Climbing in his DNA: Tom Ballard ticks project Starlight and Storm

Posted by Sarah Stirling on 29/03/2015
Summit Selfie on the Eiger
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Tom Ballard has just become the first person to solo the six great north faces of the Alps in one winter season. Mountains - this very project even - seem to be in his DNA... Tom talks dealing with doubts, death, his famous mother, the selfishness of soloing, and why the mainstream media doesn't understand climbing.

Tom's mother, Alison Hargreaves, one of the greatest female climbers of all times, was the first person to solo the six great north faces in a single summer season. She climbed the Eiger when six months pregnant with him, and died on K2 when he was six.

I think a lot of people believe that by climbing I am trying to get closer to my mother. This is not the case. I climb solely for me. That may seem selfish but - yes, solo climbing is one of the most selfish things you can do.

I feel a deep connection to mountains that can't be explained. Something spiritual perhaps. I want to climb them simply because they are there, and that's where I want to be. It's not for adrenaline, or kicks.

I was lining up to re-enter the classroom after break one day when I was at Primary School. I must have been 10 or 11. I had an epiphany: I wanted to climb. Just climb!

The way my climbing involves yet isolates the people who are closest to me is very bad for relationships! I often wonder, is it worth it? Yet I go on...

Climbing the classic six north faces of the Alps is, or should be, on every aspiring alpinist's wishlist. A rite of passage perhaps. Climbing this 'set' in a single winter season seemed to me a great challenge. A dream.

The fact that my mum was the first to solo them all in a single summer season played no part in my decision to undertake the challenge to solo them all in a single winter season. Well, perhaps unconsciously! However, it does make a nice story. Nothing like a little nepotism!

For me, climbing the six peaks alone and without help seemed logical. Something that had not yet been achieved. Experience some great routes. The added pressure of trying to fit them within three months was not welcome. But it kept me on my toes.

I was so, so tired when I topped out on the sixth north face, the Eiger, and of course the descent is still part of the climb... And the Eiger West Flank is particularly known to be a dangerous descent. I must say, getting to that summit, a huge weight did still seem to lift from my shoulders. My legs were still feeling pretty heavy though!

My overall happiness had been marred by a skier being killed just in front of me, a reminder that life can be cruel. The mountains are a hard mistress. Getting back down safely to Eigergletscher, the Eiger Glacier, I was tired but content.

I had doubts before I even began the project. I doubted myself all the way through. I was seriously apprehensive about what weather and conditions I would be 'dealt' on the Eiger. I had been, and still was, quite ill! Normally I would never have climbed the Eiger feeling like I did. I could barely climb out of bed! But the winter was coming to an end...

The scariest moment of the project happened when I was making the 'crux' span between two pieces of ice on the Matterhorn North Face. A helicopter hovered really close, deafening me. I could feel the rotor wash. Must have looked rather good to the passengers though!

I am surprised by all the media interest. To be honest I can't see what all the fuss is about. First of all this project was my dream. A dream I wanted to realise solely for the deed.

The general media, like the general public, really don't understand why we do these things, I guess. Perhaps, climbing a mountain, they can understand. Getting to the top, the challenge, good vibes through hard work effort and so on. But the rest of climbing remains a mystery. I certainly can't explain it to them. Actually we should keep it to ourselves, a secret. If you want to understand why, then go and try for yourself!

​I don't think climbing has ever been, or ever will be, a man's world. The women have, and will always be, the driving force behind the men. That's not to say that women don't drive themselves as well! Someone once said: "Behind every great man, there has been a greater woman".

In 2009, me, my sister and my Dad packed our furniture in storage and, with a van full of stuff, began a European adventure, which continues to this day! Currently, we have a temporary base in Val di Fassa. A ramshackle selection of tents. However I would like to have a proper base at some point.

My initial intention on our European adventure was to  make a solo winter ascent of the Scottish Pillars on the Eiger North Face. That winter produced record snowfall, so we stayed into the summer... meanwhile I spotted an obvious unclimbed line.

So, before I reached 21, I had the pleasure of making the first free ascent of the Scottish Pillars, and an independent 900m new route as well! Then we began our wanderings. Kate meanwhile qualified as both a ski and snowboard instructor - not bad in a different language - and decided to stay there in Grindelwald. So it became just the two of us.

My Dad is my climbing parnter because it takes a bond deeper than mere friendship to stand in the freezing cold paying out a wet rope! Craning his neck as I swing across a glittering icicle; on an impressively overhanging wall. The world runs in circles. He supported my mother through her 'career', now he supports me.

What am I most proud of besides completing my Starlight and Storm project? Making the second ascent of Ironman D14+, at Eptingen in northern Switzerland. Climbing the Dolomite Via Olimpia F8a, a route my Dad had climbed in 1966. Except I made the first free ascent, in winter. Soloing down the classic North Ridge of the Piz Badile, as my deascent from the Cassin.

After this winter I am a little fed up of soloing. But it won't be long before I am up there again! I think a lot more about how soloing affects people around me now though, especially the people who are closest. Circumstances change, different opportunities present themselves ... will I ever give it up: who knows what the future holds. If we knew, it would be pretty boring!
 

WATCH: Great conditions for an autumn one day ascent of the Eiger North Face by Rob Jarvis and Mike Brownlow on BMC TV.

WATCH: The classic traverse of the Eiger, ascending via the superbly exposed Mittellegi Ridge on the aptly named "Ogre", staying overnight at the magnificent Mittellegi Hut, and descending via the South Ridge on BMC TV.

WATCH: 'The Limbless Mountaineer' - Jamie Andrews attempts the Matterhorn on BMC TV.

 



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