Tom Ballard: Mother and son lived 'their days as tigers'

By Steven McKenzie
BBC Scotland Highlands and Islands reporter

image captionA young Tom Ballard with his mum Alison Hargreaves before her fatal expedition to K2

The bodies of British mountaineer Tom Ballard and his Italian climbing partner Daniele Nardi have been found on the Pakistani mountain Nanga Parbat after going missing last month.

Tom's love of climbing started at a young age and was forged in Scotland.

Tom grew up in the Scottish Highlands after his mother, celebrated climber Alison Hargreaves, moved her family from Derbyshire in the 1990s.

She died 24 years ago descending K2. Her motto was: "It is better to have lived one day as a tiger than a thousand days as a sheep."

From a young age she was fascinated with hills and mountains, partly thanks to the high school she attended in Belper, a town on the edge of the Peak District, which encouraged pupils to take up outdoor pursuits.

Her mother and father, academics who read mathematics at Oxford University, would also take the family on holidays in the countryside.

Alison left home at 18 to pursue her dream of being a professional climber.

She moved in with her partner Jim Ballard, who shared her interest in climbing and skiing. They would later marry and have two children - Tom and Kate.

Risk of frostbite

In the 1980s Alison was one of the few British women recognised for her climbing efforts.

She climbed all over the UK, tackled difficult routes in the Alps and joined an expedition in Nepal.

In July 1988, Alison climbed the north face of the Eiger in Alps while six months pregnant with Tom.

image copyrightTom Ballard
image captionTom Ballard spent his childhood in the Highlands. He was reported missing while climbing Nanga Parbat

October 1994 saw her make her first attempt to climb the world's tallest mountain, Everest, alone and unaided.

During her ascent she made the decision to turn back because of the risk of frostbite.

'I love them dearly'

She returned to Everest about six months later and on 13 May 1995 became the first woman in history to reach the summit solo and without the aid of bottled oxygen.

In a radio message from the summit, she said: "To Tom and Kate, my children, I am on the highest point in the world and I love them dearly."

Earlier in 1995, Alison and Jim had moved their family to Spean bridge, near Fort William, in Lochaber.

image captionAlison with her children Kate and Tom
image copyrightPA
image captionAlison Hargreaves pictured during her descent from Everest in 1995

The family's move brought them close to Britain's highest mountain, Ben Nevis, and the Nevis Range snowsports centre.

Ian Sykes, a climber and founder of Nevis Range, became a close friend of Alison's and remembers the family's time near Fort William.

He said they moved to the Highlands to help with Alison's training for Alpine conditions.

'Tough for the kids'

The family, including Jim, Tom and Kate, also skied and climbed in the area.

Mr Skyes said: "They are very much a mountaineering family.

image captionFamily friend Ian Skyes said Tom learned to ski and climb in the Highlands

"The kids were better skiers when they were three-year-olds than I am now.

"Tom learned to ski from an early age and has been a climber from the cot upwards.

"I guess he must have been in his early 20s when he left Fort William and some of the climbs he put up around here have never been repeated."

Mr Sykes added: "It must have been very tough for the kids growing up without their mum and I hope to God things are going to be ok in this case. It is very worrying."

image captionAlison said in 1995 that no-one would set out to do something they thought would cost their life

Shortly after returning home from Everest, Alison began preparations for an expedition to the summit of the world's second highest mountain, K2, in the Karakoram Range on the Pakistan-China border.

At the time, the idea of woman leaving her young family to tackle potentially dangerous expeditions caused a media furore.

'Fear of failure'

In an interview with BBC Scotland, Alison said no-one would set out to do something if they thought it would cost them their lives.

She said: "That is the public regard of mountains and climbing. When we go climbing we minimise the risks.

"If anyone went off deciding they might never come back, that would be a very unfair thing to do, especially for someone with a young family."

Asked if she ever felt fear, she replied: "The fear that I usually have is getting really bad weather and that you cannot make the most of things.

"There is a lot of effort from other people who are supporting you. It's a fear of failure."

image captionAlison with her children in Fort William before leaving for K2

Alison successfully reached the summit of K2.

She died on the descent with five others after they were caught in a storm. She was 33. Her body was never recovered.

Challenging peaks

In the days that followed, her husband Jim told BBC Scotland that he intended to take Tom and Kate to see K2 to help them understand the "awesome beauty" of the peak.

He said his family would continue to spend time walking and climbing, adding that his children could decide for themselves whether to pursue this interest once they were adults.

Tom, 30, and and Italian Daniele Nardi, disappeared more than a week ago on Nanga Parbat, the world's ninth highest mountain, in Pakistan.

Sharing his parents' passion for climbing, Tom's professional climbing career had already taken him to some of the world's most challenging peaks, including the Cima Grande di Lavaredo, Pizzo Badile, Matterhorn, Grandes Jorasses, Petit Dru and the Eiger.

But he never lost his love of the Scottish Highlands.

image copyrightMontane
image captionTom has tackled some of the world's highest mountains

The biography on Tom's sponsor Montane's website reads: "Tom Ballard was born in the Peak District of England in 1988 before moving to the Highlands of Scotland in 1995.

"Here he went to school in the sight and smell of Britain's highest mountain - Ben Nevis 4,406 ft.

"He has never had any other wish or thought, than to be a climber."

Describing Tom as a committed climber who had been making a name for himself in continental Europe, family friend Mr Skyes said: "Tom was doing extremely well and had done some amazing climbs in the Alps."

He added: "I know his family are very upset to have this devastating thing to happen and for it to happen twice is extraordinary.

"Both Jim and Katie must be feeling dreadful and all I can do is wish them the best."

More on this story