higher ground

words: tim struby

art: sally deng



February 24th, 2019. Nanga Parbat.


Tom Ballard is huddled in a tent nearly four miles above sea level. For the past seven weeks the 30-year-old climber has been here in northern Pakistan, camped out on the world’s ninth-highest mountain. Officially, it’s known as Nanga Parbat, a 8,126-meter (26,660-foot) peak anchoring the western edge of the Himalayas. In climbing circles it’s known as Killer Mountain, a nickname earned after 31 climbers died on its slopes before it was finally summited in 1953. In the summer, Nanga Parbat is a ruthlessly steep and technical challenge for the most seasoned of mountaineers. In winter, it’s one of the most inhospitable, dangerous, godforsaken towers of rock, snow, and ice on Earth.


Ballard, along with his partner Daniele Nardi, age 42, are hoping to become the third expedition in history to scale the Killer Mountain in winter. The pair are also attempting to summit via a 1,000-meter rock spur called Mummery’s Rib, a route that has never been ascended. So far they’ve had zero luck. Weather—gale-force winds, thick fog, head-high snowfall—has prevented them from making it higher than 6,300 meters. Their two Pakistani climbing companions have gone home, one succumbing to illness, the other to fear. Tents have been buried, equipment swept away. Every day their chances seem to dwindle.


But on this February morning they catch a break. Ballard discovers a new route up a gully. A couloir of ice and snow in the midst of the rocky walls that would, as Nardi communicates down to his support team, allow them to head up much quicker.


For Nardi, standing atop Nanga Parbat would fulfill a longtime obsession with this particular mountain. As for Ballard? It would be far more personal. Twenty-four years earlier his mother, Alison Hargreaves, became the first woman to solo Mount Everest without oxygen, solidifying her place as one of the greatest female mountaineers in history. Yet only 90 days later she died descending K2.


Since that day, Ballard has spent most of his life following in his mother’s footsteps, figuratively and literally. If he can scale the Killer Mountain, it will be his first 8,000-meter peak summit. It will serve as an invaluable springboard toward his ultimate quest—to climb K2. And if the weather conditions at the top are perfect, he can gaze north and actually see, in the distance, that very same mountain that cost his mother her life.


This new route doesn’t minimize the danger. The smallest wrong step in that gully could trigger an avalanche. One wet sock or exposed hand could cost a toe or a finger. But Ballard has reason to be excited. He’s astoundingly strong, moves like a praying mantis on both rock and ice, and has been hailed by mountaineering icon Reinhold Messner as “the bright future of modern alpinism.” And while he’s only had one prior Himalayan expedition, he’s alongside Nardi, a high-altitude vet with five 8,000-meter peaks under his belt, a man who’s probably spent more time on Nanga Parbat than any living climber.


As it turns out, the newly discovered route isn’t a factor. The conditions at the summit don’t matter. Ballard’s dream of following his mother’s path is moot because after news of their good fortune reaches base camp, neither he nor Nardi are ever heard from again.



June 24th, 1995. K2 basecamp.


A 5' 4", 130-pound mother of two with wavy brown hair and a youthful, apple-cheeked face arrives at K2 basecamp. She’s beat from the whirlwind trip: two weeks of flights, bus rides, and trekking from Manchester, England to the westernmost section of the Karakoram Range, a place that feels more like the moon than the China-Pakistan border. Only 41 days earlier she was in the Himalayas, standing on top of Mount Everest.


But this is all part of Alison Hargreaves’s plan: summit the world’s three highest mountains—without supplemental oxygen—in a single climbing season. In black tights and a puffy, green down jacket, the 33-year-old catches her breath and gazes skyward at the ominous, irregular triangle looming above. The Savage Mountain. The Great Mountain. The second-highest and second-deadliest mountain in the world for climbers. This isn’t the dog-and-pony show of modern day Everest, where tourists pay to get hand-held up the mountain. Amateurs don’t step foot up here. “Is it stunning and magnificent? Yeah,” says Matt Culberson, an American climber who was on K2 at the time. “Is it intimidating? Yeah. Are you reaching deep for bravado? Yeah.”


