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Tom Ballard Solos the Six Great North Walls in Calendar Winter: An Interview
Posted on: April 6, 2015
Tom Ballard works up steep snow slopes on the North Face of Cima Grande di Lavaredo on December 21, 2014. [Photo] Gloria Ramirez
On March 19, the last full day of winter, 26-year-old British alpinist Tom Ballard climbed the North Face of the Eiger, completing his "Starlight and Storm" project and becoming the first person to climb the six great north faces of the Alps—Cima Grande di Lavaredo, Piz Badile, Matterhorn, Grandes Jorasses, Petit Dru, and Eiger—in calendar winter and alone, without a support crew.
Ballard was inspired to pursue this ambitious dream by the great French climber Gaston Rebuffat, the first to climb the six faces that he later described in the classic book Starlight and Storm, as well as by Ballard's own mother, Alison Hargreaves, who was the first person to climb the six faces solo in a single season, during the summer of 1993.
Hargreaves is one of the most recognized mountaineers in history. Last November, Ballard told planetmountain.com: "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." She was the first woman to climb Mt. Everest without supplemental oxygen and without high-altitude porters, in May 1995, in what she referred to as a "self-contained ascent." (She carried her own loads and did not use other teams' fixed ropes.) A few months later on August 13, Hargreaves reached the summit of K2, but she was blown off the mountain with five other climbers on the descent by winds exceeding 260 miles per hour. At the time of her death her children Kate and Tom were ages five and six.
Ballard on his blitz ascent of the North Face of the Matterhorn. [Photo] Tom Ballard
Hargreaves was pregnant with Ballard when she first climbed the Eiger Nordwand in 1988. He says that one day when he was eleven years old he stood in line at his school and realized that the only thing he wanted to do was climb. Ballard devoted himself to a life in the vertical from that moment forward, becoming an all-around climber by bouldering, free climbing, drytooling, ice climbing, mountaineering and extreme skiing and snowboarding.
Ballard's pursuit of soloing the six great North Faces of the Alps in winter was an ambitious goal. The routes he chose are all classic climbs, steeped in alpine climbing history. To do all six in three months in winter is an extraordinary achievement, especially alone and reliant on one's own technical skills, fitness and resourcefulness.
There was relatively little publicity about Ballard's winter project, apart from occasional Facebook updates. Friends and photographers sometimes kept him company on the approaches. Ballard had not previously climbed three of the faces—Matterhorn, Grandes Jorasses, and Petit Dru—but instead studied route descriptions and beta before attempting them. He stormed up the Schmidt Route on the Matterhorn in a mere 2 hours 59 minutes and the Colton-MacIntyre on the Grandes Jorasses in only 3 hours 20 minutes.
Ballard on the Traverse of the Gods on the North Face of the Eiger on the last full day of winter. [Photo] Tom Ballard
Starlight and Storm Dates, Peaks and Routes: Calendar Winter 2014-2015
December 21-22: Cima Grande di Lavaredo. Climbed Via Comici-Dimai on the north face with one bivouac.
January 6-7: Piz Badile. Climbed Cassin route on the northeast face with one bivouac.
February 10: Matterhorn. Climbed Schmidt route on north face in 2 hours 59 minutes.
March 8: Grandes Jorasses. Climbed Colton-MacIntyre route on north face.
March 14: Petit Dru. Climbed Allain-Leininger route on north face in eight hours.
March 19: Eiger. Climbed the Heckmair Route on north face.
Tom Ballard pauses for a summit photograph on the summit of the Grandes Jorasses after speeding up the Colton-MacIntyre. [Photo] Tom Ballard
Alpinist caught up with Ballard after his Starlight and Storm ascents.
Alpinist: What inspired you to make the plan to climb the six great faces and then follow through?
Tom Ballard: The classic six north faces of the Alps are on every aspiring alpinist's wish list. Or if not, should be. This "enchainment" has been on my mind, one of my dreams, for many years. In the spring of last year, I suddenly decided that the coming winter would be a good time to try. Of course everything hinges on the weather.....but I was determined to give the project all I had.
Alp: How did you train to climb the faces? What climbing did you do in between climbing the six walls?
TB: The best training is to go and try them. Or at least similar routes, albeit smaller and less committing. A base fitness level I attained through running in the autumn. Throughout the winter I was about with the skis, not using lifts, to keep up the fitness.
On a completely different level, but still climbing, and actually crucial to ascending routes of this "type" is drytooling. I find it annoying when people are struggling to lead an M4 and they say, "this drytooling is not for me, I'm an alpinist. "Well, what rubbish. To climb alpine routes you really need the base level of drytooling, otherwise you are going to have a hard time. So get down to the crag. Yes, I know the typical drytooling crags are often pretty uninspiring, but strength comes quickly and then you take the techniques and bulging biceps up in the mountains and you will feel the difference.
