The Last Mountain: the story of Tom Ballard and Alison Hargreaves

Tom Ballard – screenshot from The Last Mountain, BBC

It was hard to hold back the tears. Back in 1995, Alison Hargreaves, a mother of two young children, was killed on the descent from K2. Almost 25 years later, her widow took a call from their daughter breaking the dreadful news that son Tom had been killed climbing another mountain not far from K2. It was as if tragedy had become an inheritance.

My emotional moment came as I watched The Last Mountain, a brilliant documentary telling the remarkable story of Alison Hargreaves and her family. The focus is on the lost Alison and Tom. We see them preparing for their expeditions that end in disaster. Tom especially is portrayed as a special talent, a young man who inherited his mother’s love of the world’s high places. We see his dedication, and feel the bitter irony of seeing his ultra-fit frame, knowing that this was the body that succumbed to the brutal elements on Nanga Parbat, Pakistan, in 2019.

We also experience the dreadful unease of his fiancee Stefania Pederiva about the expedition. She clearly felt that the fatal climb, which killed Tom and his climbing partner Daniele Nardi, was reckless. Did she blame the less experienced Nardi for Tom’s death? It is hinted but not made explicit. Nardi certainly comes across as obsessed about climbing Nanga Parbat by the hardest Mummery Spur ascent, which has never been conquered.

Lost: Tom Ballard and Daniele Nardi

The Lost Mountain is compelling but painful viewing. I felt huge sympathy for Tom’s sister, Kate, whom we see visiting her late brother’s base camp. She meets Big Ibrahim, a guide when her father takes Kate and Tom to Pakistan soon after their mother’s death in 1995. There’s a raw poignancy seeing the reunion of grown-up Kate and Ibraham on film juxtaposed with Kate as a little girl on Ibrahim’s shoulders after the earlier tragedy. The film also captures the breathtaking beauty of these Asian mountains.

The least convincing part of the film was the moment when the Italian ambassador told Kate that her brother’s death wasn’t the quick, painless end that the family had assumed. He ostentatiously lights and smokes a large cigar as he breaks the news.

The enigma here is Jim Ballard, Alison’s widow and witness to their children Tom and Kate’s experiences. He seems amazingly emotionless as he is filmed taking Kate’s call telling him that Tom’s body has been found. He tells her to focus on the happy memories, yet shows not a hint at grief. But we should not judge others for how they react to loss. Alison Hargreaves and her son Tom were driven people who lived for adventure. Some criticised her for risking her life despite having small children, who lost their mother in the capricious mountains of the Himalayas. Male mountaineers are rarely judged in the same way. I sensed that Jim Ballard had little say in what his wife and son did, and knew that they would feel caged had he tried to limit their ambitions.

The Last Mountain was uncomfortable viewing, but I’m glad I watched it.

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