Tom Ballard’s surely soon to be confirmed death on Nanga Parbat makes me so sad. When his mother, Alison Hargreaves, died on K2 in 1995 I was on holiday in Cornwall, and still remember opening The Independent (when it was still a great paper) and reading a two-page spread about her quite amazing achievements. They were not judgemental about a mother putting herself in harm’s way, unlike most of the coverage. I’m sure The Times would have been all over the motherhood angle, as if that makes mountaineering any more or less futile than it is for everyone. Even the sort of hobby mountaineering I have very occasionally engaged in has far greater downside risk than upside potential. The objective risks are avalanches, deep crevasses, rockfall. Those are things that even highly skilled mountaineers have limited ability to mitigate. Add to that the slightly more human influenced factors like accidentally slinging the rope over too sharp a rock and accidentally cutting through it, hypothermia (preventable if you’re fit enough and well equipped), navigation errors, incorrect or panic-induced reactions to sudden events (e.g. not arresting a fall before it gather momentum), misjudging the point at which crampons should go on, abseiling off the end of the rope, the list of potentially fatal mistakes is long. And yet the list of reasons to engage in such an undertaking is almost non-existent. I don’t think any mountaineer knows why they do it. In my very limited experience the only comparable feeling is childbirth: a thing you definitely do not enjoy at the time, swear you will never do again, Google vasectomies from the labour ward, and yet I have spent three of the last five years pregnant, and producing babies. Only mountaineering provides a comparable sense of achievement. When you come off a mountain, or hold that perfect bundle in your arms, you feel like a hero for the day. You feel that only you could have done it, like you’ve vanquished the pig of self-doubt for a short while, that your past and your future are sunbeams and moonshine. Full of love for your climbing partner or your baby (in my case since the climbing partner is also the father, this is especially true).
The next day of course real life intrudes on the reverie, and within six months, there I am, yearning for another, wanting to recreate that moment forever. Or just climb a mountain.