TOM BALLARD: AN INTERVIEW WITH THE NEW KING OF THE ALPS

aSo non-athletic as I am, I am still wondering why this flyer caught my eyes and made me want to sit on a Friday night at a local section of the Italian Alpine Club attending a conference about mountaineering.

It turns out, I am really glad it did. Not only did I get to appreciate a sport I had never really considered before, but I also had the chance to meet an incredible young man so passionate about his way of living and determined I could not help but feel touched by his words.

This young man’s name is Tom Ballard and, at 27 years old, he is the first person ever to have solo climbed all six major North faces of the Alps in just one winter.

With this triumph – which is being described as one of the greatest feats in mountaineering history – Tom literally followed his mother’s footsteps and outdid them. In fact, his mother too – the great British mountaineer Alison Hargreaves killed by the 1995 K2 disaster – broke the same record back in 1993 but in a far mildest season: summer.

Kate, Tom, and Alison enjoying a wonderful bivouac, summer 1993

Tom (in red), his sister Kate (now a professional snowboarder) and their mother Alison Hargreaves in 1993.

Through breathtaking videos and pictures, Tom took the very large audience attending the conference on his intrepid “Starlight and Storm” project, virtually re-experiencing with us his difficult conquest of Cima Grande di Lavaredo, Pizzo Badile, Matterhorn, Grandes Jorasses, Petit Dru and the Eiger.

I was so inspired by Tom’s accomplishments, his humility and composure that I felt the urge to share his story with someone. Since there was no better way to do it than through this blog, there I was, contacting Tom through his Facebook page and sending him a flood of questions. Which he actually answered one by one, with friendliness and a lot of patience.

So here it is: the complete interview with Tom Ballard. Enjoy!

I am a complete novice in mountaineering – or, better said, I do not know anything about it. So, how would you explain what you do to people like me? Let us call it a brief “Mountaineering for dummies”.

Tom: Mountaineering is in many ways very simple: the idea being to start at the bottom and reach the highest point of the mountain, then safely down again. It starts to become more complex when you come to choose which route, perhaps the easiest or even the hardest, and even more intricate deciding on the style of ascent. For true Mountaineers the attainment of a peak by any means is not true Mountaineering, the style in which we get there is our main goal!

I do not know if it is only me, but what you do seems pretty crazy. What is your drive that makes you wake up in the morning and decide to make such an incredible effort? What do you feel at the top of that cliff that makes you want to do it again and again?

Tom: There is some invisible force that pulls me towards the mountains. Usually at the top of a climb, i feel a huge relief. Of course I’m not totally relieved until I am safely off the descent and back on easy ground. Then I am intensely happy.

You have been travelling and climbing since you were a 6-months-old fetus [ed.: Alison Hargreaves was pregnant with Tom, when she climbed the Eiger with a partner in July 1988]. What about school?

Tom: All I wanted to do when I was at school was to leave. I left as early as I could. Even the last years of High School I was often to be found climbing in the mountains and glens that overlooked my prisonlike school, whilst my classmates laboured on.

Seeing the pictures of you climbing – which means literally seeing every muscle of your body at work – , it must take a lot of training. What is your daily routine? Are you on a special diet?

Tom: I am a vegetarian and I can’t eat fish. My staple foods are pasta and biscuits! My Eiger climbs (I have spent more than 100 days on the North Face) were fueled daily with jam sandwiches!

DCIM100GOPRO

Tom on the Matternhorn North Face.

During the conference, you said on the route you just concentrate on what you are doing and think about nothing else. The night before it, on the contrary, your thoughts do not let you sleep. What are these thoughts about?

Tom: The night before a big climb, often in a tent or bivy, I usually don’t sleep that much. Constantly keeping an eye on the weather. The approach to the climb is the worst, I walk/ski very fast to somehow drown out the negative thoughts and doubts swirling through my mind. I’m thinking about the route, will I find the correct way? Will those clouds disperse? Is my fitness up to it? How is the descent? But once I have actually started climbing (and stopped shaking!), I soon get into the rhythm. Then its like being in a bubble, nothing else matters except the next hold, and the next after that…

 You often climb solo. The German language distinguishes between “Einsamkeit” and “Alleinsein”. Einsamkeit has a pretty negative connotation and means feeling alone, having no one to share with, because no one really understands you. On the contrary, “Alleinsein” is not a feeling, but a status: it means deliberately distancing yourself from others and enjoying your own company. Do you recognize yourself in any of these two words?

