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Finding Tom Ballard: Retracing the Steps of an Icon’s Son

The British Alpinist's abridged career was in many ways defined by his attempts to differentiate himself from his iconic mother's achievements. In the end, the resemblances are eerie.

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The drone had crashed, but Alex Txikon was certain of what he’d seen: the video had shown two motionless bodies. The broad-shouldered Basque alpinist, his beard frosted with ice, hadn’t had time to take a picture before the feed cut out, but the image was burned into his mind. “I recognized their rucksacks, their gloves, their heads, their bodies,” Txikon says. Located within a maze of diagonal rock bands and snow at 5,800 meters, the two bodies were roped together, not 10 feet apart. The upper one was still hanging on a fixed line leading up and out of sight. The lower figure, also attached to the line, was contorted on the slope below his partner.

Tom Ballard shovels out a snow cave on Nanga Parbat. Photo: Daniele Nardi.
Tom Ballard shovels out a snow cave on Nanga Parbat. Photo: Daniele Nardi.

The men were the 42-year old Italian climber Daniele Nardi and 30-year-old Tom Ballard of the U.K. They had arrived in Pakistan at the end of December 2018, and had been toiling away trying to make the third winter ascent of the 8,126-meter Nanga Parbat via the legendary and unfinished Mummery Spur.

Ballard and Nardi’s disappearance made headlines around the world, largely because of Ballard’s lineage: He was climbing royalty, the son of Alison Hargreaves, a climber whom Reinhold Messner says was “the greatest alpinist ever as a woman.” After attempting to become the first person to solo the six great North Faces of the Alps in a single season and nearly succeeding, Hargreaves died while descending K2 in a storm in 1995 along with six others. Ballard was just a child. That day remains one of the deadliest days in the mountain’s history, and her death, too, created a media storm.

Daniele Nardi. Photo: Daniele Nardi.
Daniele Nardi, Tom Ballard’s partner during the Nanga Parbat expedition. Photo: Daniele Nardi.

Growing up in the shadow of a famous mother, Ballard might have been expected to chart a different course. But he followed in Hargreaves’ path, eerily so, first reenacting her North Faces project and then venturing into the Greater Ranges. Just like his mother, Ballard made a name for himself by climbing solo.

Nanga Parbat was a major leap—maybe too big—for Ballard. Nardi had already tried the Mummery Spur several times and finishing it was a fixation of his. It was surprising to no one that he returned in 2018. But Ballard’s participation in the expedition had raised eyebrows. It was his first time on an 8,000-meter peak, and he’d never even been above 6,000 meters. 8,000-meter peaks in winter are crucibles of 100-mile-per-hour winds and temperatures that will freeze spit before it hits the ground—most of the 14 8,000ers have been climbed in winter only once.

Adding to the magnitude of the challenge, the Mummery Spur is notoriously avalanche-prone. Like a dragon’s spine, the spiky rock
protrusion that comprises the Mummery splits Nanga’s west face from the bottom all the way up to a plateau below the summit pyramid—a beautiful line, without question. Reinhold Messner and his brother, Günther, are the only people to have been on the route besides Nardi, Ballard and Nardi’s 2013 partner, Elisabeth Revol. In 1970, Reinhold and Günther descended via the Mummery after Günther began suffering altitude sickness. He died near the base. “It is the most dangerous route on Nanga Parbat,” Messner says. “We were forced to go down there. We went down wherever it was possible, but we were just hoping that we’d have a chance to survive. I would never try to climb it from the bottom to the top.”

Simone Moro, who made the first winter ascent of Nanga Parbat, in 2016, and is the only person to have made the first winter ascent of four unique 8,000-meter peaks, frames it even more bleakly: “Climbing Mummery is a game of Russian roulette.”

Moro adds of Ballard, “To go to an 8,000-meter peak for the first time in winter, on a new route, and that route the Mummery Spur? That’s not the obvious way to start a high-altitude career. That was a very hardcore beginning.” The Mummery Spur has its apologists who think Nardi’s
envisioned route was reasonably safe, but they are few and far between.

Ballard and Nardi started their ascent in January 2019, most of their time spent wading through snow and trying to stay warm. Reading in the tent, where it was frequently below zero, “I would barely make it through a chapter before my fingers became too cold to turn the pages,” Ballard wrote in a blog post for his sponsor Montane. They waited out blustery days in base camp, dry-tooling on erratic boulders to maintain fitness. On sunny high- pressure days they started up the Mummery, establishing first Camp I, then Camp II and finally Camp III at 5,700 meters. Camp III was sheltered in a crevasse, but still lashed by “bloomin awful” wind, Ballard wrote.

Ballard and Nardi made multiple forays up to Camp II and Camp III, but were hindered by questionable conditions. “Always the threat of avalanches made us turn back without spending the night,” Ballard wrote. Each time they went back up, they found their tents buried by recent slides. “We even turned back from [Camp I] because we didn’t have a good feeling. Well-founded as a huge avalanche engulfed our line of ascent shortly after.”

On the afternoon of February 24, Nardi placed a routine phone call from his Thuraya satellite phone to update one of his sponsors in Italy. The GPS data from that call put Nardi and Ballard at 6,300 meters. He said that they were descending to 6,000 meters—where they had set up a portaledge for Camp IV— to shelter from a storm that was pummeling the mountain. Later, at about 6:30 p.m., Nardi called his wife to check in. He made one final
call to base camp to say the two were going to try to descend further, to Camp III at 5,700 meters. It was the last contact anyone ever had with either of the two men.

Tom Ballard and Daniele Nardi’s route up the Mummery Spur, Nanga Parbat, 2019. They were to perish, in unknown circumstances, while attempting the first ascent. Shown are (1) their high point and (2) where their bodies were found. Photo: Simone Moro.

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