In truth, Hargreaves’s journey to K2 started 25 years earlier, as a young girl in Derbyshire, a county in England’s East Midlands. Hill country, they call it. There she dreamed of “snow and white places,” reading about Antarctica and yearning to join the British Atlantic Survey. Alison's parents, John and Joyce, would take her hiking in the local hills. Soon she graduated to the UK’s tallest peaks: Snowdon in Wales and Ben Nevis in the Scottish Highlands. As a teenager, while other kids were listening to Abba and Queen, she was reading Climber and Rambler magazine. In lieu of the latest King’s Road fashions, Hargreaves craved jackets from climbing outfitter Javelin. Every free minute was spent scaling rock. In 1976, she went to see mountaineer Doug Scott recount his near-death experience in a snow cave on Everest at nearly 29,000 feet. Dear God it all seemed too wonderful, Hargreaves wrote in her diary. I would really like to go but I know my chances are one in a million.


On her 18th birthday, she called her parents with a stunning announcement. College was not in her future. Instead, she was moving in with Jim Ballard, the owner of Bivouac, a climbing shop in the Derwent Valley where she’d been working part time for the past two years. At 36, Ballard offered her financial support and the freedom to do the one thing she knew she was meant to do: climb.


In 1984, she summited the north face of the Matterhorn in Zermatt, Switzerland. Two years later, alongside Jeff Lowe, Tom Frost, and Mark Twight, she completed a first ascent of a new route on Kangtega, a 22,251-foot peak in the Himalayas. Lowe raved about her. How she could lug enough on her back for a ten-day traverse as easily as she could lead difficult rock and dice pitches. The birth of her children—Tom in 1988 and Katie in 1991—barely slowed her down. By 1992 she was back climbing full time and in need of something big to feed her competitiveness. Something bold, to make a real name for herself.


She landed on the Alps. In his 1940 book Starlight and Storm, French guide Gaston Rébuffat named the six north faces—Cima Grande di Lavaredo, Pizzo Badile, Matterhorn, Grandes Jorasses, Petit Dru, and the Eiger—the most beautiful and hardest routes in the Alps. The following summer, Hargreaves made history summiting all six peaks—completely alone—in a single season.


With the notoriety from her Alps conquest, she looked to the big one. Mount Everest. In 1994 she joined a British medical expedition for her first attempt but turned back barely 1,000 feet from the summit for fear of losing her toes to frostbite. The following year she returned, and this time nothing stopped her. Hailed as “Alison of Everest” by the British press, she became an instant international mountaineering star. Two weeks later she set off for K2.

At K2 basecamp, also known as “The Strip,” Hargreaves sets up shop. Pitches her tent. Unpacks. Technically, she’s a last-minute addition to a primarily American, six-person team led by Rob Slater, a commodities trader-turned-adventurer from Chicago. But in reality Hargreaves is an expedition of one.


This isn’t to say she’s selfish, or a loner, or an introvert. Quite the opposite. “Everyone thought highly of her,” says Scott Johnston, who was part of the Slater expedition. “She was sweet, soft-spoken, and humble. And no one made allowances for her because she was a woman.” Word of Hargreaves’ arrival quickly makes its way to a New Zealand-based group led by Peter Hillary, son of Sir Edmund Hillary, who along with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay was the first to summit Everest in 1953. Although he’s never met Hargreaves, her reputation precedes her. Soon enough, Hargreaves makes her way down for an introduction.


“Hello,” she says. “I’m Alison Hargreaves.”


“Peter Hillary,” he replies, shaking her hand. “Nice to meet you.”


“Same,” she says with a smile. “But I’m afraid I won’t be here long. I move fast.”


