has returned to this campsite in 22 years.

Photo © Jack Geldard
Tom Ballard is a man in his strong-shouldered, rough-handed, sun-tanned prime. He's twenty six years old, he's just soloed the six great north faces of the Alps in a single winter season, and the eyes of the climbing world are suddenly seemingly where he wants them - fixed directly on him.

In the mountains Tom's movements ooze confidence. Rocking up in the Mont Blanc Massif, an area he'd never climbed in before, he casually skied in to the Grandes Jorasses North Face, and soloed one of the king lines in a mere 3 hours and twenty minutes.

Away from the mountains his life seems more transient, his whole focus being on when he can get back up into the Alpine peaks. He lives with his father in a small white van and a collection of ramshackle tents on a remote campsite in the Dolomites. He doesn't work, he just climbs.
The huge north face of the Grandes Jorasses.
The headtorches on the right are climbers on the Croz Spur, the route that Alison soloed in autumn of 1993.
The headtorches on the left are climbers on the Colton-MacIntyre route.
In March of 2015 Tom Ballard set off for the Grandes Jorasses, having never laid eyes on the face before. His plan was to climb the Croz Spur, just like his mother.
"When I approached the face it was obvious that the MacIntyre route was in the best condition." he said. "So I didn't hesitate, I just switched my objective and climbed that."

Photo © Ben Tibbetts (
The clouds come in and it starts to snow as Tom Ballard makes the fourth of around fifteen abseils down the line of the Dru Couloir after his solo ascent of the north face.

The current good conditions in the couloir have encouraged traffic, and Tom had insitu abalokov abseil stations left from previous parties for much of his descent.

Photo © Jack Geldard
It's part way through Tom's attempt at the six north faces. Sitting on the campsite in Les Bossons, in Chamoni, Nick Brown and I have our cameras pointed squarely at Tom as he tells us that this is the very same campsite that he stayed on with his mother, twenty years previous. He doesn't remember it. It's the first time he has mentioned his mother in the hour-long interview.

His father Jim, who back then drove the family round the Alps in an old Land Rover, peers around the side of the battered white van that he and Tom now call home. He's washing the dishes in a plastic bowl set outside on a camping table, but keeping more than one eye and ear on the interview we're doing with Tom.

It's twenty years on, the Land Rover has been changed for a van, but Jim Ballard still does the driving.

Jim Ballard belays Tom on a steep drytooling route. Jim, now aged 68, still lives in a small van alongside his son.

Photo © Ramon Marin
"We've got no money." Tom tells us straight, but with a small laugh. And it's true. In fact, in order to climb the Petit Dru, Tom's next objective, he asks if he can borrow a rope from me, as he know's he needs to make 60m abseils down the Dru Couloir to get down from the mountain. He only has one rope and he needs another. I lend him my 6mm tag line.

"If we fuck it up, we'll buy you another." chips in Jim, from next to the van. I notice the use of the word 'we'. It's Tom up there on the mountain, but it's clear that this is very much a family project.

Tom climbing Vertical Limit (M12) in 2011. Tom has worked his way through the drytooling grades culminating in an ascent of Iron Man (D14+) - one of the hardest in the world.

Photo © Ramon Marin
Tom Ballard climbing Scotch on the Rocks (ED / M7) on the East Face of Mont Blanc du Tacul, near Chamonix.
Tom has climbed around 100 alpine routes, and he has soloed around 95 of them.
This day he teamed up with Nick Bullock and Jack Geldard to sample one of his first tastes of the accessible granite mixed routes close to the Aiguille du Midi cable car.

Photo © Jack Geldard
Jim and Tom, as well as Tom's sister Kate, all left the UK back in 2009. Kate has since flown the nest and is currently in Africa, but Jim and Tom have stuck together and to the climbing life, and after a few years living in a tent in the shadow of the Eiger's north face in Switzerland, where Tom put up a new route of his own, they have now made their 'home' on a quiet campsite in the Dolomites.

Nick Brown and I ask Tom some more questions, about living in a tent, about different types of climbing, about his passion for soloing, all the time dancing around the real question that we want to ask, and that perhaps Tom doesn't know the answer to.

"Why do you want to solo the six north faces, in one season, just like your mum did?"
Before meeting Tom we'd read a lot about him. We'd stumbled upon his efforts as a teenager to arrange an expedition to K2 to be the first person to climb the mountain in winter, and the first to solo it - a hugely dangerous objective that, despite mainstream media attention, never actually happened.

There's no denying that part of Tom's motivations come directly from his mother's legacy. He's chosen the same mountains, the same path, and he too wants to be a professional climber.

His earlier K2 ambition was rash, he was young, he wanted to succeed, and perhaps luckily for him, he never got the chance to try.
But now, six years later and six years older, and mid-way through his successful solo ascents of the great north faces, Tom tells us he has a new project in the pipeline. A Greater Ranges trip. Something much bigger. He refuses to tell us what it is.

Both Nick Brown and I think we can guess. It's got to be K2, right?
Just over a week later and Tom has succeeded in his challenge to climb the six north faces.

"Even for the most experienced Alpinist, soloing the 6 north faces in winter in their lifetime would be an amazing achievement. For Tom Ballard to do them in on

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Jeff Mercier and Nick Bullock - Rive Gauche

Andy Earl - In The Bubble

Barbara Zangerl - Sharing the Line

Leo Houlding: The Man in the Mirror

Helen Mort - No Map Could Show Them

Jim Herrington - Capturing Rock Stars of the Golden Age

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