“Why is it,” poet John Cooper Clarke once asked, “that the mountaineer is celebrated as a hero, while the heroin user, [Cooper Clarke was addicted to the drug for over a decade] who risks his life on a daily basis, is universally derided?” Tom Ballard, sitting on the grass in a park in Verona, ponders the question.
It all depends, he says, on what you mean by the idea of the mountaineer. “On Everest,” he explains, “some climbers are basically tourists. They have little expertise. What they have is money. They use oxygen. Sherpas carry their gear. In life, I believe in serving an apprenticeship.”
No climber has served a more testing apprenticeship than the 26 year-old from Fort William in Scotland. In August 1995, his mother, Alison Hargreaves, died at the age of 33 during her descent from K2, the Himalayan peak that is 780ft lower than Everest but considerably more perilous. Hargreaves had climbed Everest alone, without oxygen, and scaled the “Big Six” Alpine peaks in a single spring season. This year, Tom became the first climber to replicate that achievement in a single winter.
He now lives with his father, Jim, on a campsite in the Dolomites, 120 miles north of here. The pair own a van but no permanent home.
Ballard’s most dangerous challenge remains unfulfilled. “It has always been my dream,” he says, “to stand on the top of K2.”
What’s stopping him?
Three generations of the English racing motorist Malcolm Campbell’s family attempted world speed records, including his son Donald, killed in 1967. Can children inherit an affinity for peril?
“No,” Ballard says. “I grew up with mountains; first in Belper [his mother’s home town in Derbyshire] then in Fort William. Up there, I feel totally at ease. It’s down here,” he adds, “that I feel uncomfortable.” Down here is everything he doesn’t enjoy. Traffic. Pollution. Inquisitive reporters.
“I’m regularly asked, ‘What do you think about when you’re climbing a mountain: your mother?’ To which I say, ‘No. Oddly enough I am thinking mainly about not falling off’.”
Ballard is a likeable man: mentally sharp, with a dry sense of humour. Hargreaves was renowned for the swiftness of her ascents. Her son does everything quickly: climbing, walking, eating, speaking. His manner suggests he would not allow prurient enquiries to go unpunished.
In 2010, David Rose and Ed Douglas published Regions of the Heart, a book which, drawing on Hargreaves’ diaries, detailed her sometimes volatile relationship with Jim Ballard. Alison was 16 when they met. Twenty years her senior, he ran a climbing shop in Matlock. She moved in with him when she was 18, to the distress of her parents who were both Oxford University graduates. Her diaries refer to domestic abuse by Jim Ballard and to acute financial problems. Climbing seems to have been a welcome release.
Her body still lies in the snow, at 23,000ft.
“If it hadn’t been for your mum,” I ask, “would I be here?”
“Have you read Regions
of the Heart?”
“You live with your father, despite those diary entries.”
“My grandparents released only some parts of her diaries. I don’t think the authors got an overall view. My father emerges like Saddam Hussein. They needed someone to blame. It’s hard,” Ballard says, “to blame a mountain.”
I tell him that I find it hard to imagine that he feels no sense of his mother’s presence at altitude. “Our spiritual connection isn’t related to the mountains. I do believe that she is here with us right now, in spirit. I don’t climb because of my mother. I climb because a mountain pulls you in. It draws you to it. Just like a drug. It really is like an addiction.”
“But it’s not a rush, like base-jumping?”
“No. I believe it’s a combination of things: beauty, danger and a sense of achievement.”
Hargreaves was posthumously castigated for attempting K2 when she had Tom and his younger sister, Kate to look after. Did he pound his pillow, reproaching her?
“No. Because I understood. I understood absolutely why she did what she did. I would prefer that she died doing something that was her passion.”
We move to a café where he sees off a panini as though engaged in a speed-eating contest. He talks about sponsorship that might raise the £50,000 or so required to get him up K2.
If he does climb that mountain, I suggest, there will have to be a sense of having laid a ghost to rest.
“I won’t know until I go.
If I go,” he says.
I have a horrible feeling that he may not die in bed.
“On the whole,” he says, “I would rather not die in bed.”
We say goodbye. I watch as Ballard leaves to catch his train back: walking briskly, impatient to associate the family name with some less calamitous form of immortality. ν