Hillary smiles back. At that moment he can’t fathom how desperately Hargreaves needs to get up that mountain. And how equally desperate she is to get off of it.



December 31st, 2018. Nanga Parbat basecamp.


It’s overcast. Two days earlier the team arrived: Tom Ballard, Daniele Nardi, Pakistani mountaineers Karim Hayat and Rahmat Ullah Baig, as well as two Pakistani cooks and a liaison officer. Their camp is at 13,700 feet on the western Diamir Face, and consists of a large stone hut, a pair of orange tents, generators, stoves, piles of extreme weather clothing, and enough food for weeks. There is not another living soul on the mountain.


Ballard is no stranger here. Nardi is very familiar with his partner’s arctic blue eyes, boyish face, the 5’ 8” frame with the body fat of a greyhound. The two spent time together in 2017 as part of an expedition to tackle the yet-unclimbed northeast face of Pakistan’s Link Sar, until an avalanche ended their trip. Ballard also makes an immediate impression on the others. “He was a perfect and professional climber on both rock and ice,” says Baig.


Today, the team plans to establish Camp I up at 4,700 meters. As they load up tents, sleeping bags, mats, and climbing equipment, Ballard feels the tempered excitement that he has always felt when he’s undertaking a new quest. Heading into the unknown. “He told me about the route, showed me shots of it and the face,” says his sister Kate. “He was just normal, pleased to be on his way to climb, to do his best, weather allowing.”


And despite the odds—only 29 human beings have ever summited an 8,000-meter peak in winter—Ballard is self-assured. Not overconfident. But if there’s anyone who is born to climb, it’s him. In a sense he’s been climbing since before he was born. In 1988 his mother became the first British woman to scale the north face of the Alps’ treacherous Eiger—while she was five-and-a-half months pregnant with Tom. After his birth, Alison Hargreaves and her husband Jim vowed that whatever happened to them, their children would be brought up with a life of adventure. Jim Ballard lived up to that promise. From the time Tom could walk, he was living and breathing the outdoors. Hiking, snowboarding, swimming, and climbing. Always climbing. But then one morning, as 11-year-old Tom was lining up for class, he realized that climbing wasn’t just a hobby. It was what he wanted to do with his life.


So he rock climbed, ice climbed, and dry-tooled. Nearly every picture from that day forward is on a crag or boulder or wall, reaching upward for the next hold. By the end of his teens, Ballard began turning heads. He established a new route on the north face of the Eiger. Summited the Matterhorn, Piz Badile, and Petit Dru. He represented Great Britain on the Ice Climbing World Cup circuit. In a cave at the foot of Marmolada at the foot of the Dolomites, he established “A Line Above the Sky,” the world’s hardest dry-tooling route. But his greatest feat was as much a tribute as much as it was a personal accomplishment. In 2015, with a project he named “Starlight and Storm,” Ballard became the first person to solo the six great north faces of the Alps in winter—the very same six his mother had summited in 1993. Would she have been proud of him? “Yes,” he said, shortly after his history-making climbs. “I think she would have been.” 


But what would his mother have thought of this expedition? The Himalayas. Nanga Parbat. Winter. A far scarier beast than even the hardest Alps climb in the worst conditions. Hargreaves would have been wary. And beneath Ballard’s enthusiasm, there is trepidation. His friend and fellow climber Liam Foster sensed it. “I could tell there was a cloud over Tom’s head,” says Foster. “But you can’t not have that when you’re about to take on an expedition to try one of the world’s most dangerous mountains in winter.”


Later that day, shouldering their 30-kg packs, Ballard and his three fellow climbers head up the Diamir Face, breaking trail towards Camp I. They walk single file, silently, slowly. What is running through Ballard’s mind as he begins the most daunting adventure of his life? Some sort of primordial call of the mountain? Memories of his mother, as fragile and fading as an old photograph? Or is it the last moments in December with his sister Katie? As he was about to drive away, she began to cry, as she always does when she knows she’s not going to see him for a long time.



