The very edge of existence
Photo from the GoFundMe, posted by Tom & Daniele's friends
Story first posted on Twitter.
The climbers Tom Ballard and Daniele Nardi are lost on Nanga Parbat in Pakistan, the world’s ninth-tallest mountain. They have been out of contact for ten days.
Immense efforts have been made to search the mountain. A team of Spanish & Pakistani mountaineers led by Alex Txikon; two Pakistani military helicopters; drones, to survey places that people can't reach due to avalanche risk. €141,000 raised to fund it. Now we must fear the worst.
Ballard is the son of one of the world's top female mountaineers, Alison Hargreaves. She soloed the six great north faces of the Alps in a single season—a first for any climber. She climbed Everest without the aid of Sherpas or bottled oxygen.
She died in 1995, descending K2.
"The Alisons of this world want to achieve things they find barely possible," said her husband Jim, in memory. "When she decided to climb Everest, she wanted to do it in the best style she could, without oxygen or Sherpas, because she wanted to have as little between her and the mountain as humanly possible."
She dedicated the climb to her children, Tom (then aged six), and Kate, aged four. When she died, she was damned for leaving them. Her husband understood. So does Tom.
"Tom climbs like his mother, and he possibly has even more talent than she did," said his father in 2003, when Tom was 14. A decade later, Tom came to the attention of the world climbing scene in his own right.
"Tom Ballard is a man in his strong-shouldered, rough-handed, sun-tanned prime. He's 26 years old, he's just soloed the 6 great north faces of the Alps in a single winter season, & the eyes of the climbing world are suddenly seemingly where he wants them - fixed directly on him."
Jack Geldard and Nick Brown profiled Tom Ballard in 2015 for UKClimbing.com in an exceptional feature about how he was carrying on his mother's legacy
The feature includes the last known images of Alison alive -- scratched, pink tinted, developed from a roll of film recovered from a body found on the glacier below the mountain. That body was her climbing partner Rob Slater. David Rasmussen found him, and the film, and developed the pictures.
I was in two minds whether to include these pictures on Twitter, and decided not to: it seemed too morbid. Here, though, where it is a little quieter, I would like to. Because Alison is on top of the world.
Photo © Rob Slater via David Rasmussen
In that 2015 article, Jack Geldard and Nick Brown concluded: “There’s no denying that part of Tom’s motivations come directly from his mother’s legacy. He’s chosen the same mountains, the same path, and he too wants to be a professional climber.”
Motivations, though, motivations. Why does anybody climb these 8,000 metre peaks? Even outside of the technical risk, it is unfathomably cold (I've seen temperatures of -40C mentioned; windchill of 60 below). There is not enough oxygen. Your brain swells. Your blood thickens. You hallucinate. Time starts to dilate.
Your body is trying to die.
German climber David Göttler described "life in the death zone" to the Telegraph in 2015:
“I have never climbed with artificial oxygen so my experience of climbing above 8,000m is very pure and intense. The feeling is like you are moving in super-slow-motion. Sometimes you can see the summit about 200m away but it can take you two hours to get there. It just never gets any closer. You have to force yourself to take ten steps, stop, try to get some more air into your body, then take another ten steps.
On a smaller climb like Mont Blanc (4,809m, France/Italy) you know exactly how much altitude gain you can make in an hour. Above 8,000m that is impossible. You have to switch off your brain or you will go mad with frustration.”
High altitude mountaineering is hell. But note the words he used first. Amid the suffering, it is, above all, sublime.
“But it’s also amazing," Sean Smith, one of a handful of Britons to have attempted Nanga Parbat in winter, concurs. "If you have the level of experience you can understand the challenge. It’s as close as you can get to being on another planet – on the very edge of existence."
I write because I am reminded of another young alpinist, Hayden Kennedy, who died in Montana in October 2017. He was, again, astonishingly talented. it was, again, too soon. He was just 27.
The story is another tragedy. Hayden Kennedy just... gets to me. I don't fully understand why, to be honest with you. There are a million tragedies every day: why this one? It asks the hardest questions about what it means to love someone and to set them free; perhaps that's part of it. About what it means to live, amid the inevitability of death.
We're going to have to leave that question open. Let me keep telling this story.
One of the things is, Hayden was a writer. Fuck, could he write. This story, published just two weeks before he died, The Day We Sent Logical Progression. ("Sent" means successfully climbed. "Logical Progression" is the name of a route.)
