Tom Ballard, climbing in his veins
Interview with talented British climber and alpinist Tom Ballard.
Every now and then you stumble across a name you've never heard before, only to discover that he or she has a superbly impressive, enviable even, climbing record. People who live for climbing in all its forms, always and everywhere, whose lives revolve around this vertical quest. What's more, they do this for themselves only, not for anyone else. Tom Ballard is one of these people. Over the last few years the young English rock climber and alpinist has carried out countless important ascents just about everywhere, unbeknown to most except for a very small circle of select friends. And of course his father, with whom he forms an inseparable team currently based in a small campsite in the Dolomites. To be honest, if Ballard junior had "used" his mother's surname, it's highly likely he'd be far more famous than he is today. But as often happens, Tom chose not to follow in someone else's footsteps, but instead to seek his own path. Perhaps, unconsciously, to add shed light onto some shadows. As you'll discover in this interview.
Tom, from what we’ve gathered you and your father are true vertical "vagabonds", without a proper home, always on the move.
Six years ago we packed and drove to Switzerland, for me to repeat the ‘Scottish Route’ on the Eiger, which despite a heavy winter I did. Making the first free ascent, and adding a 1000m new route ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’. Then we began travelling through France and Italy living in the ‘van’, eventually I discovered the Dolomites and have spent some of my time here since.
What is striking is that you experience the mountains in all its facets, from bouldering to the crags and long mountain routes, via extreme skiing, ice climbing, dry tooling… where is your heart taking you? And do you regard all this as training, or something else?
Climbing is like an unpolished diamond, so many beautiful possibilities, it’s up to every individual how to ‘cut’ it! What I do from day to day is dictated by the weather and season. Sometimes drytooling in summer and multi-pitch routes in winter! In a sense every route I have climbed is ‘training’ for the next, and I'm always looking for something new, bigger and colder! At some time I will take my ‘skills’ to the Greater Ranges…
You’ve carried out many first ascents, first winter ascents, rare repeats… but much of tho occurs under the radar, how come we get to hear so little?
I tend just to go climbing, then go back and relax in the van or tent. I don’t see or talk to so many people, and I’m usually finished pretty early, before everyone else. Self publicity is not one of my strengths. Getting information from me is like extracting blood from a stone! I climb because I want to, routes which interest me, not ones that may look good on the Internet or anywhere else!
Many of your routes are solo ascents. Many very difficult indeed. Can you talk us through this very personal aspect of your climbing?
To be alone in the mountains is very special, totally self reliant. I believe I get a completely different ‘look’ at the terrain with a greater understanding of the dangers whilst soloing than I do with a partner (I’ve only climbed three of more than a hundred alpine routes with a partner). Even if the time spent climbing is far... far shorter! But this spring and summer I made some first ascents with my friend Stefania. She is the fourth generation of her family to make first ascents in the Catinaccio. The eldest daughter of the guide Bruno Pederiva. Who I have also had the pleasure of climbing with. That is a history and lineage I feel privileged to be a part of.
This summer you celebrated your 200th route in the Dolomites. Evidently this massif holds something special, doesn't it?
My 200th route, yes. In fact it was a very impressionable route, "via Dufler" Croda del Lago - Antermoia, the rock was pretty bad, first touched by the more than capable hands of Hans Dülfer in 1911. Considering the fact that the crux is VI, it was a seriously impressive ascent for the period! It's only had a handful of repeats in over a 100 years. My ascent was probably the first solo, and in fact that day I climbed up 3 routes and down another 2. As Luisa Iovane said to me,after I had spent the first summer in the Dolomites, "How many routes now Tom?" "Sixty six." "A summer for you, a life time for most"
While on the Dolomites summer theme: you recently accompanied your sister on her first ever Dolomites climb. What route did you choose and tell us what is was like, as a "big brother" and leader?
Because the weather was poor (when was the summer? I must have missed it!) and we had not much time between the rain showers, we climbed ‘Via del Rifugio’ on Porte Neigre in the Catinaccio. As we walked up from Pera, we beheld an abundance of different alpine flowers, all beautiful. Brought out by the rain and warm temperatures. I think she was impressed by her first taste of the Dolomites, she certainly will be back for more! But the real reason for her ‘flying visit’, was to snowboard on the Marmolada. Which the next day we did, descending from the summit of Punta Rocca, enjoying the fresh snow, if not the murky weather!
Ritual question Tom: the mountains are in your DNA; you mother was in fact Alison Hargreaves, the talented british alpinist, reputed to be one of the greatest female climbers of all times. The first woman to climb Everest without support and supplementary oxygen, the first to solo the six great North Faces of the Alps in the same season. Unfortunately she lost her life in the 1995 K2 tragedy. You were six at the time. What memories do you have of her and what idea do you have of your mother?
I have very few memories of my mother, sadly. For me is difficult to distinguish between real memories and memories of pictures and film. But growing up her ‘legacy’ made a huge impression on me, the routes she climbed and more importantly the style in which she climbed them. She was, and still is, the greatest female mountaineer to ever strap on a pair of crampons. I think she ranks with the top few men as well.
Last question: tell us about Camping Soal Ironworks… do you really make your own pegs?
Pegs are very expensive, much more costly than bolts! New Dolomites routes require a lot of gear. My father has been manufacturing his own creations from steel, using only drill, hacksaw and file, here in the workshop of Camping Soal. Certainly a labour of love!
SELECTION OF CLIMBS
'Seven Pillars of Wisdom' Eiger 1000m 7b. First ascent, solo. 2009
'Piola-Sprungli' VII Eiger. First solo, in winter. 2010
'No limit' M13- Ueschenen. 1st British ascent. 2011
'West Ridge' 1000m VII . Salbit. solo. 2011
'Cassin' 800m VI+, solo. 'North Ridge' 1200m: V+ climbdown. Piz Badile 2011
'Ironman' D14+, Eptingen. Second ascent. 2012
'North East Face' 900m TD WI4 Grande Rocheuse, solo - 'Couturier Couloir' 900m D Aiguille Verte. climb down. 2012
'Italia 61' 230m 8a Piz Ciavazes. Ground up in a day. 2012
'Olimpia-Going for Gold' 250m 8a Catinaccio. First free ascent, with a new finish, in winter, solo. 2013
'If Gengis Can, We Can!' 600m ED M5 Wi4 Agassizhorn, Berner Oberland. First ascent, solo. 2013
'Fiescherwand, Welzenbach - Tillmann ' 1200m ED+ , Gross Fiescherhorn. Berner Oberland. probably the first solo. 2013
'North Face' 1500m AD+ Gran Vernel. ascent and ski descent. 2014
'Maestri - Toni Egger Memorial route' 400m VIII+, Rotwand. Climbed all free, solo 2014
Tom Ballard thanks his sponsors: Ferrino and S.C.A.R.P.A.