July/August 1995. K2.


Move fast. Alison Hargreaves would love nothing more, but she knows, as any climber does, that’s not up to her. “The mountain tells you how fast you move,” says Peter Hillary. A big mountain means acclimatizing. The higher the altitude, the less the oxygen. Even the fittest climbers must go through the same process for their bodies to adjust. At the end of June, Hargreaves carries gear to Camp I, then heads back to basecamp. A few days later, it’s the same drill to Camp II. And so on. All the while her respiratory system is working harder, her heart rate is up, and gradually she’s producing more red blood cells to carry oxygen. The hardest part of Hargreaves’s acclimatizing isn’t the trudging up and down between camps. It’s the weather. It’s perfect. A rarity for K2 and, and as she watches sunny day after sunny day, she knows very well that if her body was ready she’d likely be standing at the summit.


In mid-July, just as Hargreaves becomes acclimated, the weather turns. Snow. Wind. “The monsoon hit,” says Johnston. “An especially bad year.” For 11 straight days it storms, dumping over three feet of snow at basecamp and making the rest of the mountain impassable. Like all of the climbers in a holding pattern, Hargreaves finds ways to kill time. She rests, reads, and makes the rounds. And as the conversations get deeper, it becomes clear that the mother of two is struggling with far more than boredom. “She was very clearly torn about being away from her kids,” says Johnston. “Conflicted about being there.”


There with nothing to do but think. Remember the lazy afternoons playing with Tom and Kate at the Meerbrook Lea house in Derbyshire. The summer she spent climbing with them in the Alps. Or the months at Everest basecamp in 1994, where she can still picture Tom in his red bandana and sunglasses, playing with his toy cars. And of course, the radio message she sent from the summit of Mount Everest. To Tom and Kate, my dear children, I am on the highest point in the world and I love you dearly. Hargreaves does what she can to stay connected. Although Slater’s team doesn’t have a satellite phone, the nearby Dutch team does, and every day Hargreaves is at basecamp she coughs up $5 a minute to call home and share a few precious words with her children. But it’s not enough. Often she cries alone in her tent. I really want to cuddle Tom and Kate and be with them, she writes. I dream of Scotland and the children and to have a home once more.


Yet Hargreaves feels more than sadness. “There’s so much guilt,” says Hilaree Nelson, captain of the North Face Global Athlete Team and also a mother of two boys. “When I’m on an expedition I think of them always. Constantly. Sometimes it’s paralyzing.” Hargreaves’s guilt, ironically, has only been compounded by her accomplishments. “The English put mountaineers on pedestals,” explains Johnston. “After Everest she went from a being just a good female climber to a celebrity overnight.” When she arrived back in the UK, Hargreaves made TV appearances. Met the queen. Was flooded with publicity—not all of it good. London-based columnist Nigella Lawson wrote: “I have no time for people who risk their life in a vainglorious attempt to be praised for courage. Everywhere there are people in real danger, who live— though not for long—in famine, at war, with terminal cancer. If the Alison Hargreaveses of this world really value life so little maybe we should not worry on their behalf if they lose it.” 


What’s lost on Lawson is that Hargreaves doesn’t get her kicks tempting fate. She’s no adrenaline junkie. In fact, if a climber is feeling adrenaline surging, something has likely gone very wrong. Yes, there is risk. Calculated risk. Managed risk. But that omnipresent risk forces climbers to push their limits physically, mentally, and emotionally. It requires them to be completely present and continually test themselves in ways that they never can experience in everyday living. “I don’t have a death wish,” says Nelson. “I have a life wish. And I want to live and share that with my kids.”


