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Project Starlight and Storm is over: all the six North Face of the Alps

Tom Ballard's done it! Just as time was about to run out, on the very last day of winter, the 26-year-old British mountaineer soloed his way up the North Face of the Eiger, thus crowning his ambitious and dangerous dream of climbing, alone and in the same winter, the six great north faces of the Alps. Those six mountains  that, thanks to their size and beauty, have inspired generations of mountaineers: the Cima Grande di Lavaredo, Pizzo Badile, the Matterhorn, Grandes Jorasses, the Petit Dru and the Eiger.

Details are few and far between at present but the information we have is more than sufficient to celebrate: we know that yesterday morning Tom climbed the historic Heckmair route and that he descended safely yesterday afternoon. He’s on fine form, is resting and recovering from the fatigue - both physical and psychological - of these last days, weeks, months and possibly even years. Yes because, don’t forget, Ballard’s strong shoulders bear the weight of an "important" legacy: he is also the son of Alison Hargreaves, the famous British climber considered one the strongest mountaineers of all times. It was Hargreaves, for example, who became the first woman to climb Everest solo and without supplementary oxygen, and it was she who became the first to solo, in the same summer, the six great north faces of the Alps. And it is from here that Tom’s dream stems, as he himself unequivocally states: "I was with her during that period. Unconsciously that is where this scheme must have been born. Some of her energy and passion for this project must have been transferred to me.”

Ballad’s beautiful journey began with the Via Comici - Dimai on Cima Grande di Lavaredo, climbed with a cold bivouac between the 21st and 22nd of December 2014. Another bivy was needed between the 6th and 7th of January to climb the Cassin route up Pizzo Badile, while on the 10th of February Ballard set foot - for the first time ever - on the Matterhorn. This first encounter was lightening fast to say the least,  a mere 3 hours were needed to climb the Schmidt route and, once again, the Englishman proved not only his great physical form but also his superb technical skills and his tenacity. Three characteristics that served his well for two other two mountains he didn’t know until just a few days ago: the Grandes Jorasses, climbed on 8 March via the legendary Colton - Macintyre route in just 3 hours and 20 minutes, and the Petit Dru, climbed via the Allain - Leininger route. This latter ascent almost ruined everything, since Ballard failed to  coincide his ascent with the weather window  and for a moment he thought he’d missed out on the the tiny window of opportunity. But on the 14th of March he was given another chance and he seized this without hesitation, to then rush headlong to Grindelwald in Switzerland towards his final goal.  He rapidly approached the Eiger - a mountain he knows  intimately - and then yesterday morning he set off to complete the last climb of this dream sextet.

It will take time to understand and comprehend Ballard’s achievement. In some respects his climbs  have an almost  "antique" flavor to them, perhaps because of the initial choice to climb routes and mountains that are well-known. Perhaps also due to the style with which they were climbed; accompanied by only a few close friends and with no big media hype whatsoever - we dare say that had it not been for the occasional updates on Facebook, Ballard could easily have slipped by under the radar, without anyone noticing what was happening out there. But it is important to realise that - as is so often the case - appearances can be very deceptive indeed. And that it is precisely in this "antique flavour" that the strength and beauty of Tom’s project lies. Climbing just one of the six great north faces is an important undertaking. Doing all six of them, alone and in the same winter, implies having psycho-physical capabilities that are well above the norm as well as possessing a deep love and respect for the mountains. These are characteristics that pave the way to climbing below the stars and through the storms. Yes, of course, Starlight and Storm.

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