Tom Ballard, Cima Grande di Lavaredo and Pizzo Badile in winter for his Starlight and Storm project
British mountaineer Tom Ballard, as part of his project Starlight and Storm to climb the six great North Faces of the Alps in winter, has recently climbed the Comici - Dimai route on Cima Grande di Lavaredo in the Dolomites and the Cassin route up the NE Face of Pizzo Badile.
We met Tom Ballard last autumn, the young Englishman who has climbing and mountaineering literally imprinted in his DNA thanks to his father, James, and thanks to his mother Alison Hargreaves, the first woman to climb Everest alone and without supplementary oxygen, and the first to climb the six great North Faces of the Alps alone and in the same season.
Tom struck us for his ascents, carried out without fuss and often alone, and he now has an important project that in many ways retraces and progresses that of his family: he intends to climb the six great North Faces of the Alps, once again in a single season, once again alone, but this time in winter. So the Eiger, Matterhorn, Grandes Jorasses, Petit Dru, Pizzo Badile and Cima Grande di Lavaredo ... all now, in the coldest of seasons. These mountains certainly don’t need any further introduction, bar the fact that so far no one has ever climbed them alone and in the same winter. Ballard’s project is ambitious therefore. And starts from very roots of that unchanged "sense" of taking to the mountains, taking risks that are by no means to be underestimated. It is no coincidence then his project is called Starlight and Storm, Etoile et Tempête in French, the title of the most famous book written by French mountain guide Gaston Rebuffat after he became the first person to climb the six great North Faces of the Alps.
By the start of winter Ballard has already climbed two of these mountains, the North Face of Cima Grande di Lavaredo in the Dolomites via the classic Comici - Dimai route on 21 and 22 December 2014, and then NE Face of Pizzo Badile via the Cassin route on 6 and 7 January. These were followed by the Aste - Stenico route on Cima Mugoni in the Rosengarten group, that Ballard defined as a... ‘break’.
Tom, the question may sound banal: why this project?
The nspiration behind this project comes from Gaston Rebuffat, the first person to climb all six great North Faces of the Alps and described in the book 'Starlight and Storm'. In summer 1993 my mother became the first person to climb all six, solo and in a single season. I have always dreamt about climbing them all, and doing so in winter makes more sense. The added incentive is that no one has ever solo climbed all six in a single winter season… yet…
What does this journey give you? In part we believe it has something to do with returning to your roots.
The 'journey' gives me something that has not yet been achieved. A project that may not even be possible without the right conditions. And if Mother Nature wants to be unkind then she can make it impossible for me this winter. It is very interesting following in the footsteps of my mother. Except that this time I am climbing, not playing in the sand!
You began with the Comici - Dimai climb on Cima Grande di Lavaredo. Had you climbed it before? But regardless of this: every beginning is important, ins’t it?
I climbed the route in the dreadful summer of 2011. There were more than 40 people who climbed the route that day, because the weather had been bad and the weather forecasters had promised special weather that Sunday. I climbed without a rope at the time.
Yes, I was very keen to begin this demanding winter project. So on the 20th December my father drove myself and two friends, Patti and Stefi, to Misurina. We walked up and spent the night inside the ‘garage’, that is the Rifugio Auronzo winter room. We were joined a bit later by Ruggero, a photographer and Eric, a mountain guide. We enjoyed a pleasant evening while the gale howled outside. I started late the next morning as I only intended to have a look at conditions. I started climbing after 10.30am and as I ascended I expected the cold north wind to pick up. It never did, so I just kept going upwards. The 'Constantini' crack looked to be the best option, it was quite filled with snow. The rock was very cold, but dry! At reached the rock band at 16:00. After cleaning the pitch I 'crawled' along the band and onto the South face. I was very tired, unexpectedly tired. The light was fading. I couldn't remember the way down, it all looked so different from what I remembered so I decided to spend the night there. I had no extra clothes except gloves, no food, no water, nothing. I crawled beneath an overhang and went to sleep. What a way to spend the longest night! The next morning I continued to the summit beneath a glorious sunrise, then descended safely. Out of all the people who knew where I was spending the night, I believe I was the one who slept the most!
This was followed by the Cassin route on Pizzo Badile…
My father and I drove to Bondo, accompanied once again by Ruggero who took pictures for GM. I should have known everything was going to work when we were given permission to drive up the road. The next morning I began climbing at 8 am. At first I climbed without the rope, then there were 4 pitches with delicate difficulties up to M6. I then continued carrying the rope again to the 'halfway ledge’ which I reached at 13.30. In summer the next pitches are the most difficult ones and with a good knowledge of drytooling they provided interesting climbing, never more than M7. This was followed by an interesting pitch: normally one follows a crack to the left… instead I descended to the right and climbed a streak of 'squeaky' névé, 80°, never more than 2 or 3 inches thick! There was no protection for 50m. It starting to get dark at this point so I dug out half a snowhole on a small ledge where Cassin made his second bivy. I spent a surprisingly comfortable night here and started climbing again at 8 am the following morning. Four long, 70m pitches led me to the North ridge. This section was much easier than I had been expecting, 90° névé ,M5. The ridge seemed to take forever though and I 'towed' the rope behind me. Of course it got stuck so I had to reverse to free it. At 13.30 much to my relief. I finally reached the ‘pyramid’.After a rest I began the descent, back into Italy! Since I was tired and thirsty I spent the night at Rifugio Giannetti and continued to Bagni Masino early the next morning to be met by Ruggero and my father.
The route felt like climbing Stirling Bridge, Point Five Gully and Orion Direct combined! If you have climbed in Scotland, then you will know what I’m talking about!
In the meantime you also climbed the Aste - Stenico route up Cima dei Mugoni in the Rosengarten group. You wrote that it was to take a break from Starlight and Storm. But was it really a break?
I rested for a couple of days beforehand. Then since the rock was free of snow, well, almost, I went up and climbed this mixed free and aid climb. The rock is not to be recommended but it’s such a beautiful line. I’d been thinking about this line for three winters and now I finally got the chance. Climbing in the sun was a pleasure. Of course I was wearing a lot of clothes and cold fingers in the morning are obligatory! The wind picked up as I reached the summit and descended and it suddenly became cold. Mother Nature reminding me it’s still winter!
So what’s the program now?
Well there are still four more routes to do...
STARLIGHT AND STORM - THE ROUTES CLIMBED SO FAR
Via Comici – Dimai
Cima Grande di Lavaredo, North Face, Dolomites
Emilio Comici, Angelo Dimai, Giovanni Dimai, 13 - 14 August 1933
Tom Ballard: 21 - 22 December 2014. 1 bivouac.
Pizzo Badile, NE Face
Riccardo Cassin, Gino Esposito, Mario Molteni, Vittorio Ratti, Giuseppe Valsecchi, 14 - 16 July 1937
Tom Ballard: 6 - 7 January 2015. 1 bivouac.
15/10/2014 - Tom Ballard, climbing in his veins
Interview with talented British climber and alpinist Tom Ballard.
Tom Ballard thanks: Calze GM Sport, Dolomitland, Virna Pierobon Projects and S.C.A.R.P.A.