So Hargreaves waits. And waits. She makes one hurried attempt for the summit but after spending a night at Camp IV, at 25,600 feet, the weather forces her back down to The Strip. As July turns to August she is reaching a breaking point. Climbing K2 is very important to me but I can’t keep waiting and waiting, she writes on August 5th. Maybe I’ve failed here, I’ve worked hard but somehow it’s not come together. It eats away at me—wanting the children and wanting K2—I feel like I’m being pulled in two. Maybe they’d be happier if Mum was around but maybe summiting K2 will help me make a better future for them. Long term having me back safe and sound is surely more important?


She is scheduled to leave basecamp for England the next morning.




January 31st, 2019. Nanga Parbat basecamp.


Ballard returns to basecamp after a disheartening week. An avalanche at Camp 111 has swept away 10,000 Euros worth of equipment including two tents, two sleeping bags, dozens of carabiners and ice screws, ropes, a down suit, some gloves, and a pair of mats. The worst loss is manpower. After a throat infection ends Rahmat Baig’s expedition, Karim Hayat quits in a panic. “Something has changed inside him,” Nardi told a Russian climbing website. “More than once he said, ‘I don’t want to lose my life on this mountain.’”


Hayat can’t be blamed for jumping ship. Temperatures reaching 65 degrees below, winds regularly blowing at 100 miles per hour, snow falling by the foot, avalanche dangers skyrocketing. Low barometric pressure means less oxygen than warmer months. “It’s like being at Somme in the trenches,” says filmmaker Sean Smith who survived Nanga Parbat in winter in the early nineties. “Totally hardcore. You need constant vigilance and monitoring of your body and conditions because something bad can happen very quickly.” Just last winter, seasoned climbers Elisabeth Revol and Tomasz Mackiewicz attempted The Killer Mountain. Only Revol came home.


If that’s not bad enough, toss in the effects of high altitude. Exhaustion, migraines, insomnia, nausea, endless coughing, freezing extremities from the lack of oxygen. “It feels like you have a perpetual hangover,” says The North Face team climber Emily Harrington. Acclimatizing can only help so much. And once you’re in  the “death zone” above 26,000 feet? There is no acclimatizing. At that altitude the body starts to cannibalize itself. Cells die. Muscles atrophy. Judgment evaporates.


The Poles, renowned for their winter mountaineering, call it “the art of suffering.” Ballard knows a little bit about the art. In December 2015, while tackling Cima Grande di Lavaredo in northern Italy (the first of his "Starlight and Storm" project) he summited the north face much later than planned. He had no tent, no food, no extra layers of clothing. Too dark to descend safely, Ballard had to spend the winter solstice—the longest night of the year—on an overhang, exposed to the brutal winds and meat-locker temperatures. At first light he made it down.


“You make us worry,” said his girlfriend Stefania Pederiva. “You okay?”


“Yeah,” replied Ballard, despite the frostbite that would earn him a trip to the hospital.  “Fine, fine. Just the toes.”


Now, Ballard is no masochist. He isn’t crazy. In fact he’s a pretty normal 30-year-old. He loves classic rock—the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Clapton. He’s read his favorite book, T. E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, at least a dozen times. When he’s not climbing or driving somewhere to climb or talking about climbing he’s probably eating—although no meat or fish, ever. “He had a normal British sense of humor,” says his sister Kate. “Much more placid than dad and I. Like mum.” On the mountain, he couldn’t be a better teammate. “He had a very quiet personality,” recalls Baig. At basecamp, Ballard drinks his green tea and eats energy bars and chocolate and they all watch adventure films together. Heading up and down the mountain, he breaks trail, hauls gear and handles the intolerable conditions without a word.


That suffering is an essential part of being in those mountains. Being on Nanga Parbat. And there, in the harsh beauty at the edge of existence, climbers find meaning. Self-knowledge. They learn far more than they do amidst the creature comforts of the modern world. “I used to think there was something wrong with me that I liked suffering, liked things hard,” says Hilaree Nelson. “Now I understand that going through those things, pushing past and being physically strong and mentally strong—that’s when I overcome the suffering and get to the flip side. That’s where you find a greater depth of appreciation of people you’re climbing with, the sunrise, all the little things that make climbing special to me.”


