A short review for the benefit of those of you in the UK, or who have access to the BBC iPlayer.
There is currently an unmissable 1 hr 45 min documentary film, The Last Mountain, available for the next year. The film follows the last climb of elite mountaineer Tom Ballard, who died on Nanga Parbat in 2019.
Many of you will be familiar with the story. Tom was the son of Alison Hargreaves, Britain’s greatest female high-altitude mountaineer, who died on K2 in 1995 when Tom was just 6 years old.
Tom went on to become a top mountaineer in his own right, who scaled the six great north faces of the Alps (the Matterhorn, Cima Grande di Lavaredo, Petit Dru, Piz Badile, Eiger and Grandes Jorasses) solo, in winter, in 2015.
The film has two parallel storylines. The first traces the build up and events of Tom’s expedition to Nanga Parbat. The second follows Tom’s father Jim and sister Kate as they come to terms with their grief.
Jim Ballard has been criticised in the past for exploiting the extraordinary talent of his wife and son to his own advantage. The critics argue that they were his sole means to an income, and he pushed them too far in pursuit of glory – ultimately to their deaths.
This film may provide ammunition for people who subscribe to this theory. He certainly comes across as cold and dispassionate – a man who provides little outward display of emotion. I prefer to take a more generous view though. This is one hell of an accusation to make against someone who has lost his wife and child in the mountains. We all know people who have trouble showing their feelings; just because there is no outward display doesn’t mean they aren’t suffering inside.
His daughter Kate, on the other hand, has no difficulty displaying hers and comes across as the principal victim in this tragic story. It’s a bit of a tear jerker in places, and there are some awkward moments. There were some deeply personal scenes which it felt intrusive to film, such as a phone call between Jim and Kate when bodies had just been discovered. Where Jim had already accepted the worst, Kate refused to give up hope that her brother was still alive.
Some of these moments felt a bit staged. There was a scene filmed in a garden in Islamabad when Kate learned from the Italian ambassador that her brother may have suffered a cruel death. The ambassador sucks on a massive cigar, and the camera pans in on his expressionless face engulfed in a cloud of smoke. It felt like a scene from a gangster movie.
There are other awkward moments when Kate meets Big Ibrahim, a Pakistani porter who carried a 4-year-old Kate up the Baltoro Glacier in 1995 to see her mother’s final resting place. A tearful Kate is taken to meet him again after Tom has died. He is now an old man and they trek together to Nanga Parbat. Where he once looked after Kate, now their roles are reversed. Some people may find these scenes rather sweet, but Big Ibrahim appears uncomfortable with his role, and I found parts of it hard to watch.
Easier to watch is the scenery. The film is enriched by some incredible photography, and I found myself yearning for the great open spaces and towering peaks of the Pakistan Karakoram. The breathtaking vistas continue into the later part of the film that focuses on the build up and events surrounding Tom’s Nanga Parbat expedition.
We are introduced to his climbing partner, the 42-year-old Italian Daniele Nardi, who appears to have been something of a media celebrity in his home country. There are hints that the 30-year-old Tom had been unduly influenced by the older man who – we are told – had an obsession with climbing Nanga Parbat by the unclimbed Mummery Spur. This route has been described as ‘suicidal’ by fellow Italian Simone Moro, who made the first winter ascent of Nanga Parbat by the standard Kinshofer Route in 2016.
There is a certain inevitability to what follows. The dangerous Mummery Spur bisects the two safer alternatives of the Kinshofer and Messner Routes. There are constant avalanches. Camps are buried under deep snow. Their two Pakistani climbing partners quit the expedition after they find the conditions too dangerous. Tom and Daniele continue for another three weeks.
We all know what’s going to happen next. When it happens there is an interesting cameo from Spanish climber Alex Txikon. Alex knows Nanga Parbat well and was also part of its first winter ascent with Simone Moro. Winter 8,000ers are his speciality, and he always seems to be around when rescues are needed. This time he abandons his attempt on K2 to lead the search for the bodies.
The ending is thought provoking. We are left to speculate whether Tom had been unduly influenced by his father or his climbing partner, and whether he would have lived longer had it not been so. But there is enough in the film to make clear that he was a grown man, capable of making his own decisions.
Yet in some ways he was the victim of a climbing subculture that places a high value on risk. A vocal minority of the climbing community take this subculture to extremes . Driven on by their peers, they end up living much shorter lives. This is perhaps best illustrated by a quote from Jim towards the end of the film as he comes to terms with his son’s death.
‘If nature took him back, there’s nothing we can do, apart from raise our hats to a life well lived.’
Whether an adventurous life that ends at 30 is a life well lived or a life wasted is a matter of opinion. What is beyond dispute is that this film is unmissable for those of you who love the mountains or have a craving for adventure.