News of the hardships on the world’s tallest mountains often unfolds in an excruciatingly slow fashion. A contact call is missed. A storm hits. The hours stretch out over days until a sense of crisis solidifies.
The last communication with British climber Tom Ballard and his Italian climbing partner Daniele Nardi was a satellite phone call to their base camp last Sunday from around 6,000 meters on Nanga Parbat, the ninth highest mountain in the world, at 8,126 meters. Ballard, 30, and Nardi, 42, were trying to climb the Himalayan giant in winter via a rocky outcrop called the Mummery Rib on its west face.
Last Thursday, when a helicopter was able to inspect the higher slopes, researchers saw recent avalanche debris and a partially buried tent, but at a lower level than expected, and far from the route planned by the duo. But low clouds, snow and high winds hampered rescue efforts.
The worry of Ballard, an accomplished mountaineer who was the first to singlehandedly tackle the six great alpine faces in one winter, is doubly painful for those who know him as Ballard’s mother, Alison Hargreaves, died while climbing K2 in 1995.
Nanga Parbat, nicknamed ‘Killer Mountain’, has featured in some of the darkest and most famous episodes of Himalayan climbing. British mountaineer Albert Mummery disappeared on the mountain in 1895 with two companions Ghurka, and he was finally conquered in 1953 by Herman Buhl, who barely survived after spending a night on a ledge on his descent.
In 1970, in a controversy that still resonates today, Gunther Messner, brother of the most famous Himalayan mountaineer, Rheinhold Messner, was lost during the descent of the two men. Climbed for the first time in winter in 2016, the Nanga Parbat remains a formidable prospect in any season. And while Nardi had been on the mountain before, including in winter, the Nanga Parbat was only the second Himalayan expedition for Ballard, a man described by his peers as a “strong, talented and very capable mountaineer” in an area. where experience and persistence in the face of repeated failure is often the key.
The sense of shock in the small world of Himalayan mountaineering has been compounded by the similarities to the death of Ballard’s mother 24 years ago.
Like his son, Hargreaves was an exceptional young mountaineer. She too had soloed the six alpine faces in summer. Capped to the post in her ambition to be the first British woman to climb Everest, she climbed the world’s tallest mountain without oxygen and support – yet another rare achievement – in a summer in which she foresaw also to climb K2 and Kanchenjunga – the second in the world and the third highest mountains respectively. A few months after Everest, however, she died during her descent from K2.
After his death a biography of Hargreaves, Regions of the heart, by David Rose and Ed Douglas, examined what might have prompted her to take on this challenge, suggesting problematic marriage as a possible motivation. Then, about five years ago, Tom Ballard burst onto the rock climbing scene in his own right. Somewhat lonely, he had accumulated a leisurely summary of Scotland’s first winter climbs before he stood out with a feat many saw as echoing his mother’s streak of solo alpine climbs except in winter.
Climbers Jack Geldard and Nick Brown documented Ballard’s alpine solos for the website escalade.com. âBefore we met Tom,â they wrote in 2015, âwe had read a lot about him. We had stumbled upon his efforts as a teenager to organize an expedition to K2 to be the first person to climb the mountain in winter, and the first to accomplish it solo – an extremely dangerous goal. They carefully concluded: âIt is undeniable that part of Tom’s motivation comes directly from his mother’s legacy. He chose the same mountains, the same path, and he too wants to become a professional climber.
More recently, Tom Ballard was accumulating experience on larger mountains before finally announcing his plans for the Nanga Parbat in winter. That would be a far cry from the guided climbers who climb fixed ropes on Everest every year. Those involved would climb in small teams and in the dead of winter, when winds can regularly reach hurricane strength.
Climber-turned-documentary maker Sean Smith, one of the few Britons to attempt Nanga Parbat in winter, says he can understand the allure. âOn the one hand, it’s grim: the days are very cold and it can feel like the Somme, a daily battle for survival,â he says. âEverything freezes and the mountain is swept away by massive avalanches.
âBut it’s also amazing. If you have the experience level, you can understand the challenge. Some of those days leading up to the road are my most memorable climbing days. It’s as close as it gets to being on another planet – on the edge of existence and in the most beautiful place. “
Mountain guide Sandy Allan, who has climbed Nanga Parbat twice, is a friend of the Ballard family. He describes Alison Hargreaves as “amazing” and Tom Ballard as a similar talent. âThe face is absolutely huge,â he says. âWe have climbed a route that takes you to the bottom of the Mummery Rib. For someone like Tom, who climbs to the top of his game, the ridge would be a pretty easy approach. But when you get to the top, there is a big plateau with seracs [glaciated ice peaks] on board and it becomes quite dangerous, strafed by the falling ice.
The magnitude of this increase was dramatized by what Ballard and Nardi discovered when they arrived at their base camp. According to a blog post on Ballard’s sponsor website, mountain dweller, the thick snow on the mountain – up to four meters in places – forced them to abandon one of their camps. Over the weeks, one of the two Pakistani mountaineers on the team fell ill and left. A second then withdrew, concerned about the conditions.
Nardi told a Russian climbing website: âAfter the heavy snowfall, something changed in him. More than once he has said: “I don’t want to lose my life on this mountain”.
The two decided to go ahead. In Nardi’s last communication, reported by the Italian news site Le Iene, he tells how Ballard had just discovered a new route in a ravine: âWe saw a corridor of ice and snow in the middle of the rock walls that would allow us to climb much faster. By that time, they had reached a long slope of soft snow, bare ice and boulders about 6,300 meters, from which they descended to camp at 6,000 meters – their last known location.
Those who know the men are still hoping they are safe somewhere, trying to pull out, their satellite phone batteries flat, or the signal blocked by the weather. Until then, the painful wait for news continues.