Despite enduring the weather, the work, and the setbacks, Ballard is undeterred. Remains positive. “Being in the mountains was all that mattered to him,” says his sister. Later that day he posts one of six Facebook updates he will make on Nanga Parbat. We are more determined than ever. Our quest continues...




August 6th, 1995. K2 basecamp.


She changes her mind. Again. Those two worlds pulling her apart down to the last agonizing moment. Hargreaves decides she will not leave as planned with Scott Johnston. “It was on again, off again every ten minutes,” says Johnston. “But she decided to stay with Rob.” It’s a choice that has as much to do with family as it does with the mountain itself.


Hargreaves was just a teenager when she met Jim Ballard. Still a teenager when they moved in together. And from the looks of it they appeared a good match. They are both obsessed with climbing. Revel in the outdoors. But behind closed doors Ballard was also manipulative and controlling. Her diary revealed how that psychological abuse sometimes turned physical. Being kicked during a fight in 1983. Beat up during a row in 1987. Jim’s hit me on too many occasions now, she wrote after an assault in March 1989. I don’t know what to do about it. I’ve nowhere else to go—all my life has gone into a house and home here. To make matters worse, recession in the late eighties decimated Ballard’s business. By early 1993, their car had been repossessed, their phone disconnected and there was not even money to pay for heating fuel. Within months they would lose their Meerbrook Lea house.


If Hargreaves could summit the world's three highest mountains by summer’s end it would mean far more than making history. It would translate into sponsorships and book deals and paid appearances. It would mean financial independence and the chance to start a new life as a single mother. She could take on less risk and spend more time with her kids. The other climbers on the mountain that August morning don’t know that getting to the summit of K2 isn’t just a way up for Hargreaves; it’s a way out.


So she and Rob Slater, the only two climbers left from his expedition, tweak their plans. “They joined our team,” says Peter Hillary. He happily obliges, figuring they would all share resources, shovel snow, help put up some more fixed rope. While waiting for the weather to break, Hargreaves joins in games of Frisbee golf, strategizes about the fastest way to scale notorious K2 fixtures like the Black Pyramid and The Bottleneck, and shares stories about Tom and Katie. “She missed them so greatly,” says Hillary.


After a few days, finally some good luck. The sun shines. The wind relents. Hargreaves, Slater, and the Kiwis leave basecamp for the southeast ridge, better known as the Abruzzi Spur. After a night at Camp II and a grueling job of digging out and rebuilding Camp III, the group trudges upward to Camp IV on The Shoulder, a broad, softly-sloped sheet of snow and ice. Totally exhausted, they recuperate in anticipation for the final push. But they cannot stay very long. At 26,000 feet they are at the edge of the death zone. 


At 2AM on the morning of August 13th, the climbers set out. It is bitterly cold, but clear. Ascending this last 2,500 feet or so—less than a half-mile—takes 16 hours. At approximately 6:3oPM, Alison Hargreaves stands at the top of K2, exactly three months to the day that she did the same on Mount Everest. 




Late February, 2019. Nanga Parbat basecamp.


Life on Nanga Parbat is simple. When Ballard and Nardi are stuck at basecamp they shovel snow, watch movies, shovel more snow, play chess, read, shovel even more snow, send e-mails, talk, and when weather permits, Ballard practices dry-tooling on a boulder they have named “Big Mattia.” When they are up on the mountain at Camps II, III, and IV, they spend their waking hours shoveling snow, fixing rope, climbing, shoveling even more snow, crawling into the tiny tent they share, heating their little stove, melting snow, having tea, forcing down a few bites of food, melting more snow, drinking water, then stuffing themselves into their sleeping bags, all the while trying to forget that it feels like they’re locked inside the world’s largest freezer.


