A line above the sky: Tom Ballard

Montane’s Tom Ballard has recently claimed a prodigious new dry tooling style (DTS) route, A line above the sky, in the Dolomites. If confirmed, the D15 grade ascent will be the hardest such route in the world. For a DTS route, the climber must not use any figure of fours or figure of nine moves, third grips on an ice axe or extend ice tools. Complex footwork is required and is believed to make the climbing more challenging, interesting and ‘pure’.

A line above the sky is located at Tomorrow’s World – a cave at the foot of Marmolada in the Dolomites. Tom first encountered this cave in 2014 and since Autumn 2015 has worked hard to develop it.

“Tomorrow’s World has taken nearly all my time from when I started bolting in October,” Ballard told US magazine Rock and Ice, “So it has been a big investment in time and money. Often the rock is smooth and blank, [leaving you] desperately trying to get even the minutest purchase on the marginal footholds.”

A line above the sky is an amalgamation of other routes already in Tomorrow’s World including:

  • Real Steel (D9)
  • French Connection (D15-)
  • Je Ne Sais Quoi (D14+)

Tom recounts his experience of the newly titled A line above the sky and the run-up to this route below.

Some of the British Ice Climbing Team came to stay with me between the Ice Climbing World Cup competitions at Saas Fee (January 2016) and Rabenstein (February 2016). Of course they had to visit ‘my secret roof’. Real Steal was lapped. The strong but diminutive Scott G showed me a new method on Fear Index. Will Woodhead took his shirt off (again!), Eimir McSwiggan dug deep and fig 4’d her way up Fear Index. This turned out to be the first repeat, showing her Korean training is paying off. I fought my way across 40 meters of roof to claim the first ascent of French Connection D15-. Still one more project to go… Croatian Damir Behlic had been there the day before and made the first repeat of Edge of Tomorrow, confirming the grade. So the ‘roof’ now had an international reputation!

The competition at Rabenstein was disappointing for me, my performance that is, not the competition which was cool. It was my last chance to salvage something from my three other dismal performances. The routes at Rabenstein were steeper and had a lot more ice, I should have excelled here as I am theoretically a ‘real’ climber. In the previous comps I’d wasted so much time trying to figure out how to use each hold that I always ran out of the allotted time. Except at the competition in Korea where it looked, and felt, as if I had never used a pair of ice axes before. Inevitably I fell off. At Rabenstein I wasn’t keen to stand in the rain and watch the finals, however inspiring the athletes’ performances were, well done Janez Svoljšak!

The hero of Ouray, Ryan Vachon, had heard about my ‘amazing cave’ and was staying in the same hotel as the British Team, so he and fellow Colorado climbers Chris Snobeck and Susan Owens gave me a lift ‘home’. Eimir had narrowly missed out on the women’s final, finishing an impressive 9th, she was excited to return to the cave. The first words the Americans said when the saw the ‘roof’ was “Holy Shit”!

After warming up on the D9 I went for the last project… halfway across the crux I came off…I wasn’t tired, but I had cold hands. The rope was pulled through and I immediately set off again… cut loose after cut loose, clip after clip, the end seemed to never get closer. And then I couldn’t remember where one of the holds was, I had dropped the crayon whilst working it and so the last holds are not ‘marked’.

My hands were slipping, fingers unravelling, somehow I kept going and clipped the belay! Wow!

All the routes have been climbed in pure DTS style*, no fig 4’s, and are graded as such. This is the hardest bit of climbing I have ever done. There are some very big ‘shouldery’ moves, and then you must just keep going for close to 50 metres!

Keen young Canadian Noah Beek is here now, crushing things! He has already made the second repeat of Edge of Tomorrow and is working on something harder…

Is the grade of D15 justified for A line above the sky? I think so but somebody will have to repeat it. Come and have a go if you think you can climb hard enough!

Read more about Tom here

Photography courtesy of Tom Ballard

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