STARLIGHT AND STORM
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
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.
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
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.
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.
"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."
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 (bentibbettsphotography.com)
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
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?