Ballard likes this life. This simplicity. It’s evident in the way he climbs, the French Dry Tooling Style (DTS), which means no fancy figure-four or figure-nine moves, third grips on an ice axe, or extended ice tools. Some consider it to be the sport's purest form. It’s also in the way he lives. Until recently, home has been a white VW van he shares with his father. The pair travel around from campsite to campsite in the Alps so Tom can climb. They cook pasta, beans, and soup on a hot plate. Read at night by headlamp. Scraping by on Jim’s pension. Striving to remain uncomplicated in an increasingly complicated modern world. Tom calls this his “old school” approach to both climbing and life. It’s much like the alpinists who used to make due with minimal equipment. How they accomplished big things with very little.


A good part of him likes this winter life on Nanga Parbat more than civilian life. True, up here he misses Stefania and his dad. Yet he’s the first to admit he’s not a very social person. His struggle isn’t scaling rock walls or ice towers or this frozen tundra but with the everydayness of the world. Grocery shopping, answering mail, running errands. He once told a reporter how climbing is an escape from normal life. How it’s the opposite of courage. How one could argue that it requires much more courage to stay down in the “real” world.


Maybe there is more to his stripped-down, monastic existence of endless climbing. Maybe it’s a way of staying near his mother. It’s why he still uses her ice axes. Why he stores his equipment in her old plastic barrels. Why in 2010, he started putting together a solo expedition to try and become the first person to summit K2 in winter. And why he’s never stopped dreaming of it. “I feel closer to my mother in the mountains,” he once told an interviewer. “I feel that she guides my path. When I go to K2 I will feel that I’ve been there before … the physical challenge may not be as difficult to come to terms with, because I’ve already been there.”



There are a lot of ways to die on an 8,000-meter peak. Avalanches, frostbite, falling rock and ice, slipping off a ledge, pitching into a crevasse, pulmonary edema, cerebral edema, stroke, heart attack, hypoxia. But like boxers, bullfighters, and race car drivers, veteran mountaineers don’t think about death. It’s there, in the abstract. Yet they trust themselves to make the right choices, to use the keen judgment that’s kept them alive this long. Of course it doesn’t always work. Mountains have claimed the lives of many great mountaineers. And when it does happen, sometimes there aren’t survivors left to tell the story of what went wrong.


As Hargreaves looked out at the Karakoram Range from atop K2, a fast-moving, freakish windstorm from China was throttling the base of the mountain and making its way up. “It was terrifying,” says Hillary, who’d turned back near The Bottleneck at 24,600 feet. “The winds must have gusting and blowing around 100 knots. It was out of control.” The following afternoon, two Spanish climbers who’d barely survived the storm in a tent at Camp IV, spotted a boot, a dark violet anorak and a harness that belonged to Hargreaves. Both the anorak and the harness were stained with blood, as was a track of snow above the gear. “At 8,000 meters with the jet stream the wind could have easily have been 200 miles per hour,” says Scott Johnston. Was Hargreaves simply blown off the mountain? None of the five climbers with her at the time could give an account because they all died as well.


As for Ballard, for the first few days after he and Nardi had gone dark, their basecamp team assumed the best. It was too cloudy to spot them through binoculars. And they were likely in a location that had no signal for their satellite phone. But by February 28th, a search and rescue operation was in motion. A team of veteran climbers attempting K2 was helicoptered in to help. A week later, a photo confirmed the worst. Two bodies, attached by a rope, lying lifeless in a gulley at 19,356 feet on the Mummery Spur. Nardi in an orange jacket, and a few feet below, Ballard in blue. An avalanche? A fall? Exposure? No one can say for sure. But one thing about their deaths is certain. The two of them—mother and son—spent much of their lives trying to get closer to each other. And in a sense they’ve done that. Fallen climbers are rarely, if ever, recovered from the major peaks, and today Alison Hargreaves and Tom Ballard’s bodies still lie where they died, less than 120 miles apart.