Tom: In a sense I am never totally alone because the mountain is a living being, breathing, moving, changing and, like me, silent! 

If I were a relative/friend of yours, I would be so sick worried about your ventures. Do you ever feel guilty towards them?

Tom: The answer to that question is yes! Solo climbing is selfish in the way that it involves and yet isolates those closest to you.

During the conference, you showed a lot of pictures and videos and every time I thought “That is too much, he is going to fall”, but obviously you did not. Have you ever felt that way too? Which was the most risky experience you have ever faced and how did you manage to get off it? Do you always know when you have reached your limits and cannot go any further?

Tom: There are so many times when I have turned back, said no. When things don’t feel right, for even the slightest reason, it is better to go away and return at a different oppurtunity. As the legendary Don Whillans said: “The mountains will always be there, make sure you are!”. [ed.: Don Whillans (18 May 1933 – 4 August 1985) was an English rock climber and mountaineer]

mixed climbing in Switzerland 2011

Tom mixed climbing in Switzerland back in 2011

Mountaineering is an extreme sport. Do you think one can practice it also in a non-extreme way? In other words, do accidents happen because the climbers do not know their limits/want to cross that line, because of bad luck or because of the activity itself?

Tom: First of all, I think Mountaineeering is more of a lifestyle choice rather than a sport. Accidents, by its very own definition are just that! Things that happen, a falling rock, a slight slip, a broken cornice…
Many blasé climbers have walked away unscathed, and numerous people who have been cautious have paid the ultimate price.

We heard it from you and saw it in the pictures: you and your dad James travelling around in the legendary van and sleeping in tents. That is not an expensive lifestyle for sure, but I guess mountaineering is. So how do you earn your living?

Tom: Mountaineering is not really a job, of course I must be professional, but it is a passion. My passion. For several years my father and I were travelling around in the van, living out of it. We survived only with his small pension. Now that I have become more “famous”, I earn some money giving lectures, and from sponsors. This year I had enough money to travel to America and Korea to compete in the Ice Climbing World Cup. But perhaps I should have used the money to improve my living circumstances? I still live in the van, but in a more permanent position, with a couple of ramshakle tents, one of which is the kitchen. [ed.: Tom’s actual residence is his basecamp in Val di Fassa in the Dolomites]

On your FB-page you name various projects you have sent or demonstrated. What does project in “mountaineerish” mean? And what does that D stand for? Can you give us a sneak peak of your next projects for 2016?

Tom: D stands for Dry. A route that can be climbed in any season. As opposed to M, Mixed, where it must be cold, frozen and usually some ice, often winter. I have been developing a huge roof on the Eastern flank of the Marmolada. The routes I have spent so much time and effort on have become some of the hardest in the world. Hardest in the world for this specific type of climbing. Using ice axes and crampons on radically overhanging rock. It was originally devised for training, some of us have taken it a few paces further.

During the conference, we heard about some movies of yours being awarded. What are their titles and by whom were they awarded? Will we be seeing you on the big screen soon?

Tom: The film ‘TOM’ is about my climbing last winter, the six North faces. It has been filmed by a compact Italian/Spanish trio, and like my climbs, made with a shoestring budget. It is doing the rounds on the international film festival circuit. Soon to be shown in: Slovenia, Holland, Canada, Turkey, Scotland and England. In both the previous showings, the first and second, the film picked up three awards: in Kendal it won Best Mountaineering Film, and in Bansko both Speacial Jury Prize and Youth Jury Prize. I was also in Bansko and was a great pleasure for me to accept the awards on behalf of the filmakers.

 

Thanks to

  1. Tom: for his kindness, availability and willingness to share his amazing lifestyle choices and his amazing pictures
  2. CAI Carpi and sponsors for the organization of the conference
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