"Over the last few years, however, as I’ve watched too many friends go to the mountains only to never return, I’ve realized something painful. It’s not just the memorable summits and crux moves that are fleeting. Friends and climbing partners are fleeting, too. This is the painful reality of our sport, and I’m unsure what to make of it. Climbing is either a beautiful gift or a curse.
This is a story about the day we sent Logical Progression, a big-wall route in Mexico. The route was amazing, but it wasn’t all that hard. The experience was incredible because I was with three good friends: Chris Kalous, Kyle Dempster, and Justin Griffin.
There’s no easy way to say this, but half that team is now dead."
In 2012 his father, Michael Kennedy - also a noted alpinist - wrote to his son about losing friends in the mountains. Jack Roberts on Bridalveil Falls near Telluride. Bean Bowers, back country skiing in Colorado. Carlyle Norman, who died alone, in Patagonia. Bjørn-Eivind Årtun.
"We knew you were in the mountains, but we hadn't heard anything for several days." He wrote of the fear he & his wife felt in 2012, waiting to hear news from his son's climbing expedition in Patagonia. A silence Tom Ballard and Daniele Nargi's families have known too well this last week.
"Then a post from Colin Haley appeared on Facebook: ,Today we got to watch history being made.... Hayden Kennedy and Jason Kruk made the first fair-means ascent of the SE Ridge of Cerro Torre...[in] about 13 hours to the summit from a bivy at the shoulder.' Someday, you'll understand the intense relief we felt on reading those words."
He was so proud of his son.
"Your ascent of the Southeast Ridge must have been exhilarating: a faultless line with a great partner on that iconic gold and white spire. For me, and for many others, this climb embodies the highest ideals of boldness, difficulty, commitment and self-reliance—the foundations of alpinism. And when you cleaned a third of the 360 bolts on the Compressor Route, you made a courageous first step in restoring Cerro Torre to its rightful place as one of the most demanding and inaccessible summits in the world. I never would have had the guts to take that step myself, even in my best days."
In early October 2017 Hayden & his partner Inge Perkins were skiing in the backcountry of southwestern Montana. Easy stuff, by all accounts. But"on Saturday Inge was killed in an avalanche. Unable to bear the loss of his partner in life, the following day, Sunday, October 8, Hayden Kennedy took his own life."
You can bear it until you can't, I guess.
In Hayden's writing, that story of two weeks before of the Logical Progression climb, you can see a man who was trying to come to terms with "the dual nature of sublime meaning and utter absurdity in climbing mountains".
Why do we do it, he asks? "There is no glory, no real answers, in sending and summits, yet we organize our entire lives around the myth that there are." A myth that many climbers and mountaineers ultimately give their lives for, too.
Hayden was trying to understand that dark, that loss, that is inherent to mountaineering and climbing as endeavours. He was trying to find a way to live through it.
"Maybe the most genuine aspects of any tale are the sputterings and the silences, the acknowledgments of failure, the glimmerings in the dark. And maybe one genuine reason to try to share our stories about days we actually send something, when we are alive and at the height of our powers, is to try to bring back what’s past, lost, or gone.
Perhaps by doing so, we might find some light illuminating a new way forward."
You can see a man who was trying.
Updates about the search on Nanga Parbat are being shared on the Facebook page of Daniele Nardi, the Italian climber who was partnering Tom Ballard on the first winter ascent of the Mummery Rib.
People there, too, are trying to understand the loss. This loss. And that of others they have known. To defend the endeavour, though it extracts such terrible cost.
One comment, from Francesco Migliore, in approximate translation:
"The mountain is neither killer nor accursed nor murderer ... as one often happens to read in many posts these days. The mountain exists and lives... it changes and breathes. We humans want to climb it and give it a value... as Bonatti said, "The mountains have the value of the men who climb them".
The Nanga... like any mountain in the world... is not killer, but living can unfortunately interfere with those who climb on its walls... just this... Daniele and Tom rest in the womb of their alpine dream, but a mountaineer never, ever considers a mountain to be cursed because it is the very reason for his passion."
Tom, Hayden, Alison. They all said the same thing.
“If you are given two options, take the harder one because you’ll regret it if you don’t,” Alison Hargreaves said in her final interview. “At least if you take the harder one and fail, you’ll have tried.”
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