Climber's family keep K2 pledge

Tim McGirk in Skardu, Pakistan, talks to Jim Ballard, who took his children to see the fatal peak
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The Independent Online
For 10 days, Jim Ballard accompanied by his two young children, Tom, seven, and Kate four, had trekked up into the Karakoram range in the Himalayas for a glimpse of the K2 peak where the children's mother, Britain's most famous female climber, Alison Hargreaves, fell to her death.

"I had to fulfil a promise to Tom that I'd show him and his sister, Kate, their mummy's last mountain. We did it," he told the Independent on return to Skardu, the final outpost in the Pakistan Himalayas for mountaineering expeditions.

Experts in Britain had warned Mr Ballard, 49, not to drag his children along to K2, which after Everest is the second highest peak in the world. When they set off on this odyssey, Mr Ballard was attacked in the media as being addled by grief or, worse, driven to risk his children's lives for publicity, to cash in on lucrative book and television deals.

The usual trek to K2 crosses glaciers with traps of unseen crevices, fields of boulders as immense as a city and treacherous rapids. In the wrong season, Mr Ballard was cautioned, the approach can be nearly as hazardous as the mighty mountain itself. It is now thought that Ms Hargreaves, 33, and six other climbers on the 13 August summit ascent were probably swept into oblivion by a maelstrom of a 260-mile-per-hour wind which struck them on Abruzzi Ridge just below the 28,251ft (8,570m) peak.

"There's a thin line between adventure and danger. I made sure we never put a foot over that line," Mr Ballard claimed, "Why, the most dangerous bit was probably driving through London." Accompanying the family were two doctors who carried oxygen in case the children suffered from high altitude sickness, an expert mountaineer provided by the Pakistani government, porters and a BBC film crew covering the Ballards "inner and outer journey" to K2. Mr Ballard felt it unwise to take the children above 11,500ft (3,488m). The BBC provided him with logistical help but did not pay him a fee.

"Kate, being the four-year-old superstar that she is, rode on a porter's shoulders. But Tom insisted on walking most of the way on his own. The boy is a lot like his mother, given to quiet thought," Mr Ballard said.

The Ballard party skirted along the foot of the Karakoram glaciers, which are the world's longest outside the Arctic region. They spent days climbing across boulders that were "like an enormous building site". They forded rapids on precarious rope bridges. And at night, they buried themselves in thick down sleeping bags to survive temperatures of -15C.

At first sight, K2 was swirled in cloud, and Mr Ballard had to check his compass bearings to make sure they were not confusing the peak with others in the vast Karakoram range. They camped, and next day dawned clear. K2 peak, still 10 miles away, loomed in its grandeur before them. "The day was so perfect it was unreal," Mr Ballard said.

Asked about the reaction of his energetic children to seeing the peak where their mother was killed, Mr Ballard replied: "Anyone who has a four- year-old knows that these things don't really register - not that we can tell anyway. But Tom said he wanted to sit and think of his mum. So we all did. We saw the bit of the mountain where Alison last stood. You couldn't fail to be moved by K2. It's a mountain of savage beauty."

Just how the accident which killed Ms Hargreaves along with three Spaniards, an American, a New Zealander and a Canadian occurred may never be known for sure. But after talking with survivors from the expedition, Mr Ballard disputes the accepted version that his wife and the others were possessed by "summit fever" and made a fatal error of judgement in attempting a final lunge to the top before the storms closed in.

"It will always be conjecture. But it seems the weather appeared fine when they started out. Then these jet streams kicked up off the Tibetan plateau, winds up to 260mph, and it struck the spot where they were on K2 with pinpoint accuracy. If they'd been just 15 minutes further down the mountain, they'd have been knocked about but they would have been safe. As it happened, these winds struck them with the force of three jet engines and blew them into oblivion," Mr Ballard said.

The climbers fell 6,000ft (1,820m) before hitting ice and rock. "Spaniards said the bodies landed in a large scoop. Next spring when all the climbers go back, the bodies will be covered with snow," Mr Ballard said, adding: "One of the daftest questions I got asked back in London is if I was taking the kids to collect Alison's body."

Mr Ballard swears that he only went to K2 to satisfy his promise to Tom. He quotes Proverbs that: "It is better to have lived one day as a tiger than a thousand years as a sheep", and he says he has no sympathy for "the bleating" that goes on when sportsmen die on mountains or in Grand Prix racing.

Yet behind his stoicism, the loss of Alison, 16 years his junior, must have grieved Mr Ballard deeply. He recognised her "genius as a mountaineer" and he was happy to let his own life orbit around her high altitude career. He looked after the children, organised her sponsorships, publicity and encouraged her without any trace of envy over her fame.

He is happy to burnish the image of Ms Hargreaves as "a permanent icon", a short and rather cherubic-looking woman whose courage and grit helped her scale the world's most challenging peaks without oxygen. But the private side of his famous wife he keeps hidden. No doubt he felt it as important as his son did to close the chapter on his wife's death by seeing the mountain.

Mr Ballard pointed to a table of diners in an inn. "If Alison were sitting there, you wouldn't notice her. She didn't look like a climber. She was small, pretty, compact. I don't know why she captured the world's imagination. People need adventure in their lives. Maybe Alison showed them it was possible. I wanted my kids to know that there are wild places on earth where Nature is still king or queen or even dictator."