Ballard prepares before climbing the Tre Cima in the Dolomites. [Photo] Gloria Ramirez
This autumn I bolted a huge arching roof. I then climbed this with "tools," grading it tentatively D12; however, after repeating Karmasutra, D13+, at Bus del Quai near the delightful Lago d'iseo, I now think I may have undergraded it. Turns out I was stronger than I thought. Only a few days before I climbed the Colton-MacIntyre, I also made the third repeat of Low G Man, D14, again at Bus del Quai. Then I onsighted a D12. So I was quite strong. Still, I didn't find the "Col-Mac" easy.
Alp: How does solo climbing connect you with the vertical world? And how does it differ for you from climbing with a partner? What do you see as the risks of soloing these big walls in winter and how did you mitigate them?
TB: Soloing is the tip of the spear that is climbing. There is nothing, no one between you and the "mountain." You become in tune, as one, a part of the mountain. A moving piece of ice or rock. The risks are obvious: one slip, one mistake, one stone hit, one broken piece of ice or rock, then it's goodnight. While soloing I have developed a style of climbing where I have full awareness and a feel of the mountain. I am almost in control. When I breathe in, the mountain breathes out.
Alp: How did you select the order in which you climbed the faces? Did you closely follow ice and snow conditions, and then plan accordingly?
TB: I was constantly looking at the weather forecast. Because I am based in the Dolomites, the Cima Grande seemed the best choice to start. But I was very keen to climb the Piz Badile before we had a large snowfall. So that came second. Chamonix is a long way away, so I wanted to leave that near the end, and to climb both the Petit Dru and Grande Jorasses together. You have to let the mountains dictate; mountaineering is not a democracy. The Eiger was last, by process of elimination.
Alp: Which were the most difficult ascents?
Ballard soloing the Petit Dru. [Photo] Tom Ballard
TB: Technically the Cima Grande is the hardest, and a completely different style from the rest. To have to touch cold rock with bare fingers...brrrrrrr. Piz Badile had the hardest "mixed" moves, M7. This took me one and a half days. If I had gone lighter, not taking a bivy kit, I could have reached the top in one long day. But I decided to go "heavier." I really did enjoy that bivouac—such a peaceful night. The easiest climb was the Matterhorn.
Alp: How did you manage the logistics? Did you have a support team for each ascent or was it a total solo effort?
TB: I carried all my equipment up to the routes. And down, with the exception of the Grande Jorasses. Friends of a friend brought my skis and boots down to Chamonix a few days later, because I ended up in Italy. My photographer friend Ruggero Arena accompanied me to the base of Cima Grande and Piz Badile. He met me at the Solvay Hut when I descended the Matterhorn, and he filmed from the Lescheaux Hut when I was climbing the Grande Jorasses. So for the climbing, I was on my own—as it should be. He was an "impartial observer." Of course, we shared the experience.
My friends Patricia and Stefania also accompanied me to the Tre Cime di Lavaredo. So there were more photographers than climbers. On my first, abortive attempt on the Dru, my friend Ina and I shared the glorious sunset. The Eiger is made easy by using the railway. Here the Jungfraubahn were most accommodating. Elena and Kottom films were there at the start and the beginning and through the middle.
I would like to thank everyone who helped me realize my dream. Even if they feel they only played a small part, everything big is made of small pieces. So, thank you everyone. Especially my long-suffering father, having to put up with my "moods" and being an excellent chauffeur and belayer.
Alp: How did you approach climbing the Matterhorn, Grandes Jorasses and Petit Dru, which you had never climbed before?
Tom Ballard takes a selfie on the summit of the Eiger, the last mountain in his Starlight and Storm project. [Photo] Tom Ballard
TB: I had an open mind. I studied the guidebooks and found what info I could find on the Internet. Then I just went there to try, hoping I had the right strategy and equipment.
Alp: What are your next alpine climbing plans?
TB: I am going to try to set a new Guinness world record for sleeping.
Self-portrait in the Alps. [Photo] Tom Ballard
Alpinist Articles (Back issues are available at shop.holpublications.com.)
Alpinist 16 The Matterhorn
Alpinist 37 K2:The Mountaineer's Mountain, Part One
Alpinist 38 K2 Mountain Profile: Part II (1974-2012)
Alpinist 40 Mountain Profile: The Eiger, Part I (1858-1938)
Alpinist 41 Mountain Profile: The Eiger Contradiction, Part II
Alpinist 44 72 Footfalls by Helen Mort (About Alison Hargreaves)
alpinist.com: Rare Winter Ascents on the Piz Badile
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