By Rory Reynolds
FIFTEEN years ago Alison Hargreaves was on top of the world after becoming the first woman ever to climb Everest solo and without oxygen.
But another attempt just three months later on neighbouring K2 saw the courageous mother-of-two lose her life after being blown off the mountain on her descent. Her body was never recovered.
Now her son Tom has vowed to follow in her footsteps, saying: “They are already there, so I can just step in them and carry on.”
Aged just 21, Tom is preparing to scale the ‘Savage Mountain’ – known for having a more treacherous approach than Everest.
His mother died at just 33 years old while descending from K2 in 1995, a mountain that has claimed the lives of 77 climbers.
An experienced climber already, Tom moved from his home in Fort William to the Swiss Alps with dad Jim and sister Kate last year to prepare to scale the 28,000ft peak.
His ascent will be documented by award-winning filmmaker Chris Terrill, who was recently wounded while filming in Afghanistan and had to abandon another expedition with Tom.
He will leave Switzerland for K2, which lies between Pakistan and China, with Terrill later this year.
The young mountaineer says that he feels his mother has left something with him that has driven him to follow the same path that she did.
He said: “I think I need to climb mountains, I don’t know – it’s inside.
“I just feel that she’s there somewhere, not necessarily present, but just, sort of always there.
“Some of it must have rubbed off on me. I don’t think it’s because of her, but it’s no different to if she had died in a car crash.
“I would still travel around in a car. It’s not as if nothing had happened, but similar to that.
“Maybe initially she would have been against it but then she would realise that I like doing what she liked doing, and she would see the parallels and probably enjoy it for that – she’d be nervous for me.
“I think she would have been happy though, that I was doing what I wanted to do. I think she’d be proud.
“I am following in her footsteps. They are already there, so I can just step in them and carry on.”
Like his mother, Tom, who uses his father’s surname, Ballard, has been climbing from a very young age.
Hargreaves herself began mountaineering at just 15 and despite a good academic record turned down the offer of university to pursue her dream.
She set up a mountaineering company with Jim Ballard, who she would later marry.
Jim persuaded his wife to fulfil her potential and despite it still being an unusual to see a woman in the 1980s climbing to such a high professional standard, Alison broke into the masculine circle of high-octane mountaineering.
However, despite her achievements she was criticised for taking risks while leaving a young family at home as well as scaling the Eiger in Switzerland while she was pregnant with Tom.
Despite this Jim took his children to K2 just weeks after her death to show them what their mother had lived for, a trip that was filmed by Tirrell for the BBC.
Jim allowed his children to follow in their mothers footsteps – his daughter is a ski instructor – and rejected any suggestion that he pushed his son into climbing.
He said: “Any parent should support their children in their ambitions.
“I never have encouraged him but any parent should support their children in their ambitions.
“Nobody would blink at all if Tom had decided, at 18, to go into the Marines.
“I think Alison would be very proud of the kids.
“The one that would be the most outstanding to her is the thought that her daughter could qualify as a Swiss ski instructor.
“I think with Tom there would always be a bit of rivalry, because I think she wouldn’t sit too easily with the fact that he is so good.”
Tom’s sister Kate says that she and her brother feel they have a connection with the mountains, adding that they feel at home there.
Speaking from Switzerland sister Kate, 18, said: “I feel most at home in the mountains. Not necessarily like Tom, on his own, on a mountain, but in the outdoors and just being able to enjoy what I want to do.
“I’ve always felt closer to her in the mountains, because that’s how I remember her. That’s how I’ve seen her – in pictures, films and books.
“I don’t really remember her walking up the high street, I remember her here.
“She is the be-all and end-all for me, she really was, it’s just the way I’ve always thought of her.”
Filmmaker Chris Terrill has remained close to the family over the years, and has seen Tom develop like his mother did.
Tirrell says the drive that Hargreaves possessed to break records and achieve the unthinkable is part of Tom today.
He said: “K2 makes a lot of sense with it being the mountain that killed Tom’s mother.
“He was there when he was six years old to say goodbye to his mother when I filmed them, but not he has turned into an animal of the mountains.
“It is in his blood in every way.
“Jim reckons Tom is ready and that is for the two of them to determine, it’s not for me to say.
“What I can say is that I have seen Tom in action in Scotland and he is quite astonishing on rock faces and mountain faces; he’s like a spider.”
Terrill said he is currently in discussions with several broadcasters to determine how the film will be produced and aired, and that the family are currently seeking sponsors for the expedition.
Tom and the filmmaker previously planned to film the mountaineer climbing the Eiger in Switzerland, which his mother climbed while pregnant with him.
However they had to put the project on hold after Terrill was injured while filming in Afghanistan.
He added: “It is such a compelling story for this young, very talented mountaineer to return to the mountain which killed his mother, and of course, Alison is still out there.
“Tom is old enough to make his own decisions and I know him not to be reckless young man.
“I don’t think he would set out to do anything which he didn’t think he could achieve.
“There is something very deep within Tom that is driving him and my job as a filmmaker is to get to the bottom of what that is.”