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.
Watch The Last Mountain on BBC iPlayer >>
To receive email notifications of my blog posts about mountains and occasional info about new releases, join my mailing list and get a free ebook.
8 thoughts on “Review: The Last Mountain – the last days of Tom Ballard”
I’ve recently watched this and I disliked the inference of blame onto the Italian climber.In fairness,if you are going to climb these huge mountains unless your a superman,it always calls for buddying up with more people whatever your preferred mode of tackling the mountain.For instance,after reading Boningtons collected writings regarding his expeditions,it struck me he lost a LOT of experienced climbers-tasker/Boardman/Escourt etc,etc.Does that make him culpable?On another note,if either Tasker or Boardman had returned,would blame attached to the survivor?One would say not.
A good docu on balance,personally I found the reacquaintance with big Ibraham genuinely touching.I was less happy with him obviously in some distress given his age and the altitudes he was asked to travel to at the programme makers request-I trust and hope he was paid well!
Hmm, BBC sent me a message advising me iPlayer works only in the UK. I’m in New Zealand; can anyone suggest a fix for this that doesn’t involve me travelling to the UK?
Brian-a vpn with its location set to the u.k. usually does the trick.lots of free trials out there,but usually data limited in hundreds of megabytes rather than several gigabytes with paid for ones.I suspect your lokking at 2 odd gb to watch this in reasonable resolution with no lags
1996 documentary of Jim taking young Tom and Kate to K2 5 weeks after Alison’s death is also on iPlayer for 3 weeks
Thanks for alerting us to the film. We’ve just watched it. Superb compilation. I have an old climbing belt made by Alison, which is a treasured artefact.
Being of the age to know Alison Hargreaves both from film, talk show and seeing her in Fort William, I can only remember the dual standards that were applied on her death – she was a ‘wicked child hating mother, who abandoned them to climb mountains’, while Paul Nun and his climbing partner who dies just shortly afterwards were hailed as ‘experienced mountaineers’. Such things still happen. The book by Ed Douglas and David Rose makes for interesting reading especially when they had access to Alison’s diaries and also what was not said or written in the book about the relationship between Alison and Jim.
What is completely skipped over in the documentary is that Tom and Nardi, weren’t some team put together for this trip; they had done several trips together including Link Sar; although they didn’t get high on it, the sitting around in a tent for ages does make or break a climbing relationship. If you can survive a failure like that then you do know your partner that little bit better and able to understand them.
As far as I can see Tom Ballard was little known outside Italy/ Europe – his climbs didn’t really hit the UK climbing news and I just wonder if he was ‘doing an Alison’ to get recognition from a wider audience either at a conscious or sub conscious level. Just a speculation! No flaming please
I enjoyed the film -thanks for the recommend.
A couple of things that stand out to me.
1) I did not find Jim Ballard’s coldness off putting, who really wants to bear their soul for a documentary camera? He’s been the same Jim for 30+ years on film -A largely emotionally unavailable and direct man. This is why Big Igbrahim was also awkward at times, it’s just strange to have an intimate moment with cameras and drones swarming you -especially if you are not a Westerner who is used to it.
2) I did not find the cigar smoking from the Italian Ambassador half as strange as his relaxed sprawling comfort pose in the summer chair -who the hell discussed the deaths of someone’s loved ones in this manner? What a dirtbag -and yes the cigar was awkward to.
3) I find the social media posts the most telling symptom leading to their demise on Nanga Parbat personally. Their posts read like generic and obligatory motivational speaker posts or something you’d find inside a Chinese fortune cookie -the posts did not seem to be heartfelt or offer any personal insight -but rather felt plucked from a book of motivational quotes in order to meet a post count requirement. It makes me think they may have felt more external pressure than before -be it satisfying sponsors, financial considerations, fear of failure, or elevating their their Q score on social media for future endeavors etc) to complete this climb. So it begs the question, who really were they climbing the Mummery Spur under such extreme elevated risk and pressure for to not arrive at a similar conclusion to their other climbing partners? Even the rescue team deemed it insanity to be on the mountain, and if Simone Moro deems it suicidal -what more info do you want?
In the end, we talk about mountain judgement and being accountable for your own decisions when climbing, and I didn’t find the Italian Danielle Nardi to be as much made to be the villain as just another tragic example of where passion and drive supersede mountain judgement.
But all of this aside, while based in tragedy, there is positive to take from this film that we should celebrate -people doing what they love, living like they want, and making connections through the mountains. The film did not make me as sad as it did thankful that they got to experience so many wonderful things